By Bhaskar Roy*
In the darkness of the night of May 24-25, the statue of Lady Justice, an adaptation of the Greek goddess Themis, was removed from the premises of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. This was a demand from the extreme Islamists, the Hifazat-e-Islam and the Awami Olama League. It was done rather surreptitiously, blocking all roads leading to the site with security cover, in the shadow of darkness. This was done because huge protests were expected from liberals, secularists, intellectuals and artists who are the backbone of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dream of a modern and inclusive nation in a Muslim majority country. Independence was won at great sacrifice of blood and lives.
Sk. Mujibur Rahman was a giant among the leaders of Bangladesh, trusting and forgiving, even to those who were against him. In the hindsight of history, that may have been his mistake and he paid for it with his life.
When news spread about what was about to happen, progressive students started marching towards the Supreme Court, but were met with teargas shells water cannons and rubber bullets. Police arrested four protesters, including student leader Liton Nondi. This added salt to their wounds. The police registered a case against them and 140 other unidentified persons under section 307 of the penal code relating to attempt to murder.
Is there an attempt to find a scapegoat or a fall guy, just in case? According to Bangladeshi media reports (bdnews24.com, May 27), Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Qader and BNP standing committee member Moudud Ahmed, in a rare moment of unanimity said that the removal of the statue was the decision of Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, and not the government. It is well known that Justice Sinha was under pressure from the government. Prime Minister Sk. Hasina in a meeting with the Ulema in April said she personally did not like the statue and had asked the chief justice to remove it or relocate it to another place (Daily Star, May 27).
It is encouraging to note that Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader emphasised (May 27) that Hifazat’s demand to remove all statues was not acceptable. He went on to say that sculptures relating to heritage and upholding the spirit of the Liberation War will not be removed. In fact, he hinted they would be added. This may bring a sense of relief to the liberal civil society in Bangladesh. Earlier this year the Prime Minister dismissed a Hifazat demand not to celebrate the Bengali New Year (Pahela Baishak) saying this was cultural celebration and had nothing to do with religion.
It must however, be understood that radical Islamists very well know that there is nothing religious about Pahela Baishak. But what they really objected to under the cover of religion was the liberal nature of this celebration accompanied by songs, dance and recitation of poetry. This demonstration of free spirit is anathema to the distorted interpretation of the religion as evidenced by the rules of radical groups and terror outfits such as the Islamic state or Daesh. Traces of this kind of movement have been witnessed in the Kashmir valley, India, where some elements among the militants recently tried to divert the so-called azadi movement to establish Daesh ideology. It must also be kept in view that Daesh is peeping over the shoulders of Pakistan, and its influence is beginning to filter into India and Bangladesh, notwithstanding denial by the two governments.
The removal of the statue of Lady Justice from the forecourt of the Supreme Court has been declared by the Hifazat as their first success. Two of their leaders publicly declared (May 29) they would not tolerate any “idols” in public places. The group’s Dhaka Vice Chairman, Mujibur Rahman Hamidi vowed to ensure that no “idols” remain in the country, and warned that the ‘Islamic people’ would launch movements if any one tried to build them in the future.
This was a direct challenge to the government’s position on retaining and building more sculpture celebrating the spirit of liberation and heritage. Hifazat is cleverly trying to remove these statues, a very dangerous development. They and their partners like the Awami Olama League and genetically connected parties like Jamaat-e-Islami network which are with the BNP’s 18 party alliance, would have no problem in selling out to the Madrassas in the country.
Another victory of the Hifazat and Olama League was forcing the government to remove the writings of several highly acclaimed and progressive writers like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Golam Mustafa, Humayum Azad, Sanaul Haque and Wazed Ali from the school curriculam. The radicals have been agitating for exclusion of poems written by “Hindus and aethists”. Art, literature and progressive history are the foundation of a flourishing culture. Recall the Renaissance period of Europe and Martin Luther’s protestant struggle against Rome. Currently, even the Vatican is on a progressive reform road under Pope Francis.
In Bangladesh, sadly regressive religious ideology is beginning to take root. And this is being held up as the success of people’s movement!
It is imperative to revisit Hifazat’s 13-point demand of 2013. In the ensuing period the activities of this organisation with their partners like the Awami Olama League and behind-the-stage support of Jamaat, the Hizb-ut-Tehrir and others, lands greater clarity to this movement.
In brief, the demands represent a long term programme to overturn the 1952 Language Movement and the high ideals of the 1971 Liberation War. It is a prescription similar to that of Ziaul Haque of Pakistan, which has torn the country and has forced the country into confrontation with its three immediate neighbours – India, Afghanistan and Iran. But Pakistan has a strong civil society where, incidentally, women have been frontline players and have challenged the ultra-radicals and held their ground. The Pakistani military establishment including the ISI have used this ideology in its foreign policy and have been fighting the extremists at great cost. How will Bangladesh manage its own radicals? Not by compromise surely.
The Bengali women stand challenged. Radicalizations has serious implications for their advancement, freedom, human rights and contribution to the national economy. At a time when the most religious Islamic nations are beginning to slowly loosen restrictions on women, Hifazat Incorporated is trying to reverse this trend in Bangladesh. As it is said “women hold up half the sky”. What happens to this half of the sky in Bangladesh? It crashes down? Knowing the spirit of the Bengali woman, they will fight.
The demand for a blasphemy law (by the radicals) has very wide implications including for free speech, intellectual discussions, the minorities and practice of their religion and declaring Qadianis (Ahmediyas) as non-Muslims. Although enumerated in different points in the 13-point demand, they are different parts of a whole. Promoting and nurturing culture is seen by the ultra-radicals as a serious threat to their programme. Therefore, they want a re-engineering of the Constitution, which is an obstacle to their nefarious agenda. Religion must be protected and respected. But Hifazat Incorporated wants their interpretation of Islam even against Muslims who do not conform to their readings.
Crucially, the Hifazat Inc. movement is not a straight forward issue. It has wheels within wheels with foreign connections. Pakistan’s military intelligence, the ISI, is very much present as proved beyond doubt in the last three years or so. The banned terrorist organisation, the Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) and the neo-JMB continue to be active. They have similar ideological persuasion.
Such large movements require significant amount of funding. It may be recalled that at the peak of JMB militancy and its subsequent fall, investigations revealed that NGOs from Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia were funding these radical extremists illegally. It is possible that some of these fundings continue clandestinely.
Receiving funding from Saudi Arabia, to build thousands of mosques is fraught with dangerous consequences. All the above are vehicles of Wahabi-Salafi ideology. Would Bangladesh like to travel down this road?
For all its virtues, democratic politics is very difficult to manage on a straight road, especially in a country like Bangladesh where anti-liberation and anti-secular forces have been allowed to thrive by successive governments.
Agreed that politics makes strange bedfellows, partners must be chosen wisely as the next general election approaches. Sheikh Hasina is the enduring target of the radical forces, followed by the Awami League itself. The stability and ethos of the region is at stake. One rotten brick may ultimately bring down the entire edifice.
*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]