By Amitava Mukherjee*
Hasina Wazed, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the President of the Awami League (AL), needs to look inwards and ask herself some searching questions before she can really think of eradicating terrorism in her country. It is a fact that at this hour of crisis she is the best bet against fundamentalist politics in Bangladesh but some uncomfortable facts have cropped up which have put her style of governance under serious cloud.
The controversy surrounds an organization named the Awami Olama League which started its journey first in 1996, allegedly, under patronage from some Awami League bigwigs. Days before the ceremony of Bengali new year, (Poila Baishakh) in 2016 the organization took to the street demanding ban on funding and public performance of the Poila Boishakh ceremony. This surprised people in Bangladesh as the Awami League, according to its own charter, stands for secularism and democracy. It also champions equality of all irrespective of religion, caste,sex, community and ethnic identity.
The development was surprising. One faction of the Olama League called the Bengali New Year festivities ‘haraam’ (forbidden or proscribed in Islam) and wanted the government to do away with them because it was championed by ‘business class-driven by profit motives’ and an ‘anti-religious media’ to ‘de-Islamize Muslims’.
It has also demanded abolition of the law prescribing minimum age of marriage for girls, enactment of a law providing for death penalty for demeaning Islam, taking off the air all the Indian TV channels, banishment of anti- Islamic education policy and withdrawing of all text books that carry works of Humayun Azad, Rudra Mohammed Shahidullah, Selina Hossain, Sanjida Khatun and Kabir Chowdhury . All of them are known to be champions of secular democratic ideals.
Awami League moved quickly against the Olama League and officially denied any connection with it.
Still some interesting facts remain. The Awami Olama League has three factions. One of it is largely non functional. But the other two factions used to give 23, Bangabandhu Avenue,Dhaka as their official address. Incidentally this happens to be the central office of the Awami League.
Last year The Daily Star, a respected English language daily in Dhaka, had sent its representative to cross-check whether any faction of the Olama League has its office in the Awami League central office building. The representative was not disheartened. He found that both the factions used to operate from the second floor of the same building.
Leaders of both the factions have, however, claimed their close relations with several Awami League Leaders. One of the Olama League leaders even claimed that Hasina had invited him to several programmes.
More interesting was, however, the answers of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the AL religious affairs secretary, to the Daily Star queries. Abdullah had frankly confessed that Hasina Wazed had directed him to stop the activities of the Olama League. Now if the Olama League was not a part of the Awami League then how can the question of stopping its activities come? Finally Abdullah confessed that he had once tried to reconstitute the Awami Olama League but had failed.
There was perhaps an umbilical relationship between the Awami League and the Olama League. After all the latter had once thrown an Iftar party at Ganabhavan, the official residence of Hasina Wazed, the Prime Minister.
So splitting of hairs over whether the attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery was the handiwork of the IS or not makes very little sense. Gravity of the situation remains the same even if IS hand is not there. Bangladesh has come a long way from the concept of Bengali nationalism which led to its birth. The country is at a critical juncture and it has to choose between two alternatives – religious nationalism and linguistic nationalism.
Everybody knows which one of the two above mentioned models the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami would choose. But prevarication is not expected from the Awami League. Unfortunately, the AL under the leadership of Hasina Wazed has been providing umpteen examples in this line.
*Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at [email protected]