It requires a little bit of explanation of this title for non-Bengali readers of this column. Tetul is a Bengali word for tamarind, and ‘Hujur’ is used to address a Muslim cleric. Tetul Hujur in English would be something like Mister Tamarind even though it loses its intended flavor in the translation.
Tamarind is a sweet and sour tropical produce that hang from the tree branches. A favorite condiment in the Indian sub-continent which has many applications. One’s mouth would water at the very sight of a tamarind.
Most Islamists believe in the complete segregation of man and woman in the society. They often compare women to tamarind citing men’s tongue would water at the very sight of a woman polluting their mind and soul and hence women must be segregated from men. These types of religious sermons using the example of tamarind goes back a long time in history.
A festive mood descends in the rural Bangladesh in the winter nights, when the weather is mild and comfortable. Loud microphones pierce through the peaceful quiet of the surroundings, and you could hear lectures of the clerics for the most part of the night. Sipping hot tea, the ordinary rural folks relish listening to those tamarind flavored religious sermons.
Initially, the women’s rights groups, the secularists, and the scholars took these sermons of comparing women to tamarind lightly until the head of a group, Hefazat-e-Islam warned men to segregate women in their midst for fear of tamarind effect on their tongues. Women were simply objects of men’s lust and therefore should be veiled to keep their mind clean.
Hefazat-e-Islam is a major provider of religious education having numerous religious schools or Madrassas throughout Bangladesh. Most people were not aware of this organization until they surfaced as a major political force in 2013 when groups of Hefazat supporters from all over Bangladesh descended into Dhaka, the capital city. Terrified by this new power, the government of Sheikh Hasina cut all transportation to obstruct their entry into Dhaka. But the Hefazat followers walked long distances and took the painful trip to loudly declare their fierce opposition to a secular group, the “Shahbagh Movement.” The “Shahbagh Movement” was craftily planted by the government and its allies to counter opposition to the trial of Muslim leaders who were being tried for war crimes.
Hefazat’s aim was to rally support for the Muslim leaders and to oppose the death sentences that was just imposed by the International Crimes Tribunal. The folks of the Shahbagh Movement were chanting “death to the Razakars” and occupied a prominent section of the city for weeks “day and night” blocking all traffic and movement of people including that of critically ill patients who were trying to enter and exit hospitals in the parameters. Such a confrontation was not seen in Bangladesh for a long while.
The Hefazat leaders believed the Shahbagh Movement comprised of bloggers and secularists who were spreading blasphemous ideology and accused them guilty under the strictest Islamic laws. It was a very tense moment in the capital city and especially for the Hasina government. Initially, she wanted to woo Allama Shafi, the head of Hefazat-e-Islam to her orbit and command; and when he declined, Hasina opted to combat Hefazat crowd ruthlessly.
While providing full protection to the Shahbagh Movement, the police opened live fire on the hundreds of thousands of people participating in the Hefazat rally. On May 5 and 6, 2013, the government cracked down on the protesters by using a combined force drawn from police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) to drive the protesters away from Shapla Square. Following the events at Motijheel, there were protests in other parts of the country that morning, which resulted in more than 30 deaths.
Different sources provide different figures about the casualties in this operation. Depending upon sources, reported deaths ranged from 20 to 61. The opposition party BNP initially claimed thousands of Hefazat activists were killed during the operation, which was disputed by the government. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations put the total death toll at above 50.
Thus a non-political group surfaced into a center stage while Hasina brutally crushed all moderate and secular political opponents. The eyes of the major political parties of the nation swung to this non-political group eager to use it as a vote bank. While this religious group raised a battle cry against the ideals of a dead secular blogger Rajib who was killed by the fanatics, the Hasina government declared Rajib a national hero and the first martyr of the country’s second liberation war. Fighting the religious fanatics was now Hasina’s second liberation war. Prime Minister went to Rajiv’s house to console his parents. Minister Ms. Motia Chowdhury, a former Marxist and a close associate of PM Hasina compared Rajiv to her son and lamented at full volume.
Rajib’s brutal killing shocked the entire nation. While most Bangladeshis detested the way he was murdered, at the same time, they felt their religious feelings were violated by the blogger’s spread of the blasphemous ideology especially his mockery of the beloved prophet.
The anger of the secularist group “Shahbag Movement” descended onto Moulana Shafi, the head of the Hefazat-e-Islam. On a recent Islamic teaching session, Moulana Shafi invoked “tamarind” advising the followers to the immoral sighting and savoring of women. In the past, these preachings were ignored, but now it turned into a battle cry for the secular bloggers. The media also jumped on to Moulana Shafi and accused him of “illogical and odd” utterances that demeaned women.
One senior minister labeled Shafi “Mr. Tamarind” or “Tetul Hujur”. The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called Moulana Shafi a “Tetul Hujur” condemning him strongly in her speeches. In one public address, she forcefully stated; “Yes, Mr. Shafi, you have offended women by comparing them with tamarind which is totally unacceptable. Shame on you. You have forgotten that a woman is your mother, someone is your sister, and someone is your daughter. I am sure you will be tempted with mouthwatering delight (at the age of 90) when you are in the company of your leader Khaleda Zia . ….”
While such malicious utterances are still reverberating in people’s mind, masterful Hasina has now flip-flopped and embraced Moulana Shafi in a big way. Looking at the upcoming elections, Shafi could help her win big with the Islamist followers. Shafi got rewarded in many ways and is now happy with Hasina. Two videos; one where Hasina is ridiculing Moulana Shafi and the other, where Moulana Shafi praying for Shaikh Hasina’s peace and good luck, went viral. In the video, Sheikh Hasina is seen next to Mr. Tamarind (Tetul Hujur) whereas, in the earlier scenarios, Moulana Shafi used to be seen next to Begum Khaleda Zia, the opposition leader.
For some strange reasons, Bangladeshi media and a large number of intellectuals find the tamarind is sweet when he stands by Sheikh Hasina and tastes sour when Shafi is seen with Khaleda Zia. Bangladesh media is well known for flip flopping with news for money and power.
Media that try to be aggressive may lose their license. Keeping their reporting within government’s wishes is the only choice if they want to remain in business.
In 2004, Sheikh Hasina reached an agreement with Shaikhul Hadi’s leader Moulana Azizul Huq as a means to “pick a thorn with another thorn.” But she was not able to pull the thorn as the thorn became stronger and sharper this time.
Bangladeshi politics is terribly intertwined with religion. While she is on the offensive against the opposition parties, Sheikh Hasina takes the liberty to play the religion card in politics. An influential liberal religious party Jamaat has been totally fractured by Hasina on the pretext they were against the liberation of Bangladesh, only because of Jamaat allies itself with the opposition BNP. She also accused ancillary factions of Jamaat as terrorists, so hammering them is seen as a fight against terrorism in the eyes of the Indian and Western nations. Same Jamaat was her ally several times when she ran for elections in the past.
In fact, she has two faces; one is a show of secularism for global display and the other for domestic appearance where she shows Islamic zealotry as a show to appease the religious sentiments of the ordinary people. Like a magician, she fabricates religious terrorists out of the swamp instantly to a “show and tell” demonstration for the international leaders. This is a made to order display tailored to fit Hasina’s part of the story as and when needed to enhance her political ambitions. It is a dangerous game started by Hasina, the end of which is unpredictable. Sheikh Hasina will perform all types of acts just to remain in power and to ride the Bangladesh’s economic growth at least till 2024.
*Minar Rashid is a social thinker and is a columnist in Naya Diganta