Radicalization of mass thinking whether it comes from the left or from the right is never a comfortable position for any establishment to find itself in. That is why the processes of conflict are closely watched by the powers that be. I remember while doing research on 1971 during my PhD course, I was going through several CIA reports that were disclosed through Senate hearings during that period. The reports spoke about keeping tab on freedom fighters with administrative jobs i.e. those who worked as part of the Government in exile and held radical views. The fear of radicalization of the freedom fighters as well as the Bangladesh Liberation War itself was a serious consideration not only for the US intelligence but also for Indira Gandhi’s administration. The reports naturally focused on the fact that the more the time lapsed, the more likely the war would become more radicalized. It must be remembered that the US in the middle of popular resistance at home was then deeply involved in the Vietnam War and the prospect of having a second Vietnam in Asia would have been the last thing they would have wanted. Although we are no longer talking of such a context, significant radical trends in a population of 160 million always ring an alarm bell in the corridors of power.
When the Shahbagh Movement led by a young generation of bloggers followed by the mass who took to the streets, spontaneously burst onto the scene to protest a verdict pronounced by the International Crimes Tribunal, it also projected onto the scene memories and trajectories of the Liberation War that had the effect of radicalizing the moment. The hundreds and thousands who thronged to the area enacted various rituals that brought home the spirit of ’71. But at the same time, it was not 1971. Shahbagh took place in the context of a majoritarian democratic system, where a section of the populace wanted to hold the elected government to its promise of fulfilling its election mandate to try the war criminals of 1971. This situation was aggravated by the fact that it was the last year before elections, and both the ruling and the opposition parties had strategized or were in the process of strategizing their conflicting game plans for an election, which if actualized promised to be a violent one.
Shahbagh had momentarily brought all such game plans to a halt, but not for long. As the Movement became a protracted one, internal and external dynamics combined to create a layered discourse around Shahbagh that not only debated death penalties, trial processes and banning the Jamaat, but also had to contest accusations that ranged from co-option by government forces, to atheism, jingoism and inciting civil war, such accusations coming from left, right and center.
As Shahbagh became embroiled in such issues, the battleground for elections was being reconstructed. The BNP jumped into the Jamaat bandwagon to disown Shahbagh as a bunch of atheists and drug addicts, the ruling Awami League first infiltrated and then isolated the Shahbagh Movement by arresting bloggers for hurting the religious sentiment of people, shutting down selected blogs, almost akin to the handling of Taslima Nasrin’s case by the then ruling party, BNP. On the other hand, they commenced by throwing the spotlight on an almost oblivious party of Islamic clerics called Hefazat-e Islam based in Chittagong who seemed to be mutually courted by the BNP and Jamaat in their long march to Dhaka, but at the same time enjoyed the tolerance of the ruling party despite the fact that they beat up women journalists and ransacked meetings of Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committeee. The Government was also considering their 13-point demands, which include punishment for atheist bloggers, segregation of women and men in public space and many others which many would say reek of the 13th century lifestyle than of 2013.
Political parties in Bangladesh gain their influence not only by the votes they gain, nor by the decadent nature of politics they bring in but often in the way they are factored in the cold calculus of coalition-building. Cases in point are the roles played by Jamaat-e-Islam and Jatiya Party in certain junctures in the history of Bangladesh. Thus ushering in the rise of another extreme religious party at a juncture where demands to ban the Jamaat as a party whose leadership played a decisive part in war crimes in Bangladesh is tantamount to reinventing the right in Bangladeshi politics. But to what purpose and for whose service?
The most common answer would of course be to see it as the benefit for parties at the right end of the spectrum, Jamaat and BNP. The next line of thinking would be to bring in a third right winger to offset and upset the vote banks of Jamaat, regardless of whether they are banned or not. But what do these alternative scenarios of coalition-building and election strategies springing up at the right end of the political spectrum say in general about the direction of politics in Bangladesh? Does the tilt to the right augur well for the window of opportunity that our secularists seem to have been opening up, however briefly at the onset of Shahbagh? Had the party in power ever sympathised with this trend or feared it as much as those on the right? One indicator that the latter tended to be truer than the former was to be found in the intermittent warnings by mobile text messages that were received from Ministry of Information to be careful about attempts to defile the name of Islam and the Prophet. Such warnings persisted even in the aftermath of the cruel murder of Blogger Rajib Haider, whose blogs were found to be doctored and tampered with.
The violence instigated by Jamaat supporters following Delwar Hossain Sayeedi’s death sentence brought in debates of polarization of society and impending civil war that many thought could be stopped only with military intervention. Although the latter did not happen, theories of check and balances were tabled generously from different quarters, both national and international. Foreign governments started to show their concern for maintaining political stability by giving statements that insisted on putting an end to violence and avoiding exacerbating divisions in society. Further assurance of a smooth transparent process towards free and participatory elections was also in their wish list. The fear of radicalization had set in and the secularists of Shahbagh could only be restrained by a pull towards the right. No doubt the Jamaat/BNP lobbies in the West had a field day, but hey wait! This could also lay the ground for a win-win situation, which global institutions with neo-liberal mandates so love show-casing. Through re-inventing the right, and restraining the secular-left in Shahbagh the ruling Awami League could be redeeming itself the middle-ground that it so much needed. Civil war and failed state theories would be difficult to push if middle-powers (inclusive of BNP minus Jamaat) retained control!
But the conflict is far from over. This cool calculus of politics like most formulas has also its casualties. They are (a) women, (b) religious minorities, (c) the freedom of speech activists. The Hefazatis come with a 13-point charter that is inclusive of ludicrous demands such as prohibition of free mixing of men and women in public spaces in a country where women constitute nearly half the population and the majority of the work force in the country’s largest foreign exchange earning industry — RMG. Their demands may be unrealistic, but the actual politics on the ground may prove unfavorable to women’s rights. We have seen in the past when fatwas (sermons by clerics) have been issued against women for all kinds of ‘transgression’ of public space in rural areas that few political parties had rallied behind women who resisted. We also saw in the past BNP-Jamaat era, university authorities suddenly swoop down on male and female students socializing in the public sphere and punishing them for “indecent” behaviour. That also did not last due to the strong students resistance demonstrated during that time. There is no knowing what kind of compromises maybe made in the process of coalition-building with rightist factions, the results of which will fall on the minorities, the women and the free thinkers to tackle as best as they can. We already see inklings of that happening. Besides, in a male-dominant society, the lure of keeping women away from public leadership and space attracts a broader constituency than party affiliates. So there is a dangerous possibility of authorities at various levels to promote and execute both ambiguous and not so ambiguous instructions in the future that seeks to restrain women’s movement and mobility. For those who wish to see Bangladesh make a transition to a middle-income country, alienating half the population of this country would hardly be a way to do it. Besides with women working in almost all sectors of the economy, such steps can never be taken without creating unrest and conflict.
The recent attacks on the life and property of religious minorities during the rampage of Jamaat and BNP are also indicative of things to come. Without any proactive statement from the Government who seemed more interested to see things being played out to the advantage of tarnishing the image of its opposition, the High Court had to respond on behalf of civil society members instructing the Government to take up protection strategies vis-à-vis minorities. Executive measures to ascertain the security of life and property for its citizens who belong to minority religious and ethnic groups are entrenched in the state machinery itself. It is a wonder therefore why the current government seems to be so lackadaisical about using them that it needs a Court Order to remind them of their basic responsibilities!
The third group, the bloggers of the Shahbagh Movement who allegedly were charged with hurting the religious sentiment of people, form part of a larger constituency of freedom of speech rights activists, who also had hurdles to pass in the recent past (ban on YouTube, and temporarily facebook), but none so blatant as the ones as the arrest of the three bloggers. The feelings of the free speech activists are expressed quintessentially in a post in Facebook by International Crimes Strategy Forum. The bloggers make an important statement that says it all “Bloggers are the lifeblood of free speech in Bangladesh. Blogs remain the last remaining intellectual engagement space that is free, fearless and independent. Stop persecuting bloggers for the sake of appeasing religious extremists.”
And bloggers are not the last line of defense either. The strongly protested attack on ETV journalist Nadia Sharmin and others too are a hint of things to come. Article 19 spells it out in its Press Release. “Nadia is not alone. Zakia Ahmed, a senior reporter for the Banglanews Twentyfour online news service was reprimanded by Hefajat supporters for appearing in public without a head scarf. Arafat Ara, a reporter for Financial Express, was stopped on her way to work by Hefajat activists and asked to cover her head with a scarf, suggesting that this was for her own protection. A few days earlier, Mashreka Mona of Shomoy TV was struck by a stone directly thrown at her when she was on her way to work. “I saw him taking the stone out of his bag and fearlessly aiming at me” she told ARTICLE 19. Hefajat activists also attacked at least 11 other journalists, including Khorshed Alam from South Asian TV, Sohel Rana of ATN News and Shujon Mondol, a photographer for the Daily Ittefaq.”
We thank Article 19 for expressing solidarity “with women’s groups, activists and journalists in condemning attacks against journalists, including Nadia Sharmin and other women journalists, with the specific intention of preventing them from conducting their public and professional duties.” But we also ask our Government and various development partners to look beyond playing the cool game of checks and balances and addressing issues that affect the very core and fabric of a democratic nation. Because if you don’t do it, we who believe in the spirit of our Liberation War, certainly will!
Meghna Guhathakurta was formerly a Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka and is currently Executive Director at an independent research organization.