By P.K. Balachandran
May 14, 2019
Colombo, May 13: Muslim-majority Bangladesh was born out of
an explicitly secular and linguistic movement spearheaded by Sheikh Mujibur
Rahman. But it did not take long for the new born to show that it is “Islamic”
as well as “Bengali”.
This was due to the failure of Bangladesh’s
post-independence secular rulers to live up to their promises. With the failure
of Mujib’s secular government, political Islam became the rallying point for
Subsequently, unpopular military rulers seeking legitimacy
strengthened political Islam by reviving and nurturing it. Pakistan also played
a role in instigating and sustaining political Islam to get back Bangladesh
which it lost in 1971.
Over time, political Islam became increasingly radical and
terroristic. Successive governments in Dhaka were formally “secular” but were
bending over backwards to carry Islamist forces with them, giving them
legitimacy in the process. And whenever the State asserted its modern secular
character, Islamist radicals would unleash terrorism to make the government
mend its ways.
The Islamists saw abjuring Islam in favor of a “Bengali”
ethno-linguistic identity as a mark of subservience to India which had been
seeking a greater political and economic role in a country which it helped
found by sending in its military in December 1971.
Over time, Islamism mixed with nationalism proved to be a
potent political mix which governments found hard to fight.
Between January 2005 and December 2017, about 746 persons
had fallen prey to Islamist terror and State counter terror operations.
According to a study, 91% of these ghastly incidents had taken place since 2013
when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League was trying to put
Bangladesh back on its original secular track.
In 1977, before Hasina came to power, the constitution
replaced secularism by “absolute trust and faith in almighty Allah”. Military
ruler Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) fostered the notion
that Bangladesh is Islamic. Between 1976 and 1979, Zia legalized religious
political parties and allowed Islamists, who had worked with the Pakistani Army
during the liberation war, to participate in government.
The Bangladesh Jamaat-e- Islami (BJeI), banned by Mujib, was
able to publicly rejoin Bangladeshi politics in 1979. Gen. H.M. Ershad ,the
country’s second military dictator, made Islam Bangladesh’s state religion. He
even gave cabinet positions to two BJeI “war criminals”.
In 1990, democracy returned to Bangladesh. But it did not
augur well for secularism. The BNP led by Gen.Zia’s widow, Begum Khaleda Zia,
continued to cultivate and accommodate Islamic radicals. But this was
vehemently opposed by the Awami League now led by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter
Sheikh Hasina Wazed.
While the “Battle of the Begums” raged, Bangladeshi
militants returning from the “Jihad” in Afghanistan added fuel to the fire.
They teamed up with the al-Qaeda Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). RSO
came to Bangladesh along with the 200,000 persecuted Rohingyas from Myanmar.
Pakistan’s ISI, waiting in the wings, tied up with BJeI to turn Bangladesh into
a launching pad to stage attacks in neighboring India.
BJeL and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the
Jagrato Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB)
attacked Hindus , Ahmadiyas and Awami League workers.
The JMJB and JMB merged under the leadership of Sheikh Abdur
Rahman and Siddiqur Rahman, known as “Bangla Bhai” (Bengali Brothers). The
Bangla Bhai became popular for providing instant justice. Mainstream
politicians cultivated the “Bangla Bhai” and ran protection rackets with them
till the BNP government led by Prime Minister Begum Zia felt the need to
control them. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was set up to fight the menace.
In August 2005, the JMB set off 459 bombs simultaneously in
63 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts to push the country into adopting Sharia law.
The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), founded in 1992, issued
death threats against the feminist author Taslima Nasreen, who had to flee from
Bangladesh. It tried to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) staged many attacks
in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshis resident in the UK went to Syria to fight
alongside the Islamic State (IS). Adept at using sophisticated communication
technologies ,the IS influenced well educated and well heeled young Bangladeshi
The killers of 18 foreigners and two Bangladeshis in the
up-market Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on July 1, 2016, were well heeled
students from Dhaka’s private North-South University.
In 2009, despite the wide berth given by the predecessor BNP
regime to Islamic radicals, Sheikh Hasina set up a War Crimes Tribunal to try
persons who had committed war crimes during the liberation struggles as
auxiliaries of the Pakistani army. There had been a mass student movement since
2007 seeking the trial of war criminals.
But the Jamaat-e-Islami, the main target of the trials, and
human rights groups cried foul saying that the procedures did not accord with
international norms. Apart from Pakistan which passed many resolutions against
the trials, Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammad and Turkish leader Erdogan
appealed for clemency. But Sheikh Hasina was undeterred. The trials continued
and many were sent to the gallows.
Hasina was adept at resisting foreign pressure. When the US
put tremendous pressure to get Bangladesh to let an island be used as a US
base, she put her foot down.
Hasina was undeterred even by the country-wide mayhem
unleashed by the Jamaat because she had the support of Bangladeshi youth,
including youth from the private universities. In 2013, the broad-based Shahbad
movement backed her to the hilt, demanded capital punishment and a ban on the
Explaining this, a Bangladeshi commentator said: “The world
was unaware that a whole generation of Bangladeshis had grown up with no love
for Pakistan or the Islamic movement prior to the formation of Pakistan in
1947. These were young students and professionals born after 1971. Hasina was
cued into this generation.”
An independent minded person, Hasina resisted the temptation
to go along with the Western view that the Holey Artisan Bakery attack was the
handiwork of the international lslamic State and not a local group. She sensed
that attempts were being made to link up the massacre with the IS so that the
Western agencies could enter the investigation process and infiltrate the
Bangladeshi security set up. She therefore doggedly held on to the view that
the massacre was a local job.
She refused to yield to pressure from the Bangladesh elite
to release some of the suspects saying that law enforcement machinery could not
To get the ramifications of the network which carried out
the July 1 ,2016 attack, and to avoid harassment of the public, Hasina appealed
to families to inform the police of any missing persons or anyone moving about
suspiciously in their neighborhood. This unearthed information about more than
200 persons, which helped crack the case.
Hasina knew that people were tired of terrorism and governments
which tolerated and fostered radicalism and helped radicalism metamorphose into
terrorism. Therefore her appeal for “Help to Help You” had the desired effect.
People came out with useful information.
The Prime Minister tackled the drug menace in the same way.
She knew drug dealers were terrorizing locals and forcing them to tolerate
their nefarious activities. That is why, despite the international cry over
extra-judicial killings, there was no local resistance or disapproval of the
strong arm methods she used.
Political commentators predicted that Hasina and her Awami
League would lose the last elections because of “human rights violations” under
her rule since 2009. But she won handsomely. The opposition BNP was in disarray
and did not contest and the Jammat had gone into hiding as it had lost its
However, Hasina is not oblivious to the fact that Bangladesh
is an Islamic country and the hold of religion is strong in the rural areas.
Therefore she has come to an understanding with Hefazat-e-Islam which runs
thousands of Qaumi Maracas.
The Hefazat is preferred to the Jamaat because unlike the
Jamaat, the Hefazat was not against the struggle for freedom from Pakistan.
Hasina yielded to the Hefazat’s demand for recognition of
their certificates for government jobs. She removed from the Supreme Court, a
statue of justice showing a lady in a sari holding the scales of justice, which
the Hefazat said was un-Islamic. She did not allow writer Tasleema Nasreen to
come back to Bangladesh as she had ridiculed Islam. She criticized secular
bloggers for going overboard in their posts.
Hasina has mastered the art of balancing secularism and
Islam and has curbed radicalism and terrorism with a mixture of guile and