By Shaik Ubaid
This past weekend, Bangladesh has moved closer to a civil war. With a population of 150 million, it is the third largest Muslim nation in the world. Due to its strategic location between India, China and Myanmar, any crisis it faces is bound to affect the entire region. If Bangladesh with its Vietnam-like terrain is allowed to destabilise, the consequences will be difficult to contain. Somalia then will look like child’s play and the Afghan problem a minor headache.
Bangladesh came into existence in 1971 with the active intervention of India during a bloody and ruthless civil war between East and West Pakistan. Over 3,00,000 people were killed and tens of thousands of women were raped. This war of independence is deeply embedded in the nation’s collective psyche. The only other instance in recorded history of such a narrative of national victimisation can be seen in Serbia and Armenia, two nations that have held on to the memory of their bloody conflict with the Ottoman Turkey.
When the civil war erupted, it was barely a quarter century since the region of East Bengal (earlier partitioned from West Bengal by the British) had secured independence from the colonial powers and become the eastern wing of Pakistan, the whole breadth of India separating the bifurcated new nation. Millions of Bihari Muslims from the contiguous areas of India had migrated to East Pakistan at the time. In 1970, after years of discrimination of the Bengali Muslims, an overwhelming majority in East Pakistan rose up against the central (Pakistani) government. The Bihari Muslims wanted no part of the secession. Many Bengali Muslims who were ideologically aligned to Pakistan also refused to join the secession movement but a larger segment of the Bengali Muslim population supported it. In the ensuing disturbance, the Pakistani army unleashed a wave of terror that included mass murder and rapes.
The army used the excuse that they were not only trying to preserve the territorial integrity of Pakistan but were also fighting Bengali terrorists and Indian infiltrators who were killing and raping loyal Biharis. Members of right wing political parties such as Jamat-e-Islami and Muslim League formed armed militias and sided with the federal Pakistani forces.
India had been long hoping for the break-up of its arch rival and wasted no time in supporting the secessionists. Additionally, citing the influx of millions of refugees on its eastern border it invaded East Pakistan, forcing the Pakistani army to surrender after a short war.
Not one of the 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war from that time were ever tried or brought to justice for war crimes. Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, the popular leader of the newly formed Bangladesh, focused on rebuilding the poor and devastated nation and chose not to pursue those involved in the rapes and murder of Bengalis. The Bihari victims who had sided with the vanquished army bore the brunt of revenge rapes and murders. Countless victims from both sides were thus left to seethe in anger, their wounds raw and their hurts unhealed.
Within four years, the founder of the new nation along with most of his family members was murdered in a coup by the military which claimed that he had imposed a single party tyranny. The military rulers then used Islam to gain legitimacy amongst the shocked population just as General Zia-ul-Haq was to do a few years later in Pakistan.
Thanks to rampant corruption, new divisions based on wealth and class further polarised the country.
But the biggest chasm that went almost unheeded by all was the growing conflict between the traditionalist Muslims and the liberal elite. Bangladesh hosts the second largest religious assembling of Muslims, after the Haj in Mecca. The non-political Tablighi Jamat holds its annual Ijtema (gathering) here. A small group of self-declared atheists have long been openly attacking Islam, ignoring the appeals of moderate mainstream atheists and liberals, not to antagonise the non-political traditional Muslim majority.
It is in this volatile context that the current government, facing low approval ratings, chose to politicise the issue of war crimes. Its main aim seemed to deflect criticism of rampant corruption and to decimate the mainstream Islamist party, Jamat-e-Islami, which is aligned to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main Opposition party. The political calculation was that without the backing of Jamat-e-Islami, the BNP will not be able to defeat the ruling Awami League.
Instead of forming an impartial and independent war crimes tribunal, the government constituted a biased tribunal which has been criticised by the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and foreign bar associations. Leaked conversations between the chief judge and outsiders have established that the tribunal was acting like a kangaroo court. The chief judge was forced to resign but the tribunal went ahead and issued death sentences to leaders of Jamat-e-Islami.
Cautioning the government against destabilisation, many countries, including its biggest donors, such as Saudi Arabia and the United States asked it not to adopt a confrontational policy. However, with open support from India, the Bangladesh government rebuffed all such appeals.
As was to be expected, Jamat-e-Islami facing decimation and the BNP facing political isolation, have hit back.
The opportunity to launch the counter campaign was provided by the militant atheists, who in a lethal combination of ignorance and arrogance initiated vulgar attacks on Islam and Prophet Muhammad. In a Muslim country, this is nothing short of suicidal. The proponents seem to have been carried away by the outpouring of nationalistic fervor unleashed by the belated (and politically motivated) punishment to the “traitors” of the war of independence. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have been demanding the death penalty for the traitors and war criminals in the Shahbagh Square in the capital Dhaka.
The traditionalists, who as a rule do not support political Islam as represented by the Jamat-e-Islami, were enraged at the “blasphemous attacks” and have mobilised the network of their madrasas. Those that had earlier chosen not to side with the Jamat-e-Islami and BNP have now taken to the streets.
Unfortunately, Bangladeshi Hindus have been caught in the crossfire of this conflagration because of their sympathies for the current government. Many Hindu temples were destroyed.
Unfortunately, the political Left in the country has not responded positively so far. Most of them are unwisely supporting the stand of the Indian security establishment that crushing the Islamists in Bangladesh is in India’s interest. This can, at best, be described as a most short-sighted perspective and at worst, a disastrous one.
The Bangladesh government and the militant atheists miscalculated badly. The government was slow in distancing itself from online vulgar attacks on Islam by the atheist bloggers.
If India does not stop its unconditional support of the Bangladesh government that has acted arrogantly and undemocratically, it will be seen by most Indians as Iran is viewed by most Syrians for its support of the unpopular Assad government.
This past weekend, Bangladesh has erupted in a fury.
After physically being put on the defensive as millions of common Muslims have taken to the streets, the ruling party has launched a media campaign in the West, pointing out to the similarity in the demands between the Bangladeshi traditionalists and the Pakistani Taliban.
The traditionalists have resorted to their own demonisation of “atheists”, a hated term used interchangeably with Marxists that goes back to the times of the Cold War and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The war between “Talibans” and “atheists” is set to destabilise the whole region.
The world must act before Bangladesh reaches a point of no return. Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina Wajid is known to be stubborn and arrogant. It is imperative that she be brought under pressure by India to seek a solution to the current crisis in the form of an independent war crimes tribunal and a truth and reconciliation commission. The Indian Muslim seminary of Deoband that has considerable influence on the Bangladeshi traditionalists must be asked to dissuade them from further confrontation. The mainstream liberals, atheists and Marxists in Bangladesh must rein in their militant wing from launching incendiary attacks on Islam.
The window to act is small and getting smaller by the day. Time is of real essence.