The Clerics Have It
By Syed Badrul Ahsan
Apr 06 2013
There is little question that the government of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is under siege. A broad sign of the predicament it is caught in comes through the move, on Tuesday, to take into custody three bloggers allegedly responsible for making unflattering comments on Islam and its Prophet on social media. The government, which only weeks ago publicly cheered the youth movement initiated by bloggers and online activists in early February to protest what they considered to be inadequate justice meted out to the war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah by a special tribunal, has now adopted a completely different stance. In the face of the unending agitation spearheaded by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Hefazat-e-Islam and other extremist organisations, the government has beaten a clear retreat through taking action against the three bloggers.
The move has dismayed the country. Where it had been expected that the youth movement, known alternately as the Shahbagh movement and the Projonmo Chottor movement, would provide fresh impetus towards a definitive resolution of the issue of war crimes committed by local Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army in 1971, it now appears the government has chosen a path of appeasement of the extreme right. To what extent the move will help hold back a further escalation of the political crisis in the country remains a question. An early hint of what might happen comes from the fanatical Hefazat-e-Islam, which has vowed to march to Dhaka from outside the capital as part of its campaign to have, in its formulation, the atheists and bloggers of Shahbagh punished. The clerics have made it known that the arrests of the three young bloggers are not enough, which sends out an ominous message: having made one concession, a beleaguered government might now be compelled to go for more.
The crisis has been exacerbated by the decidedly negative role played by the BNP, led by former PM Khaleda Zia. In a move as unprecedented as it was scandalous, Khaleda Zia warned the government at a recent public rally in Bogra that the Bangladesh army would not sit idly by and would act when the time came. The remarks were seen, for obvious reasons, as an open invitation to the military to intervene in a situation where the BNP, in alliance with assorted right-wing political parties and extremist Islamists, remains engaged in a violent campaign to overthrow the elected government of Sheikh Hasina. Zia has been fierce in her criticism of the Shahbagh youths, accusing them of apostasy and political partisanship. Her strident statements have placed many in her party in a quandary in the sense that it has left them surprised at the manner in which the party chief has chosen to side with the Jamaat, an organisation whose leaders are now on trial for war crimes committed in the course of Bangladesh’s liberation war 42 years ago. The BNP’s popularity has taken a slide. But what the party has lost in terms of public support, it chooses to make up for through an agitation that has seen policemen and common citizens brutalised and killed, vehicles torched and railway tracks uprooted around the country. In bizarre fashion, the former PM, widow of Bangladesh’s first military dictator Ziaur Rahman, has accused the government of committing genocide in the country.
Khaleda Zia’s provocative statement on the role of the army has had severe ramifications among civil society in Bangladesh. Even as her deputy in the BNP has been trying to put a different spin on her statement, through stating that her comments had been misreported and misconstrued by the media, it has sparked worries in light of the several military interventions in Bangladesh’s democratic politics since it emerged as an independent state in 1971. A violent coup d’etat led to the assassination of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family in August 1975. Barely three months later, the coup plotters murdered four leaders of the 1971 Bangladesh government-in-exile in prison. A series of coups and counter-coups led in the six years between 1975 and 1981 to the murder of some of the most prominent of military officers who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield during the war. In March 1982, the army chief, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, overthrew the elected government of President Abdus Sattar and went on to preside over a junta that was finally forced to hand over power to a caretaker administration in 1990.
Against such a background, Khaleda Zia’s remarks about a probable need for the army to intervene, flies in the face of political realities in Bangladesh today. And those realities converge around the popular urge for a return to full, unfettered secular democracy in the country. Making matters even more embarrassing for the BNP is the reluctance — or even refusal — of its leadership to condemn the anarchy the radical Islamists have let loose in the country. The economy has been taking a mauling, trade is nearly at a standstill and education has almost gone missing. Khaleda Zia’s party colleague Moudud Ahmed — who has switched political loyalties a number of times in his career, going from the Awami League to the BNP to Ershad’s Jatiyo Party and back to the BNP — smugly told the media a week ago that educational institutions must reschedule their academic calendar through adjustment with the agitational programme of the opposition.
Bangladesh today is in dire straits. It is not a failed state, but that precisely is what could come to pass if the opposition, basing its politics around the time-worn factor of religion and the state, refuses to pull back from the brink. As for the government, its absence of decisiveness in tackling the mayhem and murder let loose by the Jamaat has been intriguing. And now that it has gone after the bloggers in an attempt to calm the frayed nerves, misplaced as they are, of the fanatical fringe, it may well find itself in a deeper hole than it has been in till now. Concessions to the clerics and the BNP can only push secular forces up against a wall. That would be a demonstration of grave disservice to a country that has, for decades, been engaged in a struggle for a restoration of the values that necessitated the rise of Bangladesh in the first place.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka