By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
2 April, 2021
The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh saw protests on an unprecedented scale. Organised by the Hefazat e Islam, the protests not just saw wanton attacks on government property but also targeted violence on the religious symbols of minority Hindus, wherein several temples were vandalised. It appears that the Indian PM has become hugely unpopular in Bangladesh because of his government’s domestic policy which has unfairly targeted the Muslim minority. Since Bangladesh is still a democracy, people have the freedom to protest against whoever they wish to. However, if under the pretext of such protests, the country’s own religious minority comes under threat, then it becomes a matter of grave concern. And that’s why the activities of Hefazat, especially its targeting of temples, must be condemned by all Muslims. There are other peaceful ways of registering protests and in not opting for those, Hefazat was sending a clear signal: that its protests were not just against Modi but also an exhibition of hatred against an already beleaguered Hindu minority.
Part of the problem behind such show of violence was the high handedness of the police in handling the protests. The police bullet felled at least four of such protestors which seems to have enraged the Hefazat further. It cannot be said enough that the police should have handled the situation better and should have shown restraint. But then, increasingly in South Asia, governments are becoming more and more authoritarian and this gets reflected through the actions of the police. Sheikh Hasina, having obliterated all forms of opposition, seems to think that she can get away with anything and it is this hubris which seems to have precipitated the crises in Bangladesh.
The Hefazat has grown on the ruins of the Jamat e Islami in Bangladesh. Historically, the Jamat opposed the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan and hence came to considered as an enemy of the state by the current government. Several of its leaders have been hanged and hundreds are behind bars, effectively making the organisation dysfunctional. Sheikh Hasina has also insured that the ‘secular’ opposition is completely wiped out. She has decimated her political opponents, many of whom are in jail on trumped up charges. She has not even spared critical voices within the civil society with the net affect that she has been ruling the country with virtually no opposition and hence no accountability. In such a scenario, it is completely understandable that the opposition space will be taken up by religious parties. There was a time when the Jamat e Islamifilled up that space but then Sheikh Hasina, in order to undercut it, started to flirt with various other more radical Islamist organisations. The Hefazat e Islam was born out of such a desire to limit the appeal of the Jamat e Islami. However, in the process of containing one abomination, her government gave birth to an even more virulent version of it.
Hefazat derives its power from thousands of Islamic seminaries spread across the country, called the Qawmi madrasas, which are different from the government-controlled Aliya madrasas. Primarily Deobandi in orientation, the Hefazat leadership does not shy away from politically using their students in their demonstrations. Totalling nearly 1.4 million students spread across nearly 14000 madrasas, they provide a ready mass of volunteers and protestors whenever required by the leadership. The Hefazatstarted by demanding that the government recognise the degrees issued by the Qawmi madrasas. It raised its voice against the ‘intermixing of genders’ and removal of the statue of justice which it argued was against Islamic precepts. But it really came to notoriety when its members started killing secular and atheist bloggers in that country. A series of brutally orchestrated public murders committed by Hefazat was primarily designed to announce their arrival as a new force and to terrorise those who had a different idea of Bangladesh. Against the idea of a secular republic, the Hefazat was now proclaiming an Islamic republic of Bangladesh and ingratiating themselves as its custodian. Anyone who had a different trajectory in mind for the country was an enemy of Islam whose killing became legitimate.
Hefazat wants to create a Bangladesh in its own image and that’s why its position will always be one of Islamic supremacy. One of its important agenda is the removal of sculptors from all public spaces which is specifically problematic for Bangladeshi Hindu as they fear that Hefazat would want to banish their temples once they become more powerful. However, Hefazat has assured the Hindus that they do not have to worry as an ‘Islamic government’ will protect them. Despite such assurances, the recent attacks on Hindu temples have shown that this minority fear is not completely unfounded. These attacks should not just be seen as a reaction to the Prime Minister’s visit but at the same time as an ideological and physical attack against the practitioners of ‘idolatry.’ Moreover, it is not just a question of temples. Sculptors dot the landscape of Bangladesh as they are part of historical and cultural complex. Many of these sculptors represent Hindu personalities and ideas which are crucial in representing the pluralistic ethos of the country. A theological position against statues and images necessarily militates against this diversity. No wonder the Hindu minority is feeling increasingly out of place in their own country.
Instead of tackling this problem of Islamist radicalism head-on, the government not just dithered but also succumbed to many of the demands made by Hefazat. In order to be seen as ‘Islamic’, government spokesmen even justified the killing of bloggers. Rather than condemning the Hefazat outrightly, they spoke against secular bloggers arguing that in a Muslim country, they should exercise restraint. This not only emboldened the Hefazat but also elevated it as the sole protector of Islam in Bangladesh. It is the current government’s own soft-peddling of the issue which has made Hefazat into what it is today.
Indian Muslims who are happy with this ‘show of solidarity’ need to understand that such mindless vandalism does not serve their cause. As minorities, Indian Muslims should condemn the violence against Hindus in Bangladesh rather than gloat about the power of Islamic brotherhood.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
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