Checkmating Islamists in Bangladesh

The citizens of India could use all the fora available today to convey to the Islamists that they better not try to tamper with freedom and democracy.

Bangladesh_521 (photo credit: David Zetler)
(photo credit: David Zetler)
Ever since Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina instituted a tribunal to bring to justice the elements accused of committing atrocities against fellow citizens during the civil war of 1971, Jamaat-e-Islami activists have intensified their agitation, at times violent, across the nation with the aim of overthrowing her government. This has resulted in large-scale violence claiming, according to one estimate, more than 100 lives between February 5 and March 7 alone.
The opposition of the Jamaat to the Hasina government is not difficult to understand. The Awami League has had a vision of freedom and democracy.
Bangladesh has been known for its composite, pluralist tradition. Islam reached this region in the 13th century, prior to which the land was under the rule of famous Sena and Buddhist Pala dynasties, resulting in the creation of a composite culture in the region. Today Muslims in the country account for approximately 148.6 million people, some 90 percent of the total population. But radical sectarian groups such as the Deobandi movement and the Ahle Hadith have little influence across its social spectrum. The majority of Muslims do not subscribe to fundamentalist doctrines. They support Hindus’ and Ahmadis’ right to practise their faiths without fear or persecution. They join the Shi’ites in commemorating the martyrdom of Ali’s sons Hasan and Husayn.
In tune with this historical-social tradition, the constitution of Bangladesh provides for freedom of religion. It supports the laws concerning marriage, divorce and adoption based on the religion of the person concerned. There are no legal restrictions on marriage between members of different faiths.
The Hasina government sees to it that it is fair to all schools of religion, and that there is no radicalization of any particular version of Islam in the country.
The Jamaat does not approve. It’s values are of a Wahabi-Salafist-influenced Deobandi order. It finds in the Awami League’s vision the main obstacle to its agendas and would like to remove it from power. During 2001-2006 the Jamaat joined the BNP-led coalition government in Dhaka and succeeded in banned the Ahmadiya literatures. The Islamists would like to repeat such an arrangements, to impose their agenda.
Pertinently, the Islamists have been on an Islamist mission in the region since long. One study suggests they were better able to implement their agenda when the region was part of Pakistan. In 1947 Hindus accounted for one thirds of the population in then-East Pakistan. By 1971 their number came down to onefifth.
The Islamist influence on t3e successive regimes in Pakistan led the government to such policies and programs as resulted in the minorities’ conversion or exodus and that, in turn, resulted in this change in the country’s religious demography.
The study suggests that even after Bangladesh became independent Islamists have remained active against the minorities there. Because of their designs and influence in certain dispensations the Bangladeshi Hindus have faced murder, rape, abduction, forced conversion, land grabs and more, including a 2009 pogrom behind a Dhaka police station. As a result the number of the Hindus has continued to fall. Today it is fewer than eight percent.
The leaders of the democratic world must appreciate the nature and purpose of the Islamist forces at work in Bangladesh and take all appropriate measures to checkmate them. The governments of the liberal world are supposed to advance freedom and democracy everywhere. They cannot afford risking it in Bangladesh.
The agenda of Bangladeshi Islamists, like that of their counterparts in other parts of the world, poses a threat not only to Bangladesh and its citizens but also to the entire civilized world.
Presently, Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia seems to be backing the Islamists. The leaders of the democratic world could use their influence with Khaleda Zia to stop her from acting, overtly or covertly, against the interest of democracy in the country.
One hopes citizens of India – particularly its Muslims – would remain ever vigilant with regard to the emerging political scenario in Bangladesh. They played an historic role in the liberation of the land. On April 7, 1971, Akbar Ali Khan, a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, said that his religion was one of peace and goodwill. He loathed that in Bangladesh atrocities and injustices were being perpetrated on a people struggling for freedom and justice.
Member of Parliament for Kashmir Syed Hussain said what was happening in Pakistan had already demolished its two-nation theory. Noted naturalist and conservationist Zafar Futehally said that the Muslims of India must offer “such relief as lies in their power to offer to the people of East Bengal.”
Over 200 Muslims demonstrated outside former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s house on August 6, 1971, to demand the recognition of Bangladesh.
Jansangh member of the Metropolitan Council Anwar Ali Dehlvi presented a memorandum to Gandhi. On August 12, 1971, 20 Muslim MPs appealed to all the Muslim countries and the civilized world to raise their voice against president Yahya Khan’s acts, which they called “barbarous and against all ethical values of Islam.”
The citizens of India could use all the fora available today to convey to the Islamists that they better not try to tamper with freedom and democracy in Bangladesh. India joined the people of Bangladesh in 1971 to liberate them from Pakistan and help them achieve this sublime goal only. The people of India would do it again, if needed.
The author is a senior Indian Journalist.
Currently, he is a consulting editor to the Power Politics magazine published out of New Delhi.