Implications of secular war in Bangladesh

Implications of secular war in Bangladesh

It happened in the unlikeliest of places. The battle royal between forces of fundamentalism and secular nationalism is playing out in Dhaka, the...

It happened in the unlikeliest of places. The battle royal between forces of fundamentalism and secular nationalism is playing out in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The significance of recapturing the spirit of the liberation struggle of Bangladesh of 1971 is paramount. Particularly, issues underlining the mobilization of the two camps are not just replicating the train of events four decades back; but they are intertwining with contemporary questions of identity, nationhood and, of course, the impact of globalization. The huge mobilization of young people in Shahbagh, a major square in the heart of Dhaka, starting from 5th February became an avalanche with every passing day. The process was triggered by the cry for justice over its denial for these long decades � denial of justice of the war criminals who on the threshold of the birth of Bangladesh had massacred three million Bengali-speaking people. And, as far as official records go, these very criminals were also responsible for the rape and other sexual atrocities against 2 to 3 lakh women. Historically, the unseemly legacy of colonial vivisection of the Sub-continent and, more importantly, the creation of Pakistan was based on recognition of religion as a basis for nationhood. Legitimacy of that exercise culminated in the Nation State of Pakistan. From the outset, this artificial division was doomed. The Bengali-speaking east, separated by more than 2000 kilometers from west where Urdu was spoken by large sections and became the officially recognized language, had the embryo of confrontation implanted. The Islamic State of Pakistan was blissfully oblivious of cultural, linguistic and national differences. The revolt by the Bengali-speaking people started within five years in 1952. The people collectively protested the forcible imposition of Urdu as the official language on the Bengali-speaking people. On 21st February, 1952, people largely led by students and youths came out in large numbers. But several young people were ruthlessly butchered and eliminated by the police and the administration. Thus, 21st February was the starting point of a new awakening towards Bangladeshi nationhood. But subsequent years did not engender change in Pakistani ruling establishment's attitude. Thus began a new upsurge in the late 1960. But when the military rulers refused to recognize a huge electoral mandate in favour of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-led Awami League, it turned out to be the last straw. And, thus began the liberation struggle of 1971.
The liberation struggle was a lost cause for the Pakistani military. But they received support from the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and its more aggressive militia, the Al Badr. It was these collaborators, the Razakars, who have been charged with war crimes. Especially heinous was their effort to systematically eliminate top Bangladeshi intellectuals so that the prospect of a new nation State would be crippled from the outset. Their politics insisted on continued pre-eminence of Islam as the State religion and managing affairs of the State on theological doctrines. They attempted to browbeat an awakened secular nationalism with linguistic-cultural identity with anachronistic medievalism. But for these last four decades, a variety of circumstances undermined the process of justice. The assassination of Sheikh Mujib, the stints of military rule and finally the BNP-Jamaat alliance being voted to government in the early 21st century sabotaged the just application of law. The interregnum allowed Jamaat after an initial ban to come out of political hibernation and gain legitimacy leading to their sharing of power. Along with these domestic factors, the Jamaat became part of the Islamist consolidation through liberal funding from Saudi Arabia and other benefactors. This formed the background of deep anguish and frustration among wide sections of Bangladeshi people who cherished the principles of secular nationalism and shared strong emotional bonding with the linguistic nation-building process. It is this embedded layer of hurt which has now exploded. The Awami League had also responded to the growing concern for booking the perpetrators of '71 mass killings and other atrocities aimed at drowning the aspirations for liberation in blood. The League had promised to set up an International Tribunal to ensure eventual justice. In 2010 the first Tribunal started work and then the second one in 2012. The Tribunal had found two top Jamaat leaders guilty of crimes they were charged with. But one who is absconding was handed over death sentence but the other, Qader Mollah, though found guilty, was given only a life sentence. This has enraged the nation. The demand for his death sentence galvanized mass protests from 5th of February. Of course, the demand is now not limited to just the demand for death to the criminal Razakars who are now mostly top Jamaat leaders, but also to cut off the financing pipelines and other substantial financial businesses of the Islamist forces. Significantly, the assertion of the secular, language- based identity-driven nationalism is being spearheaded by young people. To start with, young Bangladeshis led the movement through their blogs and Internet activism on social networks. But this 'virtual' struggle turned real in Shahbagh. In terms of its form, Shahbagh has striking resemblances to Al Tehrir Square of Cairo or the Occupy Wall Street movement; but there the similarity ends. Unlike Al Tehrir, the target are the Islamists and clearly against the divisive dimension of identity politics which has come to be seen as a growing phenomenon and an inseparable spin off of contemporary globalization. Clearly, the Jamaat camp is on the backfoot but they are not retreating. Their backers beyond the geographical boundaries see a danger in this movement which has armed itself with extremely sound moral principles. The compulsions of domestic politics have forced the main Opposition Khaleda Zia- led BNP to support the Jamaat. Therefore, right now a bloody violence and sectarian strife has come to traumatise Bangladesh. Thus the battle royal is on. Young Bangladeshis with their song and music, speeches and cartoons, paintings and other creative forms fight back the Islamist attempts which have otherwise dominated many of the Muslim-majority countries. Though this development may appear to be anachronistic against the general contemporary course where Islamists armed by a new aggressive and increasing proximity with contemporary imperialism, in fact it is Shahbagh spirit which signals the reuniting of that positive tendency of history which is based on principles of justice, democracy, peace and harmony. The victory of Shahbagh could not be more important to us; because its lesson is as much valid for India. For taking forward history, sectarian politics and fundamentalist beliefs will have to be confronted. There is no other way of absolving modernity in the 21st century.
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