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Mainstream, VOL LI No 52, December 14, 2013 | Focus on Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s Politics is Again at Crossroads

Thursday 19 December 2013


by Shahnaj Begum

Bangladesh’s politics is once again at the crossroads. The Constitution requires an election to be held by January 24, 2014. But there is no agreement as yet between the Opposition and the ruling party as to who will conduct the election. Election observers, especially those of the European Union, USA-based NDI, Election Working Group and the local election observer groups have already expressed their concern about the current situation presaging a violent confrontation between the government and Opposition over the election in Bangladesh.

It is a fact that there is a constitutional obligation to hold the election whether or not all parties take part in it. But it is also a fact that the Election Commission has to hold an inclusive, transparent and credible election to sustain the democratic process in Bangladesh that she has evolved through a 15-year long movement which ended in a massive and vibrant upsurge of the people in 1990.

Apparently, Bangladesh’s politics is facing serious trouble over providing a system that ensures a level playing field for all. But is this a fact? No, it is not. Since the inception of Bangladesh people tasted different kinds of politics. But for the first time the country is experiencing something which is giving a different colour and flavour to its political history. It is an uneasy and unique situation here, for both the people and government machinery as they have never handled such a situation before in the last 42 years.

Bangladesh’s politics is now centred on the issue of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution. On the surface the question relates to the forming of a caretaker government but deep inside it is another fight. Since May 5, 2013, Bangladesh has witnessed a different platform. Represen-tatives of radical political organisations, principals of prominent madrasas and clerics of various mosques rose to prominence more recently by challenging the Shahbag Gana Jagaran Mancha which they labelled as ”atheistic”.

After its inception in 2010, the Hefazat, a Hathazari-based (under Chittagong district in the south-eastern part of the country) organi-sation comprising Quomi madrasa students and teachers, has been protesting against the country’s women’s development and education policies, calling them “anti-Islamic”. Due to their opposition the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) failed to enact the Women’s Development Policy 2001-2006 and in the same way the Awami League has also failed to enact the relevant law although it won the elections with a two-thirds majority in 2009.

The Hefazat resurfaced in February this year in its anti-atheist protest “to protect Islam from the hands of atheists”, particularly those who were leading the mass movement against the war criminals at Shahbag in Dhaka and elsewhere. They placed a 13-point charter of demands that included the enactment of a blasphemy law to execute those who demean Islam, and impose restrictions on the mingling of men and women in public.

The top leaders of the Islamist outfit, who amassed thousands of madrasa students and teachers and announced that they were ready to die to safeguard Islam, have reportedly gone into hiding after the police filed a case against those who presented the 13-point demand calling for introduction of a blasphemy law, capital punishment of “atheist” bloggers and a ban on “free mingling” of men and women. Law enforcers and Hefazat activists clashed at various parts of the country killing at least 16 people including a Sub-Inspector of police and injuring around 600 others.

According to the police, around 626 people were killed in political violence since 2009. About 92 people were killed in political violence from the last part of October to December 1 this year. Around 350 people were killed in the last 11 months..Of them, 12 are members of law enforcement agencies including the Border Guard Bangladesh officials.

Now the Hefazat-e-Islami Bangladesh is planning to resume its demonstrations, accor-ding to intelligence officials and some leaders of the organi-sation. They have called a rally on December 14 at Sapla Square again.

Hefazat chief Shah Ahmed Shafi alias Allama Shafi is a respected religious leader and running a total of around 30,000 madrasas across the country.

According to intelligence sources, the activists of the Islamist outfit are planning for the next demonstration; they want it to be large, take time for it and not hold it in a hurry. They have already started holding meetings in different areas of the country to implement the plan. They are planning to gather around 30 to 40 lakh (three to four million) people at Shapla Square on December 14.

Interestingly, the major Opposition BNP, H.M. Ershad’s Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami extended their support for the charter and are taking part in the rally.

All these things happened under the Hefazat’s umbrella but still they did not declare that they are a political party; rather they are eager to establish themselves as a work force of the Islamic Sunnah.

The United States has expressed grave concern over the prevailing political stalemate in Bangladesh centring on the ensuing parlia-mentary elections. Neighbourimg India is also concerned but not in line with what the USA thinks about Bangladesh’s politics.

Apparently it seems that the rigid stance of the major political camps led by the Awami League and BNP has increased violence on the streets. This has also encouraged attacks on minorities but the root of such a development lies elsewhere. It can be traced to the Hefazat.

The US Government, the members of Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the US Congress said during a hearing in November last on the prevailing political turmoil over Bangladesh’s next general election that such political violence can only lead to instability and might foster the growth of extremist groups.

“In meetings with the leaders I stressed the need to curtail the growing violence which can only bring about further instability possibly leading to the expansion of extremist groups,” said Steve Chabot, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific..

He also expressed concern about the standards of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), saying that the standards are worrying. John Sifton, the Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, in his testimony focused on human rights implications of the current political impasse along with other issues which, he felt, were “not as high profile but still impor-tant”.

He also criticised the new ICT Act. All these are examples showing that the USA is playing the same role that it played in 1971 during the liberation war of Bangladesh. They also main-tain an “in-between line” while dealing the ICT issue.

For the last few months Bangladesh’s politics has been catching the attention of the Western media as it reported on the alarming rise in militant fundamentalism in Bangladesh. And unfortunately most of the think-tanks (both local and foreign) vehemently said that ignorance and abject poverty are the root cause of funda-mentalism.

They also said that the decline and division among the Leftist groups had paved the way for fundamentalism to spread at a pheno-menal rate. They further claimed that the Jamaat-e-Islami catches only 2-5 per cent people’s atten-tion in the election race which is insignificant. This is the only area that needed to be addressed in a proper manner.

According to the Ministry of Education, 25,000 Quomi madrasas are here, 10,000 MPO listed and another 6000 madrasas are engaged in teaching students up to the primary level. All these are registered. It was said that the number of unregistered students is around 50,000
to 60,000 and about 50,000 (five million) lakh students are there who are taking their education, food and lifestyle from there.

Not only the students but also the teachers, officials and employees of these madrasas are playing a crucial role in the rural Bangladeshis’ livelihood from birth to death to maintain various religious and socio-cultural events. People love to practise their religion for different reasons, and it is their right to practise it. And others have no right to criticise them or undermine them for practising their religion. Unfortunately we failed to take care of them just as we failed to feed the people in a proper manner.

It is the responsibility of the state and society to educate an individual in a proper manner so that she/he could show respect to others and allow others to engage in their livelihood in their own way. But that is not happening here. As the political parties and Leftists have no access in society, there is no women’s organisation in the rural areas although we find some NGOs working and doing micro credit business there; but they don’t have any social responsibility and commitment,. They are busy collecting interest against the credit advanced beforehand.

There are at least 50 women’s organisations in Bangladesh. And in the last 20 years these became NGOs. Some of them have foreign sources and they spend their money in their own way, all these have become ladies’ clubs based in Dhaka. They do not conduct their work on a regular basis. The chiefs of these organisations are holding their posts for the last 15 or 20 years. Even the cultural organisations are running their operations in the same way. So there is no cultural or social activity of any women’s or cultural organisation across the country for the last 15-20 years although madrasas are playing a significant role and have grown stronger in society. And through this process Bangladesh’s politics is once again at the crossroads!!!

The author is a Special Correspondent of The Independent, Dhaka. She can be contacted at

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