Should Bangladesh’s foundational ideology be secular Bengali nationalism or Islamic nationalism? This is a question that has bedevilled the country since it gained independence in 1971. The word secularism itself was part of its original Constitution, only to be removed in 1977, and then reinstated in 2010.
The latest battleground for this war is an unlikely one. Bangladesh’s Islamists are angry that the compound of the country’s Supreme Court has a statue of Lady Justice. The very existence of an idol goes against Islam’s strictures, they argue. The country’s secularists, under attack for some time now, are mostly silent. As a result, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in what could be considered an instance of appeasing the Islamists, has hinted at having the statue removed, reported the Daily Star.
The statue, which was erected outside the Bangladesh Supreme Court in December, depicts the Greek goddess of justice, Themis, holding a sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other. To give her a local flavour, she is dressed in a sari, the near ubiquitous dress of Bangladeshi women.
Almost immediately, the statue set off a controversy in the Muslim-majority country. The Far-Right group Hefazat-e-Islam took out marches across the capital Dhaka asking for the statue to be pulled down.
Idols have been controversial throughout Islam’s history, given that they are seen by conservative Muslims as trying to match Allah’s power of creation. As a result, they have rarely been commissioned in the subcontinent, even by its many Muslim kingdoms.
In Bangladesh, this is not the first time the Far-Right has brought up this issue. In 2008, Islamist protestors had destroyed a statue of the famous Bengali folk singer Lalon Fakir situated outside the Dhaka airport.
While that was a fringe, Islamists in Bangladesh have since acquired enough power to make statue removal a part of the country’s mainstream politics. The Hefazat-e-Islam is a body of madrassa teachers and students. Yet, its movement to pull down Lady Justice has attracted mainstream political support, including from a body of clerics associated with the ruling Awami League and, eventually, the prime minister herself.
Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founder, Mujibur Rahman, expressed her disapproval of the statue on Monday. Given that she leads the nominally secular Awami League, she did not explicitly agree with the Islamists, instead making a roundabout cultural and even sartorial argument. “Why would the statue of Greek Goddess Themis be set up in Bangladesh?” the Daily Star quoted her as saying. “The Greeks had a certain type of costume, but here a statue has been built and it’s wearing a sari. It’s a funny incident. I don’t know why such an incident happened.”
Of course, Hasina’s politics is clear here. Her voicing her disapproval of the statue, even if she hasn’t totally agreed with the Hefazat’s religious reasoning, signifies her capitulation to the movement. News reports suggest that the prime minster has asked the country’s chief justice, Surendra Kumar Sinha, to either remove the statue or move it to a more inconspicuous place.
If the statue of Lady Justice is removed, it would mark a significant public victory for the Islamists in Bangladesh. The past few years have seen increasing violence by Islamic extremists against Bangladeshi writers from the local mukto-mona tradition, an ideology that promotes free thought. The Awami League has done little to combat the ideology behind this Right-wing violence, preferring to not alienate the country’s Muslims. Secularists even fear that Dhaka’s many statues dedicated to the 1971 War of Liberation might be next in the cross hairs of the Right.
Awami League calculations
Dhaka-based academic Meghna Guhathakurta connects the Awami League’s decision on Lady Justice to the general elections scheduled to be held at the end of 2018. “The Awami League thinks that a large percentage of the rural population is very religious,” Guhathakurta told Scroll.in. “So it wants to appease the religious Right as well as its traditional secular base.”
Senior journalists and historian Afsan Chowdhury argues that since urban secularists have been poor vote gatherers, the Awami League has fallen back on the Hefazat to burnish its Islamic credentials. This would help it fight the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s principal Opposition, better.
Given the sharp rise of the Far-Right in Bangladesh, appeasing Hefazat might help the Awami League politically, but it could be disastrous for the country in the long run. The Hefazat’s demand might seem ridiculous, but that is precisely why it could be so damaging if it succeeds. If this demand is met by the Awami League – the party of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle – the cause of secularism in the country would be in deep danger.