Every year that sees the Bengali New Year or Pohela Boishakh pass without incident in Bangladesh comes as a relief to its citizens. There are the inevitable skirmishes between religious ideologues and jubilant celebrators in small towns and rural areas that go largely unreported, but the capital and big cities are the focus of everyone’s attention. The apprehensions are well founded due to the increasing normalisation of Islamism in everyday life in Bangladesh.
No major violence on April 14 means that these fears are allayed for one more year. However, this should not be mistaken for a victory for tolerance and secularism, which many, particularly the government, are at pains to vaunt it as. This is the last hurrah of a Bangladesh that will cease to be entirely in the near future. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and Jatiyo Party started the process, and the ruling Awami League is now setting it in stone, making it irreversible.
Last year, on April 14, the police arrested several members of the LGBTQ+ community for taking part in Mongol Shobhajatra. Amongst those arrested were individuals who had received death threats from Islamists. They were followed from the police station upon their release, and on April 25, two prominent LGBTQ+ activists, Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, were murdered in Mannan’s home.
This year, the Awami League did not participate in Mongol Shobhajatra for the first time since the inception of the parade in 1989.
New year’s procession
Literally translated as “procession for wellbeing”, Mongol Shobhajatra was included in 2016 on Unesco’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. It started as a procession against oppression. Charukala, the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka, organised this expression of freedom in 1989 during the regime of HM Ershad, the country’s second successive military dictator, who embraced Islamism to solidify his rule. It has become a mainstay of Bengali New Year’s celebrations since.
Despite its singularly non-religious roots and the steadfast determination of its organisers to maintain its identity as a festival that is not related to, or opposed to, religion in any way, Islamists intent on seeing Pohela Boishakh as a Hindu – and therefore heathen – festival, have painted Mongol Shobhajatra as exactly that.
The Awami League’s boycott of the procession this year can only be construed as an acceptance of the definition of Islamists, and an opposition to fundamental freedoms and values. In doing so, it has laid out an invitation, if one was needed, to every Bangladeshi citizen, to redefine the nation by false religiosity and surrender to intolerance and oppression.
Pandering to Islamists
Earlier this month, shortly before Pohela Boishakh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned from her state visit to India and actively engaged with Hefazat-e-Islam, an organisation of radical clerics from Qawmi madrasas, who wish to impose their extreme values on the nation. As has been the justification of other orthodox Islamist organisations, Hefazat believes that religion, specifically Islam, is above all and should dictate all spheres of life.
The view that Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country has long acted as apologia for this perspective at the expense of peoples’ rights and freedoms. As a result, the socio-political discourse in Bangladesh has staunchly been a one-way street towards escalating fundamentalism and intolerance.
The Awami League’s latest gambit of pandering to Islamists is a political one, born of its desire to extend its unopposed rule. This would not be the first time the party has tried this. In 2006, the Awami League had attempted to forge an alliance with Khilafat Majlis, a socio-political movement that, like Hefazat, wants to establish an Islamic state, which is incongruent with the principles Awami League purports to have. The association did not proceed since the military, backed by the civil society, intervened in governance – a move that was welcomed by the Awami League.
While the party has displayed signs of being ideologically bankrupt for some time now, saying so is an unquestioning endorsement of its policy of being in power at any cost.
When a political party enjoys absolute power, the least that can be expected from it is for it to take an active role to lead with ideas founded on the belief that fundamental rights and freedoms are non-negotiable. The Awami League’s failure to do so has legitimised Islamist ideology – the only instance of ideas and leadership anywhere in the country – and elevated it to an irrevocable socio-political doctrine.
A supplicant government
The two instances of the Awami League making concessions to Hefazat this month have been regarding the move to remove a statue of the Lady Justice on the grounds of the Old High Court Building in Dhaka, and acknowledging the Qawmi madrasa’s Dawah-e-Hadith qualification as being equivalent to a postgraduate degree.
When Hefazat led the call to have the statue removed, Prime Minister Hasina stated that she did not like the statue either, and instructed the chief justice to relocate it. Beyond the obvious symbolic blow to justice, there is a larger concern that Bangladeshis are wilfully overlooking.
When Ziaur Rahman, the first military dictator to worship at the altar of Islamism, revived those who collaborated with Pakistan in 1971 as the Jamaat-e-Islami, amongst the first acts of the rejuvenated party in 1978 was to oppose and sabotage the Aparajeyo Bangla statue being constructed in Dhaka University to commemorate the Liberation War. The demolition of a statue of Lalon Fakir by Islamists in 2008 used the same arguments about idolatry contravening Islam to deliver a firm statement against Sufism, and for radical Wahhabi and Salafi ideology.
Emboldened by the Awami League’s meek compromise, Hefazat has already started to call for the removal of all statues and sculptures nationwide. This was entirely predictable, yet was not given proper consideration by an establishment desperate to maintain the status quo.
Similarly, many are viewing the accreditation of Dawah-e-Hadith as the possible beginning of the inclusion of madrasas, and their teachers and students, in the mainstream with a view to bringing much-needed reform to them. As with the statue fiasco, Hefazat has heralded this as a victory, and has renewed confidence of achieving more from a supplicant government.
There is no denying that the madrasa system requires urgent reform, and that it should not be excluded. However, the current move should not be viewed as the first steps towards reformation by a government that shelved plans to do so in its early years. Rather, it should be viewed in the larger context of the current situation in Bangladesh, which renders the accreditation of Dawah-e-Hadith as nothing more than a careless move in the interests of political expediency that will almost certainly not bear fruit.
In a country where there is a dearth of libraries and bookshops, the Bishwa Shahitya Kendra runs a network of mobile libraries that have been threatened for promoting views that hurt religious sentiments – an argument that is enshrined in the law of the land, giving Islamists and their supporters and sympathisers the freedom to use it. So prevalent have rabid intolerance and the encroachment of extremism become that these developments have barely registered as news.
An earlier concession by a toothless government to Hefazat saw changes made to the government-issued textbooks that literally wrote out Hindus, freethinkers and minorities, replacing them with conservative Islamic values. These books are part of the English- and Bengali-medium curricula, meaning that Bangladesh is being reformed in the image of the Islamists, not the other way around. Hefazat, for its part, has been swayed by any political party or person that has given in to its demands. In simple terms, it will not be tamed, but it will bring others to heel, with plenty of alliances of convenience along the way.
The use of Islamism in politics is lazy, not ingenious. Yet, the consensus amongst a deliberately deluded population that refuses to demand better from its government is that Sheikh Hasina, Awami League and their superior political nous must be trusted. The lessons of national and international history are being ignored when making this false claim.
Once Islamism is allowed to thrive as an ideology – and there should be no doubt that that is precisely what is happening in Bangladesh with the active participation of a morally and intellectually bankrupt government and civil society – it becomes the predominant way of thinking. It can neither be contained nor controlled. Senior Awami League leaders are already joining Hefazat in its demands to bring individuals who hurt religious sentiments to justice. There will soon be nothing left to concede. It will hardly matter who is in power then.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune, and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. He is on Twitter as @ikhtisad.