June issue 2016

By | Speaker's Corner | Published 8 years ago


When we won our liberation war on December 16, 1971, there was the euphoric feeling of having achieved a great dream. In fact, we all believed that the dream would turn into reality. The principles of our liberation, which were reflected in our first constitution, were democracy, Bengali nationalism — as that was the basis of our liberation struggle — socialism (which after 1975 was expanded to become social justice) and secularism. We had never thought at that time, during those heady days of hope and excitement, that one day this country would have to battle against religious extremism.

The first census in 1951 showed that 23 per cent of the population of Bangladesh, or what was then called East Pakistan, comprised non-Muslims. The first census done after our independence — in 1974 — revealed non-Muslims constituted only 14.6 per cent of the population. This, it is generally believed, owed to the fact that a large number of Hindus had left after the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, at which time a black law called the ‘Enemy Property Law’ was enacted to evict Hindu families from their lands so that the government could acquire them. The last census in 2011 revealed an even more alarming demographic: only nine per cent of Bangladesh’s population is now non-Muslim. Of these, the major religious minority remains Hindu, who make up eight per cent of the minority figure.

These statistics are an indicator of how communalism and religious bigotry are increasingly becoming a factor within our system. This trend can be traced back to the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his family members and senior leaders of the Awami League in 1975, who it is assumed, may not have allowed this to transpire. The military regimes that followed decided to forge a new identity for the country whereby they sought to separate the new government from that run by the Awami League. This they did by plucking out secularism from the constitution, and creating a Muslim image for Bangladesh. Religion-based parties that were banned after liberation in 1971 were now allowed to register, and provided with all the support needed to operate in the country. Even the infamous Jamaat-e-Islami, which had openly worked against Bangladesh’s war of independence and as a collaborator with the Pakistani armed forces, was given the freedom to regroup and reinvigorate its cadres.

And once religion-oriented parties were given a free rein, they quickly consolidated their organisations by very efficiently linking up with business and service sector providers for fund-raising and building up outreach. A myriad madrassahs, specially qaumi madrassahs, based on a Wahhabi brand of Islam, that were neither registered at inception, or monitored thereupon, nor subjected to any form of control by the government, started springing up in cities and villages across the country. Interestingly, these madrassahs were not uniform in either what they taught or their behavior. They catered to the taste of each sector of society — i.e. the locales they were situated in and the socio-economic status of the people they were targeting. Students at these institutions went on to become imams at mosques and supposed religious ‘experts.’ Special madrassahs for women were also set up in villages, and ta’alim and da’wa classes began to be held in the poshest locales of Dhaka as well as the most remote, poorest rural areas. And it was these madrassahs that became the recruiting agencies for the religion-based extremism we see rearing its head in Bangladesh today. This is a situation we had never imagined, even in our wildest dreams, would come to pass.

Resultantly, women’s empowerment, women’s mainstream education and women’s employment began to be discouraged by the country’s burgeoning Islamic militant groups. As did even their apparel of choice.

Traditionally the burqa has never been a popular or much-worn garment among Bengali women. In fact, previously, very few women wore a burqa. The more pious or conservative may have loosely covered their heads with their saris, if they were religiously conservative. Now we have shopping malls in Dhaka and other major cities all selling the hijab, which seems to have moved in as a fashion statement, albeit using the reasoning that this is both religious and practical.

The number of women we see wearing hijab on the streets and in villages is increasing so fast, in fact, that it is like a revolution in dress code. Saris meanwhile, always considered the Bengali woman’s standard dress, may soon be losing its place as the main garb of working women.

But even with all the pushbacks, women continue to fight back. The women in Bangladesh are active, earning and conscious and it will not be easy to shove them back into their homes and into second-class roles.

The advent of the garment industry and the great steps made in reaching Millennium Development Goals — the social development indicators of the UN — were largely attributed to the advancement of women in all sectors, and women continue to hold many important posts: the Speaker of the Parliament, the deputy leader of the House, many judges at all levels, including the Supreme Appellate Court level, are all women.

The reality is that today Bangladesh is at the crossroads between progressive, aggressive, strong women, workers, students, and NGO activists, and a militant, fundamentalist-extremist lobby. Even today a large number of women hold non-traditional executive posts. But hopes that this trend will continue seem somewhat tenuous — the feminist movement, the leftist students groups and those upholding the torch of the Shabagh movement of 2013 notwithstanding.

The Shabagh movement was a spontaneous people’s movement that was born when a well-known convicted criminal — one of the main actors in the killing of intellectuals and others — was given an arguably more lenient sentence than he should have got. The V-signal, his smile and smug demeanour following sentencing, incensed the masses. A lack of confidence in past and current political parties which had gone on to form governments, led to the movement which primarily aimed to monitor the Crimes Against Humanity Tribunal, more popularly known as the War Crimes Tribunal. At that time it seemed, the whole nation had come together as one. But it was the youth, who seemed to have imbibed the spirit of the Liberation War even though they had been born much after independence, who were most gung-ho.

Following the advent of Shabagh, a number of NGOs and citizens groups took up strong positions as watchdogs of not just what the government was doing, but of society at large. They also began to research funding sources — the names of financial services and business institutions who fund religious extremists. The Shabagh movement remains integral to all progressive movements in Bangladesh, to this day.

However, the latest spree of gruesome murders of many culturally-inclined individuals, of writers, publishers, activists, bloggers, rationalists and minorities, in the name of religion, has created an increasing fear factor in Bangladesh. Even people who were not well known were followed, their homes and movements monitored, and they were killed in broad daylight in full public view. What is worrying is a seeming lack of will and commitment on the part of the government to take action to find the killers and recognise these murders for exactly what they are — a blow to creative thinking — and put the murderers on trial.

The failure to ensure a strong, vocal and effective opposition has led to the present party in power becoming undemocratic, with no apparent compulsion to ensure accountability. Democracy needs an opposition, a healthy, responsible and people-oriented one. It needs pluralism in politics, in culture, in ideologies, in thought. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) was born as an opposition group to the Awami League and was formed to embody all the AL was not. But in its present state, the BNP no longer appears a viable alternative.

Fortunately, despite the government’s efforts to throttle freedom of speech and the media, it has not yet fully succeeded. Whether it be the print or electronic media, journalists have been playing a crucial role in ensuring that the public is fully apprised of all that is happening, to express their opinion and to demand accountability. Of course, this is not without risk. But for now at least, many media houses forge on undeterred, sometimes even at a great price.

People have often trivialised our political culture and struggle as a fight between the two women heading the country’s two major political parties. But this would be the case even if the heads of both parties were male — gender has little to do with the present state of affairs.

But there is still some hope for a brighter tomorrow. Non-party citizens groups, strong, active women’s and feminist organisations repeatedly, relentlessly take to the streets, raising issues and demanding accountability.

And seen in that light, democracy in Bangladesh still remains alive and vibrant.


Speaker’s Corner is a forum for reader’s views. Contributions should be between 600-1,000 words and may be edited for space and clarity. The views expressed in these columns do not necessarily reflect Newsline’s editorial policy.