I’ve just put my wife on a train having said goodbye with a particularly heavy heart. I wouldn’t say we had a final farewell or anything, but we did part knowing that there is an element of risk both for her and for myself and our children staying back at LAMB. I don’t believe we’re in any real danger as long as we don’t get caught up in the bloody and deadly clashes but we are being wary. Bangladesh is in great turmoil at the moment and it is difficult to guess where the dangers lie.
They are everywhere and nowhere.
I know that for most of the time, in most places, for most of the people, life carries on as normal and that my wifey will probably get down to Dhaka, pick up her two friends who are visiting from the airport (the reason for taking the train at all) and return on Sunday without incident. For those of us who are ‘outside’ the problems here we are witnesses to certainly ‘interesting times’. There is no doubt that history is being made in Bangladesh right now. It would be exciting if the lives of real and innocent people weren’t involved. The history being made right now could be the most important since Bangladesh was born in 1971.
But it comes at a cost.
In my last post I suggested the possibility of civil war in Bangladesh. I don’t know if it will ever be called that officially but I would say we’re on the brink of it here. Certainly the press has likened it to civil war with many eye-witnesses saying the troubles are just like the civil war of 1971 all over again. On the other hand, others are saying that the main instigators of the current troubles – the Jamaat e Islami – are on the run and know their time is nearly up.
I’m not so convinced.
As with most battles, there are good and bad things on both sides and nothing is clear cut. Unfortunately, the bad guys don’t wear black and the good guys don’t wear white.
The most recent troubles began on the 5th February hours after Jamaat assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Mollah was sentenced to life in prison for rape, killing and genocide in 1971. Protesters were furious claiming the life term is too lenient a punishment for Mollah, known as the “Butcher of Mirpur” for his notorious role in the killing of hundreds during the war. They demanded capital punishment to Mollah and all other war criminals.
This movement quickly became known as the ‘Shahbhag movement’ named after the intersection of roads in Dhaka where the protesters gathered – and still gather – in their thousands. Mostly youth and well-organised through the use of blogs and the internet, it felt like the whole country was getting behind this movement which, despite its call for the death penalty, has carried out demonstrations every day peacefully and in the spirit of uniting the nation. Watching the news reports it seemed almost like an Asian version of Woodstock with art, music and drama demonstrations and face-paintings taking place as the educated and peace-loving Bangladeshi youth took to the streets to say they had had enough. If you are a young Bangladeshi you want to go to Shahbhag just so you can say “I was there.”
The Shahbhag movement has consistently resisted being aligned to any political party and has made many demands as a result of the Jamaat reacting against them. The war crime trials taking place are largely against the Jamaat members and it has become clear that this fundamentalist Islamic group have not given up the ideals that led them to support Pakistan during the 1971 war for independence. Shahbhag demanded that the political group be banned again – just as they were for a long time for their part in the atrocities carried out against the Bangladeshi people that year.
For a while it really seemed as though the days of the Jamaat were numbered. The internet was full of support for Shahbhag and Facebook full of Bangladeshis celebrating their imminent demise. Everyone was reminded that this group had betrayed Bangladesh repeatedly not just in 1971 but consistently since.
Then, last Friday, the Jamaat struck back with a stroke of genius. As their groups unleashed terror across the nation they now counter-demanded that Shahbhag be banned for wanting to turn Bangladesh into an atheist country. In making this demand they struck right to the core of what has always been the identity crisis for Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi or Islami?
When Pakistan was formed in 1947 it had the potential for great joy and unparalleled peace for millions of Indian Muslims – heavily outnumbered in British India. Despite awful clashes due, at least in part, to British incompetence in drawing up the boundary lines for East and West Pakistan and arbitrarily dividing up the Bengal region, eventually the smaller India and new nation of Pakistan seemed to settled down within their own nations.
But the powerful and politically wealthy West Pakistan never really accepted the poorer but more economically rich East Pakistan. They wanted the Arabic-based Urdu language to be the state language and not the Hindu-influenced Bengali used in the former Bengal region. They considered Bengal Muslims to be rather impure and too tied to their culture rather than dedicated to Allah.
When East Pakistan declared itself to be the independent state of Bangladesh, the very name was anathema to Pakistan which was seeing its dream of a united Islamic state crumbling. The reality in 1971 is that there must have been many good and honest Muslims living in East Pakistan who were terribly confused. Muslim should not fight Muslim and it could so easily be seen that actually Hindus and Hindu-influenced Muslims were just stirring up trouble.
It had to be quashed.
But the people of Bangladesh rose up and resisted. They said you could be a Muslim and still be Bangladeshi. They said you could live side by side with your Hindu neighbour in peace. They said that being a good Muslim didn’t have to mean killing those who didn’t believe what you believe. They said a secular state politics meant that everyone could follow the convictions of their own heart without fear of reprisals. They said that the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Christian as well as the Muslim majority could all be Bangladeshis.
The Grey Area of Shahbhag
But as I said at the beginning, it is difficult to see who is right and who is wrong. The demand for the death penalty is repugnant to the international community and Shahbhag has already received a great deal of criticism for this, not least from Amnesty International. Likewise, though it seems incredible to me that the Jamaat were ever allowed to re-enter politics at all, to have a group disliked by the Government banned because you don’t like their militant fundamentalist views is not the democratic way. In fact, when this was taken to its extreme in Bangladesh it resulted in the assassination of the founder of the nation and then Prime Minister in 1975.
From an international point of view then, Shahbhag – with all its face-painting and dancing and drama performances – is making frightening and unconstitutional demands.
Meanwhile, Jamaat are appealing to good Muslims and warning them of the very real fear of the encroachment of a secular, atheist and Western ethics on this proud and God-loving society. The very nature of Bangla culture is in danger of being worn away. Whilst I don’t agree with the Jamaat I do share this worry. I see little that is good about the hedonistic and self-centred West and see how attractive its lure is to Asia. The Jamaat are appealing to a very real fear for Muslim Bangladeshis.
Death Penalty Announced
There have been arguments too that a movement making demands of the Government when that Government actually approves of the movement is no movement at all. The ruling Awami league have done their best to appropriate the Shahbhag movement for themselves but have been resisted by the organisers who want to keep this politically independent.
Nevertheless, many are cynical and suggest that the whole thing is a sham organised by the Government to legitimise the War Crime Tribunals (which have their own controversy) and finally punish those who sided with Pakistan in 1971.
Yesterday, they tried another Jamaat member – Delawar Hossain Sayedee – and awarded the death penalty. At the same time they announced they would appeal the court’s decision against Mollah and ask for the death penalty for him too. Have they bowed to Shahbhag’s demands or did they want a public show of support before doing this anyway and have orchestrated the whole thing?
Either way, Jamaat has reacted predictably with a nationwide wave of terror. Clashes between thousands of Jamaat supporters and other related groups with the police and pro-Awami league groups have taken place all over the country. Hindu people and temples have been attacked and last night the body count went up from page to page, as I moved from one internet site to another. In our neighbouring town of Dinajpur (less than an hour away from us) it was reported that 5,000 Jamaat supporters took to the streets resulting in violence and the death of a shop-keeper. A 48 hour strike, a hartal, was called beginning on Saturday but violence is expected today after prayers.
Most worrying for us bideshis residing in the country, it seems the Government closed access to Facebook briefly yesterday, perhaps attempting to prevent the Jamaat from organising itself. With Youtube already banned, I wonder whether more containment attempts will occur and even if all social media will be closed down for longer times at some point. At the moment I can’t see that happening but this Government has a record of limiting internet access and I wouldn’t be surprised if they took more drastic measures as the situation descends further into chaos.
I really have no idea where this will go. Will this all settle down? I doubt it. Will it escalate into civil war as the Jamaat have threatened to make it? I don’t know. Certainly the battle seems to be pitched between whether you are a Muslim first and Bangladeshi second or Bangladeshi first and Muslim second. Who wins dictates the safety for the 10% of the population who are not Muslim but are fiercely and proudly Bangladeshi.
From my point of view as an outsider but also as eye-witness to the events as they unfold, all I can say is that the situation is complex and I am the last person to be qualified to judge the rights and wrongs or the motives of either side.
Ultimately, I’m not a Muslim and I’m not a Bangladeshi.
I am proud to be here in this wonderful country and proud that I have Muslims as well as Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Atheists as my friends here. I do hope and pray that Bangladesh will struggle through and find a true peace – one where everyone is free to live according to their own conscience and not one where they are fearful of the consequences of doing so.
I believe the nation is at a crossroads right now and that peace will not come until the tension between being Bangladeshi and being Muslim is resolved. I think the majority of the people believe you can be both. Only time will tell if I’m right.