A Crossroads for the future of Bangladesh

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.

Shahbhag

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.

photo: STAR

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.

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photo: STAR

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.

photo: STAR

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.

The Crossroads

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.

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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36 Responses to A Crossroads for the future of Bangladesh

  1. Pingback: Unrest in Bangladesh and the Luxury of Being an Expat | Untitled Adventure

  2. Pingback: Bangladesh versus Banglastan: A civil war of ideals | kenthinksaloud

  3. Pingback: Blogs shut down, Bloggers arrested, Bangladesh in crisis | kenthinksaloud

  4. Pingback: The Shahbhag Movement « justathirdculturekid

  5. Pingback: Unrest in Bangladesh and the Luxury of Being an Expat | Untitled Adventure

  6. Rinth says:

    I love this post! Most of what I know about this whole thing is through Facebook status updates, and then it’s never objective (not that much in this world is purely objective, but you get what I mean). Now I have a bit more insight into the matter and I agree with you totally.

    It’s so difficult for me, because I was raised in a home where religious values have had slightly more importance than cultural values. And as Bengali is the language I’m least proficient in of the three languages I master, I myself don’t really incorporate the cultural aspect in everyday life (at home I’ve always spoken Bengali with my parents and Swedish with my brothers). I know, for instance, that my children most probably will not be completely fluent in Bengali… and I’m okay with that, because I can’t expect them to manage both religion and culture.

    I think Bangladesh is so weird because there are so many other countries where people belonging to different religions are living side by side. Okay there might not be peace everywhere, but it functions. For some reason, Bangladesh doesn’t seem to. And it’s so difficult to discuss these things with those of my friends and acquaintances who grew up there, because they’re “pro-culture”, so I prefer to avoid the subjects as much as possible.

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    • Thanks for your fascinating comment Rinth – so much good stuff in there! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful. I’ve been surprised just how much people seem to have found the post clarified things they didn’t understand otherwise. I felt I’d missed so much out…

      You make me think of my children actually because, like them, you are what we call TCK – Third Culture Kid. You’re as much, if not more, Swedish as you are Bangladeshi and I think that is why your religious valused are slightly more important perhaps – Religion transcends cultures after all, does it not? I think that means you have a culture all of your own. Not wholly Swedish, not wholly Bangladeshi and that means you will navigate a very different path through life compared to others. My daughter would sympathise with you!

      I think Bangladesh IS a country where religions live side by side – at least for much of the time. In my area we have Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Adibhashis living together in relative peace all the time. If we’re not going to a Hindu wedding, we’re going to a Christian festival or for a Muslim Eid dawat – great for me because I love parties!

      But even countries like India – that great smelting pot of cultures that gave birth to Bangladesh – has its flashpoints. I guess wherever you have human beings you will get violence eventually. In my hometown in the UK we don’t have many Asians so we rarely have any issues of violent clashes to do with religion. Instead, we get violent clashes because one set of young men come from one town and another come from the neighbouring town! And they will REALLY hate each other too! It’s completely stupid but people do this. I think the violence here in Bangladesh is much the same – nothing really to do with religion and everything to do with control, power and ruling with fear.

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      • Rinth says:

        You’re so right!! A friend and I discussed this, that we have a completely different culture. And it’s so extremely difficult for me to explain this to those of my friends who were brought up in Bangladesh, and also why I feel so hopeless whenever I sit with them and feel so alienated.

        Yeah, you’re probably right. Religion and culture are just the “upper skin” of all issues; it all goes down to the crave for power. In this case I will quote Rebecka: “can’t all of us just stop and start hugging?” :P.

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  7. So sad to read of this unrest occurring again 😦 I appreciated the history too ! stay safe

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  8. Pingback: Update on the Bangladesh unrest | kenthinksaloud

  9. It was rather violent this afternoon in Nilphamari, none of the “party” feel, but sticks and stones, and the shops were closing down in advance of the croud. Two of our friends on their way back from school took shelter in a shop until the croud passed. Rather nerve-racking, if you ask me…

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    • Not quite sure what you mean by ‘party feel’ but yes I’m not surprised the shops closed down early. I would not like to bump into such a crowd, I must confess. All very nerve-wracking indeed, David. Thanks for commenting.

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  10. Lana says:

    Bangladesh has been on my list. Not good.

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  11. jacqui says:

    Stay safe x

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  12. Vanessa Hall says:

    Very very interesting Ken. I had no idea about the Bangladesh past and the turmoil it finds itself in. I hope that wifey gets home safe with her friends and that you all stay safe throughout these troubled times xxxx

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    • Thanks Vanessa – she’s picked them up now and will be travelling back tomorrow. Things have just got worse here with new hartals planned all this week so we are praying for safety for us all at the moment… :-/

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  13. My first reaction to your post is that I pray you and your family are safe and stay safe. As you are aware, situations like this are spontaneous in the sense that they can flare up at any moment and anywhere. What you right is indeed interesting, and it seems to be a type of change people have to go through to see a better Bangladesh. That said, I also appreciate the information and background which you provide as it gives a good view on how and why this is happening.

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    • Thanks for your comments! We’re ok at the moment and hoping too that we stay safe 🙂 I think you’re right that such changes are necessary to see a better Bangladesh. Let’s hope that a change for the better doesn’t get railroaded into disaster for all.

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  14. Rebecka says:

    Now I understand what all this is about. Well written! Thanks, Ken!

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  15. Kerry Dwyer says:

    It is very informative Ken. Yes coherent and comprehensive.
    I wish you and your family health and safety.

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  16. Monique says:

    thanks Ken, for this overview. It is more coprehensible to me now. It is very unsettling at the moment in Dhaka, but I guess that is everywhere, as stated in your post about Dinajpur. Lets keep on praying for Bd in the midst of this turmoil, and for each others safety!

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  17. Audrey Chin says:

    Thank you for that background and explanation Ken. My thoughts are with you and your family and I shall lift all of you and this country you have so lovingly introduced us to in prayer.

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  18. Ruby Tuesday says:

    Thank you, Ken, this is much better and more comprehensive than anything I could find (obviously). Stay safe; love and prayers for you, for your family, and for your adopted home and its people.

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