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Bangladesh is becoming a secular society in name only

Reuters/Andrew Biraj
activists demanded capital punishment for a group of bloggers, who organized the recent Shahbagh demonstrations.
  • Salil Tripathi
By Salil Tripathi

Author, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Once again, a blogger in Bangladesh has been murdered. Ananta Bijoy Das was on his way to work on May 12 in the northern district of Sylhet when four men attacked him with machetes and killed him instantly. Das used to write for the website Mukto-Mona, or “Free Mind,” which challenges religious fundamentalism and promotes rational inquiry. Many of the bloggers who write for the site are atheists or rationalists.

Das was not the first victim. One of the site’s founders, the author Avijit Roy, was slain in Dhaka in February in a similar incident. His wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya, was also injured during the attack; she survived. In March, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman, was killed in a similar assault.

These violent incidents are indeed what they are: fundamentalist attacks on free expression. But there is a deeper story, going back to the unfinished arguments over the war of independence in 1971. Is Bangladesh secular or religious? Is it Muslim or Bengali? These questions have become linked with an even broader question: whether war crimes committed during that conflict should be forgiven, or justice should prevail.

Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan, carved out of India in 1947, to create a home for the subcontinent’s eastern Muslims. Religion united the two halves—west and east—but language divided them. West Pakistan was multilingual but accepted Urdu as the national language; East Pakistan wanted Bengali, the language spoken by the majority in their region, to be given equal status. The government in the West opposed that. Muslims formed the majority in East Pakistan, but they were proud of their syncretic culture that freely drew from Hindu, Buddhist, and other customs. Bengali grievances mounted, and the Awami League, a popular party in East Pakistan, demanded greater autonomy. If the West wanted to forge a united identity based solely on faith, the East wanted to celebrate its diversity—its being secular, Bengali, and Muslim.

When Pakistan held its first real elections in 1970, the Awami League won an absolute majority and should have formed the national government. But politicians in West Pakistan were reluctant to concede power, and General Yahya Khan, who ruled the country, began protracted negotiations with the Awami League about the shape of the future government.

Those negotiations broke down, and in March of 1971, the military launched Operation Searchlight, which unleashed violence in many parts of East Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands died (Bangladeshis say the figure is three million) and possibly 250,000 incidents of rape occurred. The Pakistani army tried to vanquish Bengali nationalism – you could only be Bengali or Muslim, but not both. But as the Bangladeshi-American poet, Tarfia Faizullah writes:

Are you
Muslim or Bengali, they
Asked again & again.
Both, I said, both-then
Rocks were broken along
My spine, my hair a black
Fist in their hands, pulled
Down into the river again
And again.
Each day, each
Night: river, rock, fist

Bangladeshi guerrillas fought the Pakistani forces, which were now seen as occupiers. Nearly 10 million refugees sought security in India. In Dec. 1971, India joined the conflict and quickly defeated Pakistani forces. Bangladesh became free.

Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, became the first elected prime minister of Bangladesh. He declared Bangladesh a secular republic and said war crimes would be tried. But army officers assassinated him in 1975 and successive governments granted the assassins immunity.

In 2008, Mujib’s daughter, Hasina Wajed, swept the polls with an overwhelming majority. She reopened the cases against her father’s assassins, who were tried, found guilty, and executed. Her government also established tribunals to prosecute international crimes.

Whether Bangladesh is secular or not is a complex question. While the Awami League is associated with secularism, its actions aren’t always secular. And while the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) doesn’t call itself Islamist, it is associated with Islam for two reasons: the fifth constitutional amendment, which legitimizes faith-based political parties, was passed during its founding leader General Ziaur Rahman’s rule; and his widow, Khaleda Zia, who has been Bangladesh’s prime minister, has allied the BNP with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami Party. Parts of the fifth amendment were overturned in 2013, when the Wajed government proclaimed Bangladesh to be a secular state, but only up to a point. The constitution now says that the country is secular while declaring Islam to be the state religion, but also granting equal respect to other faiths. Make what you will of that.

These unresolved conflicts, of fundamentalism against free expression and secularism against religion, became part of the third such conflict—between justice against impunity—in Feb. 2013, when another blogger, Ahmed Rajeeb Haider, was murdered. Rajeeb was campaigning for stricter punishment (which would mean the death penalty) for Abdul Kader Mollah, a former Jamaat leader, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the international crimes tribunal for his actions during the 1971 war. Many were dissatisfied and wanted Mollah to get the death penalty. Thousands congregated at Shahbagh in central Dhaka, bringing the city’s already slow-moving traffic to a complete standstill.

The government amended the law, which allowed the prosecutor to appeal for higher punishment. The court duly sentenced Mollah to death and he was executed in December 2013. Rajeeb had played a prominent role on social media to mobilize support for the Shahbagh movement. He was soon murdered. In March 2013, Asif Mohiuddin, another blogger who wrote critically about Islam, was severely injured in a similar attack. The police have arrested some of the assailants, and say they are all part of extremist groups.

While Muslim fundamentalism in Bangladesh has not reached the alarming proportions of Pakistan, it has the strength to paralyze cities by bringing tens of thousands of supporters to the streets to demonstrate. Frustration has grown among fundamentalists after the 15th amendment was passed, which prevents the Jamaat from participating in elections, since the party has refused to abide by the secular constitution.

Fundamentalism has been rising for some time. Some of the Bangladeshi workers who have gone to Arab countries to work have returned influenced by the Saudi form of Wahhabi Islam. Saudi money finances mosques and schools in many parts of Bangladesh. Secularists have a formidable, well-resourced rival.

The Bangladeshi liberation war had started in March 1971 with the Pakistani army storming the Dhaka University campus, killing students, professors, and intellectuals. Two days before the war ended, in December of that year, a militia group aligned to the Pakistani army killed dozens of intellectuals who would have formed the backbone of the new nation.

A monument stands today commemorating them over at Rayer Bazar in Dhaka, where a plaque carries Asad Chowdhury’s poem: “Tomra ja bolechhiley, bolchhey ki ta Bangladesh?” (“Is Bangladesh saying what you had said?”) The question that the poem poses continues to resound, awaiting an answer. Meanwhile, bloggers continue to be killed.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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