At least 11 people were killed in Bangladesh over the weekend as protesters clashes with police during demonstrations called by Islamist groups against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Dhaka visit. Mr. Modi was in Bangladesh to attend the country’s Golden Jubilee celebrations of independence. After Mr. Modi’s visit , violence spread across the country with protesters attacking a train in the eastern district of Brahmanbaria and targeting several Hindu temples. The main group behind the violent protests was Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, an umbrella organisation of radical Islamists that had in the past clashed with the Awami League government.
Roots of Hefazat
Hefazat-e-Islam, literally ‘protector of Islam’, was formed in 2010 when the country was taking gradual measures to undo the Islamisation of its polity by the military rulers in the late 1970s and 1980s. In 2008, the military-backed caretaker government had proposed the Draft National Women’s Development Policy Bill, promising equal rights to women in property ‘through earnings, inheritance, loan, land and market management’. In the December 2008 election, the secular Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, was brought to power. The secualrists had demanded repealing the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which had made sweeping changes to the country’s original secular Constitution during the years of military rule (Later in the year the Supreme Court ruled the amendment was illegal). The Islamist groups saw these developments, along with the shrinking space of clergy politics, as a threat to their core interests, and came together on one platform to form Hefazat-e-Islam. In February 2010, Hefazat called a demonstration in Chittagong against the Women’s Bill and the bid to cancel the Fifth Amendment. They clashed with police, injuring over a dozen, and announcing the arrival of a new Islamist group in Bangladesh’s political landscape.
What do they want?
Headquartered in Chittagong, Hefazat is a platform of the Sunni clerics of the country’s vast Quami madrassa network and their students. The Economist reported in 2017 that Hefazat madrassas were financed by the Salafi-Wahabi Islamists in Saudi Arabia. If in 2010, they demonstrated their street power by staging the anti-Women’s Bill protests, in 2013, they would expand their demands to a 13-point agenda and hold massive rallies in the capital Dhaka. Their demands included enactment of an anti-blasphemy law with provision for death penalty, cancellation of the women’s development law (which Ms. Hasina’s government passed), a ban on erecting statues in public places (because that’s “idolatry”), a ban on mixing man and woman in public and declaration of Bangladesh’s Ahmadiyas, a persecuted minority in Islam, as “non-Muslims” (like in Pakistan).
The Awami League government initially ignored the protests. But Hefazat members organised many marches to the capital, in what they called the ‘siege of Dhaka, to push for their demands. When the pressure mounted, the government acted swiftly and ruthlessly. In the early hours of May 6, 2013, security forces launched a crackdown on Hefazat activists to oust them from Dhaka. At least 11 people were estimated to have been killed in the operation.
Since the failed “Dhaka siege”, Hefazat was careful not to run into a direct showdown with the government or the ruling party. But it remained an important hardline voice that often put pressure on the government with its Islamist agenda. For example, when the Fifth Amendment was repealed, the government restored secularism and some other articles of the original Constitution but Islam continued to remain the state religion. Hefazet had threatened violent struggle against the government if Islam is removed as the state religion. The government had also made changes in school texts under pressure from Hefazat and other Islamists. In 2015-16, when Bangladesh was gripped by violence against secular bloggers and activists, Hefazet had demanded action against the writers who “insult Islam”. In 2017, giving in to Hefazat’s demands, the government removed the statue of the Greek Goddess Themis from the premises of the Supreme Court. In 2018, the Hasina government passed a Bill recognising Dawra–e–Hadith, a top degree of Hefazat-controlled Quami madrassas, as equivalent to a Master’s degree in Islamic studies and Arabic, a long-pending demand of Hefazat clerics.
Ms. Hasina’s government may have found Hefazat a lesser problem than Jamaat e Islami, the militant religious party whose leaders were put on trial for war crimes committed in 1971 by the war tribunal. The government did not give in to Hefazat’s key demands that would alter the secular character of the state, but offered small concessions to the group to avoid trouble. These concessions, however, appeared to have made them stronger over the years. And the protests they carried out against the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, at a time when both India and Bangladesh are trying to deepen their ties, pose a new challenge to both Dhaka and New Delhi.