Bangladesh’s battle for its future

May 09, 2016 02:28 am | Updated November 17, 2021 05:07 am IST

The murders of liberals, bloggers, secularists and LGBT rights activists continue in Bangladesh. Over the past few weeks, a Hindu tailor, a gay rights advocate, a social media activist and a Sufi leader have been killed by suspected Islamists. The exact identity of the killers is widely contested. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the leading Islamist group, denies any link to the attacks — while many disagree with the breezy attempt to connect the Islamic State to the killings. Any which way you look at them, the murders cannot be seen in isolation from the ongoing war crimes trials of those who collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War of 1971, causing countless deaths in the months leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. The attacks are but indications of a battle being waged between two sets of ideas on the country’s past, present and future. The first set imagines Bangladesh as a nation born of a struggle against the linguistic and cultural hegemony of what was then West Pakistan, and founded on a commitment to liberal, secular and civic values. The second imagines the country not in civic terms but as yet another outpost of political Islam. The activists have bravely taken positions on the front lines of this struggle against Islamists. It is this stark contrast that has rendered the rights activists sworn enemies of the Islamists.

The sharp battle lines, drawn ideologically and on the streets, go back to the Shahbag protests in 2013 seeking capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Molla and a ban on the organisation. To the ruling Awami League’s credit, the government set up the war crimes trials despite threats from the Islamists. It also sought thus to delegitimise groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami that had harboured war criminals and allied themselves with powerful political forces, including successive military dictatorships and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to stall the transition of Bangladesh into a progressive, democratic nation state. But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has tended to limit her government’s role to prosecuting the trials. The government has failed to bring the assassins of bloggers, rights activists and others to justice — it perhaps fears a greater blowback from the Islamists if it does so. As crucially, it is refusing to articulate the political narrative connecting the attacks to the war crimes trials. This abdication exposes ordinary citizens as the first line of defence against extremism. Ms. Hasina will be jeopardising Bangladesh’s future as a democratic nation if her government does not rally on the side of the rights activists against the Islamists. Already, groups such as the Islamic State seem to be emboldened by the actions of the Islamists and have publicly sought to deepen their base in Bangladesh. The longer the government remains on the sidelines in this fight for secularism, the stronger the forces of extremism will become.

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