New Delhi: In the wake of the riots that broke out in Bangladesh during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last week, ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta explained the history of religious conservatism in the neighbouring country, in episode 713 of ‘Cut the Clutter’.
The protests were led by Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamic fundamentalist group. Gupta said the Sheikh Hasina government had flirted with this conservative Islamist group in trying to deal with other extremist groups but is now left dealing with its own Frankenstein by allowing the growth of Hefazat.
The protests, according to Gupta, show “the power that Islamist conservatives still have, and the challenge that Sheikh Hasin faces, particularly in her policy towards India…’’ as well as her own policies on the domestic front which have given precedence to secular principles and protect minorities. Gupta also mentioned that “she has been pushing back fundamentalist forces”.
At least ten persons were killed and dozens injured after members of the Hefazat and Left groups clashed with the police during their protests against Modi. The protests, which were already going on across the country against Modi’s scheduled visit, intensified after the Modi landed in Dhaka to participate in Bangladesh’s National Day celebrations.
How Jamaat-e-Islami’s decline led to rise of Hefazat-e-Islam
While the current protests may have been led by the Hefazat, to understand the genesis of the Islamist fundamentalist group, Gupta took the help of history to explain the rise of the Jamaat-e-Islami whose disappearance led to the rise of the Hefazat.
According to Gupta, “Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh has always been seen to be (a) pro-Pakistan — very Islamist, anti-democracy, anti-secular” force which wanted an Islamist state. It even collaborated with Pakistan in one of the biggest massacres in Bangladesh during the 1971 liberation war, which was the 1971 attack on Dhaka University when Bengali intellectuals were massacred by the Pakistan army.
Immediately after the war, the Bangladesh government banned the Jamaat and its leader at the time, Ghulam Azam, who had to flee to West Pakistan. However, the ban on the Jamaat was lifted in 1975 when Zia-ur-Rahman came to power — the group also became an ally of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia, said Gupta.
Jamaat, subsequently, contested elections, but was banned by the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 2013 due to its history. Many leaders were tried for international hate crimes with its former leader Ghulam Azam’s citizenship too being withdrawn. “Now, when a force like Jamaat-e-Islami disappeared, another force was needed and that force came in the form of the Hefazat-e-Islam,” Gupta explained.
Hefazat-e-Islam was set up by a cleric, Shah Ahmad Shafi, in 2010. In 2009, when the Sheikh Hasina government came up with reforms including inheritance rights for women, Shah Ahmad Shafi’s Hefazat protested against these reforms. This resulted in the law being watered down by the Bangladesh government.
While the Hefazat said they were opposed to the atrocities during the 1971 liberation war, they were soon making similar demands like the Jamaat’s that included Islamist fundamentalism.
How Hefazat became Hasina govt’s Frankenstein
In 2013, when bloggers and atheists gathered in Shahbagh Square pressing for equal rights for all genders, a secular Constitution and system of governance, they clashed with members of the Hefazat who marched their own protesters into Dhaka. This led to clashes between Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and Hefazat and over 50 people were killed, recalled Gupta.
At the time, the Hefazat’s 13-point charter included demands like reinstating faith in the Almighty in the Constitution. While Bangladesh was committed to secular principles in its Constitution after its independence, in 1972 the words “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” were inserted in the Preamble by then President Zia ur Rahman. This was subsequently removed along with another small subsection that had been added to the Constitution by General Ershad when he was president in the 1980s, in the form of the Eighth Amendment, which said Islam will be the religion of the state.
The Hefazat also demanded that restrictions should be lifted on mosques and cultural programmes, capital punishment for blasphemy, etc. It wanted statues and busts removed from Bangladesh as statues promoted idolatry — except inside Hindu temples. Gupta said Sheikh Hasina pandered to the Hefazat and supported their cause to remove a Greek goddess statue in Dhaka.
Hasina’s government also supported the Hefazat when they opposed the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution “This case was in the court and the Hefazat-e-Islam led a movement against it and it does look like Sheikh Hasina government bent over backwards to accommodate it and the court then dismissed the case on a technicality,” said Gupta.
In 2017, Hefazat also wanted Bangladesh to launch a jihad on Myanmar to liberate Rohingyas from Rakhine. While Shah Ahmad Shafi was not anti-Indian, Gupta said he was a conservative Islamist. His son Anas Shafi is believed to be friendly with the Sheikh Hasina government. “The Sheikh Hasina government also indulges him, which might be something that she is paying for now because in the process what has happened is that a new Jamaat-e-Islami has come up.”
Gupta said it is this new conservative force, which the Sheikh Hasina government had flirted with in the past, which has become her government’s own Frankenstein. “The Hefazat-e-Islam, the force behind the current protest, are the new Islamist conservative force in Bangladesh with which Sheikh Hasina’s government has flirted with at some point…But it’s a mistake that all democratic governments make in trying to control one set of extremists. They often play with the other set that looks less worse than the other (but) in the course of time, they all become Frankensteins,” he said.