Hefajat-e Islam did not need to take to the streets in the last four years following its biggest show of strength in the capital on May 5, 2013 as the Islamist group got much of whatever it wanted through negotiations, mostly away from the public eye.
The Qawmi madrasa-based organisation also did not need to turn itself into a political party. At least seven members of its high command already lead different Islamist political parties and they have been playing a key role in running the group since its inception in 2009.
Hefajat leaders reject the speculation that it might emerge as an alternative to Jamaat-e-Islam and as a pro-BNP Islamist party to contest the next general elections.
However, the organisation's activities have spread countrywide in the last eight years and its committees have been formed in some 115 upazilas in the last two months, according to Maulana Zafrullah Khan, its joint secretary.
Ashraf Ali Nizampuri, another central leader of Hefajat, says that after the May 5 Shapla Chattar incident, they started paying attention to strengthening the organisational capacity across the country.
The formation of committees in rest of the upazilas will begin after Ramadan, said Nizampuri, one of the Hefajat leaders who talked to The Daily Star over the last few days about the group's organisational activities, demands and future plans.
This year, major changes in school textbooks done reportedly in line with Hefajat's demands and recognition of Qawmi madrasa's higher education are two big achievements of the group.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent support to Hefajat's demand for removal of the statue of justice from the Supreme Court premises and the government's shelving of plans to reform Qawmi madrasa education also made the group happy.
Besides, the cases filed against Hefajat men in connection of Shapla Chattar violence in 2013 remain stalled. Hefajat leaders say they don't worry about the cases as they have an “understanding” with the government.
Ashraf Ali Nizampuri claimed that the government had to compromise with them because of their “strong position”.
“We have reached such a position that we can put pressure on the government to meet our demands,” he said.
In the last four years, Hefajat remained almost silent over their 13-point demand. According to some of its central leaders, the government has convinced them to refrain from taking to the streets pressing for those demands.
Hefajat also no longer speaks against the government for what they said was “brutal action against their activists” on the night of May 5, 2013.
It earlier even claimed that the government had carried out "genocide by killing thousands of its men on May 5 and in the early hours of May 6”.
HATHAZARI TO MOTIJHEEL
The organisation appeared on the scene first in 2009, protesting the draft national women development policy that provided for women's inheritance rights equal to men.
A year later, it demanded cancellation of the proposed national education policy that focused on secular curriculum for schools and colleges.
Headquartered in Darul Uloom Moinul Islam Madrasa in Hathazari of Chittagong, Hefajat took the centre stage as a force opposed to Shahbagh Gonojagoron Mancha in 2013.
Bloggers and online activists spearheaded the unprecedented Shahbagh movement and formed the Gonojagoron Mancha, demanding death penalty for war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah, who was awarded life term imprisonment by a special tribunal.
After the February 15 killing of Rajib, a blogger who was branded an atheist, Hefajat started to allege that some of the Mancha activists were involved in publishing blog posts offending “Muslim's religious feelings”.
Hefajat men marched towards Dhaka and held a rally on April 6, 2013 at Shapla Chattar in Motijheel to press for their 13-point demand which included enactment of anti-blasphemy law and measures for stringent punishment of “atheist bloggers”.
They returned a month later and occupied Shapla Chattar on May 5, 2013. Paltan and Motijheel areas were plunged into mayhem as unruly Hefajat men burned down and vandalised public and private properties and clashed with law enforcers.
Its activists were driven out from the Shapla Chattar in the early hours of May 6 by the law enforcement agencies. At least 39 people were killed in the two days' violence.
In 2013, the law ministry said six out of the 13 demands went against the constitution and the remaining seven were well covered by existing laws.
But the current situation has given rise to impression among many that the government softened its stance on Hefajat.
BNP leaders publicly alleged that the government is maintaining good relations with Hefajat to play the religion card. However, insiders say the BNP high command is worried at the latest developments as the party itself used to count on pro-Islamic sentiments in electoral politics.
Referring to two meetings between the PM and Islamic clerics, before and after her India tour, BNP chief Khaleda Zia on April 12 in a press conference alleged that those were held to “exploit the sentiments of the Muslims”.
About the meeting between Hasina and the Qawmi madrasa-based clerics, Khaleda said the PM has indulged in “religion-based politics.”
On April 13, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader said his party did not “compromise or forge an alliance with” Hefajat-e Islam.
“Those who are alleging that we are using religion in politics or claiming that we have compromised with the communal forces are in fact the ones who are using religion as a political weapon,” he added.
The ruling party leader also said, “True progressiveness is the ability to make realistic decisions considering the sentiments of the people.”
In this context, a discussion surfaced among different quarters that Hefajat might emerge as a political party. The organisation leaders rules out any such possibility.
“Boro huzur [Hefajat supremo Ahmed Shafi] does not have any plan to turn Hefajat into a political party as it may curtail our power to bargain with the government,” said Hefajat leader Maulana Zafrullah Khan.
Ashraf Ali Nizampuri added: "We always want to act like a pressure group, not as a political party.
“We will put pressure on the government whenever we will see any anti-Islamic activities or campaign in the country.”
He also said the government is yet to realise any of their 13 demands.
“After forming committees in all upazilas, Hefajat will take to the street if necessary to get its 13-point demand fulfilled,” he added.
SOME KEY FIGURES
Senior leaders of at least seven political parties, including five registered with the Election Commission, have been involved with Hefajat since its inception.
Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury, chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), a prime accused in a case relating to an explosion that killed three people at a Chittagong madrasa in 2013, is regarded as a co-founder of Hefajat.
Four components of the BNP-led 20-party alliance -- Jamiat e Olama e Islam, Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish, Khelafat Majlish and another faction of IOJ -- have their men in the central body of Hefajat.
Nur Hossain Kasemi, secretary general of Jamiat e Olama e Islam, is the convener of Hefajat Dhaka city unit and a nayeb-e-ameer of Hefajat central.
IOJ is divided into four factions. The faction which is in the BNP-led alliance is led by Abdur Raqib, a nayeb-e-ameer of Hefajat.
Abdul Latif Nejami, another nayeb-e-ameer of Hefajat, is the chairman of another faction of IOJ. He left the BNP after the January 5, 2014 elections and is likely to join a proposed alliance led by Ershad.
Maulana Ishak, chairman of Khelafat Majlish, is a central leader of Hefajat while Maulana Zafrullah Khan, ameer of Bangladesh Khelafat Andolon, now leaning towards AL, is a joint secretary.
Besides, top leaders of different other political parties, including Nejam-e-Islami and Khelafat e Islam, are also placed in the central committee of Hefajat. They play significant roles in the decision-making process of the group.
It is widely believed in the political arena that the BNP was trying to get a section of Hefajat leaders to stay in Shapla Chattar on May 5, 2013 and wage movement to oust the government. On the evening of May 5, BNP leaders, including Khaleda Zia, urged city dwellers to stand by the Hefajat men.