Did it surprise us when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party extended support to February 24 countrywide dawn-to-dusk hartal enforced by some name-only Islamist parties? Some people might have not expected it from the main opposition BNP. Some senior BNP leaders however have explained their objectives in this regard. In their view the party has extended the support to get the maximum political mileage out of the religious sentiments that some Islamist parties have been trying to stir up.
Why did the Islamist groups call the hartal? Before and after the Juma prayers on February 22, Jamaat-e-Islami and its sympathisers attacked law enforcers and journalists, burned and tore national flags and damaged Shaheed Minars to counter the people's movement against war criminals. Later they declared the dawn-to-dusk hartal in protest against what they said were “Friday's police action”.
By extending its support to the hartal, the BNP has once again reminded us its historical link and patronisation of Islamist groups and its politics to gain benefit using people's religious sentiments. If one looks back at the days when the BNP was founded, it will be easy to understand the BNP's politics.
The BNP was born during the first martial law regime. It was the byproduct of the brutal killing of Bangabandhu and most of his family members on August 15 of 1975. In the martial law proclamation, Khandaker Mustaque, who grabbed power by putting the country under martial law, claimed that he took all the powers of the government “with the help and mercy of the Almighty Allah”. Can a Muslim claim it in such a situation? But Mustaque and those who were involved in the gruesome killings and were behind the declaration of the martial law did not hesitate to use people's religious sentiment to justify their heinous crimes.
After Mustaque, Justice Sayem grabbed power, who was followed by General Ziaur Rahman. All of them used religion and abused people's religious sentiments for their political gains. General Zia founded the BNP by luring many Islamists and anti-liberation elements in the party.
General HM Ershad, who seized power by putting the country under martial law on March 24, 1982, followed his predecessors' footstep closely. In the martial law proclamation issued on March 24, 1982, he also said he took over all and full powers of the government “with the help and mercy of Almighty Allah”. Ershad too used people's religious sentiments to justify his crimes. Can a true Muslim do so? Ershad did not stop here. Under his direct patronisation Jatiya Party was formed, which included Islamists and anti-liberation forces.
Therefore, it is not surprising that BNP will openly support the Islamists. BNP's key ally Jamaat-e-Islami will continue to worsen the situation for its own political gain. Jamaat will undoubtedly gear up its agitations in the coming days when the prosecution will move to put the party in the dock along with its top leaders for the heinous crimes of 1971. It will spend more money to strengthen its propaganda against the government and the trial. And using people's religious sentiments is the easiest way to make the situation tense.
Jatiya Party, a key component of AL-led alliance, is no exception. Jatiya Party did not support the February 24 hartal. But many of its leaders have been speaking in favour of the Islamists. BNP and Jatiya Party are the two sides of a coin, considering the way they were born; they used and abused religion and people's religious sentiments to get political mileage.
It is the same old story that also plagues Pakistan. Immediately after the birth of Pakistan on the basis of two nation theory, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was elected the first President of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. In his inaugural address on September 11, 1947, Jinnah, founding father of Pakistan, outlined the basic ideals on which the State was going to flourish. What he told about religion was a clear indication of building Pakistan as a secular state. He said: “…you are free; you are free to go to temples, you are free to go to your mosque or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
Jinnah might have foreseen the lurking danger of abusing religion in politics in Pakistan. His fear had some grounds as Pakistan came into existence on August 14, 1947 on the basis of the two nation theory which stated separate nations for Muslims and Hindus. Jinnah died next year and could not contribute much to implementation of his basic ideals. His death brought many unexpected developments in Pakistani politics.
Amid such a difficult situation the assassination of the then Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan in September 1951 further worsened the scene. Army generals appeared, diminishing the prospect of democracy; they grabbed state power; abused religion and cashed in people's religious sentiment to consolidate their power. Every time the military took over, the generals brought a new disaster for the nation. The results were: birth of Bangladesh as an independent country, which was a part of Pakistan known as East Pakistan; rise of Islamists in Pakistan, and finally Pakistan was made an Islamic republic in its constitution of 1973, burying the dream of its founding father. The story did not end here. With direct and indirect patronisation of the military, the rise of Islamist militants made the political situation so complicated that Pakistan has been dubbed as a failed state.
The overall situation in Bangladesh is very critical. The country now stands at a crossroads. Given the prevailing situation, the government needs to be extra cautious to handle the situation. The government and the ruling AL should allow democratic practices more within themselves. They should not react mindlessly to any criticism of the government or the ruling party. The government has rightly made it clear that it would not move to impose a ban on religion-based politics. The current fight is against Jamaat. All efforts should be made aimed to single out Jamaat. BNP and Jatiya Party should reassess their political strategies to save the country from the lurking danger.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.