Commentary by Mahfuz Anam: A wake-up call for AL, for us all
The ostensible reason for the recent protests was Indian PM Narendra Modi's latest visit. The real reason was to signal that Hefajat-e-Islam (HI) under its new leadership was not the same party as it was under its former chief Shah Ahmad Shafi and his immediate followers and to announce that HI was ready to emerge as a new political force under the guise of protecting the majority faith. It is also a signal that the government's policy of appeasement has totally failed and the compromises and concessions so generously and unthinkingly given have only helped make them stronger and more determined to challenge the fundamental character of the country. The situation stands as a testimony to the follies of a politics of power and arrogance that has led the ruling party to cripple all its political allies representing secular and democratic forces.
To politically obliterate Jamaat, Sheikh Hasina wanted to create an alternative Islamic force. The choice was Qawmi-Madrasa based Hefajat-e-Islam(HI). The logic was as simple as it was attractive. The AL needed an "Islamic party" that did not have the unacceptable features of opposing the birth of Bangladesh and being involved in anti-liberation activities and whose leaders were not among the war criminals of 1971. By having such a force aligned with it, AL could easily obliterate the Jamaat.
Following on the big showdown in May 2013, the government developed a close relationship with HI high-ups especially with its late chief Shah Ahmad Shafi, who termed the PM "Qawmi Ma"(Mother of the Qawmi) at a rally on November 4, 2018, after her government recognised the highest degree given out by the Qawmi Madrasas as equivalent to post graduate degree.
The ostensible reason for the recognition was that the government could not leave out of the "mainstream" the thousands of students who pass out from the Qawmi system. The real reason was to gain political favour. This decision becomes highly questionable in the face of the facts that the government has no say over Qawmi madrasas' curriculum, teaching methods, subjects to be covered, qualification of the teachers, etc. Compared with the Alia-Madrasa system over which the government has full control, as it should, it has none over the Qawmi system. Yet the official recognition came. This was HI's most persistent demand and the most coveted victory. In return, it remained docile and silent as Sheikh Hasina ramrodded her brand of politics down the throat of the rest of the society.
Awami League and Sheikh Hasina thought that they had a winning formula of politics -- divide the Islamic forces, replace the traditional opposition with a domesticated one and suppress the independent media and rule happily. It did not work, as it never did in the past, anywhere in the world. For fundamentalist forces political alliances are always a matter of convenience and thus temporary, and never a matter of principle.
Whatever may have been its original aim HI has become today a political party for all practical purposes. According to a report by our senior correspondent Rashidul Hasan, published on 9th December 2020, "Hefajat-e-Islam is now more than a political party with the strategic disclaimer of having no political agenda." " About one-third of its leaders of the new committee who seized control come from political parties who are part of a 20-party alliance led by BNP.
HI was formed in 2010 comprising teachers of several Madrasas in Chottogram and it was triggered by the draft "Women Development Policy" of 2009 that advocated equal inheritance of property for men and women. However, the real emergence can be said to have occurred in 2013 after the "Shahbagh movement" of students demanding death penalty for all war criminals of 1971. The HI countered by holding a militant demonstration at Shapla Chattar (in front of Bangladesh Bank) placing a 13-point demand that included, among many others, the introduction of a Blasphemy Law, punishment of atheists, changes in school curriculum, etc. Who were its targets? Free thinkers, liberal forces and advocates of inclusive values and culture.
Following the frontal confrontation between law enforcement agencies and HI activists leading to several deaths, the government went for a serious behind-the-scene negotiations and with the acceptance of several of their 13-point demand, maintained a fragile peace between the two sides till the death of its leader Shah Ahmad Shafi that tilted the balance of power within HI towards the more anti-government faction of.
Sheikh Hasina's government is a victim of the classic notion of "Being too clever for its own good". The "know-all" and "have all the answers" attitude blinded them to the obvious faults and closed their minds to alternative suggestions. The fact that appeasement never works, especially against faith-based extremism, is a universally proven lesson that seem to have escaped this government.
On the other hand, for reasons that we know, AL went after BNP which, with all its faults, was not a faith-based organisation. In its determined effort to destroy BNP it destroyed a secular alternative in our political spectrum whose secular credentials, however, were considerably damaged by its alliance with Jamaat – which officially still exists - and its ambiguous stance and ambivalent attitude towards the war crimes trial.
At the same time the ruling party went against the civil society, mocking them and denigrating them in various ways and even calling them "dustbins" who carry the sign "use me", meaning that they were such an unethical and unprincipled bunch as to be open for use by anybody willing to pay them for their services.
It was a similar story for the NGOs whose foreign funding was held up as their main identity and the fact of their several-decades-long contribution in the crucial social sectors -- like education, health, child mortality, etc -- being completely ignored. Their particular contribution in transforming lives at the grassroots level and also acting as a vital force for women empowerment and strengthening democratic and secular values were never given the credit that they deserved. Micro-credit which has been globally accepted as an effective method, albeit with some limitations, of poverty alleviation was literally mocked at as a method of entrapment of the poor into greater debt. Everything the NGO's achieved was questioned.
The independent media and voices of secular democratic dissent were shut with one singular step – enactment of the DSA. Interestingly none of the hate-speech makers and the constant haranguing by the faith preachers of the supporters of the ideals of the Liberation War were ever brought under DSA. It was only as if to throttle the independent media and critics of the government that DSA was instituted and not for those whose politics, speeches, every utterance were directed at the fundamentals of our constitution.
All the above -- the civil society, the NGOs and the independent media -- were part of the secular and democratic forces that contributed to Bangladesh's globally praised journey towards advancement that we just celebrated with a 10-day gala function. It is these very forces that the government either ignored, denigrated or supressed and who now, collectively, could have greatly strengthened the government's hands in its present and upcoming fight against forces whose ugly manifestations we just witnessed.
Just as the darkest spot lies where the light shines brightest, so also at the very moment of our most brilliant success we stand bared of a very serious vulnerability.
If there was ever a need for a wake-up call for the ruling party to re-examine its brand of politics, it is now. It must also serve as a wake-up call for us all.