Friday, May 14, 2021

Can Hasina act against Bangladeshi fundamentalists?

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By Amitava Mukherjee
Conflicting signals, with security connotations for India, are emerging from Bangladesh. The Supreme Court has confirmed the death sentence of Ali Ahsan Mujahid, the secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), providing a further feather to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cap in her fight against liberation-era war criminals. But successive assassination of bloggers has not only brought to fore the Awami League’s identity crisis but exposed the Hasina-led administration’s soft underbelly.

Let us keep in mind one very important thing: The brouhaha generated in the Indian media before and after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bangladesh visit was entirely misplaced as the Land Boundary Agreement constitutes the fringe area of bilateral relations. The core areas are security-related issues, growth of fundamentalist terrorist outfits in Bangladesh and export of their activities to India and, of course, the sharing of river waters. Whether the Indian prime minister took up these issues with his Bangladeshi counterpart is not known.

The situation in Bangladesh has ominous portents – so much so that even the prime minister chose not to send any public condolence to the wife of slain Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy. Hasina might have done it privately but her son Sajeev Wazed Joy had shocked the nation by admitting that it was not possible for his party or its government to stand for reason as the Awami League does not want to be characterized as an atheist organization.

So one can conclude fairly safely that Hasina’s control over her country is shaky. This gives rise to another very important question – to what extent would the judgments of the war crimes tribunals be useful in rooting out religious fundamentalism?

It is true that Abdul Quader Mollah and Mohammed Qamaruzzaman, two top level functionaries of the JeI, have been executed and similar orders have been passed against other party bigwigs. But this has hardly affected the fundamentalist outfit which has nearly five million members.

But the worrisome aspect for India, as well as for Bangladesh, is that religious fundamentalism has been slowly penetrating the Awami League also. Last April, the Awami Olama League, the Awami League-backed mullah organization, demanded the death penalty for secular and liberal bloggers, scrapping of the National Education Policy as “it diminishes the role of Islam” and doing away with the anti-child marriage law because “it goes against the Sunna.

Since then, Awami League leaders have been trying hard to deny any connection with this organization but this has not worked as two factions of the Olama League have long been using the address of the Awami League headquarters and participating in the latter’s programmes. During the last Ramadan, the Olama League had given its Iftar party at the Ganabhavan, the official residence of the Bangladeshi prime minister. One more bit of information will be interesting. The Olama League was founded in 1996 with direct backing from Amir Hossain Amu, a bigwig of the Awami League and an important minister in the Hasina government.

Sajeev Wazed Joy’s statement clearly indicates that his party will make a difference between liberation-time war criminals and other fundamentalist organizations, going hammer and tongs against the former but possibly adopting a hesitant attitude towards the latter.

Not only has the Bangladesh government failed to protect the young bloggers; it has unleashed several repressive measures to gag their voices. Some time back, a young lad named Asif Mohiuddin was jailed for airing his views through blogs. Moreover, the government pressurized blogging platforms to block the views of those it did not approve.

Perhaps Hasina herself has realized that it is now difficult for anybody to deny the space which fundamentalist politics has created for itself in Bangladesh. According to Abul Barkat, a professor of economics at Dhaka University, the Jamaat-e-Islami has created a “state within state” and an “economy within economy’. It earns an annual profit of $278 million from the different business ventures it runs. Ten percent of this goes to sustain the JeI and fund other militant religious outfits.

According to Barkat, while the mainstream national economy grows by six percent, the growth rate of the Jamaat-controlled economy is nine percent. Another startling figure is that the JeI-run economy amounts to 8.62 percent of the nation’s developmental budget.

In 2005, Shayakh Abdur Rahaman, the deceased leader of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, had boasted that he had helped 40 candidates win the elections to the Bangladesh parliament. In spite of its social base Jamaat had only a few MPs. So who were the other candidates winning on JMB support?

Hasina certainly has her work cut out.

(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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