Since its rebirth with a new identity in 1971, Bangladesh has been dogged by assassinations, political nepotism, and absolute corruption. Despite all of this, the pride and nationalism expressed by its citizens are extraordinary and often appear to be abnormal. This nationalism is most commonly based on a memory of the war that led to the birth of Bangladesh. It seems that there is a concerted effort by some to continue to remind and keep alive some of the bitter and painful events surrounding the birth and history of the country.
The lands of Bengal and most of the countries surrounding it were under colonial rule and became independent nations in the last century. Some of these people suffered for centuries and struggled against being ruled by outsiders. A quick glance around the world will give one an obvious idea of how these new nations are developing and coping as independent countries. Bangladesh, however, seems to be at the bottom of the list for all the wrong reasons. There are many issues one can look at and try to find answers to why they affect the people of Bangladesh.
Those of us with Indian origins (Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, and Burmese) need to understand the history of these countries and why there are continuous ethnic and religious tensions. Most of it is because of the ruthless and treacherous politics of the British Raj, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. It seems that it was planned and engineered for the people of these countries to have never-ending disputes that will hinder their growth into prosperous new nations.
Bangladesh geographically covers around a third of the original lands known as Bengal and is surrounded by the other parts of Bengal, which is now part of India. Muslims have been in Bengal for over a thousand years, and the Muslim leaders of Bengal were amongst the first people to campaign for a separate Muslim country during the British Raj. Ironically, the dream of a Muslim-majority country in post-colonial India became a reality, which included the divided Bengal province but ended within twenty-five years. Pakistan lost its status as the largest Muslim country in the world, and a new Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh was established in 1971.
The movement to establish an independent country for the Bengali-speaking people of East Bengal (later renamed East Pakistan in 1956) started from the language movement of 1952. Although it was clear that Urdu was going to be imposed as the state administrative language for the whole of Pakistan, it was the dismissive policies towards the Bengali language and its speakers that led to initial discontent.
And then civil unrest. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, on his visit to Dhaka in March 1948, declared that “Urdu, and only Urdu,” embodied the spirit of Muslim nations and would remain as the state language and labeled those who disagreed with his views as “Enemies of Pakistan.” Jinnah delivered a similar speech at Dhaka University and was interrupted at both meetings by large segments of the audience. It was laughable that Jinnah delivered the speeches in English and was not very competent in Urdu himself.
The continuous economic, social, and intellectual neglect of East Bengal by the ruling elite of West Pakistan led to one inevitable outcome: the separation of the two provinces. Bengali Muslims led the opposition to the suppression of Bangla and subsequent calls for an independent country. Mawlana Abdul Hameed Khan Bashani was one of the leaders of the independence campaign and was considered a father figure by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In all of these struggles, there was never an issue of Islam and Secularism, nor was religious identity an issue. So how did the war of independence end up becoming a ‘victory for secularism,’ as declared by Sheikh Mujib in his speech in Delhi on the way back to an independent Bangladesh?
What ideology did secularism defeat to gain its victory, and why is there such an extreme, dangerous, and intolerant divide between religious and non-religious people in a Muslim-majority country? Although the leadership does not explicitly declare it, it was Islam and the notion of a Muslim homeland that was defeated in 1971. The same sentiments are on display today in Bangladesh by the anti-Islam brigade in their latest push to ultimately relegate Islam to folklore.
One of the main forces behind all this was the influence of communists in East Pakistan and Bangladesh. The same communists influenced Sheikh Mujib and imposed many of their ideas on him but stood on the sidelines to watch his demise and subsequent assassination. Some commentators have said that it was because Sheikh Mujib had turned his back on communism and was turning towards becoming more Islamic. Some of these communists are still highly influential in the ruling Awami League Party today and are continuing their struggle against Islam in Bangladesh.
What is more damaging for the people of Bangladesh is the politics of hatred. This culture of hatred started from the British Raj and the hatred of the colonial rulers and has become embedded in everyday life and culture. The hatred towards the British Raj was subsequently passed on to the rulers of West Pakistan. As there is no outsider towards whom this hatred can be directed, the communists and anti-Islam brigade have successfully directed this extreme hatred towards Islam.
Rather than working towards winning the hearts and minds of the masses, some of the Muslim political parties have acted as a catalyst for this hatred by adopting communist methodologies and policies in their work. The inability of Jamaat Islami to turn mass public support in their favor and favor of Islamic politics is because of their support of Pakistani forces in 1971. This is also partly due to their reluctance to express regret for their support, even though the Pakistanis have acknowledged wrongdoing on their part and expressed regret for what happened. The continued misrepresentation of the facts of what happened in 1971 only prolongs the hatred and passes it on to the next generation, who are infected further with the same hatred.
The religious leadership and parties must not allow a political problem to become an exclusively religious one, as this is precisely what the people behind the trouble want. In 1971, many of the Muslim leaders were duped into thinking the War of Independence was a religious war. Political tools and strategies used and adopted by the morally corrupt political leadership cannot be used by those who claim to be upholders of the Islamic faith. One such tool is hortal (strike), where people are forced, through violence, to observe a total strike and shutdown.
The biggest losers of a hortal are the poor, who need to work to feed their families, and innocent bystanders. Islamic parties have no moral justification for taking part in such criminal activities. It is no surprise that political parties and leaders are not willing to call for an end to this as these disruptive political tools suit their agenda of exploiting and holding to ransom the people of Bangladesh. When demands are made of the government by religious parties, they should include things such as social justice, an end to the use of hortal as a political tool, and an end to political corruption.
Islam must stand on the moral high ground regardless of the difficulties faced in doing so. This was the way shown by the Holy Prophet (saw). Our role model is the Prophet (saw), and we can only succeed by adopting the Prophetic way. Peace and justice lead to economic prosperity that will benefit the people of Bangladesh. Those who represent Islam should start by devising a positive long-term strategy on how they can win the hearts and minds of the people of Bangladesh.
There are always better and more peaceful alternative forms of action than the current destructive political tools used by others. One alternative to Hortal can be to take action using peaceful non-cooperation sit-ins and rallies. The people of Bangladesh can never be suppressed by violence and oppression. The religious leaders of Bangladesh need to step forward and give hope for a better future for people who have suffered for too long. There is no silver bullet or quick solution to the ongoing problems.