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Why Bangladesh will remain a secular nation despite threat from West-backed Islamic radicals

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina

On the streets of Dhaka, while organising anti-Pakistan demonstrations to protest against Islamabad’s pitch against the Bangladesh war crimes trials, I popularised a slogan I had coined–Amar Mati, Amar Ma, Pakistan hobe na (my land, my mother will never be Pakistan).

Thousands would join me in raising this slogan in the usual Bengali rhythm, bearing testimony to the undying spirit of our Liberation War.

Today as the debate over Bangladesh’s future resumes in global as well as regional circles, I reiterate my faith that Bangladesh will, despite all the machinations of the Islamist Opposition and the covert terror movements, remain the way it was born–a Bengali nation born of liberal and secular values embedded in our syncretic culture that gives us a great language we speak and write, think and love in.

This is not just an empty hope but one based on Bangladesh’s ground realities, which cannot be drowned by a few Islamist rallies drawing a few thousand bearded clerics or their followers.

Actually, the fear that Bangladesh will be the next Afghanistan gained international currency during the last BNP-Jamaat  coalition government (2001-06) and the military-backed caretaker which, on US prodding, tried to instal Nobel laureate Dr Yunus at the helm. But the late Indian president Pranab Mukherjee, a highly revered figure in Bangladesh, realised Bangladesh’s battle against Islamist radicalism has to be fought by “homegrown secular forces” and not by US Marines with bulging biceps. He drove home that point in his now well-known fracas with then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to bring Bangladesh back on the road to democracy.

The BNP-Jamaat launched its youth cadres on Hindu women, gangraping scores of them at Gournadi and Agolchera in 2001 just after they came to power. Later such incidents were replicated in Banskhali and many other places in a systematic attempt to terrorise minorities so that they would not or could not vote for Awami League. It was also a brazen attempt to force them to leave for India to eliminate a loyal Awami League support base. But this state-orchestrated terror was then directed at Awami League and pro-liberation forces with senior leaders like former finance minister SMS Kibria and Labour front bigwig Ahsanullah Master killed by State-backed terrorists. This culminated in the brutal 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina’s rally in Dhaka, in which scores of party leaders trying to ring-fence her were killed. Finally, the lid was blown on the unholy State-terrorist nexus with the ten truck arms haul at Chittagong port.

With the Awami League back in power since Dec 2008, Bangladesh has not only enjoyed a golden phase of inclusive economic growth with a huge trickle-down effect on poverty alleviation but the radical forces (both overground Islamist parties like BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami  and also terror groups like HUJI and JMB) have been fought to a standstill and their hope of capturing State power faded away.  Every time a Hindu temple or their households have been attacked, the state has swung into action to contain the fallout and effect appropriate rehab measures for those affected.

Bangladesh’s successful counterterrorism drive has eliminated the top of the HUJI and JMB leadership in stark contrast to other Muslim-majority countries where new vicious groups like ISIS and Taliban (various varieties) have proliferated.

Just when all seemed under control and the Awami League swept back to power a record third time, the US-led Western bloc emerged as the spoiler, weaponising the human rights issue in Bangladesh to blame the Awami League government for “gross violations” . The Dec 2021 US sanctions against seven Bangladesh security officials was clearly designed to demoralise our security apparatus and can only help the Islamist ecosystem (BNP-Jamaat at political and HUJI-JMB at the extremist end of the spectrum) to regroup and strike back. For the Awami League and the pro-liberation forces, it is important not to lose grip on State power, if the country has to be spared the frightening prospect of a return to 2001-06 anarchy and bloodshed.

But despite the violent designs of the Islamist fringe and their Western backers, Bangladesh will never be Pakistan.  I choose to explain why:

1. Half of Bangladesh’s population comprises women, female voters are 53 per cent of the electorate.  With the long tradition of gender empowerment in Bengali society across the borders, it is only natural our sisters in Bangladesh will never accept a Talibani regime. Seventy per cent of our garment workers (Bangladesh’s biggest export sector) are women who fiercely defend their rights—which I realised when I intimately mingled with them during a learning experience when I had to play a garment worker in a TV drama. Our women, including education minister Dipu Moni, have fiercely defended their right to use “teep” (bindi) which radicals feel is un-Islamic.  A lady art gallery owner refused to don the hijab and went down to extremist bullets during the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery terror strike. Gender power at the top (our PM is a powerful leader and had top women ministers in her cabinet) and at the grassroots is Bangladesh’s biggest bulwark against Islamist radicalism.

2. Bangladesh’s 10 per cent minority population (mostly Hindus and Buddhists) have no reasons to back the Islamist ecosystem and only expect the Awami League to protect them. Despite few instances of temple attacks and disturbances, minority empowerment is a fact of life in Bangladesh. The number of Sarbojonin Durga Puja has grown exponentially in the last decade and the number of senior positions in administration held by minorities is like never before.

3. Besides women and minorities, the Muktijoddhas (freedom fighters) and their families, across generations, constitute a huge segment of our population and they will resist the challenge posed by the Islamist ecosystem bravely and without compromise.

Like it spearheaded the fight for our rights in the 1960s and the struggle for independence in the 1970s, the Awami League is destined to lead the nation towards a developed economy. Maintaining social peace and religious harmony is not a wasteful upper-class fad but a sound investment to sustain growth while growth ensures jobs and comfort that keeps our minds away from the jihadi path.

Our foreign policy advocates friendship with all but our relations with India is special and born of our birth pangs. As a mother, I know what I am talking about. As a child of the Liberation (I was five in 1971 and vividly remember the fire and blood at the time), I am sure our special location with India on three sides and the sea on the fourth is the fourth big bulwark against an Islamist takeover. Like my Awami League colleagues, I am attuned to count on India to be by our side in our hour of peril. All I can assure them is we will never be a Bengali Pakistan, as some of them occasionally fear. The Bengali identity is the strong bedrock of our nationhood and shall remain so.

Also read: Bigoted Jamaat in Bangladesh must feel the pain after systematic persecution of Ahmadiyya sect

(Tarana Halim is a former actress-playwright, an ace lawyer and a former minister. Now she is a Central Executive Member of the ruling Awami League)