Colombo, June 2 (Daily Express): With less than a year and a half to go for the next parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has begun cultivating the Islamists, a constituency she may have alienated in her two consecutive terms in office.
In 2008, she set up a War Crimes Tribunal to try several Islamist leaders who, in 1971, had joined the Pakistani Establishment in committing atrocities against Bangladeshi freedom fighters led by her father and Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibut Rahman. And since July last year, she has been using the Security Forces to go after Islamic terrorists relentlessly and eliminate them in encounters.
But Hasina is aware that the next elections, which could be held any time between October 2018 and January 2019, will be very different from the one which put her in power in 2014, and that she needs across-the-board electoral support including the Islamists’.
The elections are going to tough, firstly because the “incumbency factor” could adversely affect the chances of her Awami League party; and secondly because, this time round, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by her long time rival Khaleda Zia, will be contesting with her band of Islamic allies.
The BNP had boycotted the 2014 elections alleging unfair practices by the Hasina regime. The 2014 elections were held under the 15 th Amendment of 2011 which had abolished the system of conducting elections with a neutral, caretaker government in place. Because of widespread violence, the voter turnout was a mere 22% in 2014. In the coming elections, Hasina has to prove herself under normal conditions.
An Electoral Islamist
Hasina is an electoral Islamist. Though secular in her thoughts and actions, she would portray herself as an “Islamist” in order to appeal to the sentiments of the largely conservative Muslim majority in Bangladesh during elections. In past elections she had switched to the Islamic black full length gown and make well publicized pilgrimages to Mecca to outdo the BNP, which, unlike the Awami League, has had a consistent pro-Islamic past and has always had Islamic electoral allies like the powerful Jamaat-e-Islami.
Because of its unwise decision to boycott the 2014 polls, the BNP became inactive. And with the War Crimes trials going on since 2008, whipping up Bangladeshi nationalist sentiments against Islamism, hard core Islamists who had sided with Pakistan during the liberation struggle, went into their shell. Hasina could therefore afford to ignore both the BNP and the Islamists.
In 2011, she got parliament to pass the 15 th. Amendment which did away with the description of Bangladesh as an Islamic Republic, though it said that Islam will be the State religion, with other religions enjoying equal rights.
However, the irrepressible Islamists adopted a new technique to take on the liberals. They began to indulge in small scale terrorism carried out by small groups. The targets were also individuals – secular and liberal bloggers and intellectuals. Given the small scale of these actions, Hasina turned a blind eye to them and had even criticized the liberals for going overboard with the propagation of new ideas in a society which is still conservative.
Hasina’s focus was on another group – the anti-Bangladesh Islamists who had sided with Pakistan prior to independence in 1971. She had a personal interest in bringing these elements to account in courts as she felt that they were behind the assassination of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and her entire family on August 15, 1975.
Hasina woke to the dangers posed by Islamic terrorists only after the July 1, 2016 massacre of more than 20 men and women belonging to elite Bangladeshi families by a gang of Islamic fanatic youths with the same elitist background. Terrorism had come too close for Hasina’s comfort.
A ferocious anti-terrorist campaign was unleashed with the police given a free hand. As a result, terrorist attacks dwindled. What one hears of these days are only deaths of terrorists in encounters with the police.
Liberalism Is Politically Risky
While the general Bangladeshi population is happy with actions against terrorists, even if they are Islamic, the deeply conservative elements are worried about Hasina’s being too tolerant towards Muslim liberals and the minorities, especially the Hindus.
Bengali Muslims have not forgotten that they had to fight very hard against Bengali Hindus from the early 1900s onwards, firstly to get a province of their own (East Bengal) in 1905, and then to get East Pakistan in 1947, which subsequently became an independent Bangladesh in 1971.
Since separation from Hindu majority India in 1947, the Hindu minority in East Pakistan or Bangladesh as it became later, had been kept under the thumb. But under Hasina, things changed, and Hindus were given high positions. She is grateful to Hindu India for helping her father get Bangladesh in 1971 and for giving refuge to her when her family was massacred by Islamist-backed military officers in 1975.
With elections round the corner, Hasina is becoming aware of the dangers of being seen to be too liberal. She is now listening to and acting on the demands of Islamic conservatives, especially the Ulema. She is also cultivating China to counter Hindu India’s economic and strategic moves.
Hasina has developed close relations with the conservative Hefazat-e-Islam. Hefzat-e-Islam’s demands are: restoration of the phrase “Complete faith and trust in the Almighty Allah” in the Constitution; capital punishment for blasphemers; stringent punishment for atheists and bloggers; ban on all “alien-cultures”, including “shamelessness” in the name of individual’s freedom of expression, anti-social activities, and free mixing of the sexes.
Hefazat also wants Islamic education to be mandatory from the primary to the higher secondary level; declaration of Ahmadiyas as non-Muslims; a stop to setting up of statues at intersections, schools, colleges and universities across the country.
When Hefazat leaders asked Hasina to remove the statue of the “Lady of Justice” in front of the Supreme Court in Dhaka, she acceded to the request with alacrity and even said that she found the “Greek” lady in a sari to be “ridiculous”. The statue was pulled down within days and protesters were arrested.
Hasina also agreed to Hefazat’s request for official recognition of the degrees given by the Qaumi Madrasas where the curriculum is exclusively Islamic. Hasina knows the political value of the Qaumi Madrasas because there are 15,000 of them with 2 million students. There are already 250,399 mosques in the country. But still Saudi Arabia is to give US$ 1 billion for building more mosques.
What Hasina is doing has precedents galore in the post-independence history of Bangladesh. When the secular regime of her father, Sheikh Mujib, was getting unpopular within a couple of years of his ascendency in 1971, Mujib resorted to Islamization and sought membership of the Organization of Islamic Countries to blunt the anti-secular, Islamic opposition to his rule.
When Bangladesh was under military rule between 1975 and 1990, led by Generals Zia-ur-Rahman and H.M.Ershad, Islamization was brought to the fore because the military rulers wanted legitimacy for their illegal seizure of power. They made the constitution explicitly Islamic and allowed religious parties to thrive. As leader of the BNP, Khaleda Zia followed the policies of her late husband Gen.Zia.
However, breaking from the past, Khaleda is now wanting to promote Bangladesh as a “rainbow nation” where every opinion will be respected in contrast to the suppression of dissent under Hasina.
But this declaration has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The BNP party document, released in March this year, talks eloquently about creating a “rainbow nation” but makes no mention of ethnic or religious groups. One suspects that Khaleda’s aim is primarily to convey to the Islamic groups and extremists that their voice will also be heard, and not suppressed as they are now. Having sensed this, Hasina is trying to make up with the Islamists.
(The featured image at top shows Sheikh Hasina with Hefazat-e-Islam leaders recognizing Qaumi Madrassa diplomas as university degrees)