As Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of its independence, and media waxed nostalgic about the role of India in the liberation of Bangladesh, the streets of Chittagong were caught in chaos, as the right wing politico-religious party, the Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, went on a rampage, burning property and targeting police stations.
The violence that continues to date, is a worrisome throwback to a time when Bangladesh’s fate was in the hands violent extremist and anti-India groups who were not just a threat to the stability of the country, but also a source of disquiet for counter-terrorism authorities in India. Now it looks like it’s time to worry again.
Protests in Dhaka Over Modi Visit
Protests against the visit of the Indian Prime Minister seem to have gathered pace after the Friday prayers at Dhaka's Baitul Mukarram mosque, when a group of Hefazat supporters held slippers in their hands as a show of disrespect to the visiting prime minister, which led to retaliation. In Chittagong, the violence was far worse, leading to deaths. An earlier rally attended by some two thousand people, also turned violent as the police tried to control the crowd.
As PM Modi wrapped up his visit, protests spread to the eastern districts, with crowds now swelling to protest police action that led to the death of a reported 13 so far.
Brahmanbaria, a key seat of the Hefazat, has seen maximum violence, with Bangladesh deploying its Border Security Guards to quell the mayhem. A nationwide bandh has been called by Hefazat to claim their right to ‘peaceful protests’. That claim could be speedily put to rest as media covered pictures of burning buses and stick-wielding ‘students’ who were forcing off traffic in an effort to isolate the capital.
External media houses however focussed on the shutdown of social messaging, and the effects of the visit of a ‘Hindu nationalist’ leader, rather than the history of a violence-prone group and the reasons behind the chaos.
How the Hefazat-e-Islam Came to Be
The Hefazat-e-Islam’s (HeI) formal creation in 2010 was preceded by a series of protests in 2008 on the issue of a landmark reform bill for women’s inheritance rights. The HeI is an amalgamation of ulemas who control the huge network of Quami madrassas that teach Islamic jurisprudence rather than the government-approved syllabus. Its head was then Allam Shah Ahmed Shafi, educated at Darul Uloom Deoband in India. Under Shafi, the group gained ground as it brought together right wing groups sidelined after the Awami League victory.
In 2013, HeI presented a 13-point demand to the government, that included the enactment of an anti-blasphemy law, and punishment for atheist bloggers. The crux came in May 2013, when the group virtually occupied parts of Dhaka in an orgy of violence that saw the skies turn crimson as fires raged, with violence killing some 39.
Though strong police action eventually dispersed the crowds, the point had been made. HeI had the power of the streets. Clearly, some ‘arrangement’ had been made with the government, since it thereafter ‘cooperated’ with it, with Sheikh Hasina even addressing its rally as chief guest.
HeI support helped the Awami League (AL) in the 2014 and 2018 elections, but lead to a slow tilt to the right as AL gave in to several demands like enacting legislation to prevent ‘atheist’ bloggers, removing Darwin’s theory of evolution from text books among other ‘Un-Islamic’ essays, and recognising a top madrassa degree as equivalent to a Masters degree. In September 2020, Shafi’s death under allegedly suspicious circumstances led to a power struggle to control the (over 25,000) madrassas and other assets of the group.
Hefazat’s New Leadership
The new head of the group is Hadith scholar Junaid Babunagari, who, unlike his mentor, saw much of his education at the Binnori town madrassa in Karachi. He was helped by the fact that his uncle, Muhibbullah Babunagori was a renowned Deobandi scholar who stood against secularism and reform. His influence was apparent when crowds of supporters converged to ensure that Shafi’s son was set aside, and that he eventually got the leadership role.
He is said to have been helped in his ambitions by the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) and its allies like the Islami Oikyo Jote and the Islami Chattra Shibir, among others.
Under Junaid, the transition from a religious grouping, to a quasi-political party was completed, when its 151-member committee was hijacked by political parties in December 2020. This included 34 members of Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI), a component of the BNP-led alliance, 16 leaders of Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish, 4 from Islami Oikya Jote and 6 from Khelafat Andolon.
Previously, registered political parties such as these were barred from taking office in the group, leading to protests from within the group. Soon after, the group launched protests against the construction of a statue of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in the capital, as it was ‘against Islam’.
It is this alliance of anti-liberation forces who are now holding the capital to ransom.
Surge in Violence in Bangladesh: Should Pakistan Shoulder the Blame?
Several Members of Parliament have blamed Pakistan for the sudden upsurge in violence, and took to social media to protest the action. Their suspicions are hardly unfounded, given the role of the then chargé d'affaires Shah Faisal Kakkar and defence attaché Brigadier Kamran Malik in allegedly trying to influence the 2018 elections.
Over the years, the High Commission has been seen as the centre of terrorist and fake currency activity. Pakistani media has however been remarkably restrained in its reporting on the ongoing violence, often dropping the subject altogether.
India-Bangladesh Ties: Why Indian Leaders Should ‘Mind Their Language’
Meanwhile, though the protests have spiralled beyond the issue of the Modi visit, and there is widespread appreciation of the value of connectivity to the Indian market, the fact remains that an anti-minority agenda is hardly conducive to the betterment of relations to a neighbour who has gone out if its way to keep Delhi happy.
Anti-Muslim statements from the lower echelons of the ruling party get wide publicity, and gives fodder to elements who are waiting for an opportunity to catch a friendly government on the back foot, not to mention hostile agencies a peg of influence.
The good news is that Dhaka is far from under siege — as of the minute — and much may be pardoned. However, first, Bangladesh’s long-pending and genuine concerns on water-sharing (of rivers) need to be addressed. The Teesta river waters for instance irrigates some one lakh hectares across five districts, and forward movement on an agreement reached in 2011 on this and the Feni river, would do much to literally flush out radical opposition.
Bangladesh’s tumultuous past is clearly not yet water under the bridge. Indian leaders should mind their language.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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