Muslim-majority Bangla's fight against secularists' killings

Muslim-majority Bangla's fight against secularists' killings


Vikas Swarup, official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, was almost halfway through his weekly media briefing at the Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan in New Delhi on July 1, when a journalist asked him about New Delhi’s view on recent attacks on Hindus, particularly the killing of a priest, in Bangladesh.

Swarup said that the High Commission of India in Dhaka had been closely monitoring “incidents targeting the religious, socio-economic and political freedom of the minorities in Bangladesh”. He not only took note of the actions initiated by the Bangla-desh government but also underlined the “seriousness” with which the Government of India viewed the series of assaults on minority community in the neighbouring country.

The deadly terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka was still a few hours away. Yet, the question asked to the MEA spokesperson in New Delhi was a reflection of the current state of public discourse about Bangladesh in India. But is this dominant narrative based on the history and contemporary reality of Bangladesh?

There was nothing wrong in asking for New Delhi’s view to killing of the priest. The media has to take note of such incidents occurring beyond the national borders. And, when they happen in the immediate neighbourhood, the media’s interest to know the view of the Government of India is understandable.

But no such question was ever asked in the MEA media briefing in New Delhi, after Nazimuddin Samad was hacked to death in Dhaka on April 6. Samad, who studied law at Jagannath University in Dhaka, was a secular activist and campaigned extensively in social media against religious fanaticism in Bangladesh. The radical Islam struck back and the 28-year-old was hacked to death at a traffic intersection in Dhaka.

No journalist asked for New Delhi’s view even when Rezaul Karim Siddique, a cultural activist and a professor of English in Rajshahi University in Bangladesh, and Xulhaz Mannan, the editor of the country’s first LGBT magazine, fell prey to radical Islam on April 23 and 25, respectively.

As Bangladesh struggles to protect its secular foundation against an increasingly desperate radical Islam, many liberal writers, publishers and cultural activists like Avijit Roy, Niladri Chattopadhyay, Shafiul Islam, Ananta Bijoy Das, Ahmed Rajib Haider and Oyasiqur Rhaman had to lay down their lives. Their deaths did not stir up national discourse in India, not at least to the extent of triggering a question in the weekly media briefing of the MEA spokesperson.

Therefore, the journalist’s query on the Hindu priest’s killing stems from a flawed narrative that seeks to stereotype the neighbouring country as yet another Muslim-majority nation where religious minorities are victims of persecution.

It fails to recognise the distinct pattern of the conflict in Bangladesh, where the fight is not between majority Muslims and minority Hindus, but between majority liberals, who want the nation to remain on the path it chose in 1971, and the minority bigots, who want to turn the clock back.

It also fails to acknowledge the fact that while the other Muslim-majority nation to the west of India uses religious extremism and terrorism as “an instrument of state policy,” the government in Bangladesh has actually been acting decisively against fanatics. 

Awami League’s win

Ever since her Awami League and its allies returned to power in Dhaka in January 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been taking on the Islamists, who had in 1971 opposed the “Liberation War” that had finally carved Bangladesh out of Pakistan. Her government set up a tribunal to bring to justice the Razakars, Al-Badrs and Al-Shams, who had joined the Pakistan Army to carry out a pogrom on Bengalis during the Liberation War – killing over 3,00,000 people and raping nearly 2,00,000 women across East Pakistan. Some of the collaborators of Pakistan Army had managed to entrench themselves in Bangladesh and even climbed up the political hierarchy in the newborn nation.

The Awami League government, however, went after them and many were tried and convicted by the tribunal during the past few years. Islamists like Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, leaders of opposition Bangladesh National Party and its ally radical Jamat-e-Islami, were sent to the gallows in November 2015.

The Jamat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami was also executed in May this year. Nizami was convicted and sentenced to death for orchestrating the killing of several intellectuals with the help of his pro-Pakistan militia Al-Badr 45 years ago. He was also convicted of aiding and abetting Pakistani Army personnel in killing of over 500 people and the raping of 30 to 40 women in what was till then known as East Pakistan.

The government’s crackdown on Islamists, supplemented by a sustained campaign by liberals and secularists against extremism, pushed the zealots to the walls in Bangladesh. The backlash first came in the form of a series of attacks on the liberals. Several foreign citizens were also targeted. Then came the sporadic killing of people of the minority communities.

Finally, on July 1, seven youths stormed into the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka and staged the worst terror attack in the history of Bangladesh, killing 20 hostages – mostly foreign nationals from Japan, Italy and India – and two policemen, apart from injuring 50 others.

Does the attack confirm the speculation that the Islamic State has opened a new frontier in Bangladesh? Or, was it orchestrated by the local Islamists? Should it be seen as a sign of growing prowess of religious extremists or of their desperation?

The questions are being asked and the debate continues. But what remains undisputed is that New Delhi and the rest of the international community should make an objective assessment of the situation in Bangladesh. The world must acknowledge the determination of the Bangladesh government as well as the formidable secular-liberal civil society in fighting the menace of global ‘jihad’ and stand by them.

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