Bangladesh, in recent decades, has been ruled by two women. The first one, Khaleda Zia, led a regime that was corrupt, anti-Indian and governed with the fundamentalist Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, before she lost power. Sheikh Hasina, who came in next, was not very different. But despite allegations of corruption and a growing autocratic way cropping up against her, it was her avowed commitment to secularism that made the Awami League leader India’s preferred choice as an ally.
For New Delhi, backing Hasina meant safeguarding the interest of Hindus, while taking care of India’s security priority in keeping the eastern flank stable.
That position of comfort and dependability is being questioned by many in Bangladesh and India. They want New Delhi to review its decade-long position and deal with the emerging reality in Dhaka.
The discomfiture stems from the Bangladesh prime minister’s recent cosiness with radical Islamic groups like the Hefazat-e-Islam—which demands imposition of stricter Islamic law, including a blasphemy code—and has started worrying liberal sections in Bangladesh as well as the Indian foreign policy establishment.
Many wonder if this budding entente with Islamists is just part of an Awami League tactic to face the challenge of the year-end parliamentary polls. The worse fear, of course, remains that of Hefazat members eventually exerting significant influence over government policies to fundamentally alter the pluralistic nature of Bangladeshi society.
“There is an intense debate within the Awami League government over this crucial issue,” says information minister Hasanul Haq Inu. Other Awami League insiders also admit that the PM’s tactic vis-a-vis the Hefazat has created consternation within a party rank-and file wary of having any truck with Islamic groups.
Even though an identity forged by the Bengali language played an overwhelming role in the bloody and glorious liberation struggle of Bangladesh and crafted a new nation’s image before the outside world, the Islamic identity—though relegated in the background—has remained vital. As leader of the world’s fourth largest Muslim nation, Hasina is acutely aware of Islam’s crucial role in her country. For years, she has been trying to strike a balance—for remember, her regime tried and executed top Jamaat leaders for their criminal roles during 1971 (though decried by many in the country and abroad) and so made implacable enemies of radical Islamic parties—between Awami League’s secular ideals and Islam.
Some in Bangladesh now fear about that balance being disturbed through some of Hasina’s policies as she unabashedly tries to woo the Hefazat. Last June, she removed the Lady of Justice’s statue from the entrance of the Dhaka High Court premises after the Hefazat complained about the “idolatrous practice”. It was reinstalled further away after an outcry.
Then there were silent changes in school textbooks, with secular content from subjects like literature and history removed and Islamic content pushed in. Works by non-Muslim writers—titans of the language like Bharatchandra Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore—were removed and replaced.
Next, Hasina withdrew her party’s participation in the celebrated dawn procession, the ‘Mongol Shubhojatra’, on Poila Boisakh, the Bengali New Year’s day. Again, in the name of ‘mainstreaming’, the Dawah-e-Hadith course taught in Hefazat-run madrassas was now to be accorded the status of a postgraduate degree.
The Hefazat claims to be a pressure-group of madrassa teachers and students that was formed in Chittagong in 2010, ostensibly with Saudi funds. As the organisation with its network of madrasas spread, close links were formed with the Jamaat-e-Islami. It became apparent during the Shahbagh Movement of 2013 that spearheaded the move to build a national opinion for executing top Jamaat leaders for alleged “war crimes”. With Jamaat on the backfoot, Hefazat members mobilised thousands of its students and teachers. With a rallying cry of ‘Islam under threat’, it laid siege to Dhaka. It was broken after a bloody crackdown by security forces, leading to bloodshed and loss of life.
With some of its top leaders executed and the rest either in exile or in hiding, it is interesting why Hasina is pandering to the demands of such radical Islamists as the Hefazat. Awami League insiders say this is to pre-empt their inevitable alliance with the Jamaat and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Hasina’s personal popularity notwithstanding, many of her ministers are perceived to be corrupt and do not inspire Bangladeshis. Most observers, including those in the Awami League, feel the party might lose if the year-end elections are held in a ‘free and fair’ manner.
“Over the last two years, Hasina has become exceedingly unpopular and, by association, India, which is being blamed for supporting her regime,” says BNP secretary-general Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
For India though, Hasina continues to be the best bet. Though aware of rampant corruption in the Awami regime, Hasina’s autocratic style and the unpopularity this has spawned, she has delivered on India’s security interest—cleaning up the country of elements who were launching anti-Indian activities from Bangladeshi soil. Moreover, New Delhi’s past experience with the BNP is anything but inspiring. Despite promises and assertions by the BNP leadership about the need to build strong ties with India, a natural ally, most Indian policy-makers are wary of BNP rule. If the party grabs power, it is Khaleda Zia’s son and heir-apparent Tarique who is likely to take over. Indians see Tarique as under complete control of pro-Pakistani elements in the Bangladesh armed forces. Worse, he appears to be a puppet in the hands of the ISI.
“Tarique is a most misunderstood, and much-maligned figure in the Indian establishment,” says BNP’s standing committee member Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury. “He really wants to put the past behind him and make a fresh start with India, towards strong bilateral ties.”
Few Indians would accept Chowdhury’s argument. South Block believes the day BNP wins the elections, Tarique, now in exile in London, will be on the next flight back to Dhaka, soon to be followed by a revival of anti-India elements in Bangladesh.
The coming months are crucial for Bangladesh. Begum Zia, who was sentenced to five years in jail for corruption by a Dhaka court may spend the polls in her solitary cell. In the mean time, Hasina may try to get rid of some of her corrupt ministers and start a dialogue with BNP leaders for their participation in the elections. It’s unlikely that without Khaleda’s release the BNP will participate. Without BNP, the Awami League may again get reelected uncontested in most seats, like in 2014. But the credibility of Bangladesh as a parliamentary democracy will be severely eroded before the world.
However, the prospect of spending another long spell in the wilderness may force BNP leaders to take to the streets and mobilise support and demand Khaleda’s release. As polls draw near, Bangladesh could well plunge into violence and political instability. If that happens, will Hefazat link up with its former allies, disregarding Hasina’s policy of ‘mainstreaming’ them? The jury is out on whether the Hefazat, so pampered by Hasina, stays by her side in times of strife.
By Pranay Sharma in Dhaka