Before we dwell on Bangladesh’s current travails, the good news. It is the only double distilled entity to emerge from Partition. Armed with Bengali nationalism, it shuffled itself out of the Islamic identity the authors of Partition had imposed on the people. It is, therefore, a tough resilient society.
An overwhelming majority had fought Pakistani hegemony to become Bangladesh. But a powerful minority had not – say about 30 percent. This minority, consisting of elements in the army, police, civil service, Islamic groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, clustered around spells of army rule and has now thrown its lot with Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League is emotionally (and politically) more inclined towards India. Begum Zia correspondingly leans towards Pakistan. This background was at the back of my mind when I turned up in Dhaka in mid-April at the invitation of friends to participate in the Pahela Baisakh festivities. I have never seen Pahela Baisakh, or the Indian New Year, celebrated on the epic scale as in Bangladesh.
Every year I received a card inscribed beautifully in BJP stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi’s hand wishing me a happy New Year on April 14. Like most of my friends, I have grown accustomed to receiving New Year cards in December. I regarded Joshi’s greetings as his eccentric attachment to a pre historic past. But Pahela Baisakh in Dhaka opened my eyes. Ramana Park, the vast maidan in the heart of Dhaka, was a riot of colours, a carnival like never before. Groups of women, in elegant sarees, bindis on their foreheads, sang Rabindra Sangeet, Nazrul Geet, and, for variety, more contemporary songs in Bengali to the accompaniment of a rock band.
Hilsa, the national fish from Padma river (a pity our Bengalis have access only to the inferior variety), disappears from the market because of Baisakh feasts.
Our hostess at a lunch stood in the hallway, with a packet of bindis in one hand. She put a bindi on the forehead of all the ladies who came for the festivities. Exactly the opposite of the mood this lunch created was available the previous day. Clerics affiliated to the Jamaat, had issued a “fatwa” declaring Baisakh festivities as “haram” or impure. Not only did the lunch take place, but newspapers reported festivities across the country. The people had thumbed their nose at the Mullah.
The basic conflict in Bangladesh is between modernism and Islamism. Contrary to one’s expectations, all modernists are not necessarily lined up behind Sheikh Hasina. A large segment is disenchanted with her poor governance and increasing intolerance. But this lot, tested in the 1971 civil war, will never go over the precipice, towards intolerant Islamism. So, there is that anxious waiting and watching on the part of many.
Recently, the powerful Editor of Daily Star, Mahfuz Anam, had 84 cases slapped against him by Awami League workers in the country’s 56 districts because the Prime Minister was cross with him. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of his newspaper, he invited Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus. Yunus’s name had once surfaced as a possible replacement for Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. His presence at the Daily Star function was therefore seen by a paranoid Prime Minister as the start of another conspiracy against her.
Even though the persistent image in my mind is of Pahela Baisakh in Bangladesh, it is difficult to remain sanguine about the parallel macabre narrative. Soon upon my return, I received news that Rezaul Karim Siddique had been hacked to death. His contribution to Rajshahi University’s literary life was immense. He was an expert on Tagore and Qazi Nazrul Islam. Soon, the rampant culture of impunity claimed its next victim – Xulhaz Mannan, editor of a gay magazine – then another and another. The climax, of course, was reached with the killing of 28 guests at the restaurant in Dhaka’s elite Gulshan neighbourhood on July 2 followed up by a bomb blast on Eid day.
Sheikh Hasina blames it all on the opposition combine – Khaleda Zia, Jammat-e-Islami, Pakistan. The Jamaat is particularly livid with Hasina for the hanging of its chief Motiur Rehman Nizami for his and the organization’s role in the 1971 war crimes.
Since Indo-Bangladesh relations have seldom been better, there is considerable willingness among her advisers to blame Pakistan for attempts to destabilize her.
A Bangladeshi editor has drawn my attention to an interview by ISIS’s official magazine, Dabiq. The interviewee happens to be Sheikh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif, the “Amir of ISIS soldiers in Bengal”. The Amir strongly chastises the Jamaat, the object of Hasina’s ire.
“Jamaat is a political party that has long committed acts of Kufr (sin) and shirk (deviant behaviour). Firstly it supports and calls the Muslims of Bengal to the religion of democracy, and this is blatant shirk. Democracy is a religion that believes in giving people the power to legislate and make things halal or haram, whereas that is the right of Allah alone.”
Hasina is persistent: Jamaat and Pakistan are out to destabilize her. But a disembodied voice informs the unverifiable ISIS mouthpiece Dabiq, that the Jamaat is the devil incarnate.
Place these contradictions in the cauldron, and vapours of confusion choke you. It is difficult to see through this mist. But one bet can be taken: a nation which has paid with millions of lives to win the right to celebrate Pahela Baisakh in its own way, is not going to be brought to its knees easily. I am less sanguine about the political longevity of the two incorrigible ladies.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on [email protected] The views expressed are personal.)