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Bangladesh: The Islamist Challenge

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  • April 17, 2013
    Round Table

    In last one month, Bangladesh witnessed widespread violence as well as attacks on minorities that caused more than 80 deaths. IDSA organized a roundtable on the 17th of April to discuss these developments. The speakers in this round table included, Amb Deb Mukerji, Amb Rajeet Mitter, Prof Partha Ghosh, Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik and Dr. Anand Kumar.

    Main points of the discussion:

    • The trial against war criminals was long pending in Bangladesh. It could not take place soon after the liberation due to various reasons. However, the urge to try the war criminals was very much present among the population that suffered during the liberation war at the hand of Pakistan Army and its collaborators. Almost all the families in Bangladesh have undergone some trauma and personal loss during the Liberation War. Yet Jamaat-e-Islami, which supported the Pakistan Army and was responsible for the death of numerous Bengali freedom fighters, has now legitimized itself as a political party and has been a part of the ruling regime in the past.
    • Both the Awami League and the BNP have used the Jamaat-e-Islami to enhance their electoral prospects. Even in 1994, the AL which played a prominent role during the Liberation War was not supportive of the civil society movement that wanted to try the Jamaat leaders in a mock trial for crimes committed during Liberation War. BNP, for obvious reasons, was not serious about holding a trial.
    • Jamaat-e-Islami has pan Islamic leanings and external connections. Thus, they have international supporters who have been pressurising the Bangladesh government not to hold this trial. The JI functions like a corporate house and has financial institutions, chains of hospitals, educational institutions that contribute to its economic sustenance. It has strong external finance source as well.
    • Shahbag movement was a spontaneous reaction to the International Crime Tribunal verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah, former joint General Secretary of Jamaat-e- Islami, sentencing him to life imprisonment. This judgment was considered lenient and many people perceived it as an attempt to save the other culprits. Many suspected that this lenient punishment was possibly a result of a political deal. Although this movement degenerated into a contest between the secularists and the Islamists, it was an important milestone that reflected the attitude of post-liberation generation in Bangladesh.
    • BNP supports Jamaat as they require Jamaat's help to come back to power. The BNP which initially backed the Shahbag movement later dismissed it by labeling it as government sponsored and atheist since BNP though that the issues raised by the youths would benefit the AL politically. BNP has always aligned with the Islamist. It remains anti-India in its orientation.
    • AL is a secular party that aims at preserving plural socio-cultural and religious inheritance of Bangladesh. It will also protect the interests of the minorities. In the April violence that followed the conviction of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi by the ICT, Jamaat targeted Hindus, burnt their property and vandalized the places of their worship. Even as the BNP criticized the attack on minorities, it refrained from criticizing Jamaat. This shows that AL remains best bet for survival of secularism in Bangladesh.
    • In Bangladesh, women are at the forefront of any social movement. This gives a hope that not everything is lost in Bangladesh. Due to women empowerment, it is difficult for conservative Islam to make inroads. Bengali culture also contributes to keep the plurality intact.
    • It is likely that Hindus will be targeted in future and as such they remain vulnerable. There will be slow exodus of Hindus into India. This is what Jamaat wants. For India a party that believes in multi-religious heritage of Bangladesh, protects minorities and provides stability continues to be the best bet. For ideological reasons BNP would be opposed to India. Its alliance with Jamaat would push the party to adopt anti-secular policies.

    Report prepared by Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik, Research Fellow, IDSA