When the subcontinent was partitioned on August 15, 1947, what emerged was the issue of whether religion alone could be the primary basis of nationhood. Gandhiji envisaged the creation of a pluralistic nation state, cherishing its ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity, Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah equated unity with uniformity, holding that religion (Islam) constitutes the primary basis of what he called “moth eaten” Pakistan.
Within six months of Pakistan coming into being, Jinnah showed scant regard for the sentiments of the Bengali-speaking majority in the country, declaring: “Urdu alone will be the sole official language of the State.” Proud of their Bengali literary and cultural ethos, the people of East Pakistan rose in revolt against Jinnah.
The fault lines in Jinnah’s Pakistan ultimately led to a civil war in 1971 and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation. In the course of the bloody civil war in 1971, the Pakistan army and its fundamentalist Islamist allies like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Razakars resorted to an orgy of pillage, violence and rape. An estimated 3 million people perished in the civil war. Most of those responsible for the atrocities of 1971 got away unscathed. They are finally being brought to justice with a War Crimes Fact Finding Committee indicting 1,597 people for war crimes in 1971. A number of leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami have been indicted.
ISLAMIST TENDENCIES There has been a battle for the “Soul of Bangladesh” since its birth, between the secularists led by the Awami League founded by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Right Wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded by military ruler General Zia-ur-Rehman. Zia-ur-Rehman abrogated the secular provisions of his country’s Constitution. The BNP is now led by Zia-ur-Rehman’s widow Khaleda Zia, who has made no secret of her kinship with Islamist causes and parties.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, which does not enjoy large public support, draws its muscle from Salafi organisations worldwide. The Awami League led by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is secular and protective of minority Hindus and Buddhists. It has ensured that the Jamaat-e-Islami is banned from participation in electoral politics, because of its advocacy of Sharia Law, which violates the country’s Constitution.
Given their intense personal and ideological differences, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda are barely on talking terms. The run-up to recent elections was marked by unprecedented violence, following a call for boycott by Khaleda Zia. Sheikh Hasina went ahead and her Party has been returned with a two-thirds majority.
The fight between the secularists and the Islamists has now entered a new phase, with the BNP and its Islamist allies like the Jamaat-e-Islami resorting to violence. Complicating the internal political situation is the role of external powers. While India has remained correct and urged political reconciliation, the refusal by Begum Zia to even talk to her opponent, has hardened positions in New Delhi. India has endorsed the legitimacy of the elections and called for talks to end the political impasse.
FRIENDS AND FOES India’s endorsement of the Constitutional validity of the Bangladesh elections reflects a broad national consensus of support for a secular and friendly leader. Sheikh Hasina had been conciliatory towards her opponents and abided by her country’s Constitution. She needs India’s understanding, in the wake of challenges posed by a rabidly Islamist and anti-Indian opposition.
The two earlier tenures of Khaleda Zia were marked by hostility towards India and support to separatist groups like ULFA. Bangladesh became the eastern base for Pakistan-backed terrorist groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Even though New Delhi has reached out to Begum Khaleda and hosted her with high level meetings, her anti-Indian propensities appear undiminished.
The US has adopted a less-than-friendly position towards the secular Awami League. While US support for the Right Wing BNP is predictable, what is shocking is the its tendency to act as an apologist for the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. While China has been cautious in responding to current events in Bangladesh, it has traditionally been close to Khaleda’s BNP. Khaleda was received by then Vice President Xi Jinping, when she visited China in 2013. She was also warmly received during a visit to Saudi Arabia in the same year. Russia, facing an Islamist insurgency across its Caucasian Region, has backed India.
Pakistan’s response to recent events in Bangladesh has been predictable. While its Foreign Office has mouthed pious sentiments on non-interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, its mercurial Home Minister Chaudhury Nisar Ali Khan has backed the fundamentalists. The European Union’s approach to recent developments in Bangladesh has been forward-looking. The European Parliament has asked Khaleda Zia’s BNP to cut its links with the two main fundamentalist outfits -- the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hefazat-e-Islam. It has noted that “parties which turn to terrorist acts should be banned”. This pressure appears to be working, with signs that Khaleda Zia may reconsider BNP’s ties with the Jamaat.
INDIA’S RESPONSIBILITY India has denounced the resort to violence by some political parties and radical Islamic groups, while supporting the Constitutional process in Bangladesh. It should now apprise the US of the dangers posed by the radical groups, like the Jamaat-e- Islami and the Hefazat-e-Islam, which have intimidated and assaulted the Hindu minority. Channels of communication with Khaleda should be maintained.
The Board of Control of Cricket in India should help out in the T 20 World Cup in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has to be reassured about our commitment to the Land Boundary Agreement and our readiness to expand economic ties.
(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan)