Though Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh has existed in name for many years, it came under the spotlight for the first time in 2013 by mobilising a massive opposition to the Gonojagoron Moncho movement started in February that year.
It was also then that the radical group issued their infamous 13-point charter of demands, which included a ban on free mixing of men and women and capital punishment for atheists.
Since May 5, 2013, when they unleashed daylong mayhem in Dhaka's Motijheel, Paltan and adjacent areas, Hefazat has also come into focus a number of other times over the years.
The recent one, which drew harsh criticisms from various quarters, was in April when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina concurred with Hefazat’s demand that the Lady Justice statue on the Supreme Court premises was inappropriate. Later, the statue was moved from there.
The radical group also scored a victory when PM Hasina recognised top Qawmi madrasa degree Dawrah-e-Hadith as equivalent to post-graduate degrees, attracting protests from many secular-leaning organisations and individuals.
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However, it seems now Hefazat chief Shah Ahmed Shafi, who operates out of Darul Ulum Moinul Islam Madrasa at Hathazari, Chittagong, is slowly losing control of the organisation and maybe facing resistance from some former central leaders.
With many leaving Hefazat or getting expelled following internal feuds in the past few years, sources say the Awami League-led government has been influencing the Islamist organisation and its activities from the shadows, for a while now.
Apart from the expulsion of key figures, thousands of Hefazat leaders and activists, who are pro-BNP and anti-government, are also inactive in the absence of major organisational activities.
Zunaid Al-Habib, Maulana Habibur Rahman and Munir Ahmed are some of many central leaders who are now either inactive or expelled from Hefazat.
After May 2013, many leaders including Secretary General Junayed Babunagari wanted to continue their movement, but Shafi and his son Anas Madani did not show any interest, sources said.
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They said those who defied the duo and tried to carry on the movements are now either facing cases or persecution by government, after being expelled from Hefazat.
A central leader, requesting anonymity, told the Dhaka Tribune that Shafi and Anas even had Babunagari take the bench for a while for his interest in anti-government movements.
He was allowed to return to organisational activities after agreeing to follow their directives unconditionally.
However, the latest casualty was Shafi’s press secretary Munir Ahmed, a key figure in the penning of the 13-point demands, when he was fired in August over an internal feud.
Anas and some Hefazat leaders admitted that many have left the organisation or got expelled because of internal feuds, but said their departures were not on point of the movement.
Government pulling the strings?
Several sources from both Chittagong and Dhaka units told the Dhaka Tribune that the central leaders of Hefazat have been receiving instructions from the government since the 2013 Motijheel mayhem.
A day after May 5, 2013, Shafi had claimed that law enforcement agencies killed hundreds of Hefazat activists during the clashes. But he went silent on the issue mysteriously a few days later, leaders of the fundamentalist group said.
They said until 2013 their movement was coordinated by the Lalbagh Madrasa leaders. But in the last three years, the leadership has shifted to the Baridhara Madrasa, led by its Vice-President Nur Hossain Kashemi.
Kashemi, also the Dhaka unit chief, had earlier described their movement as unsuccessful.
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Three years ago, Maulana Farid Uddin Masud, chairman of Bangladesh Jamiyatul Ulama, who heads the country's largest Eid congregation in Kishoreganj, was not directly involved with Hefazat. But now he is a key figure in the Dhaka city unit, a Hefazat central committee member said.
Insiders said some were trying to take Hefazat’s control via Masud. But how that will play out and the possible consequences were uncertain.
Many leaders claimed Anas Madani was now at the helm of the group just for show. He makes all organisational decisions following instructions from the government.
However, when the Dhaka Tribune reached him for comments, Anas did not show any interest in talking about the issues.
A central leader, requesting anonymity, told the Dhaka Tribune that leaders of the radical group were not in control any more.
In the past few years, some Awami League leaders even went to the Hathazari madrasa to meet with Shafi and the Hefazat leadership.
On May 29, 2016, ruling party leader Sirajul Jabbar Chowdhury, Golapganj municipal mayor in Sylhet, had joined a Hefazat programme attended by Shafi. Narayanganj 4 MP Shamim Osman also attended a programme of ‘Narayanganjer Sorbostorer Muslim’ sponsored Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh on April 21.
Also Read- 13 points author Munir fired from Hefazat
After Shafi’s meeting with the prime minister earlier this year, the civil society and many politicians had criticised the government for negotiating with them.
That had, however, prompted Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader to quickly claim that no deal was made with the fundamentalist group.
Abdur Rahman, joint general secretary of the ruling party, told the Dhaka Tribune that Awami League had no ties to Hefazat.
“Hefazat leaders are spreading rumours about Awami League and their ties out of vengeance as they are mired in inner conflict. It is one form of political manoeuvre on the part of Hefazat leaders.”
However, an adviser of Awami League Central Working Committee told the Dhaka Tribune on condition of anonymity that the ruling party was able to break the ties between Hefazat, BNP and Jamaat, which they consider a political success.
He said: “Some Hefazat leaders may be awarded with a nomination in the upcoming election as they have left BNP-Jamaat and aligned themselves with us.”
Powerplay in motion
Over 50 Hefazat leaders, after negotiating with the government, are now planning to take part in the next national election with tickets from different registered Islamist political parties, sources said.
Although Hefazat claims to be a non-political movement, many of its members have already taken part in several local government polls in recent times, winning a few.
Following these victories, Islamist politicians affiliated with the group are now seeing the organisation as a potential vote bank.
Hefazat central leadership had been silently consenting to these political aspirations after seeing them as an opportunity to take their 13-point agenda to parliament.
Money from the government?
Sources within the organisation alleged that Shafi, Anas and other leaders have somewhat given up on the group's movements after receiving “a large amount of financial aid.”
A Hefazat central leader said Allama Ahmad Shafi Foundation had given Shafi an 80-car motorcade reception when he returned to Chittagong from India after receiving treatments in August. The foundation spent Tk6,000 to rent each car.
Insiders also alleged that the foundation had collected a large sum of money for the Rohingya refugees several months ago. But that money never reached the refugees.
However, Hefazat attempted to lay siege to the Myanmar embassy in Dhaka yesterday in protest against the ongoing oppression of the Rohingya in Rakhine State. But police halted their march.
Also Read- 20,000 Hefazat activists rally for Rohingya
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, a Hefazat leader, who is very close to the organisation chief, claimed Shafi does not work anymore for Hefazat and the Muslim community.
They said the Hefazat chief is now just busy gathering wealth and with his life using Hefazat’s name and the 13-point charter of demands.
When the Dhaka Tribune tried to reach Shafi for comments about the allegations, Anas Madani said his ailing father would not be able to talk with any one over phone.
Additional reporting by Fazlur Rahman Raju