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OP-ED: Hefazat vs Sheikh Mujib’s statue: Round one to the state?

  • Published at 12:20 am December 12th, 2020

The retaliation and the crumbling of the Islamists indicate that they may have been overestimated as a power player

What Hefazat and other Islamists had claimed was a theological issue ended up being a state versus Islamists issue. It was also a political and personal one, but the conflict with the formal structure dominated. Islamists went for aggression, but as the weekend arrived, they appeared seriously back-footed as the state forces ramped up. 

Top Islamist biggies are now being investigated on treason charges, and Hefazat leader Mahmudul is declaring undying love for Bangabandhu. The liberal shushils of Dhaka, scared to death with the spectre of an Islamic state of sorts arriving without notice. And the Touhidi janata, more aggressive than ever before, faced the reality of the impersonal state. It was never about any religious issue; it was about challenging the state.    

All the high-volume Islamist posturing and proclamations lasted a week. By then, the statue of Sheikh Mujib in Kushtia had been damaged, which kicked off quick arrests, quick remand notices, quick orders to investigate the Hefazat and Islami Oikya Jote leaders, followed by court orders to protect Bangabandhu’s statue everywhere. 

Suddenly, there was no talk of flinging statues into the river. Suddenly, everyone was an admirer of Sheikh Mujib, particularly those one never suspected to be as the hungama began. 

Politics, theology, and the state

Why Hefazat brought up the issue now as they are going through an internal power struggle is being discussed, keeping many in Dhaka busy. In fact, the timing of the “theological” controversy suddenly emerging is making conspiracy theorists work overtime. It was there for long, so why now? 

However, at this point, it has become irrelevant, because the issue Islamists picked up for whatever reason set up a collision course with the state. The madrasa and mosque-dominated force clearly has a weak understanding of state reality and its behaviour.  

The decision to erect statues of Bangabandhu is not a party decision, not an incumbent government decision, but a state decision. By opposing it, the Islamists have challenged the state. 

The largely unnecessary debate on whether it’s Islamic or not to have one doesn’t matter. Once it was decided at the state level, the will of the state came into play. And the Islamists ran straight into that robust locomotive running against its path. 

The state didn’t indulge in much discussion, though some statements, including one by the Islamic Academy were issued. Instead, it took two critical decisions: a) Ban all gatherings and b) mobilize the formal law and order process instead of the usual muscle-flexing which Dhaka saw during the anti-quota and road safety movement. 

It’s here that the difference became clear between the formal and informal constructs. By the time the Kushtia incident occurred, the game was ready to be over. Court cases, writs, police investigations, and finally, political demonstrations against the Islamists began, but the thrust came from within the government and not the party. 

The Hefazat had by then become an “enemy of the state” and not a religious force anymore. The retaliation and the crumbling of the Islamists also indicated that they may have been overestimated as a power player in any case.    

Do political parties and social forces matter? 

Although Hefazat and AL were locked in the struggle, the state administration responded. AL didn’t react as a party, but some individuals like Naufel of Chittagong AL and Nixon Chowdhury of Faridpur did, and were joined by a few others. By the time party moved big, the matter was already on its way out. After the Kushtia attack, party activism was more decorative, as the crime was committed against the state, not the party.  

It does mean that the distance between the party and the government, and through that, to the state, is closer than ever. In this equation, the party has become less urgently needed, as the threats to the party and the state are overlapping. How positive that is for the political party AL remains to be seen. 

Hefazat can’t claim to be a social body anymore, as its role was directly against the PM’s position, and hence, against both the state and the party. The Islamist propaganda on social media demonized AL supporters, so the relationship is more hostile than ever no matter how much love is expressed for Bangabandhu. 

Hefazat in 2015 was another history, as BNP and Jamaat were still strong, but in 2020 they are largely missing. Given this current round, AL may weigh in what advantage its partnership with Hefazat brings. 

It doesn’t look as toothy as was thought before, and given Sheikh Hasina’s absolute preponderance, such discussion about its alliance with Hefazat are likely to happen.

Hefazat chose the wrong issue, wrong target, wrong person to take on to push its brand value. Its vulnerability is exposed as it was in the end in 2015. AL of its political need kept them alive. It was not strong then, and little seems to have changed, except a bigger social media presence. 

It’s now up to the incumbency to chart the course, and the Islamists in general have lost political stocks, and are less independent. 

That was, however, not due to resistance by the shushils and liberals, who continue to be weak and dependent on the ruling class. 

The Islamists have more clout and numbers, but the streets never belonged to them, and that initiative could not be taken by them. In a way, both the Islamists and the liberal forces look weak, and the state looks much stronger. 

Afsan Chowdhury is a researcher and journalist.

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