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OP-ED: Hefazat, hate, and history’s detritus

  • Published at 05:39 am April 29th, 2021
Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Secularism cannot be deepened if communal elements are permitted free rein

There is hardly any reason to sit back in contentment now that the Hefazat-e-Islam has made it known that it has re-invented itself as an apolitical organization. Indeed, it was a shrewd move, one that should not escape notice, on the part of its leadership to avoid the wrath of the state in light of the nefarious moves it has lately made in a propagation of its ideology of hate. 

Men like Junayed Babunagari and Mamunul Haq are people who need to be on careful, constant watch under the scanner. Remember Moulana Moududi, who was condemned to death in 1953 in Lahore but limped back to wreak havoc again, through his Jamaat goons in Bangladesh in 1971?

In this 50th year of the nation’s independent existence, it is an absolute necessity for us to sweep away the detritus that has accumulated in our courtyard. When the Hefazatis, who have been coddled and appeased enough, leaving Bangladesh’s people shocked beyond measure, have not only committed sacrilege over Bangabandhu’s sculpture but have also gone out of their way to demand that women be kept confined at home, that textbooks be “cleansed” of non-Muslim influence, they need to be handled without pity and with justice.

In simple terms, there are the corrective measures the state can and should take at this point, in the interest of future generations. In the immediate future, the Qawmi madrasas, enjoying unfettered authority, must be brought under state control. A very bad message goes out to the country when a section of clerics enjoy autonomy that conflicts with the very foundational principles of the state. 

Such autonomy must not just be curbed but done away with. And while we are on the subject, the government, which professes to be tied to the principles of the War of Liberation, ought to go seriously into the business of devising a uniform system of education for the young. Beginning with the noble intentions of building a society promising rights and opportunities for all, we have over the decades successfully created a social structure delineated along ideas of class. It has done us absolutely no good.

And let it not be forgotten that even as we celebrate 50 years of existence as a sovereign nation, there are the lost years -- 26 in all -- that we morally cannot paper over. Between 1975 and 1996 and again between 2001 and 2006, we traversed a region of darkness, the very darkness which outfits like Hefazat-e-Islam represent today. 

Those 26 years, merely because we happen to have emerged free of them, cannot be wished away. The legacy of those dark years has remained. Here is how: In the constitution, the principles of secularism and socialism, prised out by dictatorial fiat following the assassinations of August-November 1975, remain fugitive. The imposition of majoritarian religious beliefs on the state has not yet been rolled back.

History is essentially a matter of not forgetting, of endlessly remembering. A half century after Liberation, the nation must recall all the elements of darkness which have underscored those lost 26 years, for the good reason that shades of that darkness are yet to be wiped clean. That is the detritus. 

And as we deal with it, we will remember that back in 1971, it was on the basis of Bengali nationalism that we went to war for freedom. Part of the detritus we need to sweep away is the spurious concept of “Bangladeshi nationalism” imposed on us in the Zia years. Part of the horrors we lived through was the indulgence by the Zia and Ershad dictatorships of the local collaborators of 1971. If Zia made it easy for these enemies of the state to claw back into politics, Ershad raised them a notch higher. Do not forget Moulana Mannan. In the Khaleda Zia era, do not forget Nizami and Mujaheed.

It is all this nightmare which will not lift unless outfits like the Hefazat-e-Islam are morally and legally run out of town. The men behind this organization, indeed behind similar organizations, have never been comfortable with the state of Bangladesh and with the cultural legacy of the land. 

When a preacher spews venom against Pohela Boishakh and warns Muslim Bengalis that should they partake of ilish and panta bhaat on Pohela Boishakh, they will be identifying themselves with Hindus and will therefore go straight to hell, we expect the state to act. 

This is one preacher, but there are thousands of others of his kind, propagating the message of hate in the towns and villages of this land. Why must these merchants of hate, these purveyors of unbridled prejudice be left beyond the pale of the law?

In those lost 26 years, enormous damage was done to the nation’s body politic. Toward the end of the last Khaleda Zia government, wicked moves were initiated to bring about a change in the preamble to the constitution -- through conveying the false message that Ziaur Rahman had declared Bangladesh’s independence on March 25, 1971! 

It was our good fortune that the government did not have enough time, for its term was coming to an end, to inflict one more untruth on the country.

Our history and our heritage must be kept safe from predators intent on pushing us into a dark, deep hole. In an age where Afghanistan is a broken country, where Pakistan has been commandeered by mullahs unwilling to accommodate liberal thought, where the votaries of Hindu nationalism seek to overturn the historical base of Nehruvian secularism in India, Bangladesh needs to be on guard. 

It will stay safe, will reclaim itself when government is strong and resolute, when governance seeks to promote the well-being of all citizens, when the ethos of 1971 is remembered.

Those lost 26 years will be a bad memory, the depredations of the Hefazat will be properly forgotten, when the rule of law, when secular principles return in our collective life. The religious sentiments of people, of all people -- of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and everyone else -- must not be hurt. 

Every religion is ours. The preservation and sanctity of every faith is the responsibility of the government. Majoritarianism of the mob must not lead to the pusillanimity of politics.

Back in December 1971, within hours of Liberation, the Mujibnagar government decreed a ban on communal political parties. It is that example we can build on. Secularism will not be deepened with communal elements permitted free rein in the country. Democracy can never extend roots in the national landscape through the appeasement of men who inhabit the dark, narrow and sinister alleys of medievalism.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.