Friday, April 26, 2013

Bangladesh Islamist: Bad moon rising


The Shahbag protests in Dhaka, which were held recently to condemn Bengali Islamists' collaboration with the Pakistani Army in 1971, have found both allies and critics in India's West Bengal region. Ironically, the Indian state is exploiting the anti-Shahbag narrative - led by Islamist forces within India - to earn brownie points with what it sees as a valuable minority. But at what cost?

GARGA CHATTERJEE

1971 is still fresh in the mind of many Bengalis from the West, when a massive relief and solidarity effort was undertaken on our side of the border to help a mass of humanity trying to escape what has been described variously as "civil war" and "genocide". The leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami in East Bengal and its student wing organized murder and rape squads, at times in collaboration with the Pakistani Armed Forces. Their specific crimes included mass-murder, rape as a weapon of war, arson and forced conversions. They escaped prosecution because Bangladeshi generals used them to cast an Islamic veneer of legitimacy over their illegal capture of power. In this way the JI was gradually rehabilitated. 

But then the present Awami League-led government came to power, and its manifesto promised the trial of war criminals. Thus started the proceedings against the collaborator mullahs in the War Crimes Tribunal. Last month's Shahbag protests were held to demand maximum punishment for the guilty. 

In West Bengal, which is in India, a few meetings and assemblies have happened around the issue of Shahbag. However, to the shock and dismay of many, the largest of these assemblies was a massive rally held in central Kolkata's Shahid Minar on 30th March, explicitly against the Shahbag protests and in support of the war criminals convicted by the tribunal. Various Muslim groups, including the All Bengal Minority Council, All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, Madrassa Students Union, Milli Ittehad Council and Sunnat-ul-Jamaat Committee, convened the meeting. People had also arrived in buses and trucks from distant districts of West Bengal like Murshidabad and Nadia, in additional to those from the adjoining districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Haora and Hooghly. Students of madrassas and the newly minted Aliah Madrassa University were conspicuous at the gathering.


They rallied because "Islam is in danger" in Bangladesh. Never mind that post-1947, that part of the world through all its forms (East Bengal, East Pakistan, People's Republic of Bangladesh) has seen a continuous drop in the population percentage of religious minorities, in every census since 1951.This rallying cry is not new. It was heard in 1952 when the motherland language movement was in full swing; in 1954 when the United Front led by Fazlul Haq and Maulana Bhashani challenged the Muslim League; in 1969 when the Awami League made its 6 demands; and in 1971 when Bengalees fought for independence. Now this demand is being made in the context of Shahbag in 2013. The pattern shows that 'Islam in danger' comes up during every secular movement for rights and justice. One of the main accused in the war-crimes trial, Golam Azam (also the leader of the Jamaat in East Pakistan in 1971), had used this old trick in the hat when he stated in 1971: "The supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims." Replace 'Bangladesh' with 'Shahbag' and 'Pakistan' with 'Bangladesh', and you have the latest slogan.

Describing the struggle in Bangladesh as one between "Islam and Shaitan" (Satan), the Indian Muslim protestors announced at the meeting that they would cleanse West Bengal of those who were trying to support the present Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the war-crime trial effort. It was also threatened that those political forces that support Shahbag would be "beaten with broomsticks" if they came to ask for votes from Muslims. For effect they added that, just like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, Sheikh Hasina too will be kept out of Kolkata. They also endorsed the anti-Shahbag "movement" in Bangladesh. This last assertion is especially worrisome as the so-called movement has let loose its fury on the religious minorities of Bangladesh. It has resulted in a wave of violent attacks on Hindus, Buddhists and secular individuals, with wanton burning and destruction of Hindu and Buddhist homes, businesses and places of worship. Amnesty International communique mentioned attacks on over 40 Hindu temples as of 6th March. The number is over 100 now and still rising. 

Given the recent trends of politics in West Bengal, this large gathering and its pronouncements are not shocking. The writing has been on the wall for a while. A collapse in the Muslim vote of the Left Front is an important factor in its recent demise after more than three decades of uninterrupted rule. Various Muslim divines like Twaha Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif have explicitly pointed out that decline as a point of threat to the present government. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a continued slice of this vote. The present government has tried to hand out sops to build a class of Muslim "community leaders" who eat out of its hand by giving monthly stipends to imams and muezzins. Very recently it was decided that such a cash scheme might be worked out for Muslim widows too. Given that it is beyond the ability of the debt-ridden, visionless government to solve the problems that are common to the poor, it has cynically chosen to woo a section of the marginalized on the basis of religion using handouts. These are excellent as speech-making points that masquerade as empathy and social justice. But it is dangerous politics to say the least. It sets into motion currents and gives fillip to forces whose trajectories are beyond the control of the present political groups. The Left Front's political fortune has not improved after its humiliating defeat. It has cynically chosen not to oppose this communal turn to West Bengal's politics, for it too believes that silently waiting for the incumbent to falter is a better roadmap to power. 

The damage such tactics are doing to the state's political culture is immense and may well be irreparable. The incumbent's connivance and the opposition's silence are largely due to decades of erosion in the culture of democratic political contestation through grassroots organizing. Both the incumbent and the opposition parties deal with West Bengal's sizeable minority population primarily via intermediaries, often doing away with any pretense of political ideology while indulging in that transaction.

For their part, organizations owing allegiance to a particular brand of political Islam have exploited this disconnect fully. An emerging bloc of Islamist divines and ex-student leaders have amassed students at short notice and launched protests to influence government policy. Such blackmailing is hardly aimed at uplifting the living standards of West Bengal's Muslims. Rather, it is a show of brute force that began with the successful driving-out of writer Taslima Nasreen during the Left Front regime. Its most recent example was the governmental pressure that managed to keep Salman Rushdie out of a proposed literary event in Kolkata, after he had successfully done such events in Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. This slow pushing of the envelope fits into a sequence of events that are increasingly stifling the freedom of expression in India. At the same time, its double standards are explicit. On March 21st, a medium-sized group consisting of small magazine publishers, human rights workers, theatre artists, women's organizations and peace activists had announced that they would march in solidarity with the Shahbag protests and express their support to the Bangladesh government's war crimes trial initiative by marching to the Deputy High Commission of Bangladesh. Even after it had obtained prior intimation, the rally was not allowed to move by the police due to "orders" and some of the marchers were detained. The same police provided security cover to pro-Jamaat-e-Islami organizations as they conducted their rally a month earlier, and again later when they submitted a memorandum to the same Deputy High Commission demanding acquittal of convicted war criminals. Last year the state issued a circular to public libraries to stock a sectarian daily even before its first issue had been published! 

The role of the state is explicit in these actions - it thinks it can play this game of brinksmanship with finesse. The flight of cultural capital from India is but a natural corollary of such unholy alliances, with the political class playing tactical spectators and enablers. 

The recent bye-election to Jangipur, a Muslim majority constituency, carried certain signals. Prompted by the elevation of Mr. Mukherjee to India's Presidency, this election saw the combined vote of the two main parties fall from 95% in 2009 to 78% in 2012. The major beneficiaries were the Welfare Party of India, a thinly veiled front organization of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Social Democratic Party of India, an even more radical group of a similar ilk. Such groups are armed with a program of "tactical pluralism" (which is, it has to be said, akin to the tactical defence of Taslima Nasreen's freedom of speech by majoritarian communal political forces in the Indian Union). The rallying against Shahbag has blown the cover of faux pluralism. 

Communal tension in India has grown in recent years. There has, for instance, been serious disturbance by West Bengal standards in Deganga and Noliakhali. The majoritarian forces smell a subterranean polarization of the polity. Mouthing banalities about Bengal's "intrinsically" plural culture is useless: culture is a living entity, something that is always in flux, created and recreated every moment. At present it is being recreated by the victimization discourse of fringe groups like Hindu Samhati. And it is being recreated in religious congregations in parts of West Bengal where unalloyed poison produced by divines like Tarek Monawar Hossain from Bangladesh is played on loudspeakers. Thanks to technology, such vitriol produced in a milieu of free-style majoritarian muscle-flexing in Bangladesh easily finds its way to a place where the demographic realities are different. Hence the popularity and consequent defence of one of the convicted war criminals, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who in his post-71 avatar had become something of a superstar in the Bengali waz-mahfil (Islamic religious discourse congregation) circuit. What are the effects of the subterranean cultural exchange of this kind? Well, one of them is a Holocaust-like denialism, evident in the audacious defence of Sayedee as proclaimed loudly at the recent rally in West Bengal.


First published in The Friday TimesApril 19-25, 2013 - Vol. XXV, No. 10