Dr. N C Bhowmik
Hefazat-e-Islam and BNP-Jamaat in Bangladesh have always been seen to be pro-Pakistani forces which are extreme Islamist, anti-democratic, anti-secular force seeking an Islamist state based on discrimination. Jamat-e-Islami even collaborated with Pakistan in one of the biggest massacres of the world in Bangladesh during the 1971 liberation war.
Immediately after the war, the Bangladesh government banned the Jamaat and its leader at the time, Ghulam Azam, who had to flee to Pakistan. However, the ban on the Jamaat was lifted in 1975 when Zia-ur-Rahman came to power – the group also became an ally of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia.
Many leaders were tried for war crimes with its former leader Ghulam Azam’s citizenship being withdrawn. Now, when a force like Jamaat-e-Islami disappeared, another force was needed and that force came in the form of the Hefazat-e-Islam for destructive activities, leaders of the different extremist parties now are in the Hefazat forum.
Hefazat-e-Islam was set up by a cleric, Shah Ahmad Shafi, in 2010. In 2009, when the PM Sheikh Hasina’s government came up with reforms including inheritance rights for women, Shah Ahmad Shafi’s Hefazat protested against these reforms.
While the Hefazat sometimes said they were opposed to the atrocities during the 1971 liberation war, they were soon making similar demands like the Jamaat’s that included Islamist fundamentalism.
In 2013, when secular forces gathered in Shahbagh Square pressing for the trial of war criminals, equal rights for all genders, a secular Constitution, and a system of governance, they clashed with members of the Hefazat who marched their protesters into Dhaka. This led to actions by security forces.
At a HIB rally in April 2013, HIB activists severely beat up journalists including a female journalist for being present at the event. Then on May 5-6, 2013, it unleashed unprecedented violence in Dhaka’s commercial areas by targeting party offices, private and public property, and vehicles, which led to a security forces crackdown and subsequent clashes.
At the time, the Hefazat’s 13-point charter included demands like reinstating faith in the Almighty in the Constitution again that is the Fifth Amendment introduced by Zia ur Rahman. While Bangladesh was committed to secular principles in its Constitution after its independence, in 1972 the words “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” were inserted in the Preamble by then-President Zia ur Rahman and secularism was also abolished.
General Ershad when he was president in the 1980s, in the form of the Eighth Amendment, which said Islam, will be the religion of the state.
Hefazat wants statues and busts removed from Bangladesh. The government pandered to the Hefazat and supported their cause to remove a Greek goddess statue in the Supreme court and some write-ups from books.
The Hefazat opposed the removal of the state religion of Islam from the Constitution, when it was in the court after 4 principles of liberation had been included in the constitution by the Fifteenth amendment upholding the verdict of the Supreme Court.
The Hefazat-e-Islam, the force behind the current protest, is the new communal divisive force in Bangladesh with which Sheikh Hasina’s government has negotiated at some point. At some point, the government was thinking that they might be under control.
HIB also played a role in the silencing of secular activists in Bangladesh and prepared the ground for the terrorism that Islamists extremists unleashed against atheists and secular bloggers between 2013 and 2015. After publicizing a hit-list of bloggers, Shafi denounced them as ‘apostates’ and declared that killing them was wajib (a duty) for Muslims. Groups like al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarul Bangla subsequently killed several activists who figured on this list.
Now Bangladesh is witnessing extremist activism and violence in the name of Islam. For example, in October and November 2020, the hardline Islamist Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh (HIB) led massive demonstrations to protest against liberalism.
Weeks later, HIB activists were on the streets again demanding the removal of Bangabandhu’s statues, which HIB’s new leader Junaid Babunagari said were “against the Sharia” on November 28, 2020. Then, on December 5, an under-construction statue of Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s portrait was vandalized by madrassa students in Kushtia, Bangladesh. A statue of anti-British fighter Bagha Jatin was damaged soon after.
HIB’s heightened activism is partly the outcome of a more hardline Islamist faction wresting control of the group following the death of 104-year-old HIB founder-leader Ahmed Shafi in September 2020. Additionally, Babunagari, who is known to be strongly opposed to the Awami League (AL) and democratic forces, has taken over the reins of HIB and is asserting his leadership. The AL is a secular and Democratic Party, which was founded in 1949 and under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was at the forefront of the liberation war. It has been in power under the leadership of PM Sheikh Hasina Bangladesh since 2009 and has tried to manage HIB in recent years. Bangladesh has achieved remarkable success in all sectors under PM Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh.
With Babunagari heading the HIB, a surge in violence can now be expected in Bangladesh. The country is marking the 50th anniversary of independence from Pakistan in 2021 and the AL government is celebrating the event as well as the Mujib Borsho a triumph of secular democratic values over extremist forces.
Our closest friend India’s PM Narendra Modi also visited Bangladesh to pay homage and respect. Hardliners in HIB and their patronizes and provocateurs do not like it.
However, since Ahmed Shafi’s death in September 2020, HIB has come under the control of a faction that is close to the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami. Unlike Shafi, who was in touch with the AL government, Babunagari and his followers are hostile to it. They started destructive activities in the name of protest in Dhaka, Chattogram, and Brahmanbaria along with other places. They are trying to overthrow the present democratic government. We know India is supporting this democratic government so they are also against India. They are connected to Pakistan, ISI, and their terrorist forces. It is reported that China as an ally of Pakistan is also in touch with them.
The AL government has said that it is reviving the 83 cases of HIB “terrorist activities” from 2013. AL leaders and democratic forces are insisting that the installation of Bangabandhu’s statues and other things will continue.
Meanwhile, Islamist hardliners, including HIB, have threatened bloodshed to prevent the erection of such statues Therefore, although Islamist activism subsided in the weeks following the AL government’s pressing of sedition charges against HIB leaders, the lull may be temporary. Neither Bangladesh’s secular forces nor Islamist hardliners want to be seen as backing down, especially at a time when the country is remembering the dramatic events of 1970-1971 and Bangabandhu’s centenary. The Hefazat-e-Islam’s central committee was dissolved and will be run by a convening committee, its chief Junaed Babunagari announced in a video message. The government board that controls religious education banned all kinds of political activities in the controversial Qawmi Madrassahs with teachers or students also barred from having any links to such activities. Hefazat was formed in 2010, claiming as a pressure group and non-political organization. It was formed with teachers of several madrassas based in Chattogram.
The development comes amid a crackdown on the group and at least a dozen senior leaders are behind bars following mayhem it created in many parts of Bangladesh on Mujib Borsho, its 50th Independence Day, and over the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their main target was to disturb and sabotage the celebrations and overthrow the government, its actions are political in nature and many tantamount to treason. It is mentionable that India is helping the democratic forces of Bangladesh and PM Narendra Modi of the Republic of India is the prominent and dynamic leader of the world. He is working with Bangladesh in all dimensions and paying homage to Bangabandhu as a great leader.
Arrested leaders confessed during police interrogation that conspired to overthrow the secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and wanted to turn Bangladesh into another Pakistan or Afghanistan-style country. One of its top leaders, Mamunul Haque, had links with a Pakistani militant group and had received “foreign” funds.
Babunagari issued a misleading statement saying to stop interrogation by a non-Muslim and non-believer. Secular forces including HBCOP, religious minority forum protested it. It should be remembered that Bangladesh was established based on equality, human dignity, and social justice. We hope the actions of the government would be continued and all the democratic forces should fight untidily against anti-Bangladesh forces based on terrorism communalism and militancy. This will ensure the democratic system having democratic institutions.
The writer is an academic, former ambassador, leader-student action committee 71 and freedom fighter.