Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dead Felani a bigger threat to Govt. than to India's BSF

Felani on her death has become a bigger threat to the government and its party apparatus than to the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) who gunned down her in the barbed wire fenced border early last month.
   The perceived threats have come to the public following the imposition of Section 144 at Felani's home village Nageswari and around the locality as some human rights groups from the capital sought to visit her home and hold a public meeting to mourn her death.
   Bir Bikram stopped
   The group led by Sector Commander of Liberation War and retired Wing Commander of Bangladesh Air Force, Hamidullah Khan, Bir Bikram, was taken under security watch on their arrival at Kurigram town and stopped them from moving out of their hotel by police and other security personnel.
   Local administration at the same time imposed ban on holding meeting in the locality justifying that as some local Awami Lague (AL) activists have also called for a meeting at the same venue at the same time, the ban is necessary to avoid any clash.
   The group later tried to visit the local Press Club but police held them back from going there while AL youth front activists staged procession in the street bringing pressure on them to leave the town.
   A section of the press branded the group as an offshoot of BNP which is out to agitate the people on the issue. However, home minister Sahara Khatun had earlier visited the home of the murdered Felani, offered condolences to her father and a token compensation of Taka three lakh to help him overcome the grief.
   Felani issue banned
   But when some other groups sought to visit her home the government appeared to have taken a critical view about it and critics here wonder why the authorities are putting all such ban on speaking about the issue even in her own local community.
   The Indian BSF personnel have committed the horrendous act which is not only a homicide but also a crime against humanity. Not only the people of Bangladesh are mourning the death, national and international media are also taking the issue as a cold-blooded murder demanding legal action on the killing.
   This is more so because Indian BSF soldiers are routinely killing Bangladesh nationals in the border --- one in four days on an average --- which is only visible on Israel-Palestine border and yet they are going with all sort of impunity.
   Critics wonder why the government is critical of taking the Felani issue to the public, why is it giving the impression that they are also sharing the guilt that BSF have perpetrated by way of killing Felani in the barbed wire border fence.
   They say it speaks of the way the government is out to gag the voice of the opposition, and more so the ruling AL does not want to expose the Indian brutalities on Bangladeshi nationals as it has the close ally across the border.
   This is a clear signal of despotic rule in the country. And the gagging of the voice is gradually spreading over the ruling party MPs as well.
   Half a dozen MPs
   Last week, the Prime Minister blocked the way of half a dozen MPs from speaking in the House on an issue centering the communication minister.
   Following it, Moinuddin Khan Badal of JSD which is a partner of the grand coalition government said he saw clouds gathering in the horizon of the House. He said he would not speak on the issue what the Prime Minister has brought to a preemptive end.
   He said the Prime Minister spoke critically of the press for breaking news with a cartoon relating to a letter written by the communication minister to the Prime Minister, but mysteriously signed by the secretary of the ministry.
   The Prime Minister sought to protect the minister, but why she had done it is a big question denying the right of about half a dozen MPs from the ruling elite to speak.
   Badal said, if the press is allowed to speak they can simply bark, but if you deny them to write and treat them as enemy they would bite. The government should decide which one is better, he argued.
   In an oblique reference to the Communication Minister he said if one can not stand straight and speak, the House can hardly move with such 'slaves.'
   Referring to the letter signed by the secretary of the ministry to the Prime Minister, he said it violates the MPs privileges, and if such things get shelter, the House would lose its significance.
   Democracy is thus heading towards an autocratic rule in the country. In a case relating to airport project at Arial Beel in Srinagar where the AL government had sought to build and was later forced to abandon it following public uprising in the area, the government has filed at least three cases involving over 22,000 people as accused.
   The accused include not only BNP Chairperson and Opposition leader Khaleda Zia but also Professor Emeritus Sirajul Islam Choudhury of Dhaka University and such other high profile intellectuals and professionals. People wonder why the government is not acting rationally.

Moulana Bhashani's Historical And Contemporary Significance

This writer called on Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani twice at the latter's home in Tangail, to pay his respect to Bangladesh's great statesman. The first occasion was in September of 1973. At that time this writer had just started his work in Bangladesh as journalist. On advice of his Leftist friends he went to Santosh in Tangail where Bhashani's Krishok Samity then was to hold a peasant conference. The following paragraphs are recounted in first person.
   Moulana Bhashani's role as the foremost peasant leader was undisputed; he had led the masses and the peasantry of East Bengal to join the uprising against Pakistan's dictator Ayub Khan, in 1968-1969. At that time Sheikh Mujib was in jail in connection with Agartala Conspiracy case.
   In the journalistic interview which I was able to obtain from Bhashani in between his peasant conference engagements, the Moulana explained to me some of the complexities of Bengali politics, notably the prevalence of a conspiracy syndrome. A photograph of this interview appeared in the Dutch weekly The Nieuwe Linie (October, 1973).
   Very recently, in November last, the second occasion for a visit to Tangail came when I was invited to attend the shadow Climate Tribunal staged in Dhaka on November 8, 2010 as an international observer. I feel very grateful to Bhashani's biographer, Syed Abul Maksud, for having been kind enough to take me along with his family to Bhashani's 'mazar' (tomb).
   I deeply regret that it has taken more than 34 years since Bhashahi's death before I could make my pilgrimage and pay my respect thus to Bhashani's accomplishments.
   Bhashani and independence
   However, following the research which I have meanwhile been able to carry out and on the basis of the work done by Bangladeshi scholars and activists, I have become thoroughly convinced that Bhashani played a decisive role in paving the way for the formation of Bangladesh as an independent political state. Moreover, his example has great significance for the contemporary world debate on Islam.
   Bhashani's life spans no less than three different epochs in the history of East Bengal and Bangladesh. These are the late colonial period, when resistance against British rule was on the rise in the Indian subcontinent; the relatively brief period when East Bengal formed a part of the state of Pakistan; and the post-independence period, i.e. the period after the formation of Bangladesh as an independent state. Bhashani was born in 1885, in Dhangora, Sirajganj District——in the very year when the Indian National Congress came into being. He died in 1976 in Dhaka Medical College.
   The political achievements which he obtained in the course of these three distinct periods are so large, that it is impossible to sum them up in one single essay. The length of his life as a social activist and politician itself spans at least 67 years, i.e. from 1909 when he got briefly involved with underground politics, until the holding of the Farakka Long March in 1976. I will list some of the peak-years in his political life, years when the successes of his personal political leadership stood out with especially great force:
   1946: Victory of the Muslim League under Bhashani's leadership in Assam Elections.
   The saga of Bhashani's rise as a popular leader in the colonial province of Assam alone suffices to establish his credentials. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bhashani had been an organiser of and speaker at peasant conferences held at different places in Bengal to highlight the demands of the 'proja' or tenants exploited under the feudal system of land relations.
   When the British colonial authorities expelled him, the firebrand Moulana moved to Char Bhashan in Assam, where he built his hut amidst Bengali migrant peasants. Here, he resumed his agitation for peasants' rights. Although Bengali migrants formed almost half the population of Assam, their movements and cultivation rights were severely restricted under the 'Line Protha System' which the British rulers had enforced. Bhashani's success in building a movement in defence of marginalised peasants both forced the colonial authorities to make concessions, and facilitated his rise as Leftwing leader in the Assam Muslim League. In 1937, Bhashani was elected provincial President of the Muslim League in Assam. Nine years later, in 1946, the Muslim League swept the Assam elections, gaining all but three of the seats in the Provincial Assembly.
   These results, I understand, can almost entirely be ascribed to the popularity which Moulana Bhashani had personally built among Muslim and Hindu migrant peasants.
   The Kagmari meet
   The Historic Kagmari Conference was held in 1957 in Santosh under Bhashani's lead which reconfirmed the demand for Bengali national self-determination. The next main chapter in Bhashani's political life covers the period when he popularised the demand for Bengali self-determination.
   Earlier, soon after the Partition, Bhashani moved back to East Benga where discontent surfaced over the refusal of Pakistan government to grant Bangla the status of national language. Moulana Bhashani distinguished himself sharply from other prominent political leaders by throwing his full weight behind the student community that spearheaded the language movement in 1952. It was right for the students to break the prohibition on rallies and demonstrations, Section 144. Bhashani personally took the lead in taking the movement forward.
   As President of the Awami Muslim League, he helped form the United Front that defeated the Muslim League in the 1954 parliamentary elections. Moreover, Bhashani did not stop agitating once his party had scored this electoral victory. Instead, he took the agitation for Bengali self-determination to the remotest corners of East Bengal. When his party colleagues, who had become ministers in the new central government, appeared to retract their pledges over regional autonomy, Bhashani staged the historic Kagmari Cultural Conference —- a true milestone in the history of Bangladesh. Here Bhashani spoke prophetic words, arguing that if Pakistan government did not give in to their demand, the people of East Bengal would say 'Pakistan Walaikum Salam'
   Uprising against Ayub
   The period from 1957 onwards is the period when Moulana Bhashani at his advanced age, as senior and prominent preacher-politician created huge opportunities for the Left forces in East Bengal. First, he differentiated his own politics from the politics of representatives of the rising bourgeoisie, by creating the National Awami Party (NAP).
   Contrary to the Awami League, the programmatic orientation of NAP was unreservedly: "to oppose American and Western imperialism", and "in favour of class liberation of the Bengali working class and the peasantry". The re-emergence of Left politics, which had been greatly weakened by the 1947 Partition, was an essential precondition for the launching of the 1969 uprising against Ayub Khan's dictatorship.
   The insurrection started in West Pakistan in 1968, and only by the year's end spread to East Bengal. Surely, students under the banner of the Chhattro Sangram Parishad steered the uprising through its second phase (January-February, 1969). Moulana was the one leader who contributed the largest to bringing the industrial workers and peasants, into the arena of struggle, and personally shaped the tactics of the uprising. In the world press, Bhashani was described as the 'Red Moulana' for the role he played in promoting the uprising's enormous success.
   The last chapter in Moulana Bhashani's life cannot be characterised as the happiest in his life. In 1969/1970 Bhashani reached the very peak of his success as peasant leader and organizer, when he staged three hugely successful Red Cap Conferences, gatherings of peasants with red caps and sticks in which literally hundreds of thousands of his followers participated. Political prisoner Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was freed from jail.
   House arrest in India
   When placed under house arrest in India in 1971, he saw himself restricted in policymaking towards the country's War of Liberation. Again, the government which came to power in 1971/1972 did not grant him the recognition which - as history shows - he was entitled to. Nevertheless, until the very end of his eventful political life Bhashani remained a great moral force.
   As democratic values rapidly eroded and the first government turned repressive, Moulana Bhashani openly warned against the danger of despotism. He unswervingly maintained solidarity with revolutionary leaders who got arrested and threatened being tortured by the state's security forces. And in 1976, even as his health was very frail, he crowned his life with yet another grand success.
   Against India's refusal to respect Bangladesh's rights over the water of the Ganges River he called for the Farakka Long March. Staged shortly before his death, the March engendered a huge mass response.
   Religious tolerance
   Bhashani was not merely a politician, but a preacher-theologian as well. He was a deeply pious leader who was personally committed to the religion of Islam. Before emerging as peasant leader, the young Abdul Hamid Khan had been trained by his mentor Bagdadi, and had been educated at the renowned Islamic university of Deoband, founded by 19th century Sufi saints. Bhashani was a mystical practitioner. In the course of his life, he gathered a huge number of religious followers. Just like many of the Sufi saints who preceded him, Bhashani's followers included both Muslims and Hindus. And although at each and every point in his life he reminded his followers of his commitment to his social ideals, Bhashani's work cannot be appreciated fully, unless we take account of his role as preacher-theologian.
   I will refer briefly to Bhashani's Islamic philosophy, the philosophy of Rabubiyat, to which he was initiated by Allama Azad Sobhani, in 1946. Here it is important to stress that Bhashani radically differentiated himself from all those Moulanas and Mullahs who in the later colonial period sought to communalise Bengali politics.
   Contrary to the Muslim League politician Moulana Akram Khan, for instance, Bhashani never engaged in a communalist discourse, but instead consistently preached the maintenance of harmonious relations between adherents of the subcontinent's two main religions, Hinduism and Islam. Though being a Muslim spiritual leader, Bhashani was frequently at loggerheads with overzealous Muslim preachers. Thus, he opposed the communalist orientation of other Muslim League leaders on the eve of Partition, in 1945-46. He fiercely disagreed with those Moulanas who in the 1950s upheld the policies of the Islamic state of Pakistan over the demand for self-determination of the people of East Bengal.
   Moreover, Bhashani personally played a glorious role in the secularisation of politics in East Bengal. This he did with great astuteness. Recognising the sensitivity of the issue of people's faiths, he brought up the matter of the secularisation of party politics gradually, as people's self-confidence, confidence over their Bengali identity and over their social rights, grew. Thus, when the Awami Muslim League was formed under his leadership, in 1949, the designation of 'Muslim' in the party name was evidently maintained. Yet in 1956 things changed. Already, the province-wide campaign for regional autonomy under Bhashani's lead was gaining much strength.
   Under these circumstances, and after having held extensive consultations with party activists, Bhashani personally moved to drop the party's exclusivist designation. Meanwhile, Moulana Bhashani on many occasions expressed himself squarely against the misuse of religion for political ends. In short, he stood for religious tolerance. The Moulana stood in the grand tradition of a tolerant and liberal form of Islam, the Islam as it was historically popularised by the Sufi saints in Bengal.
   Abandonment by Left
   Let us now pause to reflect on the opportunities that were lost at a very crucial moment in the history of the formation of Bangladesh. For this it is necessary to focus on the 1969 uprising against Pakistan's dictator Ayub Khan, and on the role which the aged Bhashani personally played at the time. During this crucial period, the aged preacher-politician Moulana Bhashani openly committed to cooperate with the then revolutionary Left in East Bengal. Sharing Bhashani's conviction the peasantry who formed the vast majority of the people, could and should be mobilised, the revolutionary leaders who styled themselves Maoists until 1969, worked together with Bhashani under the banner of the NAP's Krishok Samity. Yet on the very eve of the liberation war, precisely when Bhashani scored dramatic successes in mobilising the peasantry, the pro-Chinese leaders abandoned him, in order to devote themselves to a sectarian and divisive path of armed struggle.
   At first, the decision of the then 'Maoist' leaders seemed almost inexplicable. Bhashani had personally launched the anti-Ayub uprising in East Bengal, at a rally held on December the 6th, 1969. Here, he gave his full support to striking rickshaw pullers, and boldly called for a general strike, hartal. He personally shaped the tactics of mass struggle, encouraging industrial workers and others to encircle, gherao, their bosses and put pressure on them. One historical moment that may be recalled was December the 28th, when Moulana Bhashani himself led a people's procession.
   Bhashani rejected RTC
   Again, he unreservedly gave his backing to the Chhatra Sangram Parishad, the leading body of the student movement, when it took centre stage in mass mobilisation in January of 1969. And when bourgeois leaders subsequently opted in favour of participation in a Round Table Conference (RTC) with Pakistan's discredited rulers, Bhashani rejected this tactic of compromise, and instead proceeded on the path of people's mobilisation from below.
   Doubts over Bhashani's revolutionary credentials hence could hardly be a reason for the abandonment by East Bengal's pro-Chinese leaders. Nor could it have been impatience over the pace of peasant mobilisation. For here again, Bhashani indisputably showed results. Bengal had witnessed a great peasant uprising on the eve of the 1947 Partition.
   Until the end of 1968 Bhashani drew peasants into the anti-Ayub insurrection, with appeals, first, to take on price-issues, and then to launch actions against body warrants on peasants failing to pay taxes, and against the auctioning of agricultural implements. His efforts reached their peak with the holding of three Lal Tupi ('Red Cap') Conferences staged in late 1969 and early 1970, in which literally hundreds of thousands of peasants took part. These were revolutionary events, for by the time the first Lal Tupi Conference was staged in Shahpur of Pabna district, the new military ruler Yahya Khan, had imposed a state prohibition on holding public rallies.
   Liberation War preparation
   Precisely then Bhashani had carefully prepared the grounds for the 1971 Liberation War, when through the holding of the Lal Tupi Conferences he had facilitated the building of rural peasant militia, his Left wing allies abandoned him. The separation between Bhashani and his pro-Chinese allies was to impact on the outcome of the liberation war, and on the future chances for building a socialist state in independent Bangladesh.
   In the wake of national independence, Bangladesh lacked a unified bloc of Left forces, capable of counterbalancing the strength of the party of the rising bourgeoisie. Moulana Bhashani was sidelined and politically incapacitated by his revolutionary followers. This had tragic implications for the shape of politics in post-liberation Bangladesh.
   This assessment of the failure by the revolutionary Left to understand Bhashani's significance can be amplified. A full appreciation of Bhashani's historical role needs to refer to the fact that he revived the largely tolerant tradition of Islam in Bengal. Bhashani was educated to be a preacher-theologian at the Islamic college of Deoband. While Deoband was explicitly a Sufi institution of learning, the type of Sufism taught here was scripture-based. Important also is the fact that Deoband's founders sought to uphold the contributions of at least four different Sufi silsilas, including the silsila of the Naqshbandis, which was a relative late-comer amongst the different Sufi orders that preached Islam in the subcontinent. Above all, Deoband was and is renowned for the opposition of its theologians against British rule, against colonialism.
   Whereas his Deoband experience would not necessarily dispose Bhashani to stand in the tolerant tradition of the Sufi preachers of Bengal, Bhashani's practice undoubtedly formed a continuation of this pre-colonial tradition.
   Take the example of the Kagmari Conference, held at Bhashani's initiative in 1957. This Cultural Conference was a turning point in the history of East Bengal. It served to consolidate Bhashani's public opinion-building in favour of Bengali national self-determination, and formed a grand occasion to highlight Bengal's unique and open-minded culture. A gate had for instance been erected for Iran's Sufi saint Rumi, and followers of Kushtia's mystic composer-singer Lalan Shah were invited to perform. Subsequently, and in opposition to the policies of Pakistan's military rulers, Bhashani was to also defend the broadcasting of music composed by Rabindranath Tagore. These steps can in no way be interpreted as the steps of a conservative Islamic preacher. They rather stand in the tradition of the Sufi order of the Chishtis, the silsila which played a leading role in spreading Islam in Bengal in the centuries before the coming of the British, a tradition that paid great respect to the Vaishnava, and other Indian musical traditions.
   Bhashani, further, was of course aware of the fact that many of the Sufi saints who spread Islam in Bengal had been venerated by both Muslims and Hindus. He expressed an awareness of the tomb worship, that some of our Left leaders until today do not. Although deeply spiritual, Bhashani was simply not interested in Islam's spread at the expense of other religions. His life's primary mission was a mission of social activism. Here again, he built on the tradition of the Sufi mystics, the spiritual leaders who in the 15th and 16th century led the peasantry of East Bengal in clearing the jungles, and building new fields for the cultivation of agricultural crops. In the practice of the peasant movement which he built in Assam, the famous movement against the 'Line Protha' system, he went well beyond the practice of his historical precursors.
   Then, how to position Bhashani's advocacy of religious tolerance and secularism within the historical tradition of Islam? Here, we need to note the basic cleavage between two philosophical trends. On the one hand, there is the tradition of Ibn Arabi, the 12th century Spanish Islamic thinker whose philosophy is known by the name of Wahdat ul-Wujud, or Unity of Being. Ibn Arabi's philosophy expressed a pluralistic ethos. Since God's spirit pervades all living beings, all humans need to be respected, whatever their creed. Ibn's Arabi's Irani opponent, Simnani, put forward a contrary view, known as Wahdat us-Shuhud or Unity of Perception, which for long made little headway in Bengal. The Chishtis, the Shattaris and other Sufi orders that preached in Bengal on the whole were defenders of Ibn Arabi's tolerant philosophy. It is risky to draw a straight line from the pre-colonial preaching practices of the Sufis, to the advocacy of religious tolerance in the late colonial period. Yet Bhashani's ethos of religious tolerance appears to squarely stand within the line of Ibn Arabi's philosophical tradition, the tradition of tolerance that for a whole historical period predominated in South Asian Islam.
   Contemporary Significance
   So far I have only covered Bhashani's historical significance. To those familiar with Bangladesh's recent history it will be evident that Bhashani's significance for the country he helped give birth to is a lasting one. Given the controversies over Bhashani's role during the post-independence period, it is necessary to recall that Bhashani after 1971 continued championing religious tolerance and secularism.
   Thus, in a speech he gave in April 1972 in Shibpur, Bhashani argued that those who had collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971 should not be given voting rights under the country's new Constitution. In the same month, Bhashani also expressed himself unequivocally in favour of a secular character for the new Constitution, stating that Bengalis and non-Bengalis, 'independent of whatever religious views they hold', should be granted equal rights under the laws of the land. Thus, all through until the end of his life, Bhashani was fiercely opposed to the fundamentalist trend within Islam. He consistently upheld the need for harmonious relations between Muslims and Hindus, which view he had championed ever since his days in Assam.
   It is against this background that I wish to state Bhashani's contemporary significance. Both Europe and the United States these last years have witnessed the rise of a political trend known as the 'Islam-bashers'. This trend has rapidly gained ground especially in the country where I live, i.e. the Netherlands. During the parliamentary elections held in June last, the extreme-rightwing party known as PVV (Party for 'Freedom') gained much ground by abusing the historical prejudices that exists in Dutch society against Islamic religion.
   The PVV argues that Islam is not a religion but an ideology, and that Islam does not stand for equality. While the party only in name defends the right to free speech, the PVV demands that the Quran be banned, which, in my view, is both contrary to the right to freedom of expression and also contrary to the principle of religious tolerance.
   The PVV and similar parties in other European countries thus are trying hard to undermine the foundations of parliamentary democracy. In order to divert the attention of the public away from the economic ills caused by neoliberal policymaking, these dangerous Rightwing extremists target Muslim migrant minorities, who now form a significance section of the Dutch and European population.
   The example of Bhashani perfectly helped expose the propaganda of Europe's Rightwing extremists as utter nonsense. Completely contrary to what the PVV and its associates argue, his Islam is the Islam of social equality.
   In his philosophical essay on Rabubiyat, Bhashani fiercely defended his view that no natural wealth can he held by individuals, that all of Nature's wealth only belongs to Allah, and that the fruits of social production should be equally distributed among society's citizens. Again, whereas the Islam bashers are trying hard to accentuate divisions among different sections of the working class, making use of longstanding prejudices, Bhashani tried hard to bridge the divide between people of different faiths. Though being an Islamic preacher himself, he was never interested in the conversions by Hindu peasants to Islam. Bhashani's secular and democratic credentials thus are beyond dispute. The example of his life's struggles brings out well that there is no irreconcilable contradiction between Islam and parliamentary democracy, that Islam itself promotes powerful, tolerant traditions which in the case of Bangladesh have greatly contributed towards formation of the modern state.
   The Moulana combated religious intolerance. Under today's world conditions, intolerance takes two equally nasty forms. On the one hand is the Middle East, and the rest the Muslim world and to a small extent the Western world, have seen the emergence of a current of fanaticism known as Muslim fundamentalism.
   'Islam bashers'
   On the other hand, both Europe and the United States, in particular, have been witnessing the rise of a political trend, which is best characterised as the trend of the 'Islam bashers'. While in appearance these two trends of Muslim fundamentalism and Islam-bashing stand diametrically opposed to each other, both trends are in fact extreme rightwing trends. Both aim at diverting people's attention away from the problems caused by today's crisis, the financial-cum-ecological world crisis. It is against this background that we need to re-discuss and propagate the great life-work of Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. His life and message have enormous significance towards fighting the threats posed by Rightwing extremists, in the Western world and beyond.

Shiraj Shikder, Mujib, Taher, Zia: Bangladesh’s blood parade truth still unknown

The intervention of the court to find out what really transpired that led to the hanging of Col. Taher is welcomed. It is significant not just because Taher was a man of history with many followers and admirers but also because his death is still shrouded in mystery. Not only do we not know yet if there were major violations of the rule of law and due process in the trial but as many have said, it could well be a ‘judicial murder’. Where the court was used and in this case, a military court to try a civilian no matter whose actions involved soldiers of the army. Taher is dead but the people have a right to know what happened.
* * *
Bangladesh’s history has produced four major deaths that have reverberated in history and influenced thinking and action till today. They are the violent deaths of Shiraj Shikder, Sheikh Mujib, Col. Taher and Gen. Zia. There are certain similarities and certain discordances amongst the four which need to be noted
In this parade of blood and death, Shiraj Shikder’s case happened first. A Maoist opponent of Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League, he mounted a challenge which was more in principle than real but objectified the sense of rage and resentment that many felt towards the regime then. He was killed while in custody amidst jubilant descriptions from national media and AL politicians.
* * *
Sheikh Mujib’s death has been documented more than everyone else’s but the brutality is still shocking. He was killed by a rogue band of army officers along with many members of his family in a gruesome episode of national life. Various anti-AL regimes gave shelter to his killers and the constitution was even doctored for their protection. Ultimately, during the present regime, many were caught, tried and hanged.
* * *
Taher was hanged by Zia in a secret military trial although he was a civilian. He had participated in a coup in which soldiers played a major role and the effort was also linked to the leftist political party JSD. The soldier involved in the coup later released Gen. Zia from jail who became the hero, took over power, had Taher arrested and later tried him leading to his death. It is hoped that the recent court based enquiry will bring out much information on the entire episode.
* * *
Zia was mowed down by a group of Bangladeshi army officers –mostly war of independence veterans – in Chittagong. They thought he was betraying the ‘spirit of 1971’ through his actions. Killed in the same city where he began his war in 1971, the bloody event spilled on after his death with a section of the cantonment rebelling and later being put down by the main army. The officers responsible for the killing of Zia and others were tried in a military court and hanged.
However, questions remain particularly about the involvement of Gen. Ershad and the investigative trial that began looking into it was not continued.
Together these four deaths have contributed to the creation of the ‘legitimacy’ of extrajudicial killings, failure of due process of law, conspiracies to kill using the powers of the state and accepting that such acts are part of a murderous doctrine of necessity in Bangladesh politics, military or civil. Together they have nullified the principle of rule of law in general.
* * *
Of the four, two of them, Mujib and Zia were in power and were killed by their contestants who sought to take over the state. Shiraj Shikder and Taher were killed by Mujib and Zia respectively as threats to their power, big or small.
The death of Mujib, Zia and Taher were all actions taken by army officers in their quest for power.
Shiraj Shikder was the only one in the quartet who was killed by a civilian regime.
The tradition was not established by one killing but murders in each regime have strengthened the process with each act of violence.
* * *
Shiraj Shikder’s death was foundational as it established the system of killing off enemies – inconvenient or dangerous – by the state represented by the government in power. He was a communist revolutionary who was the first person to articulate the East Pakistan-West Pakistan relationship through Marxist lenses and concluded that independent Bangladesh was the only solution. His party fought independently of Mujibnagar against the Pakistanis and after independence fought against Sheikh Mujib’s regime. He was an outlaw and killed several of his own party members including Prof. Humayun Kabir of Dhaka University. His protests reflected the resentment many felt towards the then regime.
He was captured in 1973 and then tortured in custody. I met a few ex-NSI officials as a journalist who told me that they were involved with the interrogation of Shiraj Shikder claiming to have eye witnessed torture. I had asked whether the authorities knew about this and they asked back whether it was possible to torture a ‘national enemy’ without the sanction from the top.
“His death while trying to escape was faked. A man who had so many limbs broken could hardly run. He was shot.” I didn’t dare ask him if he was personally involved but the encounter recollection has stayed with me though I am not sure it happened. I remember the regular announcements on the radio that the “criminal Shiraj Shikder has been killed while trying to escape”. Of course no one believed the radio.
* * *
By the time he was killed, people had already come to accept such encounter killing courtesy to the Rakkhi Bahini, another terribly misguided attempt to obtain security through random acts of mayhem ignoring every notion of rights and common human decency. Worse, they set off the tradition of custodial, extrajudicial and plain murder by the people who were supposed to protect the very principles they violated often acting AL supporters themselves as records show.
* * *
Mujib and Zia were killed by army officers because they thought the two leaders were bad rulers. Both were ineffective rulers and people suffered much during their regimes. Both committed massive human rights abuses and themselves have been accused of many wrong deeds. Sheikh Mujib’s BKSAL and cronyism initiated a platform that was used by his enemies to kill many, doctor the constitution and in general establish a tradition of bad politics that continues to haunt Bangladesh till today.
Mujib himself with his authority and stature was a poor manager of the state and most traditions including partisanship was very much a product of the first regime that is now a national tradition. It is important to recognise that the end of Mujib whose departure’s principal beneficiary was Zia produced no better regime and was marked by a great deal of bloodshed.
* * *
Zia’s regime produced many negatives including using money and favours to create political groups, introducing and rehabilitating state enemies like the Jamaat-e-Islami, establish corruption as a form of official income and infect money as a grease of power and influence that affected his own children.
During his regime many coups were noted, many soldiers killed and hanged and a brand of politics was initiated that is cynical to the extreme.
It is impossible to give anything but mixed reviews to both and also add that both established and enhanced the tradition that is so much part of all the negatives that bedevil us now.
That by no means can ever justify the end of these two. There never can be excuses for murder.
* * *
Taher and Shiraj Shikder were both civilians seeking power and broke the law while doing so. Considered as enemies of the state they were dealt with violence both physical and legal. No matter how horrendous their crimes, no one can be bumped off according to convenience. Because it all happened in the first decade they have become such an integral part of the national psyche. If one wants to look at the roots of present day encounter killings the answer lies in the traditions that included the death of these two political opponents of Mujib and Zia.
* * *
It is also interesting that both these two were followers of their own brand of Marxism/Maoism. What is even more interesting is that many if not the majority of the encounter killings that occur in Bangladesh including now involve Maoists in Bangladesh according to the South Asia Terrorist Portal. The situation is the same for India.
Maoists are not targeted ideologically but as rural operators with no political support or pressure group, it is easier to kill them, even display their dead bodies on TV because there is no one to protest or answer.
* * *
Unless we condemn all killings and seek restoration of judicial justice, the present tradition will continue and we stand to lose from that. Knowing Bangladesh’s tribalised politics, the truth will not come out in one go. Let’s hope that during this regime, as the killers of Mujib have been dealt with, all the information about the Taher killings will be found out and made public information. JSD activists are friendly with the present regime and trashing Zia will be welcomed by the AL.
And let’s hope when the BNP comes to power, they will explore in the same manner the circumstances around the death of Zia which was begun and investigate the process that led to the death of Shiraj Shikder. It will embarrass the AL which BNP will like.
But in the end it is not for them but for us.

The Trouble with Naik

Zakir Naik is a doctor by training. But that's not what he is known for. It's actually hard to describe him. His acolytes would call him a scholar of Islam -- an aleem. But the traditional ulema, from both his native India as well as from elsewhere, don't consider his scholarly bona fides. And in the way he uses the television and the English language, he isn't like any traditional aleem either. One might say he is the closest thing in the subcontinent resembling an American televangelist. He says his mission is to reconvert the Muslim youth to the path of faith -- not dissimilar to the American preachers seeking to create born again Christians.
Dr. Naik visited Dhaka in early December, giving a series of lectures. The reader would recall, that was a time when the hartal politics seemed to have made a return. It was also a time when the Indian film star Shah Rukh Khan's Dhaka concert captured the attention of Dhakaites. Naik's visit was overshadowed by these events. And yet, Naik's visit may be portent of things to come in a more significant way than most other recent developments.
While the mainstream media has been rather silent about the implications of Dr. Naik's visit, it has received some attention in the blogosphere. Consider the post 'Zakir Naik er Bangladesh safar, rajju tey sharpavram?' by Hasan Morshed in Bangla blog Sachalayatan1.
Morshed's thesis is that Naik's visit is problematic because it could hurt the war crimes trial. But Naik has as much to do with the war criminals of 1971 as Saddam Hussein had to do with Osama Bin Laden. The connections are laughable, except for their dangerous implications. In the case of war crimes trial, when progressive bloggers link Naik to the trial, they only support the war criminals' claims that the entire trial process is an attempt to denigrate Islam. Progressives conflate the trial with other issues at their own peril. Nothing good can come of these kinds of intellectual mistakes.
In the English blog Unheard Voice, Khujeci_tomai takes a different approach.2 Her thesis is that there is an arc connecting Naik's preaching with the fire and brimstone of the proponents of violent jihad. Theoretically, the connection is undeniable.
But in practice, how seriously should we take this? After all, the kind of stuff Naik says is also heard in thousands of mosques around the country on any given Friday. And the annual gathering in Tungi draws a far, far bigger crowd than anything Naik will get. If we were to take Khujeci_tomai's fear seriously, would we not be wary of Tabligh Jamaat and the local mosques? Needless to say, if one were to worry thus, one would have a hard time in a 90% Muslim country.
So, what does Naik preach typically? Here is a direct quote:
Suppose my sister happens to be one of the unmarried women living in USA, or suppose your sister happens to be one of the unmarried women in USA. The only two options remaining for her are that she either marries a man who already has a wife or becomes public property.
Videos of his 'lectures' and 'debates' are widely available online.3 And there is of course the Peace TV, which can be viewed in most households in Dhaka.
Dr. Naik's oratorical style follows a pattern. Let's stick to his views on women for illustrative purposes.

First, the opponent's words are twisted to perplex him (very rarely, if ever, her). This is followed by a few hard-hitting, unblinking punch-lines that convince the general audience (which usually applauds at this point). This is followed by the sentimental melodrama that reminds one of the classic Dhallywood dialogue -- toder ki maa bon nei? By this time, the all-male audience has had a major morale boost because they feel like saviours, protectors and heroes -- women are sexual beings so if men don't marry them, they will go astray.
Then Naik takes it up a gear. Apparently, Americans are converting to Islam in droves -- clearly this is great and any questioning of misogynistic interpretation of Islam is redundant. Of course, while talks about Islam degrading women, it's the American 'art and culture' that degrades women and sells them -- apparently only BMW and beauty pageants constitute art and culture. Of course, Islam won't allow it (does that mean Islam is opposed to art and culture?) -- more applause.
The big take away: women can't do anything for themselves, if men don't take care of them, they are doomed.
The arguments are like this: all cats have whiskers, your grandfather has whiskers, your grandfather is a cat. Needless to say, this fails Logic 101. And yet, Naik has his audience enthralled.
His facades make him terrifying. He claims to quote from various religious texts -- a tolerant fellow, not a typical mullah. Fans gush over his memory and knowledge based on the fact that he is able to throw page numbers and verses at them effortlessly from memory. He holds up the books when he refers to them. Of course, no one really bothers to cross-check what he is saying?
A doctor by training, when he says 'evolution is just a theory which became popular because it was against the Bible', the crowd swallows hard. And he appeals to men's base instinct, in English: if men don't marry, women are doomed into prostitution -- you are only here to save my brother!
He appeals to the 'educated Muslim'. He is in a class (pun intended) of his own, so very unlike the typical mullah. He is the very model of a modern Muslim man!
But think about Naik's message. He talks about women's empowerment, but does not once mention self-sufficiency. He talks about women as if they are something to have ownership over. He says that men should assume the role of caregivers, automatically suggesting that women are inferior. He says it as if it is not only normal, but right. Not only does he assume and accept a patriarchal social system, but justifies it. He asserts, leaves out nuances and leaves no room for the listener to reflect and/or scrutinise.
And this message Naik peddles to the influential.
Language is a class statement and since his teachings are in English, we can safely assume that his followers would have had a certain level of education. When groups that are relatively less socio-economically vulnerable fall prey to ideology-induced vulnerability, it's extra alarming since these are the people who have more space to manoeuvre free thought. In societies such as ours, tapping the classes is far more dangerous than tapping the masses. You control the top, you control them all.
Our political economy reality is that an ordinary farmer who believes in the local pir's magic waters over medicine is at most a threat to his self and family. But if a businessperson/professional/politician chooses an Imam over a professor, it threatens the broader society because this person has more agency to execute his or her belief.
And this is also why, like Khujeci_tomai, we need to worry more about Naik than so many home-grown fanatics and fundamentalists who preach the same stuff. We don't yet have a home-grown fundo who has the shikkhito facade. The most (in)famous Naik-like person in Bangladesh is Delwar Husseyn Sayeedi. And he has the accusation of being a war criminal hanging over him.
Naik, as we noted right at the beginning, is free of any 1971 baggage.
But why does the educated class of Bangladesh find what is supposed to be the opiate of the masses so appealing?
We seldom think about it, but if we thought for a moment, it would be self-evident how rapidly the Bangladeshi society is changing. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than among the urban educated folks, people who once used to call themselves shikkhito moddhobitto bhadralok. In any random conversation in any random social event, one can notice a nostalgia, a sense that something valuable is being lost even as people's lives have improved materially. One doesn't have to believe in Marx's theory of alienation to recognise that capitalist-materialist social changes inevitably cause massive social disruptions.
Faced with the disconcerting pace of change, many find refuge in Naik. When worrying about how to raise children in the digital world, seeing the changing gender dynamics at home and abroad, facing difficult decisions about parent's health, Naik's simplistic messages resonate to. And some will go one step further and seek politics based on religion. Not necessarily violent politics. Perhaps perfectly legitimate, democratic, peaceful politics. But Islamist politics all the same.
And when the war criminals will be dead, when 1971 will not be in the living memory of 90% of the country, we will still have to contend with that politics. Yelling tui razakar will not help then.
In fact, it won't help with Naik today. And that, dear reader, is the biggest trouble with Naik.