Bangladesh at a crossroads: The country’s future lies in the rise of a third liberal political alternative

Bangladesh at a crossroads

A Bangladeshi social activist holds a candle at a vigil near Raju Bhashkarja on Dhaka University campus to pay tribute to Avijit Roy

Last month, Avijit Roy, founder of USA-based atheist-humanist blog Mukto-Mona (Freethinker), was brutally murdered in the Dhaka University campus. He was repeatedly hacked with a pair of machetes until a part of his brain came out into the street of Bangladesh’s capital. His wife Rafida Ahmed, drenched in blood, tried to protect Roy from his murderers and lost two of her fingers.

The choice of the place and the timing of the attack is indeed unnerving. Eleven years ago, on the same day and at the same time, Humayun Azad, a Bengali novelist was stabbed in a similar manner a few feet away from where Roy’s body lay in the cold February night. The message given to those who remained alive to mourn Roy’s barbaric murder is loud and clear – the attackers are organized and have planned the murder well, for Roy came to Bangladesh to visit his parents only six days ago. The terrorists might have sleeper cells in the USA.

During Azad’s assassination attempt, Bangladesh was ruled by rightwing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist ally Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). But things are different now, the present Awami League (AL) government led by Ms Sheikh Hasina Wajed has always claimed to be a staunch believer in secularism and freedom of speech. But that seemingly unwavering stance is fading fast.

Of late, Ms Wajed has been increasingly using Islamist rhetoric to win the hearts and minds of a population that is highly polarized between two major groups. And like her arch rival Ms Khaleda Zia of the BNP, Ms Wajed has her fair share of blame in pushing a significant number of the country’s young population towards militant Islam.

She heads a government that does not even enjoy 30 percent of popular support. Boycotted by most of the major opposition parties, in the last general election over 150 MPs of Bangladesh’s 300-strong parliament were elected unopposed. Her government seriously suffers from legitimacy crisis and tries its best to tread carefully on areas that it considers risky. That explains why an hour or so after Roy’s death Mukto-Mona could not be accessed from Bangladesh and also why the AL government’s representatives did not take the trouble of offering Roy’s bereaved parents the routine condolences.

Bangladesh’s political actors need to create more space for
each other

In the last two years, eight of the 80 something bloggers who started the Shahbag movement were killed. Shahbag at its beginning drew hundreds of thousands of ardent supporters who demanded death to war criminals of the 1971 war no matter if they can be proven guilty by law or not. It now has become a skeleton of its previous self and is at its death throes. Once it would draw thousands, now save for the bhelpuri-wallas, Shahbag can boast of a motley crowd of a few dozen cultural activists and some idlers.

The Islamist Jamaat’s meteoritic rise is indeed surprising. Faced with allegations of warcrimes against its rank and file and the popularity of Shahbag, the party has relied heavily on religion to garner support from Bangladesh’s 160 million masses, 90 percent of whom are Muslim. In the last local government body election held under Ms Wajed’s government, the Jamaat has got around 11 percent vote. So much so for a party that had not won a single seat in the 1970 election held in united Pakistan.

More alarming perhaps is the disillusionment of some young members of Jamaat. The party is a major ally of Ms Zia’s BNP, which has waged a two-month-long blockade against the ruling Awami League. Even though its grass-roots are highly radicalized, Jamaat leadership has so far rather carefully shied away from resorting to terrorism, keeping the movement’s confines to arson and vandalism. The party’s young Turks want a change to that almost official policy.

It is indeed a small wonder, then, that the Ansarullah Bangla Team that has claimed responsibility to Roy’s murder has in its fold hordes of former Jamaat members who think their old party was too soft on the infidels. To make matters even more complicated, banning Jamaat for warcrime might give a windfall of recruiting opportunity to Ansarullah, which has affiliation with Syran Al Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusra. Then again, not banning it will be like admitting defeat for the Awami League.

But make no mistake: even though the Awami League is hugely unpopular and has failed to wipe out terrorism, bringing back BNP-Jamaat to power can never even be considered an option by the country’s secular elite. Both the parties are Bangladesh equivalent of BJP and VHP, and it is not clear what their possible ascend to power will mean for the stability of the region. Bangladesh’s future lies in the rise of a third liberal political alternative. At present, that, as a possibility, looks like a distant dream. Before that happens, Bangladesh’s political actors need to create more space for each other, the country might otherwise have to face a dark and dangerous future. And that does not bode well for Bangladesh’s neighbours.