Three Bangladeshes intertwined

Shahbag protesters in Dhaka

The establishment of this blog coincides with the drama unfolding at Shabag roundabout in Dhaka. To some it is Bangladesh’s ‘Tahrir Square’, unleashing a popular movement for change.

To others, this movement represents the rule of the mob, Bangladesh’s very own Tea Party baying for blood. Even more look on and see this as nothing more than the rough and tumble of Bangladeshi street politics with widened participation.

Bangladesh’s politics would appear polarized, toxic, anarchic.

More than polarised

Yet, to say the political scene was polarised would be an understatement and simplification. We can adduce the former by street violence and parliamentary boycotts and the latter because the political problem is not a two-body one and alliances are critical.

Bangladesh’s politics has been contested by three main narratives: Bengali Nationalism, Bangladeshi Nationalism and Islamism. They are led by the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islam respectively.

The secular-Islamic polarity runs on top of this political field, reducing the importance of the BNP and pitting the Awami League and the much smaller, but better disciplined Jamaat against each other on issues such as war crimes tribunals.

The three narratives may seem mutually exclusive, but all have shared experiences and draw meaning from each other.

Historical roots

The tense situation that we see today did not arise overnight, nor are its origins solely from the 1971 war that created the country. The region we now know as Bangladesh has transformed with shifting identity politics, colonialism and the Cold War. Its birth marked a step from feelings of All-India Muslim unity and social reform (instigated by many Bengali Muslims in the early 20th century) towards a secular, ethno-linguistic identity.

Following this, territorial and religious principles were reinserted into the national definition documentation. The recent Awami League government again changed the constitution, reinserting its favoured Secularism but stopping short of removing the position of Islam in it.

These questions of political being may seem trivial, but are primary political values that influence how actors view each other and the world around them. You cannot put Bangladesh or the Bangladeshi people neatly in anthropological tick boxes. One of the main instigators of latter-day Bangladeshi nationalism was a popular cleric, Maulana Bashani, whose popular nationalist movement gave way to the one that allowed Mujibur Rahman to become the founder of the country. But Bhashani held on firmly to his piety as he did to his firm belief of a just, progressive, Bengali and Muslim polity.

Internal implications

Even today, apparent contradictions abound. Bangladeshi leaders fall over themselves to be seen at the massive Bishwa Ijtema, an annual Muslim event organized by the quietist Tablighi Jamaat, a movement declared elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent as fundamentalist, anti-women and the progenetors of the Taliban.   Several of the Islamists currently on trial and held Dhaka’s jails, were  ministers in governments led by a woman.

All of these awkward realities matter, because they confound narratives pushed through by Bangladesh’s political class and its press corps, which is, by and large, unable to deal with the huge challenges facing this country of 160 million souls.

With three generations of alternating politics struggling to cohere amongst a venal political-administrative class, instability is the name of the game. External agendas and interests can easily win support amongst disaffected quarters, sustaining mistrust and creating new problems.

Irresponsible comment and analysis simplifies, vilifies and blinds itself to common humanity and the public interest. For this reason, The Khichuri aims to unpack political developments with clarity and nuance for mutual understanding.

Source: Khichuri