For Bangladesh the portents are ominous

Since past six months and more Bangladesh has been in news and for all the wrong reasons. The dirty secrets of its $18 billion readymade garments industry are now out in the open. This industry represents seventy five per cent of the country's gross domestic product and its biggest foreign exchange earner.

Yet, it is the country's biggest killer of human lives. Politics in Bangladesh has turned more vicious than ever; its elections are now in jeopardy. But more than all these wrong reasons, Bangladesh is in news because of an appalling radicalisation of society which is sweeping the country across its length and breath.

In terms of its malignity, the rising tide of bigotry in Bangladesh is no less virulent than that we see in Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is all-pervading and is infecting every single institution which had given Bangladesh a unique ambience of secularity and tolerance. Bangladesh authorities are more than vociferous in denying radicalisation of the country and so has been a small section of its populace. But, the fact is that the country has already slipped too deep into zealotry not seen prior to the nineteen nineties.

Rise of religious intolerance, efforts to reshape administration and society of Bangladesh according to religious tenets and slide into intolerance began during middle of 1990s. But the process gained perceptible momentum in 2001 when Bangladesh National Party (BNP), not known for its democratic and secular credentials, stormed into power in alliance with a fundamentalist mainstream political party Jamaat-e-Islami.

Jamaat, which had always maintained strong ideological ties with Al Qaeda and Taleban in Afghanistan, took full advantage of its alliance with BNP; spread the venom of fundamentalism; radicalised society once and for all; even imported extremism not know in the country till the other day. The extent to which Bangladesh has been radicalised became more than visible when earlier this year Jamaat paralysed the country ostensibly to protest conviction of war criminals who allegedly connived with Pakistan army during Bangladesh's war for independence in 1971.

But deep down, the movement wasn't political. It was a radical movement aimed at Islamising society and administration. Scores of people died, bookshops were burnt down because Jamaat said that they were selling books which did not conform to the tenets of religion, vehicles were torched and left hundreds wounded as radical elements demanded passage of a more stringent anti-blasphemy law. In essence, for two weeks bigots and fundamentals in Bangladesh fought pitched battles with security forces across the country to stir the nation's religious soul and perhaps its basic bigotry.

In that war to emphasise the country's identity the secular younger generation, mostly born after its war for independence in 1971, lost out to the bigots. The ferment reaffirmed and exposed the degree to which Bangladesh has been radicalised. Shaikh Hasina's Awami League government killed a few dozens of zealots in a bid to contain the venom turning viral. It failed and failed miserably. The thin pall of secularism and tolerance that Hasina meekly tried to protect came tearing down rather rudely.

"The secularist spirit of what would become known as the Shahbag movement … seemed to redound on the ruling party's benefit" failed to pose a challenge to the opposition BNP and the radical elements.

Emergence of Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and Hifazat-e-Islam on the horizon further complicated the situation in the country where society had already been radicalised beyond any quick correction. Khaleda Zia and her party, BNP, used the rising tide of radicalisation as a political tool to wrest power to rule Bangladesh. Therefore, it was obvious that they would fan the menace and let it grow to polarise society and carve out a vote bank.

Even Awami League of Shaikh Hasina cannot avoid its culpabilities in radicalisation of Bangladesh. The party too had played its role and encouraged the scourge to take deeper roots. It may not have directly encouraged growth of radicalisation but did nothing as yet challenge and combat the menace. Awami League's inaction in stemming the rot helped dogmatism and bigotry spread across Bangladesh. Hasina government has been more than impotent in maintaining secular and tolerant fabrics of Bangladesh society.

There isn't any doubt today that Hasina and her government used the pretext of justice to bring the alleged war criminals to book as an excuse to execute opposition politicians to gain electoral advantages and polarise society exactly the way Khaleda and BNP have been doing. Hasina government and her party, Awami League, cannot be credited for trying to salvage the secular tradition and tolerant soul of Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, efforts to radicalise society and moves to contain the affliction have been politics.

More unfortunate and deplorable has been the role of the country's intelligentsia. They may have poured forth at Shahbag demanding execution of the war criminals and Jamaat leaders. They were not more than 500,000 in number and may have got spectacular media support. Yet, they were and they still are minorities in Bangladesh. The Shahbag movement was not to counter growing radicalisation of their society but to press their demand for vengeance against alleged crimes which they feel were primarily responsible for deaths of their fathers, brothers and other relatives in 1971.

Alas! In their myopia and vengeance the intelligentsia and secular youth of Bangladesh have allowed radicalisation of the country grow. Impacts of their inabilities and myopia may not be felt immediately but as Bangladesh gets more and more radicalised there would be none but themselves to blame.

Writings on the walls for Bangladesh are loud and clear. And they are ominous.

The author is the Opinion Editor of Times of Oman


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