In a short span of four weeks Dhaka was besieged twice by a hitherto less known organisation of seminaries that provide religious education on a syllabus dating back over a hundred years. These religious institutions known as Qawmi madrassas that were inspired and modeled after the iconic Deobond Madrassa in UP, India, had traditionally catered to the spiritual needs of Muslims in Bangladesh. The graduates of these institutions ordinarily performed as imams in mosques, provided religious services to village and urban societies, and some rose to fame as religious scholars with their oratory and religious knowledge. Very few indulged in politics, at least not directly. Those who did usually joined one or the other existing political parties of the country.
It was a surprise, therefore, that a primarily non-political organisation of a motley group of very conservative religious institutions could muster hundreds of thousands of loyalists and descend upon the capital city in a long march covering hundreds of miles. The first long march was ostensibly organised to protest against an alleged insult to religion by some of the supporters and sponsors of the mass rally in Shahbagh square, the principal focus of which was demand for punishment of alleged war criminals. In an ironic twist of events a rally that espoused the very principles that had inspired our liberation struggle, some of the lead participants of the rally would later besmirched with accusations of anti-Islamic slur in their web logs.
In a normal society such accusations would have been met with rational discussions and appropriate legal steps should such accusations warrant any. But we live in a society of least tolerance of opposing views, most of all if it touches religion. And we also live in a political world where no opportunity is lost to spite our opponents, and each such event is exploited to the party’s advantage.
The smoldering issue of perceived insult to religion and prophet apparently sparked the counter reactionary movement and the long march that brought into the fray not only the pupils and teachers from the seminaries; it also incorporated elements that had always distanced themselves from the core values of our independence struggle, and had built a political platform for promoting their own brand of identity and ideology. This is an identity and an ideology that we thought we had put behind us when we gained our independence. The first rally in Shapla square ended peacefully, but the demands made by the organisers of the rally would show how wrong we had been in our assumptions. The demands forcefully reminded us that no matter how moderate and progressive we consider ourselves as a nation, there exists among us a sizeable section that would like to follow an ideal that is miles away from our line of thinking.
The dead seriousness of the demands, and that these are not simply words written like graffiti on a wall, would be proved by the second march and rally that turned parts of Dhaka into a battleground last week. People world over watched in shock and awe a city besieged by hirsute men of all ages raising slogans and raiding and trashing vehicles, stores, and property–fighting law enforcers along the way. This was no different from the usual battles that other political parties staged in the past when enforcing strikes. A purported assembly of marchers from religious seminaries behaved no differently from trained political workers. In fact, from electronic documentation of the riot in the streets it seemed the combatants were more aggressive than the average political worker.
The consequence of this mayhem after the second rally is heavy. Perhaps this has caused the worst damage in human lives and property in a political fight in recent years in Dhaka, with reverberations across the country. Lives have been lost, property damaged, and normal business transactions have ceased in many parts of the country, with fears of more damage to come.
Should this have been allowed to happen? Could this have been stopped? How could a seemingly placid group of pupils and teachers of religious seminaries muster such strength and have such political muscle to bring a capital city to its knees? How could a confederation of religious institutes assume such power as to dictate what should be the guiding policies of the constitution, and what legislations need to be implemented? This is particularly so when the sponsors of the rally and major leaders have avowed no affiliation with any political party?
Answers to these questions can be partly found in historic manipulation of religious seminaries and their leaders by our political leaders in the past and present, and partly in our deplorable inability to separate our national identity from religion alone. To this we can also add a resurgence of faith and religious practices among many Muslims to a noticeable level.
From the days of Pakistan we witnessed time and again our military dictators using the madrassas as a launching pad for their career. This served two purposes. It allowed them to appear as pious leaders and appeal to religious sentiments of the majority. It also gave them access to a preformed social organisation of madrassa teachers and students that have a large presence in the rural society. President Ayub Khan and President Ziaul Haq of Pakistan used these platforms very effectively. In our time we would see both Gen. Ziaur Rahman and Gen. Ershad resort to such practices. The number of madrassas quadrupled in Pakistan during Ziaul Haq’s time, and in Bangladesh the number grew over three times from 1971 thanks to the patronage both from the rulers during the period, and from private donors.
One expected that with demise of dictatorship buying support of religious groups and patronising them, and coddling them to that end would abate. But politics makes strange bedfellows as we would painfully learn from previous governments that were elected democratically. Our political leaders make compromises and have concordats with groups that may be ideologically in the other end of the spectrum for short term gains. In the long run it is the nation that will suffer for allowing growth of ideals and ideologies that are totally different from the ones that provided the very foundation of the country.
The country is passing through a delicate stage of identity. On the one hand we have a group that believes firmly in the principles on which the country was founded. On the other we have a group that wants to reestablish an ideology that led to a failed nation. This is a threat not to be dismissed as a simple protest. This is a threat that needs to be met by all who have a stake in the future of our country. This should begin by calling an end to the current political impasse by a dialogue among the contending political parties, and recharging the next electoral process. This is audacious, but this could be a good way to end the new challenge to our identity.
The writer is a former World Bank staff member.