The ‘Identity Project’:Shahbhag and the Politics of Faith in Bangladesh

Bangla is one of the major languages spoken in Asia, and in terms of sheer numbers it is probably the 5th or 6th most widely conversed lingo internationally.  The united Bengal region has been historically under Muslim rule and was the first region to come under British Rule in South Asia.  In 1905, Bengal was split on religious lines under the British ‘Divide & Rule’ policy into East and West Bengal.  The East being dominated by Muslims and West being dominated by the Hindu community. In 1947, under a colonial deal, the Muslim majority areas were carved out of British India into a Muslim majority state of Pakistan with Urdu as its National Language although Bangla was language spoken by the majority.  On February 21st, 1952 students at Dhaka University were shot at brutally for protesting the imposition of Urdu on Bangla speaking East Pakistan. This day is marked as the International Mother Tongue Day. The inflection point in the two state theory emerged in 1969 when Bengali dominated Awami League lead by ‘Banga Bandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rehman won the Pakistan National Polls by a landslide in East Pakistan and was not allowed to form the Government by the Punjabi dominated Military.  The Bengali officers in the united Pakistani Army fought the Indians valiantly in the 1965 war.

The Pakistani Army along with East Pakistani accomplices i.e. the razakars (mainly the Jamaat) led a campaign to exterminate opposition especially the Hindu community and the progressive intellectuals who were vehemently in favor of Independence. Genocide of a mind boggling magnitude took place. The Pakistani Army’s agenda was a Bengal without Hindus and a subdued Bengali population to control. There are some counter theorists too. Sarmila Bose, author of ‘Dead Reckoning’ has painted a more realistic portrait of the magnitude of the war crimes episode. The current War Crimes Trial of the Razakars is an evocative issue driving the nation into a more secular language oriented identity driven polity and another perspective which wants a region driven agenda.

10 million Bengalis especially Hindus crossed over in to India to escape persecution from the hands of the Pakistan Army. East Pakistan had a 22% Hindu population in 1947 which is in single digits today.

Whenever a non Awami League administration comes in to power with the Jamaat on board, there has been a systemic persecution of the Hindu community. May be in the words of Social Thinker Arjun Appadurai: it is the ‘Fear of Small Numbers’ which drives the right to marginalize the minority to establish its footing as a force with a voice. The Jamaat has only 4% of the National vote but wields disproportionate power due to its social initiatives and corporate financial muscle. The Islamic Chatra Shibir (Jamaat’s Youth Wing) is known to recruit youth in to its fold by offering scholarships for Higher Education to young bright minds from poor households, in turn indoctrinating them in its narrow world view. Political Islam has always lent grass roots support globally from Hamas to Hezbollah in order, to cultivate a buy in for its thought processes. Political Islam Jamaat style is not popular in a country which prides itself on Language and does not extract its religious affiliations as its only source of Identity.

In 1971, BangaBandhu Sheikh Mujibur lead the Mukti Bahini to create the People’s Republic of Bangladesh supported by Indian Army.  These historic events lead to the death of the original two nation theory and a creation of a Bengali speaking nation on India’s eastern borders (midwived in a way by Indira Gandhi). Originally conceptualized as a secular state, this noble idea died as Sheikh Mujib and his Family was massacred in 1975, allowing the Bangladesh Army to come back to power reinstating the Jamaat as its ban was over turned and gradually was able to come to the national centre stage.

The current Shahbhag phenomenon is Bangladesh’s Nuremburg and Maidan Al Tahrir combined with tens of thousands particularly the youth joining in, who have not been tainted with the experience (either ways) of the independence struggle. The killing of Rajib, the blogger and the counter persecution of the Shahbhag activists with the taint of being ‘Anti-Islamic’ and Atheist is probably the last card in the pack of the Jamaat, everytime it has been pushed to a corner. The Government is playing to the gallery to be fair by supporting the death sentence of the convicted razakars as it wishes to throttle political opposition and return to power via next year’s polls.

This episode is slowly taking on a violent shade of color with the crisis spiraling out of control with multitudes dead in clashes between the government and the activists of the Jamaat.  Hindu Temples and the minority Hindu Community are the scapegoat of choice for the Jamaat , everytime it is attacked. But times are changing; this Shahbhag Square is anti political Islam unlike Tahrir Square which was pro Muslim Brotherhood and pro involvement of Faith in politics.

Whichever side emerges victories, will shape Bangladesh’s identity for the Future. Whether to become a progressive Turkey or a Malaysia or head down its ‘Aager Desher’ (Previous Nation aka Pakistan) path is Bangladesh’s choice.

As a Bangla speaking person I shout a loud ‘Joy Bangla’ in support of my cultural cousins at Shahbhag.



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