Written By: Nazmul
Krittivas Mukherjee, Hindustan Times, New Delhi | Jul 02, 2016
It has been a year of unusual Islamist violence in Bangladesh, with at least 18 murderous attacks on freethinkers, minority religious preachers and a much-loved English professor at the Rajshahi University.
The pattern in the violence is unmistakable: Machete-wielding gangs, sometimes masked, waylay victims and butcher them in the middle of crowded streets, making sure the message of fear and impunity hit home.
But Friday’s coordinated assault on a restaurant popular with foreigners and locals in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, Gulshan, has the strategic hallmarks of a terrorist operation that Bangladesh may never have seen before.
Yet, these attacks are seen as part of a wider struggle for the soul of Bangladesh, where irreverent secularists and intolerant Islamist groups are fighting a blood-soaked ideological battle that may well decide whether the country upholds its founding secularist principles or embraces religious bigotry.
To be sure, the murders of secular bloggers and liberals have sparked mass public protests because much of Bangladesh’s secular tradition is still alive and strong. But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, known to be sympathetic to liberal intellectuals, has done little to publicly defend secularism and free speech.
Indeed, Hasina’s government has dithered over its response to religious fanaticism for fear of ceding ground to the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally Jamaat-e-Islam.
It is clear the ruling party, the Awami League, does not want to be seen as atheists and will, at best, offer lip service to the defence of secularism. Since 2013, it has clamped down on dissent in media and jailed atheist/secular bloggers using a draconian religious law -- just to trump political rivals. Political exigency has also meant that the government has gone soft on radical groups with links to the Taliban – including the Hefazat-e-Islam and Ansarullah Bangla Team -- that have spread across Bangladesh in recent years.
These groups -- which believe silencing their ideological rivals is better than engaging in any theological debate with them -- want the authorities to legislate a blasphemy law that provides for death punishment for religious dissent, a demand the government has so far resisted.
By jailing journalists and activists, and with its radio silence on the killings of young writer-bloggers for nothing more than expressing peaceful opinions about religion, the government is only strengthening the hand of radicals who are hacking freethinking people to death on Bangladesh’s streets. This sends the wrong signal to society.
In layman’s terms, a failing or failed state is categorised by what they do not or cannot do. Such states do not control their borders, allowing non-state actors to move in and out without trouble. Parts of such states can be under the control of rebels and warlords. Failed states do not provide basic services to its citizens, and finally they cannot fulfill international obligations.
None of this is true of today’s Bangladesh. Yet, with every murder, every attack, the country is edging towards levels of intolerance and lawlessness where the line between a vibrant, prosperous country and a failed state gets blurred.
In the wider context of South Asia, such a development would be disastrous, especially for the dominant regional power India, which already remains wary of rising Islamist fundamentalism in its neighbourhood.
Strangely, Bangladesh’s neighbours have appeared unmoved by this political mess. But such visible disinterest will only embolden the forces seeking to erect an intolerant Salafist rule in that country - a development that will be disastrous, especially for India.
As Bangladeshi decides on the role of religion in its polity, the secularists who are now in power must not lose sight of the principles that drove its partition from Pakistan, and must put the dream of a free, progressive and inclusive society above any considerations of political self-preservation.
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