JUST the other night I happened to come across a documentary on YouTube. It was called Bangladesh — The Dawn of Islamism (a Deutsche Welle production, directed by Sandra Petersmann, Hans Christian Ostermann). It was a forty-two minutes documentary the gist of which was essentially that the black cloud of Islamic militancy has gathered in the sky over Bangladesh and that there is no turning back. There was not much in depth analysis into the geo-political or historical aspect of the country, a subject on which they have created the almost hour long documentary. It should be noted here that forty-two minutes is quite substantial when it comes to documentary films. And yet, the approach and the treatment of the film were haphazard and half-hearted at best. Albeit, the inner mechanisations and intricacies that give rise to any political situation in regions as complicated, conflicted and old as that of South Asia, Middle East, Africa or the Latin America are very complex at best and is by no means easy to fathom. What really piqued my interest in the documentary was the first line of the voiceover at the beginning of the film. It went something like — Bangladesh, a region in South Asia that most have not heard of. The title of the film — The Dawn of Islamism. So here we are, speaking about a country that people do not know much about and essentially foretelling its doom, a doom which is a political situation that stands against the spirit of its War of Liberation fought in 1971. And it is out there in the world for all to see. This led me to an exercise of looking at the self through the eyes of the other. The question that was posed to me was, from a purely historical perspective, where does it place Bangladesh in the wider mechanism of the rise of the right wing throughout the world and what can be said of the contributing factors for the present political scenario or predicament of the nation.
It is an undeniable reality that the right wing is at full force everywhere across the globe. In some nations this means the rise of ultranationalist political factions, which in turn means xenophobic tendencies which is reflected in their leanings towards ultra conservative policies on issues such as immigration, refugees, race, religious tolerance etc. The inner psychology of these political factions is almost a throwback to the political psychology of the past two centuries when the world was at the height of colonialism. It is almost like the pretences of liberalism — a misleading and loaded term in itself — of the past half a century have been discarded and the true face was once again revealed on the global geo-political landscape. On the other side of the coin are factions who can be termed as underdogs fighting for assertion of their own brand of political will. However, in doing so, they adhere to extreme right wing ideas or ideologies. Their principal adversaries are the regional ruling political factions and often times the international political factions; all the parties involved in this scenario are right winged to varying degrees. For some regions of the world, these right wing inclinations are mirrored in their attitudes and policies, while in others it is mirrored in their religious militancy, orthodox and extremism. The question then rises, how this situation came about.
Like peeling an onion, every layer or stage will reveal another layer or stage in this regard but the most direct historical and political source can be traced back to the conflict in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. It is through the process of this conflict that the modern or contemporary Islamic militancy truly emerged and was bolstered. It was almost an aftermath or bi-product of the conflict between the USSR and the United States that gave rise to this contemporary predicament. But then why was it a successful tool in this conflict and even more importantly, why this tool was utilised in the first place. War and conflict especially in the context of the cold war is by no means black and white and it does not simply come down to a case of conflicting ideologies, but the driving force was this ideological conflict nonetheless. Religion has always been a pillar for the ruling political force throughout history and in modern world it had lent its support to the contemporary political force in power, capitalism. No matter how intellectual or scientific the idea behind communism was, the one element it could not address was the need of religion for people. Hence, the use of religion to combat this ideology made perfect sense from an ideological perspective. The end of the conflict in Afghanistan coincided with growing conservatism and extremist ideas in nations which in turn gave birth to an upheaval that directly affected many regions across the globe including South Asia.
In contemporary Bangladesh, Islamic militancy has made its presence known in the recent years through incidences like Holey Artisan, bombings across cinema halls, attacks on shrines, killing of bloggers, writers, activists etc. It is very significant to note that Bengali celebrations like that of Pahela Baishakh are subjected to tight security ever since the attack in Ramna Botomul. This was not the scenario in our childhood two decades back. Nor was there such evidence of political Islam in habits and attires of a growing number of people in the populace. The Bangladesh that I grew up in has changed vastly and significantly in the recent decades. But how did this change come about? Historically, it can be traced back to the long prevailing post war political climate of 1971. It can be further traced back to the period of 1946–1947, when an old region was allowed to emerge as new independent entities, with it geo-political boundaries defined along the lines of religion. An idea easier conceived than executed, turning this concept into reality resulted in bleeding through traditional communities, cultures and linguistic groups and giving rise to conflict and violence, the legacy of which is still evident today throughout South Asia. We can even trace it further back to the year 1905, when, with the political decision of Bangabhanga, the idea that religious identities can be used to determine the administrative boundaries of regions as mixed up or non-homogeneous as Bengal -at the time came - into forefront. This too had far reaching implications for the political atmosphere of the region. It will be naïve to assert that fundamentalist mentality and traits of extremism were completely absent in South Asia before, but with the intentional injecting of political communalism into the politics of the region, the chess board was set for the germination of communal and political violence that would erupt decades later. It should be borne in mind that it was around this time, in the year 1906, that Muslim League was founded in Dhaka. Analysing the historical situation in depth, the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 is perhaps the most significant contributing factor that led to the crisis to come in the following centuries. It laid the economic groundwork for dimensions to arise that could be later exploited. The Permanent Settlement gave rise to the noveau rich landed gentry class based in city who were cut off, and to an extent, alienated from the areas they owned and the populace in them were comprised of poorer Hindus and Muslims. The economical line with this act was drawn and it gave birth to a germinating sense of disparity, divisiveness and discrepancy. All in all the political blue print of the coming centuries were drawn up with this one single act.
Therefore, one can come to the conclusion that whether speaking of Bangladesh or South Asia in general, the present crisis is the direct resultant factor of the almost two hundred year colonial rule. Entire South Asia today sits at the clutches of right-wing extremism. This is very much evident in the recent cow frenzy plaguing our neighbouring country which boasts one of the biggest Muslim populations in the world. Besides reclaiming the age old controversy of Babri Masjid, the extremist leanings has materialised in the form of banning of cow meat to instances of persecution, beating and lynching for what may or may not have been cows’ meat. Examples of demanding executions of celebrities for a period drama based partly on myth and partly on a medieval poetry (the film Padmavat) is also a case in point. Entire South Asia is in a precarious situation today and Bangladesh with its geo-political positioning, turbulent past and economic conditions is particularly vulnerable.
In case of Bangladesh, the dangers are manifold. The present political climate of the country has essentially up to a great extent eliminated the two-party political dynamics of the 90s and early 2000s. When this happens in any nation, what essentially happens is that a vacuum is created, and as no space can be or remain vacuum, historically speaking, it has been ultimately taken over by desired or undesired forces. This added to the fact that the angst of the general populace is increasing day by day due to the fact that atrocities being perpetrated by right wing factions and other political factions, crimes, petty crimes and corruptions are going unpunished. This has led to the breakdown of people’s faith in the political system. Historically, this kind of disillusionment becomes precursors of political upheavals often violent and irreversible. Bangladesh is right now a cesspool of various grievances germinating and culminating. The vacuum prevalent is particularly threatening as this already has or will lead to a dangerous instability in the face of apparent stability. And in the prevalent situation, if something dramatic really happens, if the political climate truly becomes unstable, there is just the right wing remaining that is sitting at the wings to take over the vacuum. The rise of the right wing faction which has swept throughout the globe is directly contributing to Bangladesh’s predicament today. It is difficult to ascertain what exactly might take place in the future, but it is apparent that a storm is coming; it has been lurking in the horizon for a very long time.
Anika Mahin is a playwright and performer.
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