Even as the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League battles anti-incumbency at a time when Bangladesh is headed for general elections, the party’s rank-and-file is riven with anger and disappointment by the “unholy nexus” the leadership has established with the fundamentalist Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI).
At the centre of this roiling intra-party controversy is the Sheikh Hasina government’s decision, less than three months before Bangladesh goes to the polls, to accordgovernment’s ‘secular’ Master of Arts recognition to the Taqmil degree that is awarded to men who graduate from the Deora Hadis institution which follows the Deobandi stream of Islamic thought and practice.
The resentment among senior party leaders and second-rung functionaries, besides young cadres and activists, though muted, is said to be deep. Two potential Awami League ticket seekers revealing to the South Asian Monitor that “this growing patronage to fundamentalism, which springs from the quami madrassas, is being condoned by the Indian establishment which has turned a blind eye to the nexus between the Awami League and the Hefazat”. The two leaders refused to be identified for fear of retribution by the party leadership.
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While there is disquiet within the Awami League, Hefazat too is faced with dissension within, according to newspaper reports. A Chittagong datelined story of October 7 revealed that the growing “coziness” between the ruling party and the Hefazat recently caused friction among the top leadership of the Islamist outfit, leading to the resignation of top quamialem and Naib-e-Amir Alamma Mahibullah Babungari. Following Babungari’s resignation, the reports indicate, several of his supporters are prepared to follow suit. Babungari quit the outfit in a huff over Hefazat-e-Islam’s public felicitation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. After resigning, Babungari told reporters: “Hefazat-e-Islami is no longer following the tenets and objectives for which it was created. The organisation has lost its basic character and is behaving more like a political outfit.”
According to Dhaka University International Relations Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, the “creeping fundamentalism” that is slowly gaining ground in Bangladesh is part of electoral politics in which the Awami League is prepared to take to this dangerous course to win polls”. When asked whether New Delhi is prepared to “wink” at the Awami League-Hefazat alliance, while publicly maintaining that it fears the growth of fundamentalism in Bangladesh, Ahmed said, “by default, India has to go along with this tie-up and doesn’t have too many cards to play”.
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At the heart of the alliance is the government’s gradual softening of stand with the Hefazat-e-Islam’s 13-point demand which were articulated on May 5, 2013, in the wake of the Shahbagh movement in Dhaka. Among the demands were: 1) The inclusion of “full faith in Allah” in the Constitution and the scrapping of all laws that violate the tenets of the holy Quran and the sunnah; 2) death penalty for those who speak ill and show disrespect to Islam, the Prophet and Muslims in general; 3) forbidding free mingling of men and women and restricting all forms of protests such as candle-lit marches; 4) making instructions on Islamic tenets compulsory for all primary-to-higher secondary classes across all schools; and 5) removal of all statues from Dhaka.
More recently, however, the Awami League government took many steps beyond the Hefazat’s demands to give official recognition to the Taqmil degree, which was considered not only a sop to the Islamist outfit but “an attack against the secular spirit of most Bangladeshis”, according to a party old-timer.Last January, the government bent over backwards to undertake the controversial task of changing school textbooks and syllabi, in line with HeI’s demand.
The main Awami League leader charged with “talking to” the Hefazat leadership is party central committee member in charge of press and publications, Dr Hasan Mahmud, who is the nephew of HeI chief Sheikh-ul-Islam Alamma Shah Ahmad Shafi who is also chairman of the Quomi Madrassa Education Board. A senior army officer, who is another nephew of Maulana Ahmad Shafi, is also involved in bringing in Hefazat closer to AL. Awami League old-timers revealed that over the last few years a “small but influential” group of leaders within the party have emerged, who are pushing this “Islamisation”. This section fears that government recognition to degrees issued by madrassas would ensure that graduates schooled in Arabic theology will be eligible to compete for government jobs. In June last year, The Economist commented that Sheikh Hasina…leader of the theoretically secular Awami League…is pandering to Islamist zealots”.
While former Indian ambassador to Bangladesh Dev Mukherjee said “this (deepening relationship between Awami League and Hefazat) has been going on for a long time, another envoy, Pinak Ranjan Chakraborty, interpreted the bonding as a “balancing act” by the ruling party to keep the Jamaat-e-Islami at bay. “Yes, the Awami League will get some votes,” Chakraborty, who is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told the South Asian Monitor, when asked how the Awami League-Hefazat tie-up may yield electoral dividend.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, a Dhaka-based political analyst, who did not want to be identified, said, “while it is still not clear how the Awami League-Hefazat alliance may unfold, there are clear indications that the fundamentalist outfit will pressure its partner (AL) to put up Islamist-leaning candidates or their own nominees in Chittagong”. This was confirmed to the South Asian Monitor by Awami League sources too. While the Hefazat’s “electoral deal” with the Awami League in Chittagong is a likely outcome, it is also in talks with former president H M Ershad’s Jatiya Party in Rangpur.
The political analyst said, “this is the first time that the Hefazat will be part of the electoral arena. By allying with the Hefazat, the Awami League has embarked on a course that may usher in short-term gains for the party, but in the long-run this will prove dangerous for the region. But in the event anti-India and anti-Hindu voices rise in the course of the electoral campaign, the Awami League will not get the full support of the Hefazat.”