World Politics

What Ghulam Azam Wrought

What Ghulam Azam Wrought

Sushovan Dhar

The struggle against the Razakars is shifting to a new phase; the outcome will profoundly affect Bangladesh

A year ago, Ghulam Azam was sentenced to 90 years of imprisonment. Turning down prosecutors’ appeal for the death penalty, he was spared due to his age. However, age did not spare him a year later. The death of this persona terrible raises several pertinent questions about the future of his brand of politics.

What would its impacts be in the short and medium terms? What ramifications are likely to extend across the South Asian region? His death has, of course, not orphaned his political child. And, its too premature to predict its course, since much of it depends on collective efforts more than Ghulam’s demise.

Many a protester, primarily the students and the youth, were seen triumphant, organising sporadic marches celebrating Ghulam’s passing. That was certainly not unnatural or unexpected given his role during the Bangladesh liberation war. He evoked memories of the massacres which killed countless people, raped thousands of women, rendered many homeless, and turned innocent children orphans.

The Butcher of Bangladesh would have put any butcher to shame. Certainly, the young, celebrating brigade, at times exhibiting signs of zealotry and hyper-jubilation, can’t be held responsible for being unruly towards this particular deceased. They are expressing a sense of relief about those dark days and the shadows of the horror which Ghulam Azam essentially symbolised. Even so, a deeper concern still exists about the malady that he was able to successfully strengthen and spread. The current euphoria surrounding his death must gear up to resist it appropriately.

The religious-right asserts

Historically, religious politics surfaced immediately in the post-liberation days, gaining momentum after Ziaur Rahman’s coup d’etat, and acquiring complete ascendancy during the Ershad era. It can hardly be doubted that this dire emergence of Islamic fundamentalist forces has wedged the country towards an extremely grievous situation that is capable of pushing the nation towards an ugly civil war.

This painful journey from Bengali nationalism to an Islamic state has included endless attacks and hostility towards religious minorities, women, and also against the progressive and secular sections of the society; all in the name of religion. Savage actions have claimed lives. The innocent and the lower strata of the society have been the worst victims. And to add to this, the rise of religious fundamentalism has had severe impacts on the overall security of the country and the region. This insidious growth of religious fundamentalism has violated the four cardinal founding principles of Bangladesh: Nationalism, socialism, secularism, and democracy.

Bangladesh is caught in a mess from which it needs to extricate itself. The death of Ghulam Azam or a few others would not reverse the situation automatically. Neither would the hanging of leading collaborators bring any short-term solution. There is a need to seek a long-term solution to this problem which is deeply afflicting Bangladesh as well as the South Asian region. Competing fundamentalisms raise mutual hostility but emerge with reciprocity, jointly victorious.

South Asia

Pakistan’s 2013 elections brought Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League to power. His victory legitimised right-wing politics, and religious fanatics took advantage. Radical Islamic groups and networks, which were earlier banned, resurfaced once again – both covertly and overtly. The Pakistani state, which had earlier been an onlooker, is now a bystander. Women, human rights, and secularism activists, and free-thinking individuals including journalists are bearing the worst.

There are thousands of Malalas in the North-West Frontier Province now, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, where fundamentalists have gained control. The country is sitting on a simmering volcano ready to erupt. In the midst of this sinister condition, people are left alone to bank on their fate. Lives are squeezed out mercilessly, and the living are lumped with the dead.

A reinforcement of right-wing politics afflicts the big brother, India. Narendra Modi’s ascendancy at the helm of national politics vitalised Hinduvta which had earlier been in the sidelines. A series of attacks on the members of the minority communities had set off after the elections. People were polarised along communal faultlines and exclusive religious identities provide fertile grounds for Hindu religious fundamentalism.

Camouflaged under a nationalist garb, the Hindutva brigade attempts to break the founding pillars of multiculturalism though various means: Manipulation of socio-cultural identities, defining nationalism using communal identities, and using the media and exploiting civil society organisations and institutions.

The rank corruption and inefficiency of the previous Congress-led government added fire to the fuel. While we witness the resurgence of fascist Hinduvta politics, the BJP-led government is the latest protagonist of neo-liberal politics trying to wipe out previous gains made by the poor, the marginalised, and the working class.

The common feature in all religious fundamentalisms across the region is that it stresses on a dogmatic adherence to tradition and “glorious” history as a way out of the poverty and drudgery that millions of sub-continental masses are trapped in. We frequently hear about a certain mythical “golden era” to which society must return.

Upholding orthodoxy that breeds inflexibility and a rejection of modern society, Islamic fundamentalists utilise the imagery of the “golden era of Islam” as a respite from the misery, the poverty, and other social problems we face.

What is to be done?

While religious fundamentalists, and the dangers posed by them, walk the ramps, we can’t afford to sit back, limiting ourselves to commentary and watch society be torn apart. Our inaction will only embolden them. Let us remember that fundamentalism is a political challenge that can’t be countered administratively only. While condemning violence, terror, and the attacks it unleashes on society we must develop strategies to respond to it.

Along with opposing fanaticism and defending victims of religious fundamentalism, an alternative agenda to empower the toiling masses needs to be brought to the centre-stage. Religious fundamentalism, or any other type of extreme communitarian politics, and exclusive cultural nationalism use the already existing discrimination and graded inequalities as fertile breeding grounds to further their interests.

A punitive measure alone would hardly suffice. Sincere considerations and remedies of distress, misery, and the penury in which the masses are immersed, are long-term antidotes which can effectively work.

The state should have no business with religion, as religious states can never handle religious fanatics meaningfully. The struggle against the Razakars is shifting to a new phase; the outcome of which will profoundly affect the future course of secularism, justice, and freedom in Bangladesh and elsewhere. This struggle is important. Let’s do it now.