Paper no. 2199



By R. Upadhyay

Bangladesh ever since its inception has been undergoing a thorough and fundamental socio-political transformation. Historically, the Muslims of Bengal submerged their Bengali identity into a larger Islamic Identity during Pakistan movement in the name of religious solidarity on the political doctrine of Islam. But soon after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, they started feeling the pinch of their Pakistanisation, when Urdu was imposed upon them as state language. Jinnah had even said that Bengali was the language of the Hindus. Gradually, they rose against the hegemony of Pakistan, fought for their liberation and finally succeeded in getting an independent sovereign nation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, first Prime Minister of newly born Bangladesh imposed a ban on Islamic political parties, which had collaborated with Pakistan army. He chose the parliamentary system of democracy based on secularism and socialism in order to replace theocracy by democracy. This was a bold step towards de-Pakistanisation of his country. But his Muslim element in him forced him not only to attend the Islamic conference held in Pakistan but also to succumb to the pressure of the petro-dollar politics of Arab world and seek adjustment with the doctrine of political Islam. He even switched over to presidential system, when his authoritarian style of governance was challenged.

Unfortunately, his politically ambitious army, which was perhaps in a hurry to grab power, assassinated him in 1975 and ruled over Bangladesh for fifteen years. Both the military dictators Ziaur Rahman and Ershad, who founded Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jatiya Party respectively in cantonments, followed the footsteps of Pakistan Amy to legitimise their civilianized army rule and gradually replaced democracy by Islamism.

Taking advantage of the situation, the radical Islamists infiltrated into the army and emerged as an important political force even during the democratically elected governments. Thus, increasing collaboration between the political elite and Islamic orthodoxy, forced the people to carry forward the legacy of the extremely complex socio-political structure of the Islamic world and followed the same doctrine of political Islam that had divided India in 1947. This new scenario revived the concept of Islamic theocracy, which had a long-term impact on the dynamics of socio-religious politics of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh was freed from the army rule by a people's movement and remained under the duly elected governments from 1991 to 2006. But the quarreling ladies of the two mainstream political parties namely Bangldesh Nationalist Party led by Begum Khalida Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman and Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of late Mujibur Rahman followed the same personalised and authoritarian politics like their predecessors. Although both of them claimed to be the champions of democracy, they joined hands with radical Islamists to snatch power from each other. Their self-seeking politics also endorsed the process of Pakistanisation of Bangladesh, which had a degenerating effect on the fledgling democracy in this country.

Democratically elected BNP government led by Begum Khalida Zia ruled Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to October 2006. But she failed to understand the essence of civilian rule and therefore did not promote the culture of democracy. Two Islamist parties namely Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) and Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ-Islamic United Front)) were the coalition partners in Khalida government. JEI that had collaborated with Pakistan during liberation war and banned by Mujib Government emerged as the third largest political party in Bangladesh with 17 members in 300-member parliament during last 2001 elections.

A JEI leader Delwar Hussain Sayedee publicly announced in 2003, "Courts won't be allowed to control Fatwas, instead Fatwas would control the courts" (God Willing - Islamisation of Bangladesh by Ali Riaz and Rowman, Littlefield Publication, Oxford, Newyork, 2004, page 3). Islami Olkyo Jote on the other hand had two members of parliament in that election. Azizul Huq, the chairman of the IOJ is also a member of the advisory council of Harkat-ul –Jehadi- Islami (HUJI), the main Islamic terrorist group of Bangladesh. In February 2003 Bangladesh police seized from a site of bomb explosion in Dinazpur district some leaflets calling for "Islamic Revolution" and receipts of a previously unknown organisation - Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh. Another organisation namely Shahadat-i-Hikma was found working for the same cause of Islamic revolution in Rajshahi district. It was amazing that during Eid congregation in December 2003, the chief cleric of the national mosque Dhaka highly praised Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and urged upon the Muslims to destroy the American interest anywhere in the world. President of Bangladesh and a number of Ministers of Khalida Government were also present there.

Sheikh Hasina of Awami League ruled Bangladesh from 1996 to 2001. In her five years of rule she achieved nothing. The growing lawlessness and the breakdown of public order were known to be the main reasons for her government's electoral defeat in 2001. For the ensuing elections after the completion of Khalida Zia’s tenure, She threw her democratic credentials to the winds and went for an understanding with another radical Islamist group namely Khilaphat-e-Majlish. She promised to implement the state policy of Islamisation rapidly if she was voted to power. Her electoral understanding with pro-Taliban Majlish leader Maulana Habibur Rahman and pro-Al Qaeda leader Mufti Shahidul Islam, who were known for their links with terrorist outfit Harkat-ul- Jehad Islami proved that there was no hope left for restoration of modern democracy in the democratically barren land of Bangladesh.

With the mainstream political parties becoming hostage to the Islamists and allowing their land as second home for most of the Islamic terrorist organisations for their jehadi operations and their steady growth posed a serious challenge to the consolidation of fragile democracy in Bangladesh. Bearing the brunt of terrorism from Bangladesh, India from time to time protested to former Khaleda Zia Government. But she repeatedly denied the allegations despite the fact that Sheikh Hasina, leader of the main opposition party had accused her government for allowing Talibanistion of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is presently under the state of emergency since January 11 last. Fakharuddin Ahmad, a former World Bank official took over the command of the country as Chief Adviser and vowed to clean up the political system with focus on corruption. Enjoying the support of the army his caretaker interim government set up the Anti-Corruption Commission headed by Lt. General Hasan Masud Chowdhury, who launched an extensive drive against corrupt bureaucrats and politicians irrespective of their party affiliations.

People of Bangladesh warmly appreciated the drive of the army backed government against corruption. The Chief Adviser’s government is found to be showing interest to improve relations with India. While participating in SARC conclave in Delhi he also pledged to combat terrorism. It is unclear what plan of action he has in dealing with training camps of various Indian insurgent groups but it looks that he would be more amenable to remove them and not allow anti Indian outfits to flourish.

Pakistanised army in Bangladesh, has completely lost its secular character and is known for its political ambitions and unholy alliance with Islamists. Just two days before the SAARC meet in Delhi, Lt. General Moeen U. Ahmad, its Army Chief , while addressing a regional conference of the International Political Science Association held in Dhaka on April 2 expressed that the military backed interim government would replace the ‘elective democracy, by a ‘new brand of democracy’. Considering corruption and political criminalisation as prime dangers to the survival and integrity of the state, he envisioned, “I reckon Bangladesh will have to construct its own brand of democracy recognizing its social, historical and cultural conditions with religion being one of several components of its national identity”

In the background of the history of the growing influence of the army in the politics of Bangladesh, the statement of Lt. Genl. Moeen was not surprising. He had simply exposed his mindset- that he had learnt from his seniors namely Ziaur Rahman and Ershad, who had copied the brands of democracy of different Pakistani military rulers. In post-Mujib era the Bangladesh Army officers of successive regimes have perceived themselves as the only saviour of Bangladesh from its chaotic political situation. Lt. Genl. Moeen did not elaborate on his new brand of democracy but people of Bangladesh might not be shocked if his brand meant a democracy under the shadow of sword in Pakistani style.

Keeping in view the past record of his country’s armed forces, how far government of Fakhruddin Ahmad would succeed in cleansing Bangladesh from the influence of radical Islamists, is a million dollar question. The main challenge before his government under the commanding role of army and behind the scene pressure from a western super power - is to cleanse the political culture of violence and social intolerance. How to break the unholy alliance of unreliable politicians, politically ambitious army and Islamists and ensure that they would not hold sway again in any future political disposition – is another challenge. Now India has benevolently responded to the ‘Mao smile’ of the care taker government. But in view of the past misdeeds of the former rulers and without weighing in the authority and durability of the politically ambitious army supported Ahmad government and its commitment to wipe out the terrorist camps from their territory as well as to resolve the perpetual problem of illegal immigration such a smile suggests a cautious response for the present.

Personalised politics of the successive former rulers of Bangladesh facilitated the process of its Pakistanisation. They joined hands with the Islamists, overlooked the infrastructure of the terrorist operations launched against India and allowed the country to emerge as a second home for not only jehadi terrorists but also for various terrorist outfits from northeast India. It appears that the wheel of medieval politics has come full circle in Bangladesh where all the political parties are manipulating the Islamist genie for coming to power. Jinnah used the anti -Hindu card for creation of Pakistan. The Islamists of Bangladesh used the same card and carried forward this legacy

It looks that democracy was never the objective of the rulers of Bangladesh. Over thirty-five years of successive civilian, military, civilianised-military and parliamentary rules proved that none of these regimes cared to preserve the democratic essence of this hemorrhaging country's 1972 Constitution and to restore modern democracy. The growing trend of Islamisation in Bangladesh is the fall out of its Pakistanisation, which would ultimately turn it also in the category of a second terrorist state neighbouring India. The present regime of Bangladesh, which is widely acclaimed for trying to cleanse the system has to develop a mechanism not only to eradicate corruption but also to ensure that a modern democracy emerges in the country. Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan but its secession from political Islam, which is the only answer for a modern democracy - requires another movement in the country. Perhaps de-Pakistanisation is the only alternative if it is serious about restoring democracy.

(R. Upadhyay can be reached at E-mail


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