The Right Stuff

The term Islamist is a recent addition to our political lexicon. The Pak-Bangla term for the phenomenon was Islam-pasand. In the 1970 election, there were three streams of Islam-pasand politicians in the then East Pakistan. First, there were the three factions of the Muslim League, and Nurul Amin’s Pakistand Democratic Party. Ideologically, they believed in Qaid-e-Azam’s two nations theory. They strongly opposed Bangabandhu’s 6-points and the Joy Bangla nationalism of the radical youth leaders. But they were not fussed about creating an Islamic state. They were not secular in the sense that they believed Hindus and other minorities couldn’t be equal to Muslims in Pakistan (just as Muslims couldn’t be equal citizens of Hindustan — hence the need for partition), but they were not theocrats calling for Shariah law either. That was the second stream — Jamaat-e-Islami and Nezam-e-Islam who wanted to create a ’true’ Islamic state. And finally there were various local pirs and religious leaders scattered around the country with large and small following. Together, all the Islam-pasand candidates took in about 20% of votes in the election.


Think about that for a moment, in the heyday of the secular Bengali nationalism, what we now call Islamist politics was supported by one in five our countrymen. If you want to know why Zia-Ershad-Hasina-Khaleda pander to the right, there’s your answer right there.

We want to see how the three streams are coping in the post-Shahbag Bangladesh. And we’ll see the streams through the prisms of some newspapers. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The leaders of all three streams, and some of the followers and supporters too, sided with Pakistan during the Liberation War. Some of the key collaborators were jailed, others went into hiding. Because religion-based politics was banned in the 1972 constitution, even those Islam-pasand politicians not accused of collaborating with Pakistan or committing war crimes had a difficult time. And then came Bakshal, 15 August and 7 November.

After the dust settled, Ziaur Rahman emerged as the country’s effective ruler. It’s no secret that he had the support of a broad cross-section of the population — freedom fighters as well as razakars, communists as well as capitalists, former AL-ers as well as rabid anti-AL politicians, peasant leaders as well as urban bhadralok. Just how important was the Islam-pasand vote for his politics?

The results of the 1979 election gives a clue. Ahead of that election, Sabur Khan and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury (the same one currently being tried for war crimes) revived the Muslim League, while former Jamaat men formed Islamic Democratic League under the leadership of Maolana Abdur Rahim. IDL and ML contested the election together, and won 8% of votes. Another 2% were won by local pirs and ulema (people like Pirs of Sarsina, Charmonai etc, or Hafezzi Huzur). That’s 10%. What happened to the other 10% Islam-pasand vote from 1970? It’s reasonable to assume that they went to Zia’s newly formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party. And BNP won 44% of votes in that election. Among the 207 MPs elected on dhaner sheesh symbol, these politicians formed a strong enough bloc that their man, Shah Azizur Rahman (who was part of the Pakistani delegation to the UN in 1971), became the prime minister.

Put differently, about half of the pre-independence Islam-pasand voters went to BNP, and they made up a sizeable (10% out of 44%) part of BNP’s support. Of course, these numbers have changed over time. Old Pakistan generation has been dying out. But newer generation have joined Islam-pasand politics (of all three streams). And a big part of the Islam-pasand voting bloc has been with BNP, and they have been a big part of BNP’s base.

To ask BNP to ignore this base is to ask it to commit political suicide. But that doesn’t mean BNP has to be an Islam-pasand party. In the same 1979 election, with 70 MPs coming from various parties and factions of the left, leftists also formed a strong bloc in BNP. Their man Mashiur Rahman was the prime minister designate, until he died unexpectedly before a new cabinet was sworn in. Under Zia, BNP was a broad tent. And that has been the case, more or less, for all these years.

Except, more recently, it has been a case of less broad a tent than in the past.

During their last stint at the office, BNP leadership discovered the utility of having a strong media wing. Shafiq Rehman’s Jai Jai Din was meant to be a BNP-friendly counterweight to Prothom Alo / Daily Star. Rehman — of Valentine’s Day / lal golap fame — is as secular a person as one can be in personal life. But then again, Jinnah was hardly the paragon of Islamic virtue. Anyhow, the point is that Shafiq Rehman’s editorial policy was for a non-communal Bangladeshi nationalism. Ataus Samad’s Amar Desh also had a similar editorial stance. And both papers came under significant stress post-1/11.

Enter Mahmudur Rahman — whose politics is that of old fashioned anti-India/anti-Hindu two nations theory. Whereas Zia’s slogan was Bangladesh Zindabad, Mahmudur shouted Allah Akbar upon being released from the jail in 2010. But at the same time, he has never shown any interest in introducing Shariah law, or blasphemy acts, or hudood acts, or any other form of theocratic politics. There is no ifs or buts about his politics. He proudly proclaims it in the newspaper he bought after 1/11.

While Shafiq Rehman failed to regain his newspaper, Mahmudur Rahman’s Amar Desh has been the dominant voice of the rightist politics in Bangladesh. Mahmud has taken uncompromising stance against any softening towards India. He has consistently opposed the war crimes trial. And he vowed to destroy Shahbag (whom he addressed as shuorer bachcha in a private conversation). It remains to be seen whether he dominates overall BNP politics, or the consequences for BNP’s electability if he does dominate it. But Shahbag has definitely put him at the driving seat of right wing political ideas in Bangladesh.

About the same time that Jai Jai Din and Amar Desh were launched, Jamaat also launched a media coglomerate with a daily called Naya Diganta. During the 1/11, Mahmudur Rahman was a regular columnist there, as was Farhad Mazhar. It was a strong and consistent anti-1/11 voice after General Moeen decided to cozy up to India (Farhad Mazhar wanted Moeen to lead a ‘people’s army’ run government — subject of a different post).

But under the current government, Naya Diganta has consistently lost out to Amar Desh in projecting an anti-AL voice. Whereas Amar Desh broke scandals involving the Prime Minister’s son, Naya Diganta ignored the issue in the same manner as other, mainstream corporate media. More recently, the skypegate was broken by Amar Desh, even though Mir Quasim Ali, the main person behind Diganta media, was being tried for war crimes.

In the post-Shahbag world, Naya Diganta is feeling the heat, just like Jamaat as a party more generally. It is too early to right off Jamaat, but it’s unmistakably the case that they have taken massive hits recently.

I’ve written about Jamaat separately, as has others. Let me move on to the third stream of Islam-pasand politics — that of pirs and local preachers.

Pir of Shorshina was one such local pir with a large following. One of his major disciples, Maolana Abdul Mannan, was a key war criminal in 1971, implicated in the killing of progressive-nationalist intellectuals in the occupied Dhaka. Mannan was jailed after the war, but was released by Bangabandhu himself. Mannan ended up as a cabinet minister under Ershad, full 15 years before Nizami-Mujahid got the honour. More importantly, years before Amar Desh or Naya Diganta, Mannan founded an Islam-pasand newspaper.

With colour photographs, computerised printing, better quality newsprints, and well paid journalists, Inqilab is arguably the first modern newspaper of Bangladesh. In terms of style, Nayeemul Islam Khan or Matiur Rahman did with Ajker Kagaj / Bhorer Kagaj / Prothom Alo in the 1990s what Inqilab achieved in the 1980s. And Mannan was the strongest Islam-pasand voice in Bangladesh of 20 years ago. He poured fuel to communal fire during the Ayodhya/Mumbai riots in India. He played a key role in mobilising the Islam-pasand types against Tasleema Nasreen. He styled himself as the champion of Qaumi Madrassahs, and were looked up to by people like Fazlul Huq Amini of Lalbagh or Principal Shah Ahmad Shafi of Hathazari.

But for all that, what Mannan lacked was organisation. And during the post-Ershad, electoral politics era, organisational strength proved crucial for Jamaat’s victory over Mannan for the race to capture non-BNP Islam-pasand politics. Things got so bad for Mannan that after 2002, he did a digbaji one seldom sees in the Islam-pasand politics. He turned on BNP and started supporting AL. He died before the infamous Fatwa Pact of 2006. But his heirs at Inqilab, and followers in qaumi madrassah world, have continued to push his politics.

Initially they had little success. AL didn’t give them any electoral cover during the 2008 election. Fazlul Huq Amini wasn’t treated particularly kindly by the AL government. And Inqilab‘s circulation plummeted dramatically.

But these guys waited patiently, biding their time.

And perhaps their time has come in the post-Shahbag Bangladesh. Right now, Jamaat is under existential threat. But a newly formed and relatively unknown group called Hefazat e Islam stopped the Shahbag movement from reaching Chittagong. Their ideological fellow travellers demand exemplary punishment for atheist bloggers, and at the same time they denounce Jamaat as traitors and Sayedee-sighting as shirq. And oh, the slain blogger Thaba Baba’s posts appeared in Inqilab before Amar Desh printed them.

And yet, while Diganta media and Amar Desh (not to mention its editor) is subject of Shahbag’s vitriol, Inqilab has gotten a free pass. Is it because of the ignorance of Shahbag leaders? Or is there tacit Awami collaboration?

Remember, about half the Islam-pasand vote went to BNP even in 1979, and these guys have always been a big part of the BNP base. As the most organised party, Jamaat has traditionally claimed the leadership of the other half. If some non-Jamaati outfit can capture even half of that vote, it will have major electoral ramification.

And don’t forget, 2013 is an election year.

She who has the Right Stuff will win this year.


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