Bangladesh’s quest to safeguard its identity

Campaign against Jamaat indicates that a country which had lost its ethos of pluralism and democracy is returning to the right path

  • Image Credit: Dana A. Shams/ © Gulf News

Dhaka was a distant dot on India’s map when I was living in my hometown, Sialkot. Partition pushed me to Delhi and, happily for me, the dot came closer. I took the first plane to Dhaka as soon as it became the capital of the newly-formed Bangladesh. For the first time, I heard Joi Bangla (victory to Bangladesh), a slogan or an invocation, from the weary Bengalis returning home. The airport was littered with luggage and looked disorderly with long queues at immigration desks. Yet every face was writ with determination to make a success of the new country.

That was nearly 40 years ago. Whenever I go to Dhaka I look for that spirit. Now I find the sense of Joi Bangla returning. Most of the 180 million people proudly find that the idealism in them has not been extinguished. In the three-week-old stir, they have proved that their fight against fundamentalism, something they witnessed when they separated from Pakistan, is still raging. It seems that a country which had lost its ethos is returning to the right path.

That the Jamat-e-Islami should oppose a secular ideology is understandable because the party does not believe in pluralism. Yet its use of violence to deny the country its ideology of independence is to deny the very baptism of the nation. The independence struggle represents the revolt against the colonial rule. Religion doesn’t make nations; nations make religion. It is futile to keep Muslims and Hindus apart on the basis of their beliefs.

People who staked all they had for independence had three basic demands: Death sentence for the perpetrators of war crimes committed during the independence struggle; a ban on the Jamat-e-Islami and its student wing, the Islami Chattar Shivir, and, boycott of companies controlled by the Jamat.

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It has taken Bangladesh some years to realise that it cannot sustain its secular as well as nationalist spirit without punishing those who usurped power in the name of independence. But they were not the real freedom fighters. The youth, which must get the credit for leading the independence movement, has forced people to recognise that the real freedom activists were pushed aside when they should have been the real beneficiaries of independence. In the process, the anti-independence activists have seen during the years they were in power that the original commitment to stay pluralistic would be mixed with religion, just as Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat did.

The youth have made the country realise that those who opposed freedom for Bangladesh and oppressed their own people must be separated from the freedom fighters. The latter see the Jamat as a part of the Razakar militia and are determined to punish those who sided with the aggressors. They consider it essential to remove the stranglehold of the Jamat from politics, economy and society. Make no mistake, these are not the only young people in Bangladesh against communalism, but they seem to be the only ones who count.

The situation is not easy when money is pouring into the coffers of the Jamat and when the only viable opposition BNP, has moved closer to fundamentalists. Against this background, it was natural that Khaleda Zia would cancel her appointment with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, who was visiting Dhaka. Khaleda may have been sending a message to New Delhi that the campaign against the Jamat was influenced by India. For her, even this far-fetched argument means a lot because elections are only a few months away.

What the two, more so the Jamaat, do not seem to realise is that Bangladesh is fighting for its identity — an identity that inspired it to be free and has forced it now to refurbish the wherewithal of freedom. The more the issue is clouded, the louder will the voices get. The Bangladeshis have awakened.

There is a lesson for India too. Our basic commitment to pluralism and democracy has been mutilated by vote-bank politics, leading to the emergence of communalism, caste and regionalism. We have practically destroyed the pluralistic society that we had built since independence. Can we retrieve pluralism and democracy that our forefathers envisaged in the Constitution and placed before us like a pole star?

Bangladesh looks determined to reclaim the purpose for which it was constituted. In contrast, India thinks it has all the time to hark back to old values as well as ideals of the freedom struggle. Bangladesh means business. India has not yet begun to feel what we have lost.

Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.

Source: gulfnews


  1. I have always had great regard for Mr. Kuldip Nayar, As a journalist Nayar never fretted in telling truth and as a writer he stands out for his very lucid style of writing. Having said this I also have to say that I am a bit disappointed by this particular article that he has written on the current crisis in Bangladesh that I find intriguingly biased and agonizingly superficial.

    Mr. Nayar’s observation that the current conflict in Bangladesh is about national identity and that it is a fight between secularists and Islamist. is nothing but a figment of imagination. The so-called Shahbagi secular-liberationists are nothing but a front created by the ruling Awami League government to divert attention away from numerous crimes the government has committed, countless hurt they have inflicted and millions of they have stolen during the last four years of their rule. Shahbagi movement’s timing is instructive – next election is due in early 2014.

    All one has to do is scrape the surface of the conflict, one will see that it is a fight between politics of vindictiveness and justice. It is also a fight against oppression for freedom and a struggle for true democracy. Awami League has made a complete mockery of democracy – hundreds of opponents, newspapers editors etc. have been sent to the jail, murdered, tortured. People have been seething in discontent. Shahbagi movement provided that proverbial last straw on the camel’s back!.

    Contrary to Mr. Nayar’s claim I wish to stress that this conflict has nothing to do with defining national identity for Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s national identity is hardly a monopoly of few bloggers and sham secularists. A national identity for any nation is never imposed from the top, that is exact what Pakistan tried to do and we all know the outcome. Bangladesh’s national identity,will evolve through multiple forces where religion shall indeed play an important role. .

  2. A respectable person like Nayar has overlooked the current nature of things. Bangladesh has passed the days of Razakar vs freedom fighters. The Shahbagh situation is politically motivated and that makes it unworthy of associating it with patriotism. Patriotism cannot be party motivated; pro India, pro Pakistan, pro Freedom fighter or against freedom fighters. We freed our country 42 years ago and time has come to fix our broken political system and the pillars of justice. We should not waste our energies to bring out frictions and add fuel to the fire. Shahbagh was clearly a set up by the ruling Awami League and therefore the group does not represent all the patriotic people of Bangladesh. They should put their energies to cleanse the political corruption in Bangladesh and not listen to those singing the same old tune over and over again.

  3. “It is futile to keep Muslims and Hindus apart on the basis of their beliefs”. I just hope and pray that Mr.Nayar is not dreaming of that age old evil concept of “Akhand Bharat” ( Undivided India). Bharat (India) was rightly divided in 1947 just as rightly as it was further divided in 1971. It was impossible for the Muslims of India to live with the Hindus in 1947 as it was impossible for the Bengalees to live with the Pakistanis in 1971.There is no way to go back to the “Akhand Bharat”. Having said that, I fully agree with the views of Khairul Islam. For people like Mr.Nayar it is better to keep their noses out of other countries’ affairs although, understandably, it is always tempting to fish in troubled waters. I suppose Mr.Nayar is aware of the the source of “the money pouring into the coffers of Jamat”. Perhaps he could also enlighten us on the source of money pouring into the coffers of the “Shahbagis”. RAW, may be?

  4. Mr. Nayer’s perspective appears to be limited by his bias toward a particular political group. Had he been neutral in his opinion expressed in his, otherwise nice, artice he could have mentioned why trying to go back in history to revive the feeling what is not beneficial to nation-building now! Mr. Nayar’s views about BNP leader Khaleda Zia for not meeting the Indian President may have some merit. However, in the same breath, Mr. Nayer could have also raised the question if the timing of Mr. Pranab Mukharji’s visit to Bangladesh was appropriate in the backdrop of such a magnitude of political violence that caused so many deaths and destruction of property. The timing of the President’s visit appeared to be a total disregard to the sentiments of our people. I hope, Mr. Nayer will continue contributing through his elegant style of writing – but more constructive, more uplifting – for the good of the people.

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