The semi-formal conglomerate of Islamist parties and denominations under the banner of Hefazat-e-Islam under the guidance of the 93-year old scholar Allama Ahmed Shah Shafi of Hathazari madrassa, Chittagong is an avowedly apolitical body. It has emerged as the moving spirit of a mass awakening of simple-minded Islamic devotees, triggered by an impugned death sentence pronounced by the War Crimes Tribunal against a widely revered religious preacher, Moulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, who happens also to be the deputy leader of the Political party Jamaat-e-Isam. The condemned leader had pleaded not guilty to allegations of crimes against humanity committed 42 years ago, in which he claims to have been implicated falsely by mistaken or misconstrued identity.
Hefazat-e-Islam was initially drawn into the agitation over the verdict against Sayeedi in an apolitical manner indeed. But many pro-government bloggers from the Shahbag crowd that the ruling party strategists had launched with the cry of “death to war-criminals”, designed to generate heat against the “teeth” of the Jamaat-Shibir protesters, were carried away by their “success” in obtaining the death sentence against Sayeedi, and went on to mock Islamic practices and spread profanation against the prophet of Islam on the internet. The pious in the Hefazat conglomerate were furious. They launched their own countrywide agitation and mass uprising with the slogan “Islam is under attack” from wielders of state-power in Bangladesh. The “political” elements in the Hefazat conglomerate brought into focus their simmering discontent over the omission of the dictum of “full faith and trust in Allah” from the book of the Constitution. Making a common cause of public wrath over insults against the prophet of Islam by haughtily bloggers with the demand of conformity with the Sharia in law-making and in the Constitution, the Hefazat in effect became a quasi-political campaign to tame the “aggressive secularism” of the ruling party amounting to condonation of blasphemy. It declared the ruling government “unfit to govern” on that account, but made it clear it did not want to “dislodge” the government, but to “purge” it of sinful persuasions. When Hefazat articulated its 13-point demands for negotiation with the government, underlining its patience for peaceful and step-by-step attainment of its goals, the ruling coterie, based on intelligence reports of massive support and religious resolve Hefazat was obtaining from the country at large, decided to persistently woo and maintain talks with Hefazat leaders, but with very small concessions. At the same time, the government quietly encouraged and protected its Shahabag flock to embark on a contrary course to counter every programme of action of Hefazat, which had given a month’s notice to the government for Long March to Dhaka if its charter of demands were not significantly met by that time.
Slow in negotiations but warm in persuasion, the government, on failing to dissuade Hefazat from the Long March to Dhaka for a mass rally on April 6, granted permission for the rally in Dhaka, but played all the tricks in its bag to hold back the marches from coming to Dhaka, pulling off all inter-district traffic from roads, rivers or railways, and creating physical obstructions by the Shahbag flock including the ruling party’s student and youth activists with the help of mofussil police to block the marches. Nevertheless, the million-strong rally of pedestrian marches, aided by “lifts” offered by non-mechanised vehicles, country boats and goods-carrying trucks from place to place, was a huge success. As the government realised the immensity of the gathering defying all obstacles, it sent emissaries to get busy to restart negotiations with Hefazat leaders and assure them of significant concessions, given time. In the event, the Hefazat leadership was persuaded to give another month’s ultimatum to the government to substantially meet its demands, declaring a month-long programme of rallies in mofussil districts and a deadline of May 5 for not another Long March but direct action of “siege” of Dhaka and other administrative headquarters, if government failed to concede. For the sin of obstructing the Long March, Hefazat leaders spared the government the whip of “continuous hartal” as earlier announced, and observed token protest by the call of a dawn-to-dusk hartal on April 8.
Relieved as it is by the limited success of its advocacy for time with Hefazat leaders, the government nonetheless decided to continue blowing hot and cold in “managing the crisis”, and made the mistake of letting loose the muscle power of its Shahbag flock and of the ruling party students and youth wing on the protesters and pickets of the Hefazat following. Bloody clashes followed, and the political elements within the Hefazat leadership who maintained liaison with 18-party opposition leaders, began echoing the opposition slogan of dislodging the government from power.
The government made a further mistake of taking advantage of the lull in Hefazat’s activism by arresting the entire leadership of BNP and holding them without bail, charging them of masterminding violent agitation and vandalism in hartal. Warrants of arrest were also issued against other leaders of the 18-party alliance. The President of Chhatra Shibir was also picked up, and held for long interrogation and alleged torture, without specific charges. Result: The whole working week beginning with the Hefazat hartal was dragged through 18-party 36-hour hartal and a Shibir hartal. The government has now also arrested Mahmudur Rahman, acting editor of daily Amar Desh, who was being threatened with prosecution for “provoking” disaffection by exposing the blaspheming bloggers in print. The finance minister has boasted that the steamroller of repressive measures will finish off the agitation by the end of the month. Others think, the government leaders are simply suffering from delusion.