ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Bangladesh: Whose 'Unfinished Revolution'?

New radical groups have merged which cannot be checked by the Sheikh Hasina government.

Lawrence Lifschultz’s 1979 classic Bangladesh: Unfinished Revolution predicted a “final confrontation” between the forces of secular, linguistic nationalism and radical Islam. Within four years of independence from Pakistan in 1971, the bloody coup that killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and much of his family was followed by a fresh “Pakistanisation” of Bangladesh under military rulers. Much of the ideology of a liberal, secular state was undone in 21 years of military rule. Sheikh Hasina failed to reverse this process during her brief tenure (1996–2001) and the situation went from bad to worse during Khaleda Zia’s second term (2001–06). Islamist radicals created by the Bengali veterans of the Afghan jihad had a free run with direct patronage from powerful people. The Pakistan-backed Jamaat-e-Islami, whose supporters killed and massacred thousands, was in government for the first time in independent Bangladesh. That helped them advance the cause of an Islamist Bangladesh with reunification with Pakistan not a possibility.

Exasperated with jihadi excesses (serial bombings in 60 districts) and military rule with a civilian caretaker façade, the people voted the Awami League back to power in December 2008 with an overwhelming majority. One of Hasina’s election commitments was to start war crime trials against killers and collaborators of 1971. The executions that followed the trials of senior Jamaat and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders resulted in an existential crisis for the Islamist opposition. Hasina’s return to power was followed by more executions. Having failed to unseat Hasina, the BNP–Jamaat combine launched a six-month street agitation, fire-bombing buses, derailing trains and attacking secular figures resulting in the deaths of at least 86 people. As Hasina crushed her opponents by determined police action and political mobilisation, there was a surge in jihadi activities—attacks on bloggers, writers, publishers and even a professor who sought to popularise Baul music. First-generation jihadis, veterans of the Afghan jihad who returned to form groups like HUJI (Harkat ul-Jihad-i-Islami), attacked poet Shamshur Rahman and writer Humayun Azad. There is a clear continuity in the pattern of violence. The targeting is more political now to unsettle the Delhi–Dhaka relationship. Foreigners have been killed to scare investors and buyers of garments from Bangladesh to cripple the economy, while attacks on minorities aim at creating a Bangladesh without non-Muslims (who are the most loyal to the Awami League).

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