Who are the communal forces in Bangladesh?

by TAJ HASHIMI for Nuraldeen

Of late, some new players have entered the arena of the so-called Communal Violence — aka “Ethnic Cleansing”, “Sectarian Conflict”, “Religious Conflict”, “Hindu-Muslim Violence” and “Muslim-Non-Muslim Conflict” — monks and clerics in Myanmar, Pakistan and elsewhere. Then again, the case of Bangladesh is quite different.

As in Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere, Buddhist monks in Myanmar have been at the forefront both as leaders and actual perpetrators of “communal” violence against Muslims. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the Sinhalese chauvinism that started destabilizing Sri Lanka in the early 1950s (Ceylon in those days). They wholeheartedly supported the “Sinhalese Only” movement to marginalize, discriminate against, and expel all Tamils (Hindu, Christian and Muslim) from Ceylon. Monks were so angry that they had no qualms with killing Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike (1899-1959) — husband of Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000), the first female elected head of government in the world. A Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama Thero (1916-1962), killed Mr. Bandaranaike with a revolver at the former’s official residence in a private meeting. It is noteworthy that Mr. Bandaranaike championed the cause of “Sinhalese Only”. However, monks and Buddhists in general did not consider him radical enough to kick out all Tamils out of Ceylon.

My point here is that Buddhism and Sinhalese identity are enmeshed together, one is not separable from the other. The same is the case with Myanmar. Buddhism is the main anchor of Burman identity in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious Myanmar. The dominant Burmans, who belong to the largest ethno-linguistic group (also predominantly Buddhist), rely on their monks in a country, which has not seen any democracy since the military takeover by General Ne Win (1910-2002) in 1962, which lasted up to 1981. The absence of democratic institutions, political parties, freedom of expression and civil society in Myanmar created a political void, which could be only filled by the military, police and monks. So, what was/is inevitable happened/happening, monks along with the military mould public opinion and compete against each other. They are also apt at controlling public opinion through religious-ethnic chauvinism. The rest is history. Monks and military have been instigating and orchestrating “communal”, “ethnic” violence out of sheer political expediency to perpetuate their hold on society.

There is a strong resonance of this binary between religion and ethnicity in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. The Taliban, in fact, is another name for Sunni Pashtun Nationalism against Shiite and other non-Pashtun Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and others (who were dominant under the Communist rulers of Afghanistan — 1978-1989, and since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001). So, there is nothing surprising about Islamists playing the role of mass mobilizers, policy makers and main actors in ethnic cleansing, “communal” and sectarian violence.

Now I take you to South Asia in general and to Bangladesh in particular. Here the two dominant Islamist / Islamic forces, the Deobandis (aka “Indian Wahhabis” –a misnomer though — coined by the British) and Jamaat-i-Islamists are NEVER known to have instigated (let alone participate) in any anti-Hindu / anti-Christian / anti-Buddhist violence since their inception. The overwhelming majority of Deoband Ulama (Muslim clerics) (who formed the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Hind — JUH– in 1919) favourd Hindu-Muslim Unity, followed Gandhi during and in the wake of the Khilafat Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-1922) up to the Partition and even afterwards. They opposed and ridiculed Jinnah as an “Anglo-Mohammedan”, whisky-drinking Murtad (apostate), not a true Muslim. Only a section of the JUH favoured Jinnah and the Partition. They, under the leadership of Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani (died in 1949), created the pro-Muslim League offshoot of the JUH, the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI) and championed the cause of Pakistan. Usmani’s rationale was that a “Murtad” Jinnah was a better option than a “Kafir” (non-believer from Muslim point of view) Gandhi (I heard this from my father, who was an ardent follower of the JUI and Muslim League in UP and Assam).

Usmani migrated to Karachi and wrote essays in favour of Pakistan. His famous essay was about the “Creation of the New Medina” in Pakistan. He compared the Holy Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina with Indian Muslims migration (Hijrat) to Pakistan, the “New Medina”. The Indian Muslim immigrants (refugees) in Pakistan are still known as the Muhajireen (plural of Muhajir or one who has performed the Hijrat or migration, in the manner of what Prophet Muhammad and his followers did in 622). Usmani also dreampt of re-uniting Mecca and Medina (New Delhi and Karachi or India and Pakistan) under a New Khilafat led by Shiite Jinnah and his other “whisky drinking murtad” followers. The JUI is the main fountain of sustenance for the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban – Most Taliban are former students of JUI-run madrassahs in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. Then again, the Taliban are predominantly anti-Shiite, anti-Secular Muslims. They don’t kill non-Muslims, randomly (unlike what al Qaeda loves to do).

The Jamaat-i-Islami was designed after Mussolini’s Fascist Party. Its founder Amir (führer or leader) Maulana Maududi admired Mussolini’s organizing capacity as a leader, in writing. He also opposed “Jinnah the Murtad” and his Pakistan. Maududi became a Pakistani by default. He had to flee from Eastern Punjab to Lahore literally to save his life during the anti-Muslim Partition rioting in Indian Punjab. Then all of a sudden he became an ardent champion of Pakistan, which he thought was a laboratory for creating Islamic States. He never wrote or spoke in favour of communal violence. He (and his followers) consider (ed) Hindus as “potential Muslims”. They mainly attack (and kill) Muslims, especially Ahmadiyas. The Jamaat is anything but a communal party like the Muslim League and its offshoots. In 1971 “communalism” did not inspire the Jamaat to kill Hindus (they mostly killed Muslims) but religious fanaticism and blind faith in the righteousness of Pakistani military junta. It was fascistic than anything else.The Awami League, BNP and the Jatiya Party and a few other groups are the successors of Muslim League politics and ideology, to a great extent. They have incomplete to zero commitment to secularism or peaceful co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims in Bangladesh.

As Badruddin Umar has written volumes of wonderful works on “Communalism” to enlighten us (after Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s path breaking work Modern Islam in India, which he wrote in 1942 in Lahore), we learn from him that “communal conflicts” are by-products of conflicts over jobs and business between rival aspirants representing different faiths. Bangladeshi Islamists (JMB, HUJI and not-so-militant Hefazat-e-Islam) don’t vie for jobs and business opportunities. And Hindus/Buddhists in Bangladesh not being the main contenders in the job market and business since 1947, are still targets of attack to further expropriate them from their homes, land and whatever business they still run. And who are the main contenders of these “worldly enterprises”? Definitely, not the rural, lower middle class (“petty bourgeois” classes, to paraphrase Marx) JMB, HUJI, and the Hefazat followers. Successors of the Muslim League party, who swell the ranks of the Awami League, BNP, Jatiya Party and their likes, have been the main “communal” forces in Bangladesh.

Finally, as it happened / happens throughout the Subcontinent, Muslims often tore / burnt pages of the Holy Quran and defile mosques to blame non-Muslims to start “communal rioting” to loot and gain properties from the minorities. “Communal” Hindus in India often put a cow head in a temple to stir up “communal violence”. It’s an old game. Although some Awami League leaders unfairly blames the Hefazat for burning down the Quran and damaging mosques in Bangladesh in the recent past, I think one should consider these unsubstantiated blame as mere political rhetoric, full of vilification and malice but signifying nothing.

Last but not least, to give the devil its due, I do not believe the Islamist Jamaat, Hefazat, Islamic United Front (IOJ), Khilafat Majlis, and the JMB and HUJI (although they are dormant not dead) are the main actors in “communal” fracas, loot, arson rape and vandalism in Bangladesh. Most of the time, the so-called secular and liberal Muslims instigate “communalism” for two reasons: a) to loot, expropriate and eventually expel Hindu-Buddhist minorities from Bangladesh; or b) to fish in the muddy water, to malign their political rivals, Islamic or “secular”. Since the emergence of Bangladesh, leaders and followers of “secular” political parties have been indulging in the “politics of greed, expropriation and plunder”; to make themselves rich overnight, preferably at the cost of weak and under-represented minorities (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Chakma, Garo, Santal and other “tribal” people and non-Bengalis / Biharis). These political parties also resort to the “false flag” method; they do all the entire killing, looting, raping and destroying Hindu-Buddhist temples, shops and homesteads by putting the blame on their political rivals to get political leverage. An understanding of political violence in the name of Islam and secularism, “Communalism” and different facets of Islamic politics in Bangladesh requires an understanding of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between non-violent Islamism (viz. Jamaat-i-Islami, Hefazat-e-Islam, IOJ, and Khilafat Majlis), violent Islamist extremism (which espouses terrorism, anarchy and even nihilism – such as pro-al Qaeda JMB and HUJI), “Islam-Loving” non-Islamist parties (viz. BNP and JP) and soft-on-secularism and not-averse-to political Islam (viz. Awami League) in the country.

Dr Taj Hashmi is a Professor in Austin Peay State University, Tennessee, USA

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