The anomaly of a secular Bangladesh

Sheikh Hasina should draw a veil over the nation's blood-soaked past, moderate her quest for justice and resolve the dilemma of the Bengali and Muslim identities


Begum Khaleda Zia's snub to Pranab Mukherjee sadly confirmed that Bangladeshis are still fighting yesterday's battles. They still suffer from the dilemma Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to exploit by arguing mischievously during the liberation war that if "Muslim Bangla" was primarily Bengali, it should merge with West Bengal. If it was Islamic, it should remain in Pakistan.

The politics of that illogical and unnecessary conflict between religion and language explains why Sheikh Hasina Wazed, whose ruling Awami League is identified with secular linguistic nationalism, baulks at repealing the constitutional amendment, making Islam the state religion. Nearly 91 per cent of Bangladeshis being Muslim, both the Jamaat-i-Islami and Begum Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party would exploit any diminution of the role of Islam.

Though not fundamentalists, Ziaur Rahman and General H M Ershad made inroads into Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's secular constitution for populist reasons. Mujib himself rightly blamed the perpetrators of Operations Blitz and Searchlight for the "biggest human disaster in the world" and passed the Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order only 10 days after returning to Dhaka. Over 37,000 suspected war criminals were rounded up.

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They were all freed, however, when Mujib found it expedient to declare a general amnesty in November 1973. Among those released were East Pakistan's last civilian governor, Abdul Motaleb Malik, and an implacable opponent of both liberation and Mujib personally, Shah Azizur Rahman. In a twist of fate in 1979, Rahman became prime minister of the Bangladesh whose birth he had vehemently opposed.

I won't go into Khondakar Mustaque Ahmed's revocation of the Collaborators Order or passage of an Indemnity Act. He is one of the baddies. He promoted Mujib's killers to high rank and sent them abroad as diplomats. But Mujib himself revived the Islamic Academy, achieved a rapprochement with Pakistan, and took Bangladesh into the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Islamic Development Bank. Those who knew him towards the end say "Khuda Hafiz" had replaced "Joy Bangla" as his favourite greeting. He was a pragmatist. He was also a politician. Politics is the art of compromise.

No purpose is served by Indians declaiming that the Talibanisation of Bangladesh will imperil our security, or that the Shahbag Square demonstrators have morality on their side. Sheikh Hasina's first priority is survival. While every Bangladeshi leader craves the imprimatur of India's acceptance, no Bangladeshi leader can afford to be seen as India's protégé. Strident secularism would be denounced as not just betraying Islam, but betraying Islam to India.

For precisely that reason, Sheikh Hasina would be well-advised to moderate her quest for justice, which has followed a zigzag path in Bangladesh. As coups and counter-coups succeeded each other, the courts took their cue from the political authority. Even without the complaints of human rights' activists who fault Sheikh Hasina's International Crimes Tribunal for not respecting world standards of due process, whatever she does is likely to be denounced as vengeance.

That is something Mujib's daughter can never afford to forget. Five of her parents' murderers were executed 35 years after the crime. It's time now for her to recall the indulgence Mujib showed to war collaborators and draw a veil over the blood-soaked past. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission offers a precedent in reaching out to yesterday's enemies to save the future.

Expressions of Indian support for the Shahbag Square demonstrators will only complicate her task. India can help best by expediting the proposed South Asian market and promoting the measures needed to draw Bangladesh into a growth triangle that encompasses the northeastern states and the Bay of Bengal region.

It wasn't fashionable to admit it, but the nine million refugees who fled to India in 1971 were mostly Hindus, victims as much of Pakistani repression as of local Muslim brutality. They didn't want to go back after liberation but had to when Indian army bulldozers razed their camps and Indian soldiers forced them into trucks at bayonet point. I asked a returning Hindu peasant if he regarded himself a Bangladeshi. "No," he replied. "You can call me an Indian living in Bangladesh!"

That may be an inescapable identification. But, otherwise, India must be seen as the friend of all Bangladeshis, not just of a particular lobby. Bangladeshis alone can resolve the dilemma - if one exists - of their Bengali and Muslim identities.

As I have said before in this column, India's best friend would be a Bangladesh that is not paying off old scores, but has come to terms with the past and is at peace with itself.

Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or the Business Standard newspaper

First Published: Mar 8 2013 | 9:44 PM IST

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