A time for grown ups?
Something curious has been happening in Bangladesh in the past 24 hours. After the jumma prayers yesterday, groups belonging to a dozen or so small Islamist parties took out processions against ‘atheists’ and ‘apostates’ of Shahbagh. Apparently these defenders of Islam were joined by Jamaat as well. There were scuffles with police. Shaheed Minar was attacked in Sylhet, and the national flag was burnt. And then there were some counterattacks against Jamaat-owned businesses. By nightfall, things were under control.
That’s what I get from the mainstream media (or the parts I can access — Prothom Alo and Daily Star aren’t safe for my iPad), and that’s not the curious thing. If that’s all there was to it, it would be hardly different from the occasional rampage some of the more ‘pious’ and excitable fellows get up to every time any government wants to give women equal rights of inheritance.
The curious thing is what I see in facebook and blogs. Judging by their account, Bangladesh stood on the brink of civil war. Religious fanatics had openly declared war on the country as it exists. On the other side, a large crowd had returned to Shahbagh in the evening, demanding that unless the government acts, there will be a revolution.
As explained earlier, on Shahbagh I’ve preferred to keep my mouth shut and eyes open. That remains my general approach. I have little factual understanding of what exactly is happening in Bangladesh. It may be that my facebook friends are an alarmist bunch (bloggers of all types in all countries are usually a hyperventilating lot — Andrew Sullivan felt suicidal when Obama did poorly in a debate!), and the mainstream media had it right: nothing of consequence happened yesterday. Or, it may be that there are complicated games at play — not being privy to any palace intrigues, I’ll leave conspiracy theorising to others.
If those scenarios happen, then what follows should be discarded. But as long as there is a non-trivial probability that the more alarmist version is right — that Bangladesh was/is close to civil war — then I believe it’s time for the grown ups to calm things down.
Based on various online accounts, the following seems plausible: over the past week, Daily Amar Desh has printed excerpts of Bangla blogs that appear to be extremely critical of Islam or its Prophet; it’s hardly a secret that some Muslims tend to take the Prophet’s honour very seriously — just ask Salman Rushdie; during the Friday prayer, these faithfuls were incited to react violently; Jamaat chimed in — anything that creates chaos today is good for it. And then things got out of hand.
Whether it is two children fighting, or there is a communal riot, or armed men are holding a plane full of passengers hostage, or two countries are amassing tanks on the border, the first thing to do in a crisis situation is to diffuse the tension. That’s Governance 101.
If Bangladesh is staring at civil violence/war/anarchy, then it’s time for the grown ups to act.
Who are the grown ups? It may be unfashionable these days, but I will call upon the two leaders who have consistently received the support of two-thirds of Bangladesh between them over the past quarter century. I believe that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition must act.
They must act not because of some grand moral reasons, but because it’s in their best interest to do so.
Take the Prime Minister first. If there is a genuine civil disturbance, she has the most to lose. Her government will fall, and depending on what follows, she may well have to live the rest of her days in retirement. This cannot be a good prospect. Far better that she makes a categorical promise to Shahbagh that their demands will be met. There is nothing in their demand that is inconsistent with the Awami League politics. Most crucially, it seems that the demand regarding Jamaat — With a view to banning politics of Jamaat-Shibir, bring war crimes charges against Jamaat-e-Islami under the amended law [The International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973] and start the legal process by March 26 — is both eminently achievable and is beneficial for AL.
If she can make the Shahbagh movement go home, the sting will be taken out of the mullah agitation. Once the tension subsides, politics can resume as usual.
As for the Leader of the Opposition, if she believes that she can benefit from a chaotic exit of her rival, she is living in a fool’s paradise. Any extra constitutional change in power will mean she will meet the same fate as the Prime Minister. So for her own survival, and the chance to fight another day and actually win, she should do her part to calm things down.
She should categorically condemn mullah violence and those who incite such violence. She has already moved the party away from hardline anti-Indian rhetoric. Tough gesture against religious fanaticism will do her well for the real fight — the one for a free election.
This post may well seem contrary to the ‘non-political, revolutionary’ spirit that pervades my facebook. May be it flies in the face of Dhaka’s zeitgeist. But there is a Burkean conservatism I adhere to that deeply values stability over revolution. In case of Bangladesh, I don’t want a ‘grand sweeping away of the rat infestation’ (as a fellow blogger has put it). Rather, I want to persist with our 6% a year growth that has made lives of most Bangladesh better than any of their ancestors.
I want Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia to stand up and show some leadership.