Making a stand, taking a side
I argued in the last post that Bangladesh is back to politics-as-usual. Whereas I was surprised by the Shahbag Awakening*, needing a reassessment of a lot of my priors, nothing like that is needed to analyse politics-as-usual. I can use my mental model of politics — including the key players and their objectives, incentives and strategies — to analyse the situation. That doesn’t, of course, mean the analysis will be necessarily correct. But even when I get things wrong, I can update my views with the latest infromation as long as the basic framework of my analysis is intact.
An analysis of unfolding events since Friday makes for some rather uncomfortable conclusions for me. And yet, there are times when one ought to make a stand, even if it means taking a side. I believe now is such a time. Over the fold is why this blog rejects tomorrow’s hartal.
In the current political theatre, the central character is Jamaat-e-Islami. The Shahbag Awakening started as a reaction against a possible Jamaat-Awami backdoor deal. A month on, I think such a deal looks very remote right now. It is very difficult to imagine a situation where any of the Jamaat leaders still being tried might get a Quader Mollah treatment of a guilty verdict with a less-than-maximum sentence. As things stand, Ghulam Azam and others are looking at either acquittal or a death sentence.
That is, Jamaat cannot save its top leaders through any detente with the government. It then has two options — the legal, and extra-legal. I don’t need to share David Begman’s scepticism to note that the legal option is not playing out all that well for Jamaat. Hence, the violence. This much I said on Friday. Let me elaborate a bit on the violence.
If Basherkella is any guide, Jamaat’s ability to use technology and social media to destabilise the country is impressive. Also impressive is its ability to use young men as cannon fodder. Since violence erupted on Thursday, several dozen Jamaat-Shibir men have been killed by the law enforecement agencies. By several video footages doing the rounds (too gruesome for this blog — easily available in the net for anyone interested), these encounters have been extremely violent, even by Bangladeshi standards.
In addition to violence against the police, which started back in October-November, we have seen crass manipulation of religious sentiment in the form of Sayedee-sighting (which, frankly, seems quite contrary to Islam’s strict monotheism — but hey, what do I know), attacks on minority communities, and rumour that Ghulam Azam has died under custody. There is a non-trivial probability of a major terrorist attack.
But Jamaat does not have an unlimited supply of young men. Delwar Hossain Sayedee is hardly the most senior of its leaders, and he has merely been sentenced, not hanged. Why then is the violent reaction now?
This image — doing the rounds — might give a clue. These strategies are to instigate violence, not win hearts and minds (although, it’s a bonus if that happens). The aim is primarily to create a situation where the army feels compelled to step in.
What might such a situation look like? I’ve said many times in the past that the rank-and-file of our army is drawn from the same socio-economic-cultural background as whence the university students come. The average Shibir man comes from the same socioeconomic background. And more importantly, so does the average BNP supporter / activist. I do not see the army deploying tanks to clear 50,000 people from Shahbag. But by the same token, it’s hard to see indiscriminate firing on tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators.
And it’s in this respect that I find BNP’s call for a hartal on Tuesday completely unacceptable. I called for grown ups earlier. I called for the Prime Minister to use her authority to wind up Shahbag, and the opposition leader to use hers to control the Islamists — Jamaat and otherwise. Instead of help diffuse the situation, the BNP chief has added fuel to the fire.
Based on that analysis, this blog takes an unconditional stance against tomorrow’s hartal. It is irresponsible of BNP to have called it even if it doesn’t actually want military intervention.
Of course, the hartal may come to pass without much violence. A lot depends on the Prime Minister. It’s interesting that the usually garrulous Awami League leader has been rather quiet of late. It’s about time she speaks to the nation, sending a tough warning to anyone who uses religious sentiments and/or attack minorities to instigate a coup. If she can stabilise the situation without further bloodshed, she will have earned a strong claim to re-election.
But why does Jamaat seek a military intervention? I don’t think much of the Jamaati infiltration idea. Rather, I think the intention is to ‘change the facts on the ground’ more than anything specific. A military government that topples the mighty Awami League will need to spend considerable energy tackling the AL. This will allow Jamaat some breathing space. And that’s probably enough for Jamaat.
Moving beyond the specifics of the week, there is an ideological dimension to where this blog stands.
We have seen two strands of extreme identity politics in display recently. I am instinctively uncomfortable with the ultra-nationalism of Shahbag. I do not believe Shahbag is precursor to Fascism. But I do believe Awami League has a Fascist underbelly that can try to hijack Shahbag’s nationalism. If that were to happen, this blog will stand with anyone opposing it. However, for all the talk about Shahbag’s intolerance, the violence and instability that threatens us is not from that corner. Rather, it is the violence in the name of an extreme and perverse interpretation of Islam, knowingly and cynically fuelled by people like Mahmudur Rahman, that is the real risk today. That’s the violence that can lead to a derailment of electoral politics, or threaten economic chaos. And that’s the ideology that is incompatible with the liberalism that this blog believes in.
It may be tempting to think of Jamaat’s violence as a reaction against Shahbag. If not for Shahbag’s glorification of Rajib Haider, will this violence have happened?
The answer is, probably yes. It is important to separate the protests by qaumi madrassah students and Jumma-attendees defending the Prophet’s honour with the violence deployed by Jamaat. Just because Amar Desh glorifies both does not mean they are the same. Even had the entire Shahbag episode never happened, chances are that Jamaat would have used any means necessary to try to save its leaders.
I don’t really have anything to say about Shahbag that’s not covered here. I am instinctively apprehensive about any Bangladeshi government getting re-elected. I can make a strong case why AL deserves to be back in power. But I could do the same for BNP in 2006. Given the lack of checks-and-balances in our institutions, my default position is to oppose re-election of anyone. As far back as 2010, I observed BNP trying to reform itself.
For all that, this blog cannot side with an action that will escalate the crisis and risk a military intevention.
I do not presume to lecture a twice-elected prime minister with three decades of experience in politics. She probably has some genius tactical move that I do not fathom. Perhaps the cynical manipulation of religious sentiment is still a vote winner. Well, if that’s the case, then this blog takes a principled stance against Islamism, unapologetically, unambiguously.
*I used to think it’s spelt -bagh, but evidently there is no ‘h’. And Awakening is how I am translating gana jagoron.