Bangladesh in Turmoil

Islamist upsurge threatens women, workers and minorities

Workers Hammer

For some months, Bangladesh has been in the throes of a general political crisis, with Islamic fundamentalists staging mass mobilisations against the government. In early May, Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest fundamentalist organisation in the country, mobilised its supporters to converge on the capital in what they called “Siege Dhaka”. Hefazat-e-Islam, an outfit that was born in opposition to a proposal to give women equal rights to inherit, is putting forward a 13-point programme. Among other things it calls for execution as the penalty for “insulting Islam”, a ban on intermingling of men and women and an end to “shameless behaviour and dress”. This reactionary upsurge is an ominous threat to the working class, the oppressed and above all to women.

Jamaat supporters are enraged by the ongoing trials of its leaders, who are accused of atrocities that were committed against the Bangladeshi population at the time of independence from Pakistan in 1971. The revolt of the Bengali-speaking population led by the Awami League met ferocious repression by the Pakistani oppressor. Pakistan’s military laid siege to Bengali areas and carried out a mass slaughter. Estimates of the numbers killed vary widely, but a commonly cited figure in Bangladesh is three million. Some ten million Hindus became refugees, many fleeing to India. The number of women raped by the Pakistani army and paramilitary units is estimated at tens of thousands.

The Pakistani side was supported by Jamaat-e-Islami, which actively opposed independence for Bangladesh. Its cadres participated in paramilitary units such as the Razakars (roughly, “collaborators”) who colluded with the Pakistani troops in carrying out terrible crimes against the Bangladeshi population. Following independence, Jamaat and other organisations who had sided with Pakistan were widely hated in Bangladesh and were banned by the ruling Awami League. In 1973 the government decided to try collaborators for war crimes, but it later backtracked and declared an amnesty, releasing all suspects.

Over time, however, the political bankruptcy of the Awami League paved the way for the forces of political Islam to re-emerge as a force in the country. A key factor was the utter inability of the bourgeois nationalists to free the masses from extreme poverty. This was evident as early as 1974 by which time Bangladesh faced disastrous famine and floods. The venal and corrupt Awami League had lost popular support. It was overthrown in a military coup in 1975 that assassinated its leader, Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), and killed 40 members of his family — all but two daughters, one of whom is Sheikh Hasina, the current party leader and prime minister. The military coup brought General Ziaur Rahman to power, who welcomed Jamaat back to Bangladesh. He also founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The country was run for years by military dictatorship, followed since the 1990s by rotating Awami League- or BNP-led governments.

But since 1971 the perpetrators of atrocities continued to walk free in Bangladesh — and other countries, including Britain, which gave many of them a warm welcome — and the issue festered. To capitalise on popular anger over the issue, in the run-up to the 2008 elections Sheikh Hasina revived the proposal to try those accused of war crimes. This was a cynical manoeuvre by a corruption-ridden party to refurbish its credentials as the party that led the independence struggle. Following a landslide election victory for the Awami League, the long-delayed war crimes proceedings began in 2010. Foremost among those accused are leaders of Jamaat.

Last December, before any verdicts were announced, Jamaat organised a general strike in protest against the trials. On 5 February Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant general secretary of Jamaat, was convicted of complicity in rape and mass murder and sentenced to life in prison. On 28 February, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, vice president of Jamaat and a former Member of Parliament, was sentenced to death, as was Muhammad Kumaru Zaman on 9 May. With each conviction, the Islamists orchestrated mob rampages against not only the government but also the oppressed Hindus. After Sayedee was sentenced to death, his supporters attacked Hindu villages, damaging more than 50 temples and destroying more than 1500 houses in nearly 20 districts. Hindus were forced to flee with their families and continue to live in fear. Buddhist temples and statues were also damaged, notably near the southern city of Chittagong where the Islamists are strong.

The howling by the fundamentalists for the death penalty for “insulting Islam” is aimed at the pro-secular demonstrations that began on 5 February at Shahbagh, a major intersection in the capital near Dhaka University. Thousands of young people gathered, demanding that the government take tougher action against the fundamentalists. Among the demands raised were a ban on Jamaat, an end to funding of religious schools and hospitals and a boycott of the banks run by Islamic organisations. In defiance of the Islamists, women mingled with men while students, young people and secular writers and artists joined in. The protests grew in size and continued over many days, eventually growing to two hundred thousand, the largest that Bangladesh has seen for decades. The Bangladesh flag was prominent in the protests, showing widespread illusions in “secular” Bangladeshi nationalism as the solution to fundamentalism.

The “atheist bloggers” who were identified with these protests have been targeted for murderous violence by the Islamists: on 14 January, 29-year-old blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who had been hounded by Islamic reactionaries, was stabbed and seriously injured. A month later, the well-known “atheist blogger”, Ahmed Rajib Haider, who had been threatened by pro-Jamaat activists, was found dead with his throat slit. When the tribunal passed down the life sentence for Quader Mollah, the Shahbagh protesters thought it was too lenient and demanded the death penalty. They fear that the people who are being convicted will walk free if the BNP wins the election, which is due within a year. There are also well-founded fears that Hasina could cut a deal with the Islamic fundamentalists, whom she has repeatedly conciliated in the past.

In 2006, Hasina signed an electoral pact with Khelafat Majlish in which she agreed that, if elected with the help of these fundamentalists, the Awami League would enact a blasphemy law and give legal backing to fatwas. The charge of blasphemy has increasingly been used by fundamentalists in Pakistan, and in Egypt when President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was in office, to inflict murderous violence on impoverished Christians of both countries. Even without a blasphemy law, Hasina’s government had no qualms about arresting several bloggers and shutting down web sites for supposedly offending religious sentiment. In April the government announced it would not adopt the anti-blasphemy laws as written. However, in response to their demand for state-sanctioned Sharia law (Islamic religious law), Hasina pledged that: “Our country will be run in keeping with the spirit of the Medina Charter … of our beloved Prophet Mohammad” (The Hindu, 15 April).

Hasina’s grotesque promise to implement a seventh century Islamic charter did nothing to mollify the Islamists. In protest at not getting their full programme adopted, the BNP called for a two-day general strike on 5-6 May. Hefazat and Jamaat supporters unleashed a riot, setting much of Dhaka ablaze. An unknown number were killed in a crackdown before the government regained control. Among those attacked in the rampage by the Islamists was the Communist Party of Bangladesh, whose office was torched. Its members were lucky to escape with their lives.

Women garment workers are key

With the country engulfed in a crisis over the war crimes trials, the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry shocked the country and the world. The Rana Plaza factory building collapse in April annihilated more than 1100 mainly women garment workers. This act of industrial murder showed the real workings of the capitalist market in one of the poorest countries in the world. Some 5000 factories in Bangladesh produce garments for major North American and European brands. The workers toiling in near-slavery in these deathtraps are paid the lowest wages in the world for that industry — as low as $37 (£24) a month, far below subsistence, often working 15-hour shifts.

At the same time, the garment industry is a cornerstone of the country’s economy and the millions of workers in these factories have potential social power. To prevent such power from being unleashed, the local garment bosses, aided by the Awami League government, brutally suppress trade unions, to the point of targeting union activists with murderous violence (see Workers Vanguard no 1023, 3 May). Nevertheless, a number of strikes have swept the industry in recent years. And when news of the Rana Plaza disaster spread, hundreds of thousands of these workers walked out of work and marched on the headquarters of the garment manufacturers’ association demanding “we want execution of the garment factory owners!”

The women who work in these factories are drawn from the villages, where illiteracy rates are high and the influence of religion and anti-woman prejudices are pervasive. For these women, a job in the garment industry opens up the possibility of escaping from the backwardness of village life. The ability of women to find employment in the cities breaks the taboo on mixing with men outside the home and enables women to become financially independent of their families. This fuels a backlash by the Islamists because it undermines the material basis for the traditional village and family hierarchy, within which women are blatantly traded as property. Dowry was prohibited by Bangladeshi law in 1980 but the legislation had little effect and the practice remains widespread. All aspects of personal and family law — regarding marriage, separation and divorce — are religion-based. Muslims are subjected to Islamic law, Christians to laws agreed by Christian churches and Hindus to Hindu codes. Numerous reports have documented an extremely high level of violence against women in Bangladesh. “Sulfuric acid — able to burn through skin, muscle and bone — is thrown on women for various reasons including ‘refusal of marriage offers, rejection of male advances, dowry disputes, domestic fights, property disputes, and even a delayed meal’” (quoted in “Bangladesh: Violence against women”, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, 2004). In 2002 the government introduced special laws to stop acid attacks; in 2011 the state restricted the sale of certain kinds of acids in an effort to reduce the number of these gruesome attacks.

Women have most to gain from the overthrow of capitalism in Bangladesh and, as indeed in all of South Asia, they will be a motor force for socialist revolution. The fight for the most basic needs of women — for literacy, education, contraception, an end to forced marriage and a way out of grinding poverty and oppression — requires a struggle to root out the very foundations of capitalist society. In 1994, when Jamaat launched a murderous anti-woman campaign against Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, we wrote that “Nasrin’s case raises questions far beyond the important democratic issues of women’s rights, freedom of speech and the separation of religion and the state”, questions “that only a revolutionary socialist program can answer”. Our article emphasised that:

“In the Third World countries burdened by centuries-old ‘customs,’ even basic questions of democratic reform can be explosive, not least because women’s subordination in the family has decreed them as the ‘bearers’ of the traditional culture to the next generation. But to unleash the tremendous revolutionary potential of the fight for women’s emancipation requires the leadership of a genuinely communist workers party, armed with a broad new vision of a social order of equality and freedom. The fight for the basic needs of the vast mass of Bangladeshi women — an end to forced marriage and the seclusion of purdah and the veil; freedom from poverty and legal subjugation; the right to an education and decent health care, including abortion and contraception — is an attack on the foundations of the capitalist social order and poses nothing less than socialist revolution”.

— “Women and the Permanent Revolution in Bangladesh”, Women and Revolution no 44, Winter 1994-Spring 1995

When the imams issued a fatwa (religious edict) against Nasrin and put a price on her head, she was hounded out of Bangladesh in 1994 and has remained in exile, forbidden to return home, not only under the BNP government but also under the Awami League. Nasrin’s case is a litmus test of the “secularism” the Awami League (occasionally) espouses, as well as for the left. At the time, the Bangladeshi Left Democratic Front, a coalition of leftist parties tailing the Awami League, condemned Nasrin for making statements against the Koran. Similarly, under a West Bengal government led at the time by the Stalinists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), she was forced to flee Kolkota. This was a cowardly capitulation to religious obscurantism and a gross betrayal of women on both sides of the Bengal border.

The CPI (M)’s commitment to upholding capitalist class rule in India was brutally clear in 2007 when its cadres joined police in an assault on peasants who were resisting a forced land expropriation in Nandigram, West Bengal. As our Canadian comrades wrote in an article:

“The Nandigram massacre had a precursor in a 1979 massacre of dalit (so-called ‘untouchable’) Hindu refugees from heavily Muslim Bangladesh. These refugees, some 30,000, had tried to settle on the small island of Marichjhapi in the inhospitable terrain of the Sundarbans, but the CPI(M) leaders declared their settlement ‘unauthorized.’ After a starvation blockade led to as many as 1,000 deaths, forcible removal began and hundreds were simply massacred. Settlers were tear-gassed, their huts razed, their fisheries and wells destroyed. As they were driven out of Marichjhapi, over 4,000 families perished.”

— Spartacist Canada no 171, Winter 2011/2012

As opposed to Stalinists — such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh and its Indian counterparts — we Trotskyists fight for the perspective of permanent revolution: the overthrow of imperialist domination through workers revolution, uniting all of the oppressed, including women as well as the mass of toiling peasants, under the leadership of a Leninist party. Such a party will mobilise the social power of the proletariat in a struggle modelled on that of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia.

Religious reaction — a tool of the imperialists

Particularly in the Indian subcontinent, the struggle for women’s liberation, as well as for working-class unity, means combating communalism. In Bangladesh communalism by Muslim bigots is directed against the oppressed Hindu minority, who make up approximately 10 per cent of the population, as well as against Buddhists and the Ahmadiyya Muslims. Communalism is not some inevitable condition of the region, but the legacy of rule by the British imperialists, who used religion to drive a wedge between India’s Hindus and Muslims, diverting their hatred of colonial rule into a communalist slaughter that accompanied the bloody partition of India in 1947. The creation of Pakistan was justified as supposedly providing a home for one “nation” of all Muslims, but this belies the reality. Capitalist rule in Pakistan is based on the domination of the Punjabi ruling class over Pashtuns, Baluchis and other oppressed nationalities.

Bangladesh owes its existence to the mutual hostility between India and Pakistan that resulted from partition. The former East Pakistan achieved independence only when India intervened militarily on the side of the Awami League. India’s intervention had nothing to do with the Bengalis’ legitimate struggle for self-determination, but was undertaken to weaken Pakistan. With the connivance of the Awami League, India took control of the fighting. As we wrote in an article published at the time, “the just struggle of the Bengalis was entirely subordinated and integrated into the interests of the predator India at the expense of the predator Pakistan” (Workers Vanguard no 4, January 1972).

Bangladesh’s claim to secularism, which was written into the country’s first constitution, is a myth. Far from being secular, Bangladeshi nationalism is integrally linked to Muslim religious identity. For the Awami League, in independent Bangladesh “secularism” was defined in opposition to Pakistan and the religious fundamentalists such as Jamaat who had inflicted such brutality on the Bengali-speaking population. On the other hand, Bangladeshi nationalism accepted partition which forcibly divided the Bengali-speaking people along Hindu-Muslim lines. Mujib, the father of Bangladesh, had no hesitation in rebutting accusations that the Awami League was against religion: “The slanderous rumour is being circulated against us that we are not believers in Islam. In reply to this, our position is very clear. We are not believers in the label of Islam. We believe in the Islam of justice. Our Islam is the Islam of the holy and merciful Prophet” (quoted in Religion, Identity & Politics –Essays on Bangladesh, Rafiuddin Ahmed). Mujib’s rhetoric about secularism was useful when it came to harvesting votes from among Bangladesh’s Hindus. But he began to tone it down when he was forced to seek aid from Saudi Arabia when his country was stricken by devastating floods in 1974. Evidently the oil sheiks were not taken in by Mujib’s backpedalling: Saudi Arabia refused to recognise the state of Bangladesh until the day after his assassination in August 1975.

India’s claim to be a secular democracy is also false. The Indian state was founded on Hindu chauvinism and brutal oppression of minorities has been the norm, not only under the avowedly Hindu-supremacist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) but under the Congress Party as well. Congress Party politicians orchestrated violent pogroms against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. Decades of Congress rule paved the way for the BJP to ride to governmental power on the back of murderous anti-Muslim pogroms. India’s massive military repression against Kashmir, the country’s only majority Muslim state, gives the lie to New Delhi’s claim that it is a secular democracy. Moreover it reinforces the grip of fundamentalists such as Jamaat on Muslims in Pakistan as well as in Kashmir itself.

The resurgence of religious and social reaction seen today in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is an international phenomenon. A key event was the war in Afghanistan waged by reactionary US, British and Saudi-backed Islamic fundamentalists against Soviet military forces that were invited into that country in December 1979. The funding and arming of the anti-Communist Islamic mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s in the service of the Cold War against the Soviet Union gave an enormous boost to Jamaat-e-Islami and many other Islamic insurgents. Capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in1991-92 gave a tremendous boost to the forces of reaction around the world. It was in this context that Hindu chauvinist mobs destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, followed by widespread pogroms against Muslims. In a mirror image of the BJP’s Hindu communalist terror, Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh unleashed their wrath against Taslima Nasrin and against the oppressed Hindu minority.

In a recent posting on her blog No Country for Women, Nasrin expressed the hope that Shahbagh “will turn into a positive political movement for a true democracy and a secular state — a state which affirms a strict separation between religion and state, and maintains a uniform civil code, a set of secular laws that are not based on religion, but instead, on equality, and an education system that is secular, scientific, and enlightened” (“Secular Uprising in Bangladesh”, 3 March). Nasrin’s ideal of a democratic, secular Bangladesh can not be realised simply through mobilisations against the fundamentalists. Eruptions of communalist violence, including against Hindus, take place with the complicity of the central government, particularly under the BNP. Furthermore, the oppressive conditions of women in society are deeply rooted in the structure of capitalist society in neocolonial Bangladesh.

As Marxists we know that pogroms and explosions of communalism have to be ruthlessly suppressed. But the capitalist rulers are incapable of defeating the forces of political Islam. In the subcontinent, the relatively small but strategic proletariat of each country is the social force that can crush the communalists — by carrying out a socialist revolution. The working class of each country is divided by caste, religion and ethnicity. A revolutionary Marxist leadership must be forged in the fight for proletarian unity and class independence across national and religious lines. The class-conscious proletariat must take up the struggle for the emancipation of women and place itself at the head of all the oppressed, winning the rural masses to its side in a fight to overthrow the landlords and capitalists.

Proletarian socialist revolution — spread throughout South Asia and extended to the imperialist centres — can develop the productive forces on a vast scale. Eliminating scarcity will lay the material basis for freeing the masses from the yoke of religion, of caste, and for the liberation of women. What is necessary is the forging of Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard parties dedicated to the overthrow of capitalist rule in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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