The Bangladeshi spring: Fight between secularists and Islamists may define nation's future

Something about the month of February has often fired the collective imagination of Bangladesh, almost always in a way that has reshaped the history of this tiny but volatile South Asian nation.

It was in the spring of 1952 that street protests gave birth to the Bengali language movement which eventually, two decades later, inspired the birth of Bangladesh, a new nation carved out of Pakistan.

In February 1983, popular protests forced the country's military rulers to restore democracy.

It's spring once again, and Bangladesh is convulsing from a popular struggle to restore secular polity over the politics of religious radicalism - a blood-soaked, socio-political tug-of-war that may well define the future of this Muslim-majority, impoverished country.

Ever since Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971, the secularists have accused Islamists of siding with Pakistani forces in killing three million people and raping thousands of women - atrocities that over the decades became part of the country's collective memory and national narrative.

Those historical tensions have now boiled over as the country tries top Islamist radical leaders for "war crimes".

Two war crimes tribunals set up three years ago have begun handing down sentences to 10 accused, seven of them top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party of considerable influence which is part of the country's main opposition alliance.

On Feb 5, one of the accused, Abdul Quader Mollah, popularly called the "Butcher of Mirpur" for his alleged atrocities in a Dhaka neighbourhood, was given a life sentence.

In the following days, a trickle of young men and women gathering at one of Dhaka's busiest intersections, Shahbagh, swelled into an apolitical crowd of hundreds of thousands protesting against the punishment for Mollah which they deemed was too light.

For more than three weeks, they camped there demanding the death penalty for Mollah and a ban on religion-driven politics of the likes of Jamaat.

With songs and slogans, plays and poetry, the secularists whipped up nationalist fervour  over the nostalgic vision of a secular, pluralistic society by Bangladesh's founding fathers.

They have used Facebook, Twitter and blogs to keep up the pressure even after the crowds had thinned. Since then, another accused has been sentenced to death.

The Islamist radicals have hit back with attacks on secularists and government forces - violence that has left some 70 people dead over the past few days.

One of those dead is Ahmed Rajib Haider, an architect and blogger, murdered for attacking Jamaat's dogmatic politics. He has been annointed the secularist movement's first martyr.

While nothing is certain about what will emerge from this struggle, Bangladesh may well be on the cusp of redefining its future, a choice to embrace secularism over religious radicalism that may hinder its nascent dream of economic progress to benefit its millions of utterly poor.

What the clash has done is widen the ideological wedge in the Bangladeshi society - a dangerous polarisation that may prove to be the perfect recipe for long-term instability.

In the wider context of South Asia, such a development would be disastrous, especially for the dominant regional power India, which already remains wary of rising Islamist fundamentalism in its neighbourhood.

India helped create Bangladesh and remains supportive of the Awami League, a secularist party whose founder was the independence hero and the country’s first leader, Mr Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

For Bangladesh, the challenge is as much to ensure justice for historical wrongs as to guard against the use of public sentiment for political opportunism. The popular secularist protests offer the Awami League a perfect chance to corner Islamist radicals.

There have been some doubts cast over the integrity and transparency of the trials. Hacked Skype conversations and e-mails have revealed close contact between one particular judge and the prosecutors. Even a proposed judgment draft was passed around.

The judge, Mr Mohammed Nizamul Huq, has resigned since and a new court has been constituted, but applications by the defence to seek retrials were rejected.

Justice is a vital part in healing and reconciliation, but a flawed path to accountability is often the perfect recipe for a never-ending cycle of violence and retribution.

The Shahbagh protests were a liberal street festival with a morbid demand in which the subtleties of due process and matters of evidence got swept away in a voracious appetite for vendetta.

The tribunal must guard against getting swayed, emotionally or politically, because even though there is much merit in the Shahbagh protests, a blemished trial will only hurt Bangladesh's unfinished struggle for a pluralistic liberal society.

mkritti@sph.com.sg