Hefazat’s politics and the government’s policies
Sometimes it feels intriguing why some issues kick off fierce debate and others don't. One such less discussed, but hugely significant development, was the Hefazat delegation's recent meeting with prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
Very little has been divulged about the December 17, 2022 parley, other than the home minister telling the media that the PM will definitely look into the demands made by the Hefazat-e-Islam leaders and fulfil those which are deemed reasonable. Hefazat leaders, too, have said nothing much, except describing the meeting as "very fruitful." The Bangla daily Bhorer Kagoj quoted Maulana Meer Idris as saying, "The meeting with the prime minister was very fruitful. She heard us with seriousness."
Press reports say Hefazat had a meeting on the same day under the banner of National Ulama Mashayekh Conference. The conference held at Kazi Bashir Auditorium in Gulistan was attended by representatives of the organisation from all parts of the country. A seven-point charter of demands was drafted, to be given to the PM. It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that those are the same demands that the home minister referred to that the PM would look into.
So, what were those demands? According to Prothom Alo, they were: 1) Release of Alem-Ulama, and Hefazat leaders and workers; 2) Withdrawal of all cases lodged against them; 3) Enact blasphemy law making provisions for punishments for slandering against Islam and the Prophet (PBUH); 4) Declare the Ahmadiyya as non-Muslims by the state; 5) Making religious education mandatory in educational curricula; 6) Ensure representation of Al Hiyatul Uliya Lil Jamiatul Kawmia Bangladesh in the board that prepares curriculum and textbooks; and 7) Not allow Indian preacher Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi to attend this year's Biswa Ijtema.
Before proceeding further, it needs to be made clear that everyone should be presumed innocent until a court of law convicts someone for any specific crime, and the right to get bail – unless there are exceptional reasons, like posing a danger to society – and a speedy trial are essential elements of the rule of law. No one, irrespective of being an Alem or a secular person, a political opponent or a supporter of the government, should be kept in prison prolonging their trials unjustifiably, and no one should be subjected to imprisonment or implicated in any prosecution without sufficient grounds.
It must be noted here that many of the imprisoned Hefazat activists were detained for protesting against the visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi in March 2021, when the protests became violent and more than a dozen lives were lost. There were allegations of high-handedness in policing the protest and thousands of Hefazat activists were implicated in a number of cases in various parts of the country. Unfortunately, mass arrests and political harassment are nothing new in Bangladesh. But, we can only hope that all those left behind bars on flimsy grounds or with insufficient proof will get relief through the judicial process.
Reading the list of the demands raised by Hefazat puzzles us as to how such a meeting could take place, especially when the humiliation of a particular faith group has been sought from the state?
This particular meeting didn't happen out of the blue. There were reports of a few other meetings between the Hefazat leaders and the home minister during preceding months.
According to Bhorer Kagoj, before 2019, the now deceased former military secretary to the PM, Major General Mia Mohammad Zainul Abedin, was the person who used to liaise with the then Hefazat supremo, late Allama Shafi. After General Abedin's death, Hefazat leaders reached out to home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal.
One may well wonder: Was the home minister convinced that such an anti-constitutional demand could be forwarded to the prime minister?
The answer probably lies somewhere else. If we refresh our memory and look back to 2018, we might be able to draw some conclusions.
On November 3, 2018, virtually addressing a discussion on the Jail Killing Day, PM Hasina said: "When we assumed office in 2008, many incidents and conspiracies like the BDR carnage and Hefazat's so-called movement were carried out to remove Awami League from power." But, on November 4, the day after, she attended a grand reception organised by Hefazat-e-Islami, where she was given the title "Qawmi Janani." The reception was organised to thank her for recognising Dawra E Hadith of Qawmi Madrasa to be of equal status to a postgraduate (Master's) degree. Barely two months ahead of a general election, it appeared to be a mutually beneficial understanding with the Awami League, albeit to the dissatisfaction of the country's secular forces, and the ruling party's main challenger, the BNP.
In the ensuing years, a few changes had taken place mysteriously in school textbooks, which many educationists have alleged were done at the behest of Hefazat. Their new demand of granting them a seat on the curriculum board, therefore, raises further concerns about the prospect of pushing our education system back to a state where science and philosophy may not receive due emphasis.
There is no doubt that the current state of the relationship between this ultra conservative Islamic group and the ruling party is the result of the long-held silence of the so-called secular allies of the ruling party for their political opportunism. These allies have lost their moral standing to counter, or at the very least, oppose the policy of appeasing the ultra conservatives.
As we approach another general election, and with the BNP on the path towards a revival, the utmost thing of worry is that such appeasement will only intensify.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1