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Home  Worldwide  Bangladesh  January, 2004  Moment of truth for BNP
Moment of truth for BNP

The Daily Star
Vol. 4 Num 230Fri. January 16, 2004


Moment of truth for BNP
Zafar Sobhan

BNP stands at a crossroads in its history. Now is the time for it to take a long look in the mirror and decide what kind of a party it wishes to be. 2004 would appear to be an appropriate time for a little self-definition. With a commanding majority in parliament, and a divided and ineffectual opposition, the party’s position in Bangladeshi politics has, on the face of it, never seemed more assured.

The first argument is that the ban was imposed in response to the street agitation demanding that Ahmadiyyas be declared non-Muslim and was necessary in order to keep the peace. This is utterly unpersuasive as a defence. Since when has this government or any government for that matter, been responsive to street agitation?
So now is the ideal moment for the BNP to determine what it really stands for and what its bedrock principles are as a party. The BNP must ask itself whether it wishes to make religion based politics an integral element of the party platform and to thereby move fanaticism to centre-stage in Bangladeshi politics. The time has come for the BNP to ask itself whether it wishes to be a political party for all Bangladeshis or whether it wishes to turn itself into the Bangladeshi equivalent of the BJP.

The parallels between the two parties are striking. In India, the BJP was originally assembled out of disparate anti-Congress factions that banded together to form a political party that could challenge the decades-long dominance of the party of Indian independence. To this day, being anti-Congress is still pretty much the only ideology that binds together the different factions both within the party and within its broader ruling coalition.

Similarly, the BNP was originally formed as a confederation of politicians of every stripe and shade, the only unifying factor being opposition to the AL, the party of Bangladeshi independence. Like the BJP, the BNP’s electoral success comes more from the electorate’s weariness with the alternative than from much enthusiasm for its policies and positions.

But, while the BNP has always been more closely identified with the forces of religious conservatism than the AL, unlike the BJP for whom Hindutva is an organising principle and dominant ideology, the BNP has never made religious extremism an essential component of its political success. Until now.

The BNP’s critics have long argued that the party has been covertly pushing a communal agenda and has made an appeal to the majority’s communalist sentiments a crucial element in its electoral success. They point to the presence within the ruling four-party alliance of two political parties which make no bones about their narrow communal vision for the country.

The BNP has always resisted such classification and argued that it is a party of tolerance and inclusion. But with its announcement a week ago that it was banning all publications of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, it is difficult to see how the BNP can continue to credibly make this claim.

The PM’s clear statement last Wednesday that Ahmadiyya’s will not be declared non-Muslims was a timely and welcome decision in favour of democracy, freedom of religion and all other democratic values. But more needs to be done.

Many arguments have been put forth by defenders of the BNP with respect to the ban, none of them persuasive.

The first argument is that the ban was imposed in response to the street agitation demanding that Ahmadiyyas be declared non-Muslim and was necessary in order to keep the peace. This is utterly unpersuasive as a defence. Since when has this government or any government for that matter, been responsive to street agitation?

It is also instructive to recall that the government has been far more efficient in quelling opposition party demonstrations and even those in favour of the third force than it was against the anti-Ahmadiyya agitators who have attempted to storm the Ahmadiyya mosque in Nakhalpara every Friday for the past two months.

So the claim that the ban was enacted to keep the peace is laughable on its face. In any event, since when does a democratically elected government take its cues from ultimatums and threats? The government cannot seriously offer as a defence of its actions that it has caved in to undemocratic pressure and the threat of violence.

Nor is the argument that the blame lies with coalition partner, the Islami Oikya Jote, persuasive.

It is true that the movement to declare the Ahmadiyyas non-Muslim was spearheaded by the IOJ and that the IOJ strongly supports the ban on all Ahmadiyya publications.

But the fact of the matter is that the BNP itself holds a commanding majority in parliament and has no need to placate any of its coalition partners by enacting measures that it does not support.

Indeed, the government’s sympathies with respect to this situation can be inferred from the fact it also agreed to withdraw the cases filed against the anti-Ahmadiyya demonstrators who were charged with assaulting policemen guarding the Nakhalpara Ahmadiyya mosque on December 5.

The blame for the ban must fall squarely on the shoulders of the BNP and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. The buck stops at the PM’s office and it is preposterous to think that such a ban could be promulgated without the PM’s approval. The PM must assume responsibility for the actions of her government.

By declaring that all Ahmadiyya publications are offensive to Muslim sensibilities and that their sale, publication, distribution and retention are to be banned, the government has decisively entered the fray on the side of the anti-Ahmadiyya elements.

What is the good of declining to declare Ahmadiyyas non-Muslim when at the same time you are saying that their very beliefs are offensive to Muslims and that for them to retain and read in the privacy of their own homes their own religious texts is unlawful?

The government may not have taken the step to declare Ahmadiyyas non-Muslims, but by banning all their publications they have all but accomplished the same thing. The ban delegitimises and marginalises the Ahmadiyya community almost as grievously as would a declaration that they are not Muslim.

Worst of all, the banning of Ahmadiyya publications will only serve to embolden the anti-Ahmadiyya agitators who have threatened to burn down the Ahmadiyya mosque in Nakhalpara and continue to terrorize Ahmadiyya communities around the country.

We are quick to fault the BJP for anti-Muslim violence in India and lay the blame for the persecution of Muslims in the US squarely at the door of George Bush and the xenophobic political climate he has created. Why, then, are we so quick to absolve our own government when the political climate it has created results in the persecution of minorities here in Bangladesh?

And make no mistake, banning all Ahmadiyya publications is not only an appalling violation of the constitutional and human rights of the Ahmadiyyas in and of itself, but it will also escalate the persecution the community suffers. There are villages where the Ahmadiyyas do not dare to leave their homes out of fear for their lives. Does the government really think that banning their books will accomplish anything except make their lives and property even less secure?

The BNP’s critics have long claimed that it is indifferent to the rights and interests of this country’s minority communities. From turning a blind eye to atrocities perpetrated against the Hindu community to its failure to implement the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord, the argument goes that the BNP doesn’t care about minority rights.

But now is the chance for the BNP to show that it is not held hostage by the communal elements within its party and within its ruling coalition. Now is the time for the BNP to show the country that it does not play the politics of communalism and that it is a party for all Bangladeshis -- not just the majority. Let us hope that the BNP can rise to the occasion. The PM’s firm declaration of Wednesday is a good first and significant step. But the book ban must be reversed. If they do not reverse the ban on Ahmadiyya publications, how would they ever say that they are a party of tolerance and inclusion.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.

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