Shahbagh has been abuzz for over a month now with huge congregations of people from all walks of life calling for hanging of the Razakars charged with war crimes during Bangladesh’s liberation movement. Larger than life symbols of Bangladeshi identity bring a sense of revolution led by the youth with Dhaka University campus being painted with imageries of the 1971 war atrocities. Some villagers from as far as Rangpur have come to see for themselves what they have been watching on television, and to lend their support for Shahbagh. Elsewhere in Dhaka, the streets have turned into battlefields with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chatra Shibir activists on the one hand and the police on the other. Strikes and hartals, announced in a series by Jamaat-Shibir and the opposition Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party, have evoked mixed responses, depending on whether or not the Shahbagh activists and the Awami League countered.
Bangladesh is sharply polarised, across college campuses, business centers, urban localities and villages. Talk of the upcoming elections, and many feel that the recent developments are being directed towards electoral ends. Others feel that the 1971 war crimes tribunal is following its natural course of proceedings and that these developments were long overdue, with or without the elections. Yet others feel that the Shahbagh movement and its confrontation with Jamaat-Shibir have been overtly politicised, and the ruling Awami League has to take part of the blame. The country is at the door of a civil war-type situation, which does not augur well for democracy and the fledgling economy. However, this section also believes that the military establishment in Bangladesh is closely monitoring the situation, and will take effective measures to prevent such a situation, even if it means military takeover of power in Dhaka.
The upcoming elections may not happen at all. Jamaat-Shibir is an intelligent party and has grown its base in Bangladesh over the past decades, and cannot be banned or branded in any manner by the government or the Shahbagh movement, as has been the talk. This is just the beginning of the assertions and the counter-assertions of this growing political divide in Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazaar, south of Chittagong, is a Jamaat-Shibir stronghold, with the local Shaheed Minar the site of sporadic flash protests by Shahbagh supporters and tension in the old town area is palpable during hartals.
The Bangladeshi Rakhine community in Cox’s Bazaar is estimated at around 20,000 people, and is an important stakeholder in the flourishing border trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar through the customs land-river port located at Teknaf. The Rakhine community is concerned about the political situation but does not feel specifically threatened.
Being a religious minority, they speak about a secular and secure environment that they have lived in for decades. There is undoubtedly a lot of interdependence between the majority Muslim and the minority Rakhine community in Cox’s Bazaar owing to the nature and control of border trade.
However, the Rakhines do admit that they cannot remain aloof from the political situation, and that it affects them, if the hartals and violence continue. The Bangladeshi Rakhine population converse in fluent Bengali and Rakhine, some young people speak Hindi which they have learnt from watching Indian television shows, but not many of them have visited Myanmar, even after the opening up. The government of Bangladesh allows its citizens to cross the international border with temporary passes, for business purposes and to visit relatives, but only a few businessmen happen to visit Myanmar on a regular basis.
While there have been reports of many Hindu villages being attacked and burnt by Jamaat-Shibir activists recently, the economically well-off and influential minority Rakhine Buddhist population have not come under any such attacks. The minority Hindu population in Bangladesh is, in fact, the most vulnerable to Jamaat-Shibir attacks as they have been key witnesses to the 1971 war crimes tribunal proceedings. The success and sustainability of any revolutionary change in Bangladesh will depend on how the diverse religious minority communities participate and are involved.
The large Rohingya Muslim population in Cox’s Bazaar district, refugees from Myanmar are clearly divided into registered refugees and unregistered illegal migrants. Over 60,000 Rohingya illegal migrants are believed to be living in Cox’s Bazaar, in and around the registered camps and many are accused of illegal activities such as drug-running and other petty crimes. This has led to much political debate in Bangladesh over the past two decades. The recent ethnic clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine state of Myanmar, have led to more Rohingya migrants illegally entering Bangladesh through the porous border. The local Bangladeshi Rakhine population does not interact with the Rohingya migrants and there is palpable tension after the recent ethnic clashes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The Bangladesh government does not favour integration of the Rohingya refugees, as advocated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but is only focusing on repatriation and resettlement options in Myanmar and Western countries, through its Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC).
The Jamaat-e-Islami seems to offer tacit support to the Rohingya migrants in Bangladesh, owing to commonality in religion, and easy indoctrination to their ideology, as most of these migrants are illiterate and do not have adequate livelihood means. There are allegations that in recent attacks and road picketing by the Jamaat-Shibir around Bangladesh, Rohingya migrants have been used as the frontline in confrontations with the police, even to the extent of hiring them for such activities.
It is in the larger development and strategic interest of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar that peace and stability is achieved in a holistic manner to build on the gradual political and economic progress seen in Northeast India, and the opening up and reforms in Myanmar.
Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman is a Doctoral Candidate at the
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences,IIT, Guwahati