“Remember Bangladesh is a young country and it is fighting hard to retain the spirit of secularism despite a looming threat from radical elements within the society and outside. So when you are reporting from there you should be sensitive.” This was the first thing a senior Bangladeshi official said when I went to submit my passport for a visa in the Bangladeshi high commission in New Delhi last week.
During the ten minutes of one-sided conversation the senior staff went on to tell me about the Islamic Republic’s struggle to maintain the spirit of freedom since it was born in 1971. He further emphasized how important it is for the country to remain on the path of secularism and Bengali nationalism.
Coming to Dhaka is a journey into a land that features only infrequently in India’s history books and newspapers. Although the country shares more than 4,000 kilometers of border with India there is little emotional or intellectual understanding of the country among India’s masses. The popular image of Bangladesh among Indians is of a country steeped in poverty, whose citizens infiltrate northeastern Indian states like Assam where they are changing the demographic profile.
The arrogance that often comes with being a citizen of the biggest country in South Asia overwhelms the majority of Indians’ objectivity and dampens their curiosity about a neighbor that is setting a precedent for other Islamic countries around the world. Indians mostly know Bangladesh as a country that New Delhi helped liberate from Pakistan in 1971. Yet, they are unaware of Bangladesh's historical evolution and the reason it separated from Pakistan.
For Bangladeshis, however, even after 42 years the war for liberation is not over. They believe that the task that began in 1971 remains unfinished until the war criminals who committed atrocities in Bangladesh are brought to justice. Posters can be seen around Dhaka welcoming the ban on radical Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, which prohibits them from contesting elections.
“Jamaat has played a dubious role in the country’s freedom struggle. It sided with Pakistan and was actively involved in killing its own people in collaboration with the Pakistani army,” Masud Raza, a postgraduate student at the University of Dhaka, told The Diplomat. “Even after independence the organization has been playing a negative role in society. It wants to radicalize this secular nation. Such a party does not have a place in this land.”
One of the oldest campuses in South Asia, the University of Dhaka has been a hub of the nation’s struggle for freedom and has been at the forefront of the recent call to punish the war criminals who have been facing trial under the International Crimes tribunal. The university shows many signs of the struggle.
A poster just outside the main canteen reads: “Punish the war criminals and secularism is our religion.” Inside the dining hall there is a huge portrait of Madhusudan Dey, the original owner of the canteen who was killed in early 1971 by the Razakars, an anti-liberation front of mostly Jamaat leaders.
A group of young students in their early 20s are animatedly discussing the recent Shahbag Square demonstrations, where thousands protested for weeks, demanding the death penalty for twelve on trial at the International Crimes Tribunal.
“If we fail to take a stand on the issue of justice and secularism now history will condemn us. Bengali nationalism and secularism are two principles we separated from Pakistan and we cannot afford to debunk them,” says a student named Shakina Afroz.
Not far away from campus, a large crowd of young people have gathered near a popular lake, Rabindro Sarovar, to listen to a concert being organized by a local band to celebrate the completion of Eid. Young boys and girls holding hands are enjoying the fast numbers and hip hop songs.
The performance stops for a while when the nearby mosque calls for an evening prayer. Once the muezzin's adhan is finished the open air stage again starts reverberating with music.
When asked why the band stopped during the evening call to prayer, a 22-year-old university student named Shimanto Choudhary says, “In Bangladesh we keep religion in our heart and secularism on our sleeve and in our spirit.”
This balance between religion and secularism is something very unique in this part of South Asia.
Other Islamic countries in the region such as Afghanistan and Pakistan are still struggling to strike a balance between the secular urge of the people and the demands of religion.