13 May 2013

Things Will Get Complicated in Bangladesh and in the Region

I have been following the developments in Bangladesh with a mixture of concern and bemusement. I am not talking about the tragic loss of life in a makeshift garment factory. This was terrible but pointing to the horrific aspects of capitalism and our never ending desire to exploit people in search of cheaper items of consumption is not a novel perspective.

I was concerned about the ramifications of the case against the deputy leader of the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami. I knew that regardless of the outcome many people would die. My bemusement had nothing to do with Bangladesh or these events. I thought the ignorance of the corporate media was almost funny. They presented the situation as yet another example of the rise of Islamist forces. They breathlessly reported about Islamists going after bloggers and demanding new blasphemy laws. This is mostly rubbish because it ignores the whole context of the issue.

Many people outside Bangladesh don't realize that there are two critically important elements at the core of the Bangladeshi identity. One is their language, Bengali. It unifies them, gives them a regional identity (Bengal) and it also separates them from their Urdu and Hindi speaking neighbors. The second element is the war of liberation in 1971.

In fact, the two are inextricably linked because one of the main reasons "East Pakistan" rose against Pakistan was the massive ethnic and linguistic discrimination they were subjected to on a daily basis. As you might know, after a particularly bloody war with millions of people dead, injured or displaced, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

Notice Islam is not one of the core elements of Bangladeshi identity even though a huge majority of Bangladeshis are Muslims. That is partly because Islamic entities and especially Jamaat-e-Islami were against independence and they actively sided with the Pakistani oppressors. They tortured and killed thousands of intellectuals. And Bangladeshis never forgot that.

The current government was elected partly on a platform of setting up special tribunals to prosecute what they call war criminals. Nine senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami were charged with crimes against humanity and in January Abul Kalam Azad was found guilty in absentia and was sentenced to death. Then Abdel Kader Mullah was found guilty and sentenced "only" to life in prison. This led some bloggers to declare his punishment as too light.

And that is why Jamaat-e-Islami has begun asking for new blasphemy laws against bloggers. And that is why they have been protesting violently. In other words, they were basically acting as a partisan force and not necessarily as easily offended Islamists.

Since then Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was sentenced to death and yesterday it was Muhammad Kamaruzzaman's turn. Each time one side took the streets to express jubilation and the other side to stop them. As you can imagine, many people died in the process.

I knew that if the Kamaruzzaman outcome was a lighter sentence, people were going to protest and there would be clashes with Jamaat-e-Islam. If the sentence was the death penalty, then I assumed that the Jamaat-e-Islami supporters were going to escalate their protests.

Either way, I fear many people will die needlessly. And things will get complicated.

You see, the war of independence had three parties. Pakistan, the loser, Bangladesh the winner and India the supporter. Pakistan is about to go to polls. They are currently in a bizarre tug of war with India: where each side kills a prisoner every week to revenge a previous killing.

The outcome of the Pakistani elections is hugely important.

Moreover, the domestic tensions in Bangladesh will almost certainly have repercussions in India-Pakistan relations.

I am worried.
I wrote (and thought published) this on 9 May at an airport lounge. I realized now that the wi fi system kicked me out before my publish command reached Blogger. Consequently, the date references (like yesterday) are off. My apologies.

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