Bangladesh's quest for Sufi and Liberal Space
Dr Sreeradha Datta

Sufis are accepted as a moderate strain of Islam and often being described as the ‘Mystic Muslim’ too. Historian Richard Eaton has identified several strands and references to Sufis and Pirs during 16th Century in the documented Muslim folk traditions and literatures of Bengal. Indeed the earliest-known Muslim inscription in Bengal is about the Sufis. As documented, the undivided Bengal enjoyed a rich exposure to Sufi thoughts and ideals. Subsequently, post the partition of the Sub-continent, Sufis largely remained confined to the social arena; ethical and spiritual guidance continued to be their main focus for spreading their teachings in Bangladesh and West Bengal and different parts of India. However, despite their popularity, Sufis or Pirs stayed away from the political space. It is only in the last few decades that there has been a move to organise themselves as a political entity. This trend is particularly discernible in Bangladesh. According to modern historians, Sufism in Bangladesh owes largely to the great saint, Khwaja Enayetpuri, whose family lineage traced back to Baghdad and whose descendants subsequently launched the Zaker party in Bangladesh in 1989.

Another well recognised Sufi order, Maizvandary Tariqa, was established through by the 19th Century Gausul Azam Hazrat Shah Sufi Syed Ahmad Ullah Maizbhandari (1826 AD − 1906 AD), the twenty seventh descendent of holy Prophet Hazrat Ahmad Mustaba Muhammad Mustafa. This family would also enter the political arena much later. The present representative of this Sufi order, Al Haji Sayed Nazibul Basha Maizvandary, led a delegation to Delhi and spent some time, including at the Vivekananda International Foundation, explaining their work and charter for bringing about a peaceful and harmonious Bangladesh. Both the Zaker party and the Bangladesh Tariqat Federation Party (BTF) are members of the Awami League-led 14-Party alliance. They are a core component towards confronting the ‘fanaticism’ that Bangladesh is being increasingly subject to as evident in the developments during the past decade or more.

The recent interaction with members of BTF and as well as participation in the Conference organised by Dhaka University under the aegis of the Jana-Itihas Charcha Kendra and other collaborators on ‘Partition Politics: Impacts on Society, Economy, Culture and Indo-Bangla Relations (1947-2018)’, offered a ‘walk through’ the continued struggle for secularism in Bangladesh as well as a validation of the popular attempts to bring together a divisive polity through an all-encompassing philosophy.

Discussions during both the occasions pointed to the trend of a particular section of Bangladesh’s polity attempting to move the narrative further right, while the other section - which one hopes is the larger majority - would not only wish to arrest that trend but also promote a secular fabric which is inclusive and representative of entire Bangladesh. The discussions that ensued at both the events was a sobering experience indeed; a poignant reminder of a political trajectory from being East Pakistan to its birth as an independent Bangladesh. The urge to uphold the basic tenets of a Constitution that in 2010 once again restored secularism as an intrinsic ethos.

Points that were labored by the BTF delegation of how the ideals of Sufi, which had enjoyed reverberation across populace in Bangladesh in the past, has now been relegated to the background in the face of the strident religious rhetoric, were also echoed at the Dhaka University Conference. There was very little to contradict with the ideals of Sufism grounded in simple philosophy of humanity and inclusiveness that espoused positive thoughts and acts in contrary to the Ulemas whose pre-occupation with rigid rules and structures has led to several ramification within the Bangladeshi polity.

The Conference at Dhaka was centered around the theme of religion-based politics that, having emanated from the Divide and Rule Policy of the Britishers and substantially strengthened by the Partition Politics of 1947, continues to hold a degree of influence over Bangladesh and in South Asia. As is well documented, the Language Movement of 1952, which asserted the cultural separateness of the East Pakistani Bengalis from the West Pakistani Urdu speaking Punjabis, was the precursor to the demand for autonomy. This demand to recognise Bengali as a state language was deemed to be the first step in the fight towards the eventual independence of Bangladesh. Ultimately, it was this separate Bengali language identity that was at the genesis of a Bangladeshi identity. Bengali nationalism was the basis over which it was founded. The 1972 Constitution explicitly described the Government of Bangladesh as "secular," But soon after, a deliberate quest began towards establishing a Bangladeshi ‘nationalist’ identity, which essentially meant undermining the cultural identity to prop up Islamic religious identity. Rigid, doctrinarian and contrarian to the all-encompassing inclusive Bengali identity has been the timbre of the Islam identity that was imposed from the top by a section of political leaders of Bangladesh.

Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nature of the polity began to change. From a socialist secular state, it has since then undergone a fundamental change in its nature. A number of national, regional and global factors, such as changing national identity, dependency upon Islamic nations for external assistance and the Islamic revolution in Iran, initiated the process of Islamisation in Bangladesh. Within the Bangladeshi context, Islamisation would refer to the phenomenon of religion occupying greater public and political space while expanding its influence within the private domain. The term right is used to refer to those political groups which thrive on nationalism tinted with religious influence and are far removed from the state-centric socialism of the erstwhile leftist philosophy.
Post 1975, frequent military interventions strengthened, furthered and consolidated the political stronghold of the religious forces. Gen. Zia-ur Rahman who took over in 1977 needed political legitimacy and Islam turned out to be his support base. Despite being not overtly religious, he rekindled latent Islamic undercurrents, and his political outfit, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), gradually relegated the Bengali cultural identity to promote Islam as the primary national identity. His successor, Gen. H.M. Ershad, went a step further and declared that Islam would enable Bangladesh “to live as a nation with a distinct identity.” Thus by 1991, when the first free multiparty elections were held, the religious-political linkage was firmly in place and most political parties, including the secularly-inclined Awami League, were reconciled to Islamisation of Bangladesh. During the election campaign, religious influence became the prime concern and parties found it judicious and politically rewarding to champion Islamic issues. This trend has continued since then. While electoral appeal of Islamic political parties have been limited, the societal outreach by these groups have been substantial.

Some of the far-reaching changes taking place in Bangladesh could directly be attributed to the Islamisation process. The most visible manifestation of the changes is noticed in the Awami League. Despite its vowed commitment to secularism, the party has had to adopt a number of overly religious positions to win over the mainstream voters. During the 2001 Jatiya Sangsad elections, for example, its manifesto promised not to enact any legislation contrary to the Quran and pledged to establish a Sharia bench at the Supreme Court. Instead of dismissing this as a dilution of secularism, one has to view the Awami’s proximity with religion based groups as its recognition of the rightward shift of the society and its attempt to win over the growing segment of the religiously inclined electorate. Its alliance with Hefazat-e Islam and the formation of the Islamic Forum has been explained thus.

Some specific simultaneous changes in the polity lent Bangladesh with a distinct nature, one that moved the society away from its socialistic structure to embrace capitalism and become one of the first free market oriented economies of South Asia, with another concurrent and even contradictory trend of the society moving into conservative moorings. Violent outbreaks against minorities and secularist have been a reflection of that shift. Beginning from 1999 to present times, Bangladesh has been witnessing episodic political violence, stunning all with the latest Holey Artisan Bakery attack last year. While the Government campaign against Islamic extremists has led to the arrest of the perpetrators, but moderate success of security forces has not been able to halt the fracturing of the social fabric.

Given the prevailing situation, it is being widely felt at several quarters that Bangladesh needs, more than ever, a restoration of its secular moorings. The constitutional tenets apart the people at large have to live that belief. Handful of youth gravitating towards the fundamentalists has serious implications for the future of Bangladesh and the world at large. This phenomena needs to be understood through the contemporary international context and there are no easy answers. The political leaders along with civil society need to convey a broad message of solidarity and identity.

An interesting point was made by Al Haji Bashar Maizvandary, Chairman BTF, about the popular interpretation of ‘moderate Islam’ which invariably lends the fundamentalist groups to represent ‘real Islamists’. In his own words, “we vehemently protest this violation of human rights and secularism. Our struggle for justice and right to exercise different faiths by various people of this country will continue unabated because Sufi Islam never ever permits such barbarism.” With a spread over 83000 villages, the BTF hopes to counter the constant attacks on society. Bangladesh’s need to promote secularism in consonance with ideals of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a recurring theme at the Conference.

Apart from the two sets of interactions reiterating Bangladesh’s primordial identity not being confined to just the religion but also encompassing the cultural and linguistic identities too, as envisioned in the idea of Mujib’s Sonar Bangla, the other distinct and refreshing reference was to India and its role not only in the Liberation War but also as a close neighbour. India’s democratic system that has successfully upheld secularism to safeguard its cross-cultural and religious mosaic was sharply contrasted with the Pakistani experience. While it is not uncommon for a section of Bangladeshi political leaders to find commonality with India, especially during pre-election period, academia and civil society representatives resonating positive impressions about India was a refreshing experience. India’s growth story has generated positive reverberations, especially amongst the youth and business community, and it appeared that India is progressively being viewed as a partner in progress and prosperity. Yes, there are struggles ahead but with the right intentions Bangladesh will turn the corner.

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