Bangladesh is struggling to make a choice that can dramatically change its politics and society. The protesters at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square and their sympathizers are on one side of the battle. On the other side are Islamist parties and groups, led by the Jamaat-e-Islami. But this division of the battle line does not quite define the struggle or explain what really is at stake. It may have all begun with the popular discontent over the war crimes tribunal sentencing Abdul Kader Mollah to life imprisonment. But the battle has since gone beyond the issue of war crimes during the country’s independence movement in 1971. Bangladesh is now split on fundamental issues of politics, religion and nationhood. Historically, this is the second time the country faces a struggle on this scale on such issues. In 1971, the vast majority of the people in the then East Pakistan proved that they did not accept religion as the basis of their nationhood. Earlier, in 1952, they also showed that they identified more with their native language than with their religion. But some fundamental issues seem to have remained unresolved since the country’s independence. The current protests reflect yet another attempt by Bangladesh to come to terms with these issues.
The past now provides only a backdrop to the issues for the future. The demand for death sentences against the alleged war criminals of 1971 is now woven into the larger call for banning religion-based parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami. Ever since its birth as a new nation, Bangladesh has not quite known how it should treat the relation between religion and the State. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s attempts to keep religion away from the affairs of the State were discarded by subsequent rulers. The Jamaat, which opposed the country’s liberation war against Pakistan, took advantage of the political situation following Rahman’s assassination in 1975. It was only in 2008 that his daughter and the present prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, initiated the war crimes trials. But Ms Wajed may not have anticipated fully the issues that the protesters at Shahbag and their critics have now raised. What she does about the demand for a ban on the Jamaat may be of enormous consequence for Bangladesh’s politics and society. The future of many freedoms may depend on it.