“You know snow isn’t a problem in most Islamic countries. But, ISIS”
Faraaz Hossain cracks this joke in the film Faraaz which you can watch on Netflix if you are in India, but cannot if you are in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh High Court banned Faraaz on February 20 this year. The order directs the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Authority to prohibit the streaming of Faraaz on domestic online platforms.
This is because the film Faraaz is much more than a silly joke. It is based on real people and real events. Events that point to truths so terrifying that perhaps Bangladesh doesn’t want to revisit them. But turning its face away from those truths may have terrible consequences for Bangladesh as well as India, a country it shares its 4,096-kilometre-long international border with, the fifth-longest land border in the world.
So what is it that the film Faraaz shows? On the night of 1 July 2016, at around 9:20 Bangladesh time, five militants took hostages and opened fire on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s posh Gulshan area. The militants entered the bakery with crude bombs, machetes, pistols, and took several dozen hostages, foreigners and locals. In the immediate response, while Dhaka Metropolitan Police tried to regain control of the bakery, two police officers were shot dead by the assailants. 29 people were killed, including 20 hostages (17 foreigners and 3 locals), two police officers, five gunmen, and two bakery staff members. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the incident and released photographs of the gunmen, but Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said the perpetrators belonged to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.
What shook the world was not just the daring nature of the attack on this upscale, residential neighbourhood of Bangladesh’s capital city that houses embassies and the who’s who of the country, but the identity of the attackers.
All five were in their late teens or early 20s, had been to the best private schools and universities in Bangladesh and abroad. They were Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Khairul Islam and Shafiqul Islam. Nibras Islam was known as “fun-loving, in and out of love, and had attended Monash University in Malaysia and returned because he didn’t like it in Monash”. Nibras’ father was a businessman with two houses in Dhaka, and one of his uncles was a Deputy Secretary to the Bangladesh Government.
Shahidul Hasan Khokon, who covered the Gulshan attack for India Today, told me: “Bangladesh has had a history of violence. As a journalist I have been on the internal security beat for a long time and covering incidents of terror attacks had hardened me as a person. But the Gulshan attack crushed me and most of those like me who have kept the flame of a secular Bangladesh burning in our hearts. If the minds of Anglicized boys from affluent families, who have been sent to posh, private schools, and who lead privileged lives, could be hacked by terror groups operating from outside the country, what hope does Bangladesh have.”
The film Faraaz is about 1 July 2016. The title character in the film is based on a real person who went into Holey Artisan Bakery that evening and didn’t come out. While the five terrorists were put down by Bangladesh’s elite commandos, the response of the Bangladesh government in general to the mushrooming of terror has often been called into question. And it is not limited to banning a film.
“The lack of a clear state policy when it comes to secularism has helped accelerate the rise of fundamentalism, extremism, and anti-West sentiments in Bangladesh,” Shafi Md Mostofa, assistant professor of World Religions and Culture at Dhaka University’s Faculty of Arts, wrote in 2020. Mostofa believes to what extent Bangladeshis were “secular” to begin with is a matter of considerable debate, although by secularism in Bangladesh one means pluralism of religious faiths as opposed to the more expansive definitions of the term.
“Bangladesh declared itself a secular state with its birth in 1971. Secularism was chosen as one of the four pillars that were to guide official policy…Bangladesh’s polity could not come to a well-defined position as to what kind of state it would be…Under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — Bangladesh’s first prime minister and considered father of the nation — secularism faced an initial setback when the Education Commission of 1973 found that the majority of the country’s citizens were in favour of religious education. From 1975 onward, after Bangabandhu’s term in office, Bangladesh has yet to fully settle on the principles that would govern it. This has led subsequent regimes to play around with political Islam as well as secularism.” Mostofa further writes…
“The original constitution was changed in 1978 with instalment of the phrase ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ by the Ziaur Rahman government in order to replace secularism as a state principle. Rahman’s government also built fraternal relationships with countries in the Middle East. The military dictator who followed Rehman, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, went one step further to declare Islam as the state religion in 1988. These military regimes resorted to religion to legitimise their power, which they had usurped unconstitutionally. The subsequent democratic regimes since 1991 also followed the path of expedient politics and opportunism. These regimes also failed to ensure basic human rights, political stability, economic sustainability, and to establish transparent institutions. Rather, corruption in Bangladesh grew and the country fell behind on the Human Development Index. Cronyism became rampant.”
“The Bangladesh Awami League, once again came to the power in January 2009 with the promise to restore the 1972 constitution. They partially did so through the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 2013 but they kept Islam as the state religion. There are questions around why this was the case, and what stopped the government, still in power, from restoring the provisions of the 1972 Constitution. Moreover, the current government has acknowledged the ‘Qawmi Dawrah’ degree (an Islamic religious qualification) to be equivalent to the Master’s degree, has enacted the Digital Security Act in 2018 to prosecute those deemed to be hurting religious sentiments, started building 560 ‘model mosques,‘ and corrected textbooks to fulfil demands of the ‘Hefazat,’ a coalition of several Islamist parties,” he says.
Alongside, there has been a constant pressure to regularise Urdu, the same language that was rejected for Bangla when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The process began with the constitutional amendment in 1975 that replaced the phrase ‘Bengali Nationalism’ with ‘Bangladeshi Nationalism’. The number of madrasas kept going up as the decades passed by. Research shows between 1950 and 2008 the number of madrasas increased from 4,430 to 54,130. Between 1991 and 2000, 15,000 new madrasas sprang up across the country. This includes both Qawmi and Aliya madrasas. The Qawmi madrasas increased 13 times and Aliya 11 times in the 60 year span.
The government controls Aliya madrasas with funding, prescribing syllabi and management. Hence, the process of modernisation is in the hands of the government. The Qawmi madrasas are not regulated by the government and adopt their own syllabus which follows a predominantly religious content that greatly emphasises Arabic, Persian and Urdu language studies. These madrasas are financed by various sources such as religious and individual donations, expatriate Bangladeshis’ contributions especially from Middle Eastern countries and frequent donations from charity-based Islamic organisations.
Existing research supports the view that Aliya madrasas in Bangladesh tend to have political associations with the Bangladesh Jamaat-i-Islami. However, there is another interesting finding that reveals that students and teachers at Quami madrasas are also affiliated with political parties, both Islamist and otherwise.
On 18th August, 2005, a report of bomb explosion was published in ‘The Daily Star’. The report reads: “In an unprecedented scale of terror attacks, a banned Islamist militant group yesterday simultaneously blasted at least 459 time-bombs in 63 of 64 districts across the country.”
Bangladeshi madrasas in particular drew global attention with the blasts. This series of suicide attacks even killed local judges and lawyers.
In Dhaka, I met Nitai Roy Chowdhury, currently vice chairman of the central committee of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and a former State Minister of Ministry of Education, Ministry of Youth and Sports and Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, and also a Hindu! The irony doesn’t miss me but I ask him about Hasina first.
Deep Halder: Awami League says Sheikh Hasina is the only hope for Hindus in Bangladesh. As a top leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, what do you have to say?
Nitai Roy Chowdhury: “I can give you many examples to show that most of the anti-Hindu policies have been taken during the Awami League rule. The Enemy Property Act was renamed Vested Property Act in 2013 but the intention remained the same. It is inherently anti-Hindu in nature. Across Bangladesh, Awami League leaders have misused this act and seized Hindu property. This is one example. There are many.”
Roy Chowdhury goes on to say… “a political discourse has been created in Bangladesh to show Hasina as a secular leader. She is not. Do you have any idea that the list of Liberation War heroes in Bangladesh is filled with people who never participated in the Liberation War of 1971? Hasina must be aware of the fact that there are leaders and family members in the Awami League who played an active role in the Shanti Bahini (which fought the war in favour of West Pakistan during 1970-71). Doesn’t she know her party shelters former Razakars as well? She surely does.”
Deep Halder: But what about your own party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party? Would you admit it is a communal party?
Nitai Roy Chowdhury: “I will tell you this. Bangladesh Nationalist Party is not a communal party and Awami League is not a secular party!”
Deep Halder: Well, that is word play. Bangladesh Nationalist Party has joined hands with the Jamaat. How can Hindus possibly trust them?
Nitai Roy Chowdhury: “As a senior party member, I would say this was a party decision. My own view is it was not a good decision. Going with Jamaat did not go down well with Hindus and many open-minded people.”
Deep Halder: Suppose it comes to power in the next elections, will the Bangladesh Nationalist Party uphold secular values?
Nitai Roy Chowdhury: “We will. We have released a 27-point memorandum. One of the most important points is ‘Dharma jar jar, rastro sobar’ (Religion belongs to individuals, state belongs to everyone)”.
What Nitai does not tell us is the Awami League government’s flirtations with the Hefazat-e-Islam. Hefazat-e-Islam was set up by cleric Shah Ahmad Shafi, in 2010. In 2009, when the Sheikh Hasina government came up with reforms including inheritance rights for women, Shafi protested against these reforms. The law was watered down.
“In 2013, when bloggers and atheists gathered in Shahbagh Square pressing for equal rights for all genders, a secular Constitution and system of governance, they clashed with members of the Hefazat who marched their own protesters into Dhaka. This led to clashes between Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and Hefazat and over 50 people were killed,” the Indian online newspaper, The Print, wrote.
As per the Print article, “At the time, the Hefazat’s 13-point charter included demands like reinstating faith in the Almighty in the Constitution. While Bangladesh was committed to secular principles in its Constitution after its independence, in 1972 the words “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” were inserted in the Preamble by then President Zia ur Rahman. This was subsequently removed along with another small subsection that had been added to the Constitution by General Ershad when he was president in the 1980s, in the form of the Eighth Amendment, which said Islam will be the religion of the state.”
The Hefazat did not stop at that. It also demanded that “restrictions should be lifted on mosques and cultural programmes, capital punishment for blasphemy, etc. It wanted statues and busts removed from Bangladesh as statues promoted idolatry — except inside Hindu temples.”
“Sheikh Hasina pandered to the Hefazat and supported their cause to remove a Greek goddess statue in Dhaka,” The Print reported.
“Hasina’s government also supported the Hefazat when they opposed the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution. This case was in the court and the Hefazat-e-Islam led a movement against it and it does look like Sheikh Hasina government bent over backwards to accommodate it and the court then dismissed the case on a technicality,” the article said.
“In 2017, Hefazat also wanted Bangladesh to launch a jihad on Myanmar to liberate Rohingyas from Rakhine. While Shah Ahmad Shafi was not anti-Indian, he was a conservative Islamist. His son Anas Shafi is believed to be friendly with the Sheikh Hasina government. The Sheikh Hasina government also indulges him, which might be something that she is paying for now because in the process what has happened is that a new Jamaat-e-Islami has come up.”
The article went on to say it is this new conservative force, which the Sheikh Hasina government had flirted with in the past, which has become her government’s own Frankenstein.
“The Hefazat-e-Islam, the force behind the current protest, are the new Islamist conservative force in Bangladesh with which Sheikh Hasina’s government has flirted with at some point… But it’s a mistake that all democratic governments make in trying to control one set of extremists. They often play with the other set that looks less worse than the other (but) in the course of time, they all become Frankensteins,” The Print said.
The question is, who will rein in these Frankensteins in India’s neighbourhood?
Sahidul Hassan Kokhon points to another contentious security issue in Bangladesh that might spill over and create headache for India. In December last year, Bangladesh, which is hosting over a million Rohingya refugees, sought India’s cooperation to peacefully repatriate the people who were forced to take refuge in the country to evade persecution in Myanmar. Kokhon says now a section of Rohingyas are allegedly involved in the smuggling of drugs and trafficking of humans as well as illegal arms trade that could pose serious security challenges not just for Bangladesh, but India as well. “There is regular dumping of large consignments of illegal arms from outside the country in the Rohingya camps. For now, this is an internal security issue for Bangladesh with frequent gun fights and killings in and around the camps. But who is to say in the coming days India doesn’t have to bear the brunt of this?” Kokhon says.
On November 18, 2022, Indian Home Minister and his Bangladesh counterpart Asaduzzaman Khan met in Delhi for the third “No Money for Terror Ministerial Conference on Counter-Terrorism Financing” conference.
I met Asaduzzaman Khan for a quick interview on the same evening and asked him how does the Sheikh Hasina government want to address fear that Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat in short, the largest Islamist political party in the country, is going from strength to strength. This is bad news not just for Hindus in Bangladesh, who are often the target of Jamaat, but also for the ruling Awami League which publicly stands for secular and democratic values. As home minister, how is he looking at the issue?
“Jamaat Shibir (Jamaat camp) is opposed to the very independence of Bangladesh. They gave birth to the Razakars and the Albadr Bahini (a paramilitary force composed mainly of Bihari Muslims which operated in East Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War, under the patronage of the Pakistani government). It is they who targeted and killed the intellectuals of Bangladesh. At present they are banned from participating in the politics of Bangladesh and trust me their number is getting smaller by the day,” Asaduzzaman Khan told me.
Rising terror in Bangladesh is a threat for India. As Home Minister how is he looking at the issue: “We have curbed extremism in Bangladesh considerably. Awami League is committed to a democratic and secular Bangladesh.”
I do not have time to pose more questions to Asaduzzaman Khan. But as the next national elections come close in Bangladesh (the country is scheduled to for the next government in January 2024), security challenges continue. Banning films and turning away from terrible truths may not be the best way forward.
Author Brief Bio: Deep Halder is a senior journalist and editor. He is the author of Blood Island: An Oral History of Marichjhanpi Massacre and Bengal 2021: An Election Diary. Parts of this article will appear in his next book on Bangladesh which is being published by Harper Collins.