It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the Islamists are setting the agenda in Bangladesh. Parties, the government and even the Gonojagoron Moncho are falling over themselves trying to appease the religious right and its latest incarnation, the Hefazat-e-Islam.
In what looks like a complete U-turn, the government has arrested bloggers they once patronised,seemingly agreeing with the rhetoric that they are an insidious force determined to insult Islam.
Arrests on the grounds of offending religious sentiment isn’t unusual, considering we have a legal system that allows it. Section 295(A) of Bangladesh’s Penal Code makes it illegal to deliberately and maliciously hurt someone else’s religious sentiments. The law is in the interest of harmony and given the recent breaches in just that, it’s arguably a necessary evil.
Trouble is, so far the evidence being offered to satisfy the conditions of “malicious” or “deliberate” or even, for that matter, of having “hurt religious sentiments” has been scant.
The timing of the arrests raises more inconvenient questions. It happened straight after a group of clerics submitted a list of offensive blogs to the government, and Hefazat –e-Islam announced its April 6 Long March towards Dhaka to press, among other things, their demands for the capital punishment of “atheist bloggers.”
The government appears to be cultivating an Islamic “alternative” to Jamaat-e-Islami, and to undercut its religion-based support by presenting itself as a “halal” party. It seems like a Band-Aid reaction to the anarchy we’re witnessing lately, but it may, in fact, widen the fissures that have opened up in Bangladeshi society.
It also detracts from the real issue - the war crimes tribunal.
Electoral math can produce strange bedfellows. But if the government is being held hostage to an Islamist version of reality, it bodes quite badly for secular Bangladesh.