[The following is a text of speech given by Dr. Bamandas Basu of Bangla
Nuremberg Group. He delivered the speech on April 11, 1999 in Kennedy School
of Government, Cambridge, Massachusetts.]

Women and Religion in Bangladesh

By Dr. Bamandas Basu

I would like to thank the Alliance for Secular and
Democratic South Asia for giving me the opportunity to speak today. The
Alliance is on a campaign to promote the idea of religious tolerance and
secularism, and I am glad to be a part of it.
If we want to establish a democratic, civil society in a country where
people of different religious faiths live together, the political system has
to be secular, the legal system has to be secular, the economic system has
to be secular, and the education system has to be secular. In other words,
secularism must be the practiced norm of the society. Secularism does not
mean that we have to abandon religion. To me, it means that while we are
practicing our religion we shall not determine the value of another human
being on the basis of his or her religion.

Unfortunately, non-secular and fundamentalist forces are on the rise in many
parts of the world. I am here to discuss the problems that Bangladesh is
facing in this regard.
At the very outset, let me assure you that my comments are in no way
a criticism of the religious faiths. Rather, they are criticism of a certain
group of people who are exploiting the religious sentiments of unsuspecting
people, who are trying to hamper progress and development, and who in the
name of religion are trying to create a reign of terror in the country.
Bangladesh is a small, over populated country. More than 85% of her
population are Muslims and the rest are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and
others. The country has the tremendous problem of illiteracy, poverty,
malnutrition, lack of proper health care, etc. The last thing this country
needs is the turmoil created by the religious extremists.
I will start by telling you about a few incidents that took place
in Bangladesh in the last 4 months. On December 8, 1998, "Trinamul", a grass
root organization of NGO activists planned to hold a Bijoy Mela (Victory
Celebration) in Brahmanbaria Neaz stadium. On that day in 1971, Brahmanbaria
was liberated from the Pakistani army and 'Trinamul' wanted to celebrate the
occasion. When they were rallying at the Brahmanbaria college ground, a
local fundamentalist group, the Islamic Oikko Jote, backed by the students
and teachers of a Madrasah (seminary), attacked the NGO activists.
Their 'fatwa' or the religious edict was that 'Trinamul' was engaged in
'un-Islamic' activity. At least 150 people including 25 policemen were
seriously injured. Next day, the same group called a dawn-to-dusk hartal to
protest, what they claimed, the partisan role of the police. During the
hartal, they set fire to a number of NGO offices, attacked the residences of
the DC and the SP, and damaged the TV relay station.
On January 18, 1999, three armed men entered the house of the renowned
poet Shamshur Rahman and tried to kill him. His wife and daughter-in-law
saved him, but in the melee his wife was seriously injured.
Two of the assailants were caught red-handed by the neighbors and the third
one escaped. It is alleged that during the interrogation they confessed that
they acted on the orders of their supreme commander Sheikh Farid who has
links with an international organization, named Harakat-Ul-Jihad, which is
based in the Middle East. According to a recent article in the Washington
Post, one suspect told the police that their chief, Abdul Hye, a Muslim
cleric from Chittagong, received funds from Osama bin Laden. According to a
security official in Bangladesh, Harkat recruited Madrasah (seminary)
students, trained them in the use of light arms and sent them to fight
alongside the Talibans in Afghanistan's civil war. Security officials
estimate that Harkat has 2,000 to 3,000 active members and as many as 10,000
overall. They have come back from Afghanistan and now they are thinking of
having an Islamic movement in Bangladesh, styled after the Taliban movement.
About a dozen of the followers of Harakat-Ul-Jihad have been arrested so
far. Among the arrested are a South African and a Pakistani. These people
confessed that they had more names in their hit list including those of
National Professor Kabir Chowdhury and Chairman of the Islamic Foundation
Moulana Abdul Awal. Poet Shamshur Rahman and Professor Kabir Chowdhury are
well-known activists who are ardent supporters of secularism in Bangladesh,
and Moulana Abdul Awal often criticizes the activities of the religious
On February 16, 1999, Kazi Aref Ahmed, a top leader of Jatio Samajtantrik
Dal and five others were killed in a commando-style ambush when he was
addressing a public meeting. Kazi Aref was a valiant freedom fighter during
the liberation war of Bangladesh and like Shamshur Rahman and Kabir
Chowdhury was a vocal proponent of secular society. He was also actively
involved with the movement for the trial of the war criminals of '71.
On March 7, 1999, two bombs were exploded during the program of a cultural
organization, named, Udichi. Udichi is well-known in Bangladesh for its
secularist and socialist ideology. Although it is not yet clear who are
responsible for the killing of Kazi Aref and the bomb explosion at the
Udichi program, an ominous event took place in Dhaka just one day after the
bomb explosion. Several thousand students and teachers of Madrasahs from all
over Bangladesh congregated at the Paltan Maidan in Dhaka. Using
objectionable language, one speaker after another criticized a
certain group of social activists and cultural organizations, who, in their
opinion, are destroying the religion of Islam. They proclaimed death
sentence for those people and declared that they will establish
Taliban-style government in Bangladesh by the year 2000 in order to save
Islam. This happened on March 8, 1999.
I hope you have noticed that in all these incidents the secular and the
pro-liberation elements in Bangladesh were the targets of the killers.
I would, first, like to tell you that Islam is not at all in danger in
Bangladesh. The Muslims in this region have been practicing their religion
for the last 800 or so years. I do not know of a single incidence where a
Muslim in Bangladesh has been deprived of his/her right to practice
religion. I do not know of a single instance where a Muslim in Bangladesh
either changed or had to change his/her religion. All religious occasions
for Muslims are observed every year with the same rigor and the same
enthusiasm as ever. But then why are these people trying to scare the
populace by saying that Islam is in danger in Bangladesh? Who are these
I have to go back in time in order to answer these
questions. Misuse of religion in socio-politics is not a new phenomenon in
the region, now called Bangladesh. The West Pakistani military rulers
practiced it when Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan. Anti-India policy was
synonymous with anti-Hindu policy. Bengali culture was dubbed as a Hindu
culture. Rabindranath Tagore, who taught us how to speak and think in
Bengali language, was banned in East Pakistan. The fanatical and communal
political party like Jamat-i-Islami was there. But, they were not in the
forefront. As a matter of fact, they didn't need to be in the forefront,
because the West Pakistani rulers were doing their job. In 1971, East
Pakistan became Bangladesh after a liberation war that lasted for nine
months. During these nine months, the Pakistan army embarked upon a program
of genocide in Bangladesh. About three million men, women and children lost
their lives, thousands of women were raped, and close to ten million people
fled their homes and became refugees in West Bengal and in other states of
India. The Pakistan army was convinced by their leaders that the Liberation
War was nothing but an Indian conspiracy and, hence, a Hindu conspiracy. So,
naturally, Hindus were one of the main targets of the Pakistan army. Ladies
and gentlemen, the picture in 1971 was many times more gruesome than what
you see these days on TV. What was the role of the Jamat-i-Islami party in
those days? Well, the Jamat-i-Islami party, along with the Muslim League,
was against the creation of Bangladesh. Not only that, the leaders and the
followers of the Jamat-i-Islami openly helped the Pakistani army in
perpetrating their atrocities. They formed paramilitary forces, called
Al-Badr, Al-Shams and Razakar Bahini, which helped the Pakistani army with
logistic supports, providing transportation and directions for going to the
remote villages. They provided information on the whereabouts of the Mukti
Bahini (freedom fighters) and of the supporters of independence, so that the
army can move in and kill them. In addition, they themselves carried out the
mass killings in many parts of the country. When it was clear that
Bangladesh is going to be an independent country, Pakistan army prepared a
list of Bangladeshis many of whom were forcibly taken from their homes,
tortured and then executed. That list included noted academicians, doctors,
lawyers, and noted people in the field of literature, art and culture. The
plan was to destroy Bangladesh both physically and intellectually. The
Jamat-i-Islami men helped the army in preparing the list and in finding the
people on the list. They are the war criminals of 1971.
After the independence, Jamat-i-Islami and other religious political
parties were banned in Bangladesh. Secularism became one of the four
fundamental principles of the country's Constitution. But, anti-liberation
and communal forces were still operating from both within and outside of the
country. In August 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the
independence movement and the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh, was
assassinated along with many of his family members. The subsequent
governments lifted the ban on religious political parties, the word
'secularism' was removed from the Constitution, and many well-known
collaborators and war criminals were given important government positions.
In other words, the fundamentalist communal forces were brought back to the
national arena and they were given the opportunity and the encouragement to
grow. Naturally, Jamat-i-Islami and other similar minded religious groups
took full advantage of the opportunity. In the last twenty years, they have
developed into a well-armed and well-financed organization. Its student
wing, the Islami Chatra Shibir, is a terror on the campuses of Rajshahi
University and Chittagong University. Today we have another extremist group,
called the Islamic Oikko Jote. The Jamat-i-Islami and the Islamic Oikko
Jote, together, have engaged in numerous killings and maiming all over the
country. They have declared death penalties against famous poets, writers,
educators and politicians. They have terrorized the rural folks,
particularly the women folks, by giving inhuman 'fatwas' (so-called
religious edicts) and by administering even more inhuman punishments. Many
women, who survived the punishments, later committed suicide to avoid the
shame and the embarrassment.
Do you for a moment think that they are engaged in these cruel activities
because of their love for Islam? I do not think so. Those women are also
Muslims like them, and, for god's sake, they are like their own sisters and
mothers. I will say that they are engaged in these activities because they
want to control the society by taking advantage of people's fear of God.
These people are against the Bengali culture, they are against any progress
and development, and, most importantly, they want to create an anarchic
condition in the country because they still refuse to accept the reality of
an independent Bangladesh.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of the fundamentalist forces in
Bangladesh. What these forces wanted to accomplish in 1971, but could not
finish, is now being attempted again. The fundamentalist agenda is basically
contrary to the inherent spirit of Islam. Bangladeshi Muslims are religious,
god-fearing people; but they are not communal, they do not subscribe to the
crude interpretation of Islam, as preached by the fundamentalists. They are
against the arbitrary religious edicts or 'fatwas'. However, because of the
lack of scientific education and because of the lack of economic strength, a
large portion of Bangladesh population can easily be manipulated, and there
lies the danger. The women are the most
vulnerable group---our society has made them vulnerable---and that is why
the women have become the easy targets.
Coming back to the recent incidents in Bangladesh, with which I started my
talk, I think that they provide a very timely warning to the secular and the
pro-liberation forces in Bangladesh, a warning that they must unite and
stand up to these extremist forces. They also provide a wake-up call for the
present government in Bangladesh. The government made a big mistake after
1971 by not holding the trial of the war criminals and by letting them go
unpunished. Now the country is paying the price for that mistake.

Before I conclude, let me say a few introductory words about the video,
The War Crimes File, which you will see. I have told you about the Al-Badr
and the Razakar Bahini of Jamat-i-Islami, who participated in the mass
killings during the Liberation War in 1971. As I mentioned, these war
criminals have not been tried in any court. After Bangladesh became
independent, some of the leading war criminals fled the country. Three of
them settled in London. In response to the allegations against these three
people, BBC conducted an investigation into their alleged criminal
activities during the liberation war of 1971 and subsequently televised the
findings. The War Crimes File is a video copy of that BBC telecast.

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