Hefazat, Sushils and the State

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(left) Islamists raise their footwear and shout slogans during a protest after Friday prayers, against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, March 19, 2021. (right) Bangladesh Juba Adhikar Parishad holds a rally in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka on Friday in protest against the scheduled visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. Photo: Collected

Events around the arrests of various Hefazat leaders indicate the relative strength of the state as it tackles its challengers. It’s also about the nature and clout of such social groups and their perceived clout. Its shows how each have interpreted their own strength and that of others is important too.

While most have heard of Mamunul Haque now famous for three marriages (?) at various stages of legality and customary practices, the arrests are more about indicators of social and state power in conflict. While Hefazat and other Islamists forces may claim to be “Islamic”, the events have stripped the events of any spiritual and theological meaning which Hefazat may have hoped for. The continuous arrests as Hefazat pleads after a long time not to arrest show that the powers of the state shorn of any ideology is greater than any claimants of ideologically based power.

Many thought that the Government was on the back foot as it confronted Hefazat’s demands and AL’s alliance was considered a major weakness of the party. Hefazat was portrayed as a super political force whose power was such that it could alter the school syllabus etc , the reality now seems very different now. As one after another leader is arrested and sex scandals flood social media, the brand and the clout are both diminished. In an odd way, Hefazat resembles the lumpen liberals, its arch critics who have little presence outside Facebook and Youtube.

What happened that so many got the muscle power of Hefazat and the state so wrong?

Misreading history of politics

Those most disturbed by the rise of the Hefazat belongs to the broadly clustered group termed ‘sushils’ or liberals including the Left. They look upon Hefazat as a mediaeval construct with values mirroring that era. They think that Bangladesh society has gone backwards and those Bangladeshis, very different from the secular, liberal tradition of Tagore have taken over.

To them, the worst possible that can happen is the values of the peasantry, the backward masses of people who are close to faith practices. To them BJP is in power in India and Hefazat is the BJP version in Bangladesh. The sushils think, the conflict in Bangladesh is between secularism and Hefazatism. They see hijab, nikab, burka as evil manifestations of the old world and nothing, a betrayal of 1971 values, a vague end all justification.

This kind of assessment resembles the lenses the colonial rulers who had looked upon Bengal as a moving mass of backward people who needed modernization. Hence came the birth of the Tagore- Ram Mohon project to civilize India and Bengal. Thus began the anti-religion push whose main objective actually was to reduce the power of the Hindu ruling class whose wealth the colonizers wanted. Over time, as the peasantry used various religious taxation networks to contest the colonizers, the collaborator class also looked down upon religious values without understanding how they fitted into peasant practices.

The post Shapla chattor show

From 2013 onwards, after the Hefazat did their stint at Dhaka when many BNP and JI thought they would topple AL which would put them in power, AL disabled them without using serious violence and they were escorted out. After that, economic and monetary incentives were given to them and the AL indulged them on several other fronts too.

The general perception within Hefazat and sushils was that it meant Hefazat power was rising. Two groups thought that they were gaining the clout to change the nature of the state, maybe even take over the state. One was the sushils, the other was the Hefazat.

Not only has that not happened but Hefazat has never been as weak as it stands now.

Unlike the two groups mentioned, the state forces currently manifested through the ruling party is more functional than ideological. It is closer to actual behaviour of rural society which is based on opportunistic progress. Rural areas a zone of newly better off people where rural poverty has declined significantly and consumption has arrived. They are filled with the same aspirations , greed and hunger for conspicuous consumption as their urban counterparts.

New money has led to promotion of cultural practices be it religious observances or digital porn. By banning covert cultural shows of vulgar content like jatras, people have moved towards digital entertainment including porn. Essentially, consumption of entertainment is the main issue not theological products. Jatras have been overrun in a digital era by many forms including Indian channels and waz which is much more fun. While sushils wept over the death of a traditional art form, ordinary villagers just shifted to more hard core content which can be enjoyed in privacy.

Madrassas are no threat

The charity based madrassa system has grown but so has other charity receiving religious outfits, many opposed to Hefazat orthodoxy. This includes dargahs and mazars and their attendant culture. In fact, the orthodoxy led by the Hefazat fight the pirs led by many including the Pir of Chor Monai. You Tube + is the battle ground and indicates the level of disposable surplus rather than piety that is floating in the market.

Any society that is climbing economically will always spent after social and religious projects and display culture. Iftar gatherings, Jumma prayers, qurbani, Hajj etc are very popular as they are part of the conspicuous consumption and display of the culture of the new class.  Any connection to religious piety can be proven. Every kind of immoral and religion forbidden acts including extra-marital sex by both parties are higher than ever before. Society is in behaviour less moral and religious than they have ever been.

To satisfy this new demand, a new professional cleric group has emerged – the informal amlas of the new cultural economy- who are centred around the madrassas and also dargahs. It’s a new livelihood in a new economy. In history, livelihood has dominated and finding theological ghosts in the rice field has no evidence to back it up.

One may forgive clerics of peasant origin as their mindset is unable to grasp the 21th century state and its clout as the self-deluded group read waz mahfil crowd as ‘soldiers of Islam”. The definite push after Junaid Babunagari’s take over was a sign of enormous confidence about their own clout which peaked during the Modi visit.

Yet it only took one week to practically disable the outfit and turn it into an objective of scorn. Most mid level leaders including Mamun who once was thought to be arrest proof are in and Hefazat looks more cowed down than it did in 2013. What the authorities will now do is a matter of speculation but there is no doubt where the advantage now is with.

  • Hefazat, Sushils and the State
  • Mamunul Huq
  • Hefazot-e-Islam

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