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A careful study of history should make it clear to its intelligent readers that great periods of progress in human history were followed by at least shorter periods of reaction as the standard bearers of the old orders could revive and pose roadblocks to the truly progressive forces.
In some cases the reactionaries were only temporarily successful and the progressives could resume their march forward with undiminished enthusiasm. But in other instances the reactionaries could deliver death blows and the forces of progress, reason and rationality were forced to take the back seat in the affected national societies for a long period of time. Sometimes, they could never recover or acquire their previous strengths.
The French Revolution was an extraordinary happening in European and world history. As depicted in Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of times as well as the worst of times. To the destroyers of the old order symbolized by all powerful kings and queens, class system, sway of the Catholic church, hereditary unearned privileges, oppression of common people by autocracy, the revolution was all about refreshing outcomes like establishing equality, justice and freedom for the common man. On the other hand, to the apologists of the old regime of the Burbon kings, it was a despicable time characterized by heartless butcheries perpetrated wholesale by the revolutionaries indiscriminately and unjustifiably on the nobility. The upholders of the old order or the reactionaries held out the promise that they would or could restore the sanity or orderliness of the past (as they conceived it).
Thus, history witnessed the great and utilitarian ideologies and beliefs thrown up by the French Revolution going under a cloud. Monarchy with all its shackles and retarding features was restored in France as the reactionaries triumphed as they could regain people’s support, albeit briefly. But blissfully this stranglehold of the reactionaries was short lived. Democracy, equality and supremacy of common people which were the guiding spirit of the French Revolution, came back not only powerfully but on an enduring basis and Europe could resume its forward journey positively and correctly. Thus, the nineteenth and to a large extent also the twentieth centuries were noted as a time of domination of mankind--spiritually, philosophically and materially --by Europeans or peoples or countries of European origin such as the USA.
Can we draw an analogy between France in its post revolution period and today’s Bangladesh? Probably we can. Like the French revolution the breaking up of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh was an epochal experience for the subcontinent. When the British departed from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the center point of politics at that time was religion and hardly anything else. Thus, it was not insensible to carve up the region mainly between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India though India was careful right from the outset of its statehood to shrug off this Hindu label pinned on it by the imperialists as it declared secularism and not Hinduism as one of its guiding state principles.
Pakistan did not and went for superimposition of its notions of Islamisation on the people of East Bengal who then formed part of Pakistan. Ignoring of the proud heritage of language, culture and other distinctive attributes of Bengali Muslims in this part of the then Pakistan by the holders of power in Pakistan, backfired. The same roused and set in motion the spirit of Bengali nationalism that culminated in the complete undoing of Jinnah’s two-nation theory of 1947 of an essentially Hindu India and a Pakistan pulsated mainly by Islamist feelings.
The liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971 marked the complete burial of the two-nation theory as the predominant Muslim population of East Bengal found themselves suffering genocide in their own land at the hands of their non Bengali but Muslim West Pakistani occupiers and oppressors. Comparatively, they found safety and shelter in neighbouring Hindu India.
The liberation war was also fought together shoulder to shoulder by Hindu Bengalis and Muslim Bengalis who lived in erstwhile East Pakistan. Soon, their separate religious identities paled before the dire need to face up to the common enemy of marauding Pakistani forces. The lessons learnt were not lost on either the people or the leadership of the new born state of Bangladesh. They made a conscious endeavor to make the new nation as one with a governing principle not based on communal identities but on basis of the wider principle of Bengali nationalism. Therefore, Bangladesh emerged from the ashes of the theocratic Pakistani state where none would be made to feel inferior to another for his or her religious belief.
But the forces of reaction have been active ever since the birth of Bangladesh to try and destroy the country’s original ideological moorings. The trauma of the killings of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujbur Rahman and his near and dear ones in mid 1975 marked the first major expression of this intent.
Others followed as the Constitution was amended by martial law to pave the way for an Islamic comeback. Relationships with Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries which were opposed to our freedom struggle and Bengali identity were strengthened under military regimes.
These foreign countries-allegedly- staged a comeback to Bangladesh and helped out in underground activities aimed to pave the way for militant Islamists. One major political party in the country which is scorned for owing its birth to the cantonment and not rising from among people, is hobnobbing with these militant forces. It even gave Cabinet posts to leaders of a militant organization when it was in power some years ago making it possible for the militants to organize at ease under its political sheltering. This party now forms the main unofficial opposition to the government today. But it has retained intact its alliance with the militant Islamic party and depends on the latter greatly for its anti-government activities. But their so called movement for democracy has turned out to be nothing better than petrol bomb throwing on innocent people and other arson attacks.
The reactionary forces are sensed to be getting their act together. Like during the liberation war of Bangladesh, they have been intermittently attacking and killing free thinkers and intellectuals. The latest one among their victims on Thursday was a Professor of Physics of Dhaka University whose fault was he sought to express his free opinion on varied subjects through a popular and widely read blog he set up. Some of his writings must have touched a raw nerve among his assailants and, thus, the punishment meted out to him by taking his life ?
It has not been long but only in mid 2013 when a grand assemblage of religious obscurantist who call themselves Hefazat-e-Islam, their million strong supporters occupied Dhaka’s main commercial area for two days. Their leader thundered in the rally such medieval ideas that higher female education was not required, they should stay indoors, shun male company and look after their husbands and children only. A female reporter of a television channel who went to their rally to cover it, was manhandled for doing the indecent thing of turning up in what in their view was reserved as an essentially all male assembly.
Such is the outlook or the agenda of the Taleban type of forces who are knocking at the gates of power in Bangladesh. This is said because the unofficial main opposition force in Bangladesh today remains so allied to them. In 2013, it was credibly alleged that it sought to topple the government from power using these fanatics as its storm troopers or spearheads.
Time has come for all sensible Bangladeshis to become conscious enough from now on to join their hands and stand up together against the growing threat of intolerance and extremism before it becomes too powerful and devours us. In many ways, Bangladesh and its people today are at a crossroads. They must be able to decide quickly and decisively whether they would remain on the path of the ideals generated by the liberation war or on the track of modernism and progress or roll back towards an all engulfing darkness.
The writer is Associate Editor of The Independent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/ email@example.com/