Dialogue  October-December, 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

Roots of Communalism in Bangladesh


RNP Singh*



It is an undeniable fact that the foundation or root plays key role in the growth of the people and society.  The roots continue providing directional impetus to its people but sometimes a perplexing question arises when even after removal of the bricks of the foundation, its effect does not fade away and it goes on influencing the thinking and behavioral pattern of its people.  The changing mind set and the pattern of reverting back to old dogmas of Bangladeshi people is a typical case for a deep study to analyse whether the uprooted foundation or root is stronger than that of its complete rejection by the same people through mass upsurge. 

      Why Bangladesh, which was born as a democratic and secular state, switched over again to an Islamic state is perplexing because the fierce fight against the two nation theory based on religious fundamentalism was the core of the Bangladeshis liberation movement.  The same Bangladeshis, who fought for 25 years, sacrificed over one lac people and achieved liberation, moved back on the same track of radicalism within four years of its grand success.  The question of study should be (1) as to why Bangladesh reverted back to old path so quickly (ii) were some strong bricks of the root left out while digging (iii) or which is strong component for change-root or mass upsurge against the existing dogmatic mind set.

     Since the very beginning of the creation of Pakistan, East Pakistan had been bleeding because of the former’s behaviour to keep the latter under subjugation ignoring the basics of the Bengali culture.The central government seated in West Pakistan betrayed contempt towards East


Pakistan and its culture. Way back on September 7, 1955 Ataur Rahman Khan, a tall leader of East Pakistan had said “The attitude of the Muslim- League coterie was one of the contempt towards East Bengal, towards its culture, its language, its literature and everything concerning East Bengal…Far from considering East Bengal as an equal partner, the leaders of the Muslim League thought we were a subject race and they belonged to the race of conquerors”1

    During Ayub Khan’s eleven-year rule (1959-69), conditions in East Pakistan further worsened which is evident from his remarks, which stated, “East Bengalis who constitute bulk of population belong to the very original Indian races.  It could be no exaggeration to say that up to the creation of Pakistan, they had not known any real freedom and sovereignty.  In addition, they have been and still are under considerable Hindu culture and linguistic influences. As such, they have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races and have not yet found it possible to adjust psychologically to the requirements of the newborn freedom”2.

     Disappointed by the attitude and functioning of the West Pakistan, many East Pakistani leaders including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Maulana Bhasani formed a separate party named as Awani Muslim League in 1949.  Later, the word ‘Muslim’ was dropped to suggest its secular character.  Meanwhile, Pakistan government declared that Urdu alone would be the ‘lingua franca’ of Pakistan; discriminatory policies were pursued in national and provincial appointments; all key posts were filled in by non-Bengali Muslims drawn from West Punjab and other provinces of West Pakistan, and East Pakistan was turned into a colony.

      The accumulating anger against West Pakistan erupted in 1952 in the form of language riots spearheaded by the students of Dhaka University, which resulted in police firing, killing and injuring a number of students.  Salt on the wound was sprayed when during Ayub’s regime in 1962, emphasis was laid on the use of such Bengali words, which owed their origin to Arabic and Persian rather than to Sanskrit.  It was also proposed to adopt Roman script for Bengali.  The withdrawal of coverage of prominent Bengali literateurs in the media; ban on the broadcast of Rabindra Sangeet on Dhaka radio and the prevention of import of Bengali books from Calcutta further injured the cultural sentiments of the Bengalis.3 

       In view of the continuing attacks on the Bengali sentiments, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujib sowed the seed of autonomy when at a national conference of political parties at Lahore on February 5-6, 1966, he announced the Six-Point “Charter of Survival Programme”, for East Pakistan. The “Six-Point” programme evoked tremendous enthusiasm among the people of East Pakistan with the result Pakistan government adopted repressive measures under the Defence of Pakistan rules. The situation worsened to the extent that the effect of the mass upheaval was Ayub’s fall from power and his successor General Yahia Khan’s declaration of martial law, on March 25,1969, through out Pakistan.4 

      In view of the situation going out of hand the military dictator Yahya Khan declared to transfer power to the representatives of the people by holding general elections.  The mass hysteria of the people of East Pakistan against the dominance of West Pakistan was reflected aptly at the polls held in December 1970 when Awami League won 167 seats out of 169 allotted to East Pakistan in the National Assembly.  It was an absolute majority in the National assembly of 313 members.  Bhutto’s Pakistan people’s Party secured a majority in West Pakistan where it got 80 seats.5 

      Inspite of Mujib’s Awami Party’s crushing victory, Gen. Yahya Khan and Bhutto did not agree on Six-Point Charter and therefore, Mujib called for the boycott of the Constituent Assembly meet scheduled to be held on March 3, 1971.  The boycott added fuel to the fire and the military regime instead of adopting any democratic means, tried to suppress the people’s verdict by force and brutality.  The army was let loose; the Awami leaders, students, intellectuals, and innocent masses were massacred. Lakhs of people started fleeing to India; the world was shocked and condemned the genocide.  Awami League’s demand for regional autonomy turned into the demand for complete independence of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.66 Chandrika J Gulati, “Liberation to Fundamentalism”, common wealth publishers, New Delhi, 1988, p-34)

    The stories of death and destruction and the horrible cruelties indulged in by the Pakistan army hit the headlines across the world.  The Guardian (London) published an eyewitness account of two clergymen-John Hestings and Rev. John Clapham, which said “Woman have been raped, girls carried off to barracks and unarmed peasants battered or bayoneted by the thousands.  Even the less credible stories of babies thrown up to be caught on bayonets, women stripped and bayoneted vertically, or children sliced up like meat, are credible not only because they are told by so many, but because they are told by people without sophistication to make up such stories for political motives.”

     The extra-ordinary situation arisen due to genocide unleashed by Pakistani army and the intensity of the refugee problem forced India to urge Pakistan to stop massacre and restore normalcy.  The Indian Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi appealed to the world to pressurize Pakistan to put a halt to repression in East Pakistan. Initially India was reluctant to resort to military action or direct confrontation with Pakistan but the situation took such a turn that it became imperative for the Indian government to extend official support to East Pakistanis in their fight against Pakistani army.  The Indian forces played important role in bringing the Liberation War to a swift end.  Pakistan surrendered unconditionally after 14 days of fighting.  The instrument of surrender was signed at Ramna Course in Dhaka on December 16,1971 by Lt General AAA Niazi on behalf of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan.  Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-Command of Indian and Bangladeshi Mukti-Vahini in Eastern Sector accepted the surrender. The surrendered Pakistani forces numbered about 93000.

       Mrs Gandhi declared “Dhaka is now a free capital of a free country…. we hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph.  All nations who value the human spirit will recognize it as a significant milestone in man’s quest for liberty”.7 The emergence of Bangladesh was thus, an expression of the determination of East Bengalis and a valiant battle fought by the Indian armed forces in which India was guided mainly by humanitarian considerations and for restoration of democratic rights to the oppressed people.

   The proclamation of Independence on April 10, 1971 declared Bangladesh as Sovereign People’s Republic and its Constitution was adopted on November 4, 1972, which came into effect on December 16, 1972.  The Constitution of Bangladesh spelled out secularism in Article 12, which read-”The principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of: (a) communalism in all its forms; (b) political recognition of religion by the state (c) exploitation of religion for political ends; (d) and discrimination on religious grounds.”8 


Anti-India propaganda and Bangladesh switching over again to Islamic state:


  India had never imagined that its role in Bangladesh’s war of independence could so quickly have turned into a relentless animosity and campaigns of terrorism against India from the Bangladeshi soil.  The Indians wonder how the Pakistani military Junta, the architects of genocide, in which over three million people were massacred, could have so quickly regained influence to arrive at a strategic consensus with the Bangladeshi forces to participate in the “war of thousand cuts” against India.  It is also a puzzle as to how did the Bangladeshi radical groups once again secured a position of centrality.

     The Indian side, fully aware of its political and economic fallout, had taken a risk to save the dignity of the people of East Bengal but the same people even resented the commemoration of December 16, by Indian armed forces as ‘Victory Day’ in 1984. Bangladeshi intellectuals refused to accept India’s decisive role in the war against Pakistan and they claim that Indian army was only supportive and subsidiary. Certain elements in Bangladesh started vicious propaganda against India whereat they criticized 25-year Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Peace, signed in 1972; blamed India to settle its own score with Pakistan by using POWs as tool; denounced historic surrender on the ground that it should have been before Bangladeshi official; and several similar allegations were levelled against India.

      The emergence of the new nation was accompanied by the same old administrative setup, which had served for a quarter century under East Pakistan and was trained to adopt an aggressive anti-India stand on every issue.  Therefore, it was natural for them to not change their hearts and continue behaving with the same old anti-India mindset.  A climate of distrust and suspicion against India prevailed at different levels in Bangladesh.  The adoption of secularism and friendly ties of the Awami League government with India were construed by many as a compromise of Bangladesh’s sovereignty.  The Islamic radical elements viewed secularism as anti-Islamic and pro-India.  The Islamic communal parties capitalized on this anti-Indian sentiment and began a virulent campaign against secularism.

      Thus, within 2-3 years of the emergence of secular Bangladesh, the rising religious sentiments forced the Awami League government to take many steps which emboldened the morale of radicals, the changing behaviour of Sheikh Mujib and some of the policies of the Awami League government helped Islamic politics revive in Bangladesh.  Secularism became anathema and question about the national identity of the people of Bangladesh began to occupy public space.  

    The bloody coup in Bangladesh and killing of Sheikh Mujib on August-15, 1975 changed the scenario when the country took a u-turn and the trend of the revival of Islam became stronger.  Zia-ur-Rahman, Chief of the Army Staff and Chief Martial Law Administrator, who assumed office of the President on April 21, 1977, amended the Constitution by promulgating a Proclamation the next day of his taking over.  With this amendment, the words “Bismillah-er-Rahman-er-Rahim” were added at the outset of the Constitution; the words “Liberation struggle” in the Preamble were replaced by “War of Independence”; “Secularism” in the fundamental principles of the state policy was put back by “Total Faith and Belief in Almighty Allah”; socialism and social justice and Article 12 of the constitution, which spelled out secularism were deleted.  Also Article 38, which outlawed those religious parties, which had collaborated with the Pakistani army, was revoked.  Thus, President Zia-ur-Rahman prepared the ground for the return of the radical form of Islam in Bangladesh.9 

    Gen. Zia-ur-Rahman rolled the process of Islamisation so fast that the Bangladeshi society and politics came soon under the complete grip of fundamentalism. Gen. Hussain Mohammad Irshad, who seized power in 1982, went one step ahead with the amendment of Constitution, which declared Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh.10

   The resultant spread of radical Islam promoted fundamentalist organizations and culminated in the Jammat-e-Islami (Bangladesh) which had collaborated with Pak. becoming part of the last government by Khaleda Zia of BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) after 2002 elections.

      Islamic radicalism has by now established its firm roots in Bangladesh and its most dangerous manifestation is seen in the mushrooming growth of Jehadi organizations there. The process of radicalization accelerated after the fall of the Taliban in Kandhar in 2001 as Pakistan, through ISI, managed to convert Bangladesh as safe haven for the terrorists who fought in Afghanistan.  Bangladesh provides an excellent base for Al-Qaeda’s renewed efforts because the region is predominantly Islamic and holds pre-existing Al-Qaeda affiliated extremist networks.  Bangladesh has the potential to become the ‘Home for Jehadi Terror’.

   Thus, Bangladesh has progressed from Islamic fundamentalism to Islamic terrorism. The country progressively emerged as an important home for Pakistan based Jehadi groups operating against India.  There are over a dozen Jehadi groups often referred to as the Bangladeshi Taliban. There are indications of direct linkages of these groups with Taliban and Al-Qaeda network. 

     Thus, Bangladesh is already well on the way to becoming a new epi-centre of pro Al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban international Jehadi terrorist organizations.  The pioneer of organized terrorist activities is the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami (HUJI-Bangladesh), which was formed in 1988 on the pattern of Taliban of Afghanistan. It has an estimated strength of around 10,000 to 12,000 cadres.  Like its Pakistani counterpart, the HUJI-Bangladesh propagates militant pan-Islamic agenda and favours a militarized Jehad to achieve the global hegemony of Islam.  It does not recognize the division of Muslims on the basis of nation, geography, race or language. It canvasses for the unity of all the Muslims of the world, establishment of Islamic states and adoption of ‘Shariat’ for the governance of the people.  Its main basis of recruitment and training are the string of madarsas, schools and colleges including theological institutes, which are used to tap new volunteers among the “Islam Pasand” organizations. The HUJI-Bangladesh is maintaining links with number of foreign organizations including the ISI.  “Servants of Suffering Humanity International” allegedly financed by Osama-bin-Laden and Al-Farooq International Trust are also providing assistance to it.

     Apart from HUJI, Lashker-e-Toiba (LeT) has an active presence in Bangladesh. The Jamat-ul-Mujahidin (JuM) of Bangladesh, which introduced suicide terrorism into Bangladesh, openly supports the Taliban and calls for the Talibanisation of Bangladesh.  Wahabisation, which is the precursor of Jehadi terrorism, has already made its appearance in Bangladesh and pro-Wahabi mosques and madarsas, funded by money from Pakistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have been mushrooming all over the country.

      If viewed from geo-strategic angle, Bangladesh is most suitable base for Pakistan’s proxy war.  It provides porous border between India and Pakistan; Bangladesh’s border configuration rests on India’s vulnerable north-eastern states and West Bengal; and India’s strategic Siliguri corridor, which is the communication link with India’s North-Eastern states, is surrounded by Bangladesh.

    In view of Bangladesh’s bidding good-bye to secularism and switching over to fundamentalism and ultimately embracing terrorism, the plight of Hindus and other minorities there has become miserable.  The Hindus are either forced to quit the country or to convert to Islam.  At the time of partition in 1947, the Hindu population in Bangladesh was about 31%.  By 1961, the Hindu’s comprised only 19% of the total population.  By 1974 it further declined to 14% and in 2002, it was estimated that the Hindu population was only 9% of the total.11 


Firm roots of Islam in Bangladesh:


       Seeing the amazing flight of Bangladesh from secular democracy to

fundamentalism enroute terrorism, within such a short period, is bewildering.  The billion-dollar question arises as to why and how this happened?  Researchers may analyse it in any way they like but my explanation to this change would be Islam’s firm roots in the minds of East Bengal, now Bangladesh, for centuries.

     Since the day Islam spread beyond the Arab coast, Bengal emerged as one of those Islamic lands where the sun of Islam shined resplendently.  Bengal-Saudi ties date back to centuries and are rooted deep in history when the Arab Muslims, in course of their trade with the east, visited the coastal regions of Bengal, long before the Muslim conquerors of Turkish origin set their foot on the land. The Muslim merchants were usually accompanied by the Islamic preachers who spread teachings of Islam with sincere and selfless devotion. Some of the early Arab traders and preachers settled on the coastal regions of Bengal, especially in the districts of Chittagong and Noakhali.  During the caliphate of Hazrat Omar Farooq in the 7th century two sufi saints of high order, namely Hazrat Mahfuz and Hazrat came to preach Islam in this region.  Besides these two preachers, a large number of ‘Sheikh’, ‘Ulema’ and ‘Zahids’ (Jurists, learned and mystics) followed the line and propagated the teachings of Islam.12 

       Many of these preachers and saints settled in this part of the country lie burried there. The last resting place of these Islamic preachers have always been regarded with great veneration and mosques and mausoleums have been built at most of these spots where they had finally settled and had passed away.13  The message of Islam carried forward by the Muslim saints of the earlier era had been finally consolidated by the Muslim conquest of Bengal in 1204 A.D. when  Ikhtiar-al-din Muhammad Bakhtiar Khilji came to Bengal.  His triumphal entry was facilitated, by the presence of a large number of preachers of Islam and he had little difficulty in occupying the country.14 

      The second part of the 13th century witnessed more intense Islamic brain storming in Bengal when many more ‘Alims’,’Mujahids’ came here from Arabia and the Middle East. They further invigorated the tempo of Islamic propagation until the end of the 17th century when Muslim rule was on firm footing in Bengal.

     Islam in its fundamentalist form had firmly set foot in East Bengal by the beginning of 20th century and the Hindu-Muslim divide started increasing since then.  In fact, the preaching of Islam inherently carried an anti-Hindu message with the result Muslims developed hatred towards Hindu festivals and demanded total ban on music near mosques. The assertion of a new Islamic identity among Bengali Muslims and the gap created thereafter between Hindus and Muslims led to social alienation of Muslims from their Hindu neighbours with whom they had cordial relations and had shared a common platform of life in rural areas. The mullahs made Muslims feel that they had a distinct contrasting identity with the Hindus and persuaded them to behave in accordance with the pan-Islamic norms in every walk of life.

     Growing fundamentalism among the Muslims led the quest to find unity in Islam gained preponderance and the separatist tendencies among them by the partition of Bengal in 1905.  Therefore, the ‘Swadeshi’ movement launched by the Bengali Hindus, against the partition, was opposed by the Muslims.  The Hindu-Muslim antagonism culminated in the foundation of the Muslim League, a political party of the Muslims, at Dacea in December 1906. The hostile attitude of the Muslims towards Hindus led to a spate of communal riots in Bengal, which continued, on large scale till the partition of India in 1947.

      Entire Bengal remained communally surcharged and even ordinary matters sparked off communal riots in Bengal.  The trail of the call of the “Direct Action”, given by the Muslim League on August 16 1946, continued for the whole year in Calcutta and East Bengal. 

      Even after partition, the sense of hatred towards Hindus and the theological drive for the creation of “Dar-ul-Islam” continued to sway the minds of Pakistani Muslims including the Muslims of the East Pakistan.  Even after getting their demand of independence fulfilled, the Muslims’ antagonism towards the Hindus and India, which they call “Hindu India”, did not change.  The East Pakistan continued to vent it’s feeling through the Pakistan’s ISI machinations and bleed India. The position of Bangladesh and India’s role, explained earlier, remained the same and India continues to bleed even now.

      Thus, the detailed study of the entire situation forces one to believe that it is the theological drive, the root of communalism, which plays the main role in shaping of the Muslim mind and other issues play only supplementary roles. In the case of Bangladesh, the roots of fundamentalism and communalism remained subsided momentarily and no sooner the immediate problem was over, they switched over to the communal polities,  which is in fact, inherent in their theological drive.




1  A Dasgupta, “The revolt in East Bengal”, Calcutta, 1971, PP. 60-61

2  Ayub Khan “Friends not Masters”, Karachi, 1967, p. 87

3 Chandrika J Gulati, Bangladesh: Liberation to Fundamentalism”,


common wealth Publishers, Ansari Road, New Delhi-1988, p. 31

4 Talukder Maniruzzaman, “Bangladesh revolution and its aftermath”, University Press Limited, Dhaka-Bangladesh, 1988, p. 26

5 Craig Baxter, ‘Pakistan votes, 1970’, Asian Survey, 11 (3), March 1971, p. 211

6 Chandrika J Gulati, "Liberation to Fundamentalism", Commonwaelth Publishers, New Delhi, 1988, p. 34

7 “Bangladesh document vol II”, pp. 550-551

8 Abdul Hasan Shamshuddin, "Amader Rastriya Adarsh: Ekti Paryalocana”, The Ittefaque, 26 March, 1973

9 Anisuzzaman, “Religion and politics in Bangladesh” ed: SR Chakravarty, Haranand Publications, New Delhi, 1994, p. 44

10  Ibid, p. 45

11 Datta, S.K. "The recent plight of Minorities in Bangladesh: A post election perspective". Paper presented at an international seminar organized by the Centre for Research in Indo-Bangladesh Relations, Kolkata, Jan 28, 2002.

12 Abul Kalam, "Bangladesh-Saudi relations: a study of Muslim fraternity", The University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1996, p. 310

13 Sheikh Ali Ashraf, “The role of Muslim saints in preaching Islam in Bangladesh”, B.H. Haroon (ed) p. 89-190

14 Ibid, p. 47


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati