DHAKA, Bangladesh — This nation of 150 million is mired in turmoil.
Some 322 people have perished this year from political violence. That’s the highest death toll outside a conflict zone, and probably still worse than in Egypt.
Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in riots that have seen buses burned, cars torched, and policemen targeted by Islamist mobs. Protests are expected to intensify.
Courts this month sentenced a leading Islamist to 90 years in prison, and a second to death by hanging.
Incredibly, much of the violence stems from events that occurred more than four decades ago, back when the country was mired in a bloody battle for independence from Pakistan.
An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Bangladeshis were killed in the nine-month conflict, the legacy of tragic decisions made by Britain as it unwound its colonial presence.
Forty years later, television journalist Saidur Rahman still feels guilty about surviving those years.
Back then, Saidur’s pro-independence father had taught him and his brothers how to shoot homemade bows and arrows. Fazlur Rahman had instructed his wife to always keep water boiling with chili powder mixed in, to throw at any anti-liberation attackers.
But when pro-Pakistan forces did raid their house on April 15, Saidur found himself hiding under the bed with his mother and siblings. They watched soldiers stab their father to death as he tried to block the assailants from entering the door.
One of Saidur’s brothers yelled “Dad!” and jumped out, giving away their hiding spot. The attackers knifed his siblings, and dragged his mother away.
According to neighbors, she was buried alive.
“The whole floor was flooded with blood,” recalls Saidur, who survived by playing dead.
“I feel so selfish,” he says. “When they killed my father in front of my eyes, my brother jumped out. Why didn’t I cry out too? Why did I lie there pretending to be dead?”
Bangladesh is finally addressing crimes committed during the conflict. The government, and most historians and journalists, accuse the Pakistani army’s Bangladeshi collaborators, who were mostly Islamists, of large-scale atrocities, including ethnic cleansing of the country’s Hindu population.
Opponents of the tribunal have called it a kangaroo court. They say the government, elected in 2009, is looking to wipe out the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist political party and a key ally of the opposition coalition.
The drama is far from over.
In addition to this month’s harsh sentences, the court has filed crimes against humanity charges against Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, a British citizen, and Ashrafuzzaman Khan, a US citizen and the New York president of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). It is looking into having them extradited to stand trial.
Islamists outraged by the trials have flooded Bangladesh’s streets, lobbing Molotov cocktails and fighting police on the streets armed with rocks and machetes.
The trial and the protests have brought into sharp focus Islam’s role in the politics of Bangladesh, a country once forged in the name of religion that later rebelled against it.
A colonial legacy
When the British departed in 1947, they carved up the subcontinent into majority-Muslim Pakistan in the West and East, separated by a thousand miles of Hindu-majority India. Bangladesh was dubbed East Pakistan.
Eventually Bangladeshis revolted against the West, unleashing a brutal guerilla war. Newspapers at the time reported mass rapes and the detention of thousands of thousands of women and young girls as sex slaves by the Pakistani army. An estimated 8 to 10 million people, mostly Hindus, fled to India in one of the largest refugee crises in history.
But not everyone in the East was rooting for independence. In the name of religion, Islamists in particular had a stake in keeping the two Pakistans together.
They collaborated with the Pakistani army, helping to hunt down people like Saidur’s father in small towns and villages.
“They were the ones who showed the army who we were, where we were. They never thought Bangladesh would become independent. They thought after the war they’d become ministers,” says Mohammad Joynal Abedin, who joined the independence war as a 15-year-old.
Bangladesh did become independent. After a brief post-war ban, Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami made a comeback, even coming to power as part of a coalition government from 2001-2006.
In 2009, the Awami League, which had led the independence war, scored a landslide in election victory. Leaders interpreted this support as a mandate to set up the tribunal that would decimate its opposition ally.
It now appears that they had underestimated the Islamist presence in the country. The spread of madrasas (Islamic schools) over the past few decades has enabled Islamists to call on a far-reaching, well-organized grassroots network, the newly-formed Hefazat-e-Islam.
Since this month’s verdicts, Jamaat and Hefazat’s activists have clashed with security forces in the streets. So far this year at least eight policemen have been killed. The number of casualties is far higher among Islamists, who appear willing to pay this price.
Hefazat has also issued a list of demands, which include installing a blasphemy law and banning free mixing of the sexes.
“Islam cannot tolerate a culture of boyfriend-girlfriend. This boyfriend-girlfriend culture is what has led America to destruction. Saudi Arabia is our model,” says Ezharul Alam, a Hefazat leader.
Far from eliminating the opposition, the resurgent Islamists are making secular Bangladeshis uneasy.
Many caution against alarmism, however. They say that just because an Islamist ally might head the government next year doesn’t mean people will succumb to what they demand.
Aleya Nasreen, a domestic worker in Dhaka who describes herself as very religious, says she has no plans to go along with the Hefazat agenda: “I have four kids. I need to make money. I have to go to work, I have a home to run. I don’t have time to put on a burkha.”
With a high-stakes general election due between October and January, many are predicting the Islamist-allied opposition will return to power. But with opposition leaders accusing the ruling party of preparing to rig the outcome of the polls, Bangladesh is bracing for the violence to get worse before it gets any better.
Follow journalist Maher Sattar on Twitter @mahersattar.