Book Review: A Political History of Muslim Bengal

A Political History of Muslim Bengal: An Unfinished Battle of Faith (2019) by Mahmudur Rahman (UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019), 392 pp.; ISBN: 9781527519350
ISBN-10: 152751935X

Review by Q M Jalal Khan 25 January 2019

Bangladesh has been under the tyrannical, neo-fascist and BNPhobic Awami siege and occupation for the last ten years. The extent to which the country has known the brutal and brutish Awami barbarism has surpassed all past records. In fact, all bad records of the past combined pale in comparison with those set by Sheikh Hasina and her Awami regime. People of dissent (and they are the great majority) have seen their destruction, both physically and politically, mentally and psychologically, as they saw bulldozed structures under demolition reduced to rubble. The police and the entire state machinery backed by India have been working together to wipe out all shades of opposition by all possible means, including the force and fury and ferocity of nonstop inhuman oppression and persecution and the deeply politicized benches and corridors of the courts, be they lower or higher. Added to those means are also all the heavyweight Commissions—Anti-Corruption Commission, Public Service Commission and, most importantly, the all-important Election Commission—that are all used as a ploy or proxy to perpetuate the regime’s evil axis of home empire. No wonder, Bangladesh has been a state of ruthless repression and intimidation, to say the least. Appalling mass detentions, tortuous remands, crippling imprisonments (nearly 100,000 people are rotting in the crammed prisons countrywide), forced disappearances, rape and murder are the common go of the day. There is absolutely no opportunity for the opposition to engage in any form of political activities. Having exceeded all limits, the bloody and violent process of elimination and annihilation carried out mainly by the all-devouring Hasina police is ongoing setting an unprecedented record of farce and fraud and rigging and robbing in the name of elections after elections, from local to national, municipal to parliamentary, including the recent most horrendous polls on 30 December 2018.

Mahmudur Rahman, editor of the popular daily Amar Desh (আমার দেশ) and a well-known political and media personality of Bangladesh, says it all in the very prologue of his book a large part of which is a hard-hitting lambast of the horribly ruling Hasina and her terribly totalitarian regime. He rightly suggests that Sheikh Hasina is another Lucifer (Devil, Satan, Iblis), no better than Hitler of Germany, Pinochet of Chile, Shah of Iran, Saddam of Iraq, and Kim of North Korea, perhaps even worse. Appropriately describing Bangladesh under her as an utterly horrible and horrifying autocracy, an Orwellian state, a “ruthless police state” and “an extremely polarized and wounded nation […], no better than a personal fiefdom,” suffering from “the oppression of [a] fascist regime,” the prologue sets the political tone of the book. Apart from being a recount of the historical past of Bangladesh, the book also gives an authentic account of today’s high-handed iron and jungle rule of Sheikh Hasina. According to the author, “The methods employed by the current rulers in Bangladesh are much simpler and more direct. They choke press freedom, resort to extrajudicial killings, practise enforced disappearances without any remorse, and imprison dissidents for indefinite periods without trial. India takes care on behalf of her client in Bangladesh […] at this blatant disregard for human rights and democratic norms.” It is the following situation that may have triggered the writing of the whole book in all its political and religious details:

“Now the dangerous part. Bangladesh is currently ruled by a constitutionally illegal prime minister who likes to project herself as a liberal secularist. In reality, Sheikh Hasina is a classical fascist in secular garb. The government she heads has choked civil society, the free press and democracy. They do not allow any space for opposition political parties. Any criticism of the government is considered a criminal offence, punishable with life imprisonment. This authoritarian secularism has usurped all fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens of Bangladesh. Opportunities to peacefully change the government through democratic means no longer exist in a country formerly hailed as a beacon of hope in the Muslim world for its rare adherence to a democratic political system […] But in Bangladesh the mere expression of a wish from Hasina is all the law-enforcement agencies need to commit wholesale atrocities on citizens. The constitution is amended at will to provide legal cover for the unchecked authoritarian rule of an individual. The judiciary is largely dysfunctional […] Bangladesh is now an unfortunate country of 160 million depressed, demoralized and persecuted people, living under the constant fear of either uniformed or plain-clothed policemen banging on their doors late at night. Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have become everyday events.”

Mahmudur Rahman has seen it all himself. Attacked, tortured, and confined to jail again and again, he has experienced the harrowing and debilitating tyranny that is the current cruel Hasina regime. Originally a technocrat adviser/minister, of engineering and business administration background, to the last BNP government, Mahmudur Rahman has emerged as a forceful and highly independent thinker, writer, and editor of his own rare kind. He has been involved in his heroic crusade against the horribly fascist Hasina Awami League for a decade now. As mentioned above, he is a celebrated political and media personality facing, as tens of thousands of others do countrywide, countless odds and obstacles caused by the Hasina-led despotic regime.

As excellent as it is, the book is written in a simple, clear, lucid and smoothly flowing English with clarity and no clatter, easy to read and understand. It is a remarkable publication covering the political events, some briefly but penetratingly, some in more depth and detail, from the early days of Muslim Bengal to the pre-Partition days of British colonial rule to the Pakistan times to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 through the positive as well as the 2006-08 catastrophic changeovers that followed since. This is a book Mahmudur Rahman wrote when he was in jail, most unjustly (like thousands of others under the illegitimate and falsely, fraudulently and farcically “elected” tyrannical and totalitarian government of Sheikh Hasina), for a long period of time for more than once. His is an example like many other great men of history—poets, politicians, writers, and philosophers– who also wrote many of their great volumes from behind bars. They would include, among others, Roman-origin Boethius, Ibn Khaldun, Sir Thomas Malory of Arthurian legends and romances, Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Ibn Taimyyah, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francois Vallon, John Bunyan, Voltaire, Oscar Wilde, Nihar Ranjan Roy (cited by the author several times), Adolf Hitler, and Ezra Pound. Similarly, there were many such as Thucydides, Sir Thomas Hoby, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Byron, Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Edward Gibbon, and James Joyce, among others, who produced many of their seminal and monumental works when they were in exile, forced or voluntary. Distinguishingly and discriminatingly talented and undaunted Mahmudur Rahman cannot be an exception and has indeed been productive in his currently second home Malaysia, which is in a sense a sort of self-imposed exile by choice, away from his native Bangladesh. He has been productive in terms of his journalism and other serious writings and significant speeches through different forums and platforms in Malaysia as he always was in Bangladesh.  

The book under review, as outstanding as it is, is dedicated to “the memory of the ascetic Sufis who travelled to a distant and alien Bengal to preach the monotheist and egalitarian message of Islam to the people of the delta,” suggesting, along with its very title and the subtitle, author Mahmudur Rahman’s strong and unequivocal support for the Islamic ethos and identity of the Muslim majority Bangladesh, as much as his unflinching commitment to the integrity and sovereignty of his native country under the befitting ideal/banner of Bangladeshi Nationalism that was introduced and established by the great President Ziaur Rahman (d. 1981), who most heroically declared and proclaimed the country’s independence in March 1971. In the view of the author and as the subtitle of his work suggests, there have been ups and down in the “battle” for Muslim/Islamic “faith” in his country and the “battle” continues to remain “unfinished,” echoing Lawrence Lifschultz’s Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution (Zed Books, 1979). Lifschultz, who was a South Asia Correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, is frequently cited by the author of this book too. The book has twelve chapters complete with a prologue, an epilogue, a number of historic illustrations and appendices, and a bibliography. However, it lacks an index, which is indeed an important part missing for the readers.

The illustrations include various historical and archeological sites, from ancient urban centers to tombs and mosques and temples. More importantly, they include the images of almost all the leading political figures from 1757 to the present times. There are seven appendices of great historical value: the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, the Awami League’s Six-Point Formula of 1966, the Proclamation of Independence of Bangladesh of 10 April 1971, the Instrument of Surrender of the Pakistani Army in December 1971, General Yahya Khan’s Undelivered Address to the Nation, the 19 March 1972 Treaty of Friendship between India and Bangladesh, and the Tripartite Agreement between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh of 9 April 1974. Both the illustrations and the appendices combine to strike the indelible note of historical back-and-forth progression of the ideas as touched or dwelt upon by the author in the main text of the book. Beginning with (1) “The Dawn of Islam in Eastern Bengal: The History of the Past Millennium,” the book chronologically follows through (2) “British Colonial Occupation and the Subjugation of Muslims;” (3) “The Birth of Pakistan and the Division of Bengal;” (4) “The Victory of ‘Bengali Nationalism’ over Muslim Identity;” (5) “The Liberation War of Bangladesh;” (6) “Independent Bangladesh: Mujib’s Dilemma and Autocracy;” (7) “The Reawakening of Muslim Identity: The Rise of Bangladeshi Nationalism;” (8) “The Politics of the State Religion: The Lost Decade of the Ershad Regime;” (9) “The Islam Equation in Parliamentary Politics;” (10) “The Trojan Horse of One-Eleven;” (11) “The Terror of Authoritarian Secularism;” and (12) “The Unfinished Battle of Faith.”

            The above chapter names themselves, speaking volumes, hold the key and amply imply the type or nature of contents therein. All of them, especially the second part of the book, are of great interest to today’s young readers, students, researchers and academics. They will find it rewarding and refreshing as an extremely useful and invaluable work of reference. Three of the thematic threads constantly running through the book are: (1) scathing criticism of the horrible Hasina regime, her father Mujib’s rule, her politically domestic/ated crony former President Ershad, and the Trojan-horse betrayals by the infamous tetra Uddins–Moin-Fakhr-Masud-Iaz—of 1/11; (2) promotion of Bangladeshi Nationalism as opposed to Bengali Nationalism; and (3) a robust defense of Islam and Islamic culture over the Indian-backed and Hasina-blessed Hinduism and Hindutva in the name of God-less ultra-secularism of the name-only Muslims, who are misguided and deviated into being atheists, semi-atheists, half-atheists, quarter atheists, nonconformists and renegades.

All these thoughts and threads are remarkably in common with another two volumes, Bangladesh: A Divided Country (Peter Lang, 2018) and the forthcoming Bangladesh Divided, both, by Q M Jalal Khan. Both of these volumes are a loud and clear protest and a castigating criticism of the Hasina regime, its corruption and repression, its naked bias toward those notorious tetra Uddins, its disproportionate promotion of the minority and their culture and religion, its equal pushing and prompting of Islam-bashing God-less ultra-secularism, and its demotion of the right and patriotic concept of Bangladeshi Nationalism, distinctly different from its wrong idea of the colorfully but carelessly Indianized Bengali Nationalism. No matter how many times he used the word “rubbish” in unjustly dismissing and undermining others, Hasina’s former finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith was right in saying one thing and that is, in response to the hybrid Awami hullaballoo over A K Khandoker’s 1971: Inside and Out (2014), Maal Muhith said that the best way to counter or challenge a book was to write another book equally bright and brilliant, original and stimulating. That would be a far cry for the Awami camp and cohorts.

In the highly polarized Bangladesh of
“us” and “they/the other,” people of all classes and professions, including the media and the civil society, are sharply divided into two groups, many of them siding with the government for various reasons: money, power, position, favor, fear, coercion, intimidation, retaliation, and reprisal. All sectors have been so selfishly and self-destructively politicized that even the media sector to which a person of Mahmudur Rahman’s aura and intellect belongs was absolutely indifferent. When his only fault was that he spoke the widely known or perceived truth about the dubious and controversial function of the “Skype scandal” judiciary or that he published an investigative report about Sheikh Hasina’s son Joy and his business deals, why should the media, as powerful as it is, be held hostage to the Awami government? Or, why should the media support what was/is clearly wrong on the part of the government? Why should it play a blindly biased role at the expense of its own interest and freedom? It seems the media was/is involved in practicing partisan, if not outright yellow journalism. Many journalists talk big and talk tall on TV as if they are the standard bearers of objective, neutral and discriminating journalism, but they never dare to publish anything as critical of the autocratic and authoritarian Awami rule as it deserves. When we see a totally different picture in the free countries, why to talk big and talk tall on TV channels? Why not just stay put to the way of flattery and sycophancy? By handing Mahmudur jail sentences at least twice, the political and judicial authorities had in fact stifled free speech, as they continue to do so, which certainly bodes ill for the people of Bangladesh and can never augur well for any. 

Despite the fact that his talents and thoughts are of the kind that the country is certainly proud of, it is a shame that, except for a very few journalists, the media in Bangladesh was totally silent on the issue of Mahmudur Rahman’s physically crippling and dehumanizing jail sentences. Despite the fact that he was an independent-minded prisoner of conscience and an intellectual of the kind of originality that he had, most of the civil society were mute and mum. Was it because the shameful harassment of Mahmudur Rahman was just another shame added to thousands and millions inflicted on others by the regime and so the nation got used to suffering and absorbing shocking mountains of shame? Why didn’t the entire journalist community speak up and got united to preserve and uphold the interest of free speech and free flow of information? Well, this Awami-led government is not the only and last government of Bangladesh. There must be other governments to follow. So the media should always stand united for its own interest no matter which government, good or bad, is in power or voted to power.

No words can adequately describe the heinous atrocities, mean manipulations and macabre machinations of the present Awami government led by the dangerous dictator Hasina. No one can therefore be wholly dispassionate and disenchanted to be so-called “academic.” However, Mahmudur Rahman is amazingly able to maintain his cool and calm to objectively describe not only his own personal sufferings (which he limits to the minimum) but also the nation’s plight and predicament since it became independent in 1971, especially its tearing tribulations during the last Hasina decade. English author, courtier and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) said: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) said, “Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” In both instances, Mahmudur Rahman’s book belongs to the last category. His book is indeed a great read, in fact, a must read by the readers, researchers and scholars of Bangladeshi and South Asian origin and all the foreign/Western specialists on the region.  

Q M Jalal Khan, 25 January 2019

(This day in 1975 being the black Awami Bakshal Day that has returned in all its much uglier and blacker form over the course of the last ten years in Bangladesh).

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