Bangladesh: Textbook Pandemonium – An uptick of the old faultline?


by M Rashiduzzaman | 5 March 2023

A file photo shows students running out of classroom with new textbooks in Munshiganj. — New Age/Sourav Lasker

THE recent burst of complaints and the street uproar against the alleged marginalisation of Muslim sensitivities and a handful of palpable errors in the school textbooks catapulted the National Curriculum and Textbook Board in the hostile deadlock between the sparring Hefazat-e-Islam and the liberal intellectuals, along with their allies, threatening the board not to yield to the orthodox Islamist protesters. Bangladesh is familiar with the cacophony of voices between the secularists and the Islamists. But it is, too, soon to forget the bloody end of the confrontation between the multitudes of madrassah students and the police in 2013.

Such an emotionally charged conflict could not have come at a worse time, politically speaking, barely a year before the next elections. Beyond the familiar secular/liberal versus Islam hostility, Bangladesh’s so-called ‘Islamic vote block’ presumably spreads between 5 and 10 percentage points of the voters depending on the estimators,  the time, politics and the geo-location of the constituencies. Given the circumstances, the secular political actors and their intellectual partners worry that the government may favour the Islamists in their deal over the conflict. Much to the dismay of liberal outfits, it is hard for the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, to impose a political decapitation on the ulema prior to the anticipated national election in the not-so-distant future.

An ad hoc pledge, however, will not decisively settle the larger secular versus Islamist wrangles that periodically sweep through the university campuses, intellectual forums and the political corridors. Bangladesh is yet to come to terms with its identity row and its history bifurcated by claims and counter-crimes over who did what in the past. No single party/group or a leader should carry the key to unlock history and use it to the exclusive advantage of a party or an intellectual group. The obdurate encounters between the liberals and the religious right usually creep into historical writings, fatwa giving rights and what the education boards offer as the social studies primers. We know it only when the row bursts out in the open.

While the elite and most of the prior regimes were secular over the past half a century since 1971, the bulk of civil society is still religious and sensitive about the Muslim rituals and history, often sidelined since the early years of Bangladesh. The ruling Awami League occupied the vantage ground to dictate history multiple times and it owns the unyielding controversy over the country’s identity and the historiographical faultlines since 1971.

Controversies over the schoolbook allude to the sneaky trajectory for portraying Islam as a backward and fanatical faith unable to accept modern science and knowledge — this perception, however, is not validated by the larger Muslim world’s intellectual and civilisational accomplishments of the yore. A dash of the orientalist distrust of the Muslim ascendancy has become the habit of those, including a bunch of academics, who consistently censure the intermittent Muslim petulance as the storm of zealotry. Such stories that intermittently rock Bangladesh feature the ‘liberal/secular versus Muslim identity, faith and culture’ conflict in the country — the defining veracity of Bangladesh politics even after five decades of its independence.

In Bangladesh, history is often not what the professional historians validate but what the partisan ideologues discourse and what the media and the liberal intellectuals imprint. The ulema, the time-honoured Islamic explicators, habitually protest at the avowed relegation of Islam, but their old podium of influence has eroded under political antagonism and random judicial intervention over their ancient fatwa-giving claims. And yet, the partisan chronicle is only the winners’ first waft of history waiting for a swap.

Without the political will and skilful negotiations between the liberals and secularists, on the one end, and the religious right, on the other, the ‘culture wars’ would not easily reconcile and, in the interim, the hostilities haunt civil society and the political horizon. For such emotionally electrifying issues, the judicial verdicts on religious and cultural matters are exploited by the politicians to silence their opponents. It is easy to recall the bloody confrontations between the Islamists and the police following the court verdicts over religiously sensitive questions. Law enforcement authorities are too vulnerable on such poignant questions about what the students should or should not read.

Bengali nationalism became the new-fangled temporal anchor of post-independence Bangladesh; to many, it was politically correct to posture a non-religious identity imagination since former East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan, based on separate Muslim nationalism. However, Bangladesh was the same geographical and demographic swathe as of former East Pakistan. Modern national consciousness is itself fungible — the old legacies do not easily banish with the political transition of a territory. Historically, political discourses in South Asia have been greatly influenced by religious haulage — even India, the largest constitutionally secular democracy has taken a dizzying turn towards the Hindutva doctrine of intolerance to the religious minorities.

The Awami League bounds the Bangladeshis more on the linguistic estuary of Bangladesh and the Bangla-speaking people of West Bengal and the neighbouring areas in India. In the post-1975 era, president Ziaur Rahman defined Bangladeshi nationalism with a blend of both Muslim identity and the linguistic distinctiveness — a middle path between aggressive non-religious outlets and the Muslim identity believers. Partly, it was a response to the growing plea to return to the old Muslim traditions, practices and sensitivities largely cast aside in the new state from 1972 to 1975.

History, imagined by a party or by a few parties or by a group of ideologues and sponsored by their reversed textbooks, undermines national blending and, more dangerously, the revised history becomes a political machete against the rivals in the battle for state power. It is better to have a fusion of narratives in schoolbooks subject to peer reviews — the Bangladeshi students deserve a broader education prodded by modern science. Most Islamically-inclined parties and their leaders as well as the Islamic scholars have, from time to time, charged that the liberal intellectuals and the secular parties have deliberately undermined Muslim history and the Islamic traditions in Bangladesh under the pretence of offering a state-of-the-art education.

The Awami League’s tenuous synthesis of nationalism, a single-party hegemony and the trimmings of ‘illiberal democracy’ brought uncompromising hostility between the political adversaries — the explosive mixture conflicted the Bangladeshi historical and ideological landscapes. Many of the Awami League’s post-I971 reified calls were not amongst its historically verified edicts of the past. The old Awami League’s shift into BKSAL’s single party bids, however, suffered a shattering setback after the fierce coup in 1975 that brought an era of depoliticisation under the civilian-military coalitions of General Ziaur Rahman and General HM Ershad. While both Zia and Ershad veered toward Islam and Muslim identity for mounting their political base, they did not plan to make Bangladesh an Islamic state in the line with Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan.

Zoomed by recurring protests over textbooks, fatwa-giving rights, contentious Islam-taunting writers, pitched battles between the opponents over the alleged downgrading of Islamic customs and Muslim history, a few substantive lessons surely follow: (a) the secession from Pakistan did not alter the reality that Bangladesh is still a Muslim-majority nation where the Muslim consciousness did not wither away as a social and political force; (b) by rebuffing the public presentation of Islam, the bellicose secular demeanour likewise disavowed the grass-roots vibrations and political diversity, essential in a democracy; (c) the Islamic movements, of one kind or the other, could continue its presence in politics and civil society even while it might endure outside the state power and patronages; and (d) disproportionate pressure of non-religious ideologies divides society as much as it happens in an orthodox religious state.

The reassertion of Islamic sensibilities and the omnipresence of Muslim consciousness in a non-Arab Muslim majority nation, as I surmised in my “The Liberals and the Religious Right in Bangladesh,” — Asian Survey, University of California Press, November 1994 — deserves a serious understanding than its spiteful dismissal as an unscrupulous practice of Islam by the stagnant community of the mullahs. The disputes over the textbooks, the role of the madrasshas, anti-fatwa rhetoric and the interdiction against the Islam-oriented parties and their leaders allude that the standoff between the liberals and the religious right is far from over in Bangladesh.

Indeed, the narrative structure of Bangladesh history and identity should be flexible and willing to accommodate the array of the political and cultural bequests including the sentiments, customs and beliefs built around the variety of faiths and their assorted ways. Let professional historians and the religious scholars work together outside political manipulation and the bureaucratic paradigms and salvage the multi-layered Bangladeshi historiography and identity inspiration from the blackhole of political vindictiveness, one-sided mythology, invented claims and contentions, and self-righteousness, time and again, flaunted by unproven charges, vendetta, and the welter of motivated allegations.


M Rashiduzzaman, a retired academic, writes from New Jersey.

The article appeared in the New Age Bangladesh