Islamist parties have started an agitation against installation of a statue of the country’s founding father, ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, at Dholaipar in the southern suburbs of Dhaka.

Police have so far controlled the agitation by dispersing protest rallies by Islamist groups, who have also taken to streets in protest against the French government’s handling of radical Islamists.

But the agitation has embarrassed the Awami League, specially because some of the Islamist groups now involved in the agitation have been courted by the ruling party as a counter-weight against Jamaat-e-Islami.

The Jamaat supported the cause of ‘united Pakistan’ and opposed the war of independence, its activists joining Pakistani troops in perpetrating torture, murder and rape on a large-scale against pro-liberation elements and religious minorities.

Since democracy returned to Bangladesh in 1990, the Jamaat has been an ally of Awami League‘s principal Opposition, Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

The Awami League has courted Islamist groups like the Hifazat-e-Islami and Khilafat-e-Majlish, even signing an MoU with the latter for creating a political alliance against the BNP-Jamaat coalition in Jan 2006.

After facing severe criticism within the party from the party rank and file and  leaders who adhere to secular values, Sheikh Hasina scrapped the alliance saying it was a ‘temporary move to combat some communal forces.’

Though the Hifazat is not a party but an Islamist advocacy group of clerics and madrassah teachers, Hasina’s address on their platform before the 2019 parliament elections resurrected chances of a covert link between this group and the ruling party.

The Hifazat, which wants women denied higher education (‘nothing beyond Class 4’), spearheaded the recent protest rallies outside Dhaka’s French embassy.

“The ruling party’s approach to radical Islamists has emboldened them to dare challenge even the installation of the Mujib statue at Dholaipar. Pandering to soft Islam will only embolden hardline Islamists, specially if they are not challenged,” said Bangladesh watcher Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, author of ‘Midnight Massacre’, an account of the 1975 coup that killed Mujib with much of his family.

Some Awami League leaders like Deputy Education Minister Mohibul Hassan Chowdhury of Chittagong have warned the Islamists to desist from ‘creating chaos in the country or bargain for broken necks’.

But the ruling party is yet to formally come out with its stand on the Mujib statue issue.

Strangely, a fringe Muslim group in West Bengal had demanded in 2017 the removal of a bust of “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from a hostel in Maulana Azad College in Kolkata hostel, whose inauguration was attended by diplomats from the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission.

The protests started just before Sheikh Hasina’s India visit that year.

Terming the statue “unethical and anti-Islamic”, the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation (ABMYF) had opposed the statue at the government-run Baker hostel.

The group had said the hostel is meant for Muslim students and since it has a mosque in its premises, such a statue could not be allowed in an “Islamic atmosphere”.

The 110-year-old hostel, located in central Kolkata was home to the great leader between 1945 and 1946 when he was a student at the erstwhile Islamia college in Kolkata.

In 1998, the then Left Front government in the state had converted his room on the third floor of the hostel into a memorial and alter a white marble statue of Bangabandhu was also installed.

“We are religious people. It is our free right to follow our religion as per the Indian Constitution. We cannot read Namaz and also install statues at the same place. It is defiling to our religion,” claimed Md. Quamruzzaman, general secretary of the minority body.

“No Muslim institutions have statues inside them. Aligarh Muslim University was built by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan but his statue was never installed at the university,” he argued.

Two months after the Islamist outcry in Calcutta, their blood brothers in Bangladesh started a massive protest demanding dismantling of the statue of a Greek Goddess from the premises of the country’s Supreme Court complex in Dhaka.

The sculpture of Themis – the goddess of justice – wearing a sari was less than six months old, but Islamist groups demanded its removal, claiming it hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.

PM Sheikh Hasina agreed to its removal, but secular groups opposed it.

Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader said this week that the party was discussing the whole issue in detail.

Statues of Bangladesh’s tallest leader have been installed before (in Raojan, Chittagong) or are in the process of being erected (a 100-feet statue at Chaudanga sculpted by Mrinal Haque).

“Conceding to the Islamist demand of stopping the installation of the Mujib statue at Dholaipar will be a huge political defeat for the Awami League, specially during the birth centenary of the great leader and a year before the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence,” said Sukhoranjan Dasgupta.

“It will also send a very wrong message to the party’s rank and file and undermine the Awami League’s avowed politics of secularism,” he said.

A spokesman for the agitation, Emir of Islamic Andolan Rezaul Islam Karim has said “a statue is unacceptable in Islam.”

“For us, a statue is a statue, we are not bothered if some see it as a work of sculpture,” he told BBC this week.

This agitation coincides with a death threat issued against Bangladesh’s cricket hero Shakib Al Hassan for ‘inaugurating a Kali Puja’ in Kolkata.

But the organisers of that Kali Puja have denied Shakib inaugurated the Puja and said he ‘only lighted the lamp’  along with Bengal minister Firhad Hakim and an official from the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: sbhaum@gmail.com