Bangladesh's self-defeating 'sculpture politics': Who gains?

Many people want to know why the ruling Awami League is perpetuating this "sculpture politics". Why is this issue being given so much importance so as to forget the numerous other challenges Bangladesh is facing? writes Akmal Hossain for South Asia Monitor

Akmal Hossain Dec 14, 2020

Bangladeshis, without hesitation, are facing a new challenge on installing a statue of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is popularly known as Bangabandhu, the founding father of independent Bangladesh. The debate is raging not only in the mainstream media but also in social media. This dispute has undoubtedly divided the entire nation into two main groups – secularists and hardline Islamists.

Bangladesh became an independent nation in 1971 through an unprecedented bloodshed war against erstwhile West Pakistan that left millions dead. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a towering leader of the Bangladesh liberation war, under whose charge the constitution for the new nation was written, consists of four fundamental governing principles. According to Article 8 of Bangladesh Constitution, the principles of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism are fundamental principles of state policy.

Religion - a tool for politicians

Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, every government and political party has used religion to legitimate its power and prolonging its rule. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Awami League - Bangladesh’s two major political parties - have always exploited religion to seize ballot boxes in elections. Even, those who dub themselves as nationalists and secularists start their political campaigns by visiting religious places, especially Shah Jalal Dargah, the shrine and burial place of the 14th-century Muslim saint Shah Jalal, located in Sylhet, Bangladesh.

The fight between Islamists and secularists is never-ending. But the differences between them have come to the fore on the question of installing the statue of Bangabandhu. Both groups claim they are right. While the secularists argue that Bangladesh separated from Pakistan due to Bengali nationalism that holds secular principles dear to their heart, the Islamists religious groups maintain that any  statue, sculpture or deification of a personality is forbidden in Islam. As Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, they argue, installing any statue, even it’s of Bangabandhu, should not be allowed.

Bangladesh facing numerous challenges

Many people want to know why the ruling Awami League is perpetuating this "sculpture politics". Why is this issue being given so much importance so as to forget the numerous other challenges Bangladesh is facing? Bangladesh is still an underdeveloped country and faces many political, economic, and geopolitical challenges. What is happening in these areas to mitigate the problems of the people? The political challenges that the country is facing now are politicization of political institutions; extra-judicial killings and political harassment, and diminishing of political and civil liberties.

The economic problems like unprecedented corruption; wasting money on development projects; so-called foreign tours in the name of training of bureaucrats never become issues for debates, though it is affecting the economic growth of the country. Bangladesh, according to many economists and political scientists have fallen prey to crony capitalism where corruption takes place in every public office, it not all.

Millions of people are struggling to make their ends meet. Thousands have lost their jobs due to the raging COVID-19 and they are depressed about their future. They do not know what they will do and how. Millions of students have been confined to their homes due to the pandemic. While markets, offices, and other institutions are open, only educational institutions are close, jeopardizing the future of students.

Sculpture politics

Now let’s ask ourselves how will Awami League benefit from what in Bangladesh is known as "sculpture politics". Firstly, from this agitation, the government is trying to hide its multiple failures. Both Islamists religious groups and secularists are only talking and focusing on the issue of installing sculpture/statue of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They are giving arguments and counter-arguments but not taking up more important political and economic issues. This benefits the government.

Secondly, the sculpture debate divides the nations into two categories. This divide and rule policy was seen during the British period when they had divided the subcontinent between Muslims and Hindus. Awami League is using the same trick to rule the country as the British did in India before it became independent in 1947. 

Thirdly, as the founder of Communism, Karl Marx said: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Islamists, it seems are not aware of ordinary citizens' problems. Any religious issue is their top priority but they seem to be unaware of any public issue that affects the lives of all.

Last but not the least, the question is have the Islamists become a threat to Awami League and the secularists? It is difficult to say. The reason is that Hefajat-e Islam – which started the anti-sculpture movement - is an important ally of the ruling party. They have a give and take relationship. Besides, most of the religious groups have an affiliation - which may be strong or weak - with the Awami League. 

Also, the ruling party it seems is sympathetic towards Chormonai Pir, a Deobandi Islamic scholar, politician, and religious speaker, and his political party, Islami Andolan Bangladesh, which is vehemently against the installation of the statues and has held many protests on the issue. The Awami League needs them and uses them to send Jamaat-e-Islami - the largest Islamist political party in the country - a clear message. Jamaat, of course, faces extreme challenges to survive under the ruling government as they are an ally of Awami League's principal opposition, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

The Awami League is playing with fire on "sculpture politics". They are in alliance with some of these Islamist groups and could have easily doused the flames. But so far they have been silent. We have to wait and see how this political game plays out in Bangladesh. 

(The writer is an independent researcher with interest in religion and politics. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted  

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