50 Years After Independence, History is a Risky Subject in Bangladesh

Shailaja Neelakantan
50 Years After Independence, History is a Risky Subject in Bangladesh Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives at a cricket match between India and Bangladesh at The Eden Gardens cricket stadium in Kolkata, India, Nov. 22, 2019.

As Bangladesh marks 50 years of nationhood, it has become increasingly dangerous to speak freely about its founder, as the government led by his daughter has put in place strict laws against defaming him in an effort to control the historical narrative, analysts say.

For Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, ensuring Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s stature as an untouchable hero has important political benefits, said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University in the United States.

“Hasina is codifying Mujib’s standing that had been battered in the previous [opposition leader Khaleda Zia’s 2001-2006] regime. She is codifying her father’s legacy, but also consolidating her own grip on the country – these can be done simultaneously,” Ganguly told BenarNews.

“This is happening because Hasina has an authoritarian bent. Khaleda – who is no angel herself – is very ill, her BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] is rudderless, and Hasina has almost decimated it. All the institutions in the country are compromised.”

Mujib, the leader of the movement to free East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from West Pakistan (now Pakistan), is by and large venerated in Bangladesh.

He is considered the country’s founding father, as he called for independence from West Pakistan on March 7, 1971. Bangladesh was born after it won a bloody nine-month war with West Pakistan on Dec. 16, 1971. The day is now commemorated as Victory Day.

After the war, Mujib was named Bangladesh’s head of government. But he was assassinated four years later by members of the military – along with his wife and six members of his family. The murders were soon dubbed a martyrdom.

While Mujib’s image may have taken a beating during the Khaleda years, Hasina has more than made up for that, critics say. She has made it a crime to speak out against Mujib, and by extension, members of his family, Ganguly said.

In many younger countries, “the perceptions of independence and founding leaders can be very sensitive,” and criticizing them is often conflated with anti-nationalism, Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, a think-tank in Washington.

“For many in power, the view is that it is critical that images of founding leaders remain sacrosanct,” he said.

“In Bangladesh it also happens to be a family matter.”

This means “it is more dangerous” to express dissent in Bangladesh today than ever before, Kugelman told BenarNews.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Hasina believes the only thing that should be permitted is praise for her and her administration.

“There are things to praise, but civil society should also point to shortcomings,” HRW’s Ganguly told BenarNews.

BenarNews contacted the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington for comment, but did not immediately hear back.


Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding father, talks with followers in his home in Dhaka, March 14, 1971. [AP]

Maximum prison sentence of 14 years

Hasina’s instrument of choice to muzzle critics of her government – and her father – is the Digital Security Act, which is purportedly aimed at regulating digital communication.

The act empowers police to make arrests on suspicion and without a warrant. Fourteen of its 20 provisions do not allow for bail, so when those accused are brought before a magistrate, they almost automatically are sent to jail.

In addition to mandating punishment for those who hurt religious sentiments or destroy religious harmony, the Digital Security Act also punishes “any kind of propaganda or campaign against liberation war, spirit of liberation war, father of the nation, national anthem or national flag.”

A person convicted of those offenses can face a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, or a fine of up to 10 million Bangladeshi taka (U.S. $116,900), or both.

Essentially, the Digital Security Act was “designed to ensure the government and Hasina were not criticized,” said Ganguly, the Indiana University professor.

“Authoritarians don’t like criticism – Hasina and Khaleda share this tendency,” Ganguly said.

Today, there are hardly any avenues left for voicing dissent, Kugelman said.

“In Bangladesh, where space for free speech is shrinking, social media remained the repository for dissent. So the state turned its attention to that,” he said.

“Laws like these are a pretext for crackdowns on content they [leaders] simply don’t like.”

BenarNews in Washington reached out to a senior media source in Dhaka to comment on these issues, but he declined, saying “I so can’t touch this right now!”


A rickshaw puller pedals past a mural of Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in Dhaka, Dec. 1, 2021. [AFP]

Arrested for a song, and skepticism

Take the case of Tonmoy Malik from the southern district of Khulna, who was convicted in September 2014 for an offense under the Digital Security Act’s precursor, the Information and Communication Technology Act.

Malik, then a 27-year-old electronics shop owner, was sentenced to seven years in prison for composing a song that parodied Hasina and Mujib, which a friend played over a loudspeaker.

Since then, official veneration of Hasina’s father has soared. Since 2020 – as the country marked the centennial of his birth – more than a thousand government-funded statues and murals of Mujib have sprung up all over Bangladesh.

But two mayors – members of Hasina’s Awami League party – were recently ousted for allegedly disrespecting him.

The mayor of a municipality in Rajshahi was arrested earlier this month under the Digital Security Act for saying that creating a mural of Mujib was not allowed under Islamic law. He is in prison awaiting prosecution.

Last month, the mayor of Gazipur was suspended for expressing skepticism, back in September, that 3 million people were killed during the 1971 war of independence.

Mujib himself gave that estimate for the war dead, during a trip to London, but it has since been questioned in a controversial 2011 book by an Oxford academic who posited that he may have meant to say three lakh – or 300,000 – instead of three million. However, Bangladesh has never published an official report or census recording how many people in fact were killed during the war against Pakistan.

Nonetheless, questioning the death toll is off limits, said Ganguly, the HRW researcher, as part of a “reclaiming of certain historical narratives” in the name of nationalism.

Mujib ‘no democrat’

What would Bangladesh’s founder say about his daughter Hasina clamping down on free speech?

Ganguly of Indiana University said: “I doubt Mujib would disapprove.”

“[F]or all the adulation of Mujib, he was no democrat. Towards the end of his tenure, he dissolved all political parties,” the professor said.

“People like Mujib grew up in the crucible of an authoritarian state, and Pakistan was also a corrupt state to begin with.”

The Wilson Center’s Kugelman was more circumspect.

“Mujib was a strong proponent of independence and freedom, but I don’t know whether that would have extended to freedom for civil liberties and freedom of speech,” he said.

“In many wars of liberation and independence movements … you have seen purported democrats who fought for independence only to become despots themselves.”


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Dec 17, 2021 11:49 PM

The state of Bangladesh has perfectly become a champion in corruptions in any way