As Bangladesh celebrates 50 years of independence, 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 his defamation in an effort to control the historical narrative, analysts say.
For Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, securing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s stature as an untouchable hero has significant political advantages, said Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science at Indiana University in the United States.
“Hasina codifies the position of Mujib who had been beaten in the previous one [opposition leader Khaleda Zia’s 2001-2006] diet. She codifies her father’s legacy, but also solidifies her own grip on the country – it can be done simultaneously, ”Ganguly told BenarNews.
“It happens because Hasina has an authoritarian bent. Khaleda – who is not an angel herself – is very ill, her BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] is rudderless, and Hasina nearly wiped it out. All the country’s institutions are compromised.
Mujib, the leader of the movement to liberate East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from West Pakistan (now Pakistan), is widely revered in Bangladesh.
He is considered the founding father of the country because he called for independence from West Pakistan on March 7, 1971. Bangladesh was born after winning a bloody nine-month war with West Pakistan on December 16, 1971. The Day is now commemorated as Victory Day.
After the war, Mujib was appointed head of government of Bangladesh. But he was murdered four years later by the military – along with his wife and six members of his family. The murders were quickly characterized as martyrdom.
While Mujib’s image may have taken a beating during the Khaleda years, Hasina more than made up for it, critics say. She made it a crime to denounce Mujib and, by extension, her family members, Ganguly said.
In many younger countries, “perceptions of independence and founding leaders can be very sensitive,” and criticizing them is often mistaken for anti-nationalism, Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, a group of reflection in Washington.
“For many in power, the opinion is that it is essential that the images of the founding leaders remain sacrosanct,” he said.
“In Bangladesh, it’s also a family affair.
This means “it is more dangerous” to voice dissent in Bangladesh today than ever before, Kugelman told BenarNews.
Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s director for South Asia, said Hasina thinks the only thing that should be allowed is to be praised for herself and her administration.
“There are things to praise, but civil society should point out the shortcomings as well,” HRW’s Ganguly told BenarNews.
BenarNews contacted the Bangladeshi Embassy in Washington for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, speaks with supporters at his home in Dhaka on March 14, 1971. [AP]
Maximum prison sentence of 14 years
Hasina’s go-to tool for silencing criticism of her government – and her father – is the Digital Security Act, which purportedly seeks to regulate digital communication.
The law allows the police to make arrests on suspicion and without a warrant. Fourteen of its 20 provisions do not allow release on bail, so when defendants are brought before a magistrate, they are almost automatically sent to jail.
In addition to imposing sanctions on those who injure religious sentiments or destroy religious harmony, the Digital Security Act also punishes “any kind of propaganda or campaign against the war of liberation, the spirit of the war of liberation. liberation, the father of the nation, the national anthem or the national flag “.
A person convicted of these offenses can face a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, or a fine of up to 10 million Bangladeshi taka (US $ 116,900), or both.
Essentially, the Digital Security Act was “designed to ensure that the government and Hasina are not criticized,” said Ganguly, a professor at Indiana University.
“Authorities don’t like criticism – Hasina and Khaleda share this tendency,” Ganguly said.
Today, there are hardly any opportunities to voice dissent, Kugelman said.
“In Bangladesh, where the space for free speech is shrinking, social media has remained the repository of dissent. So the state has turned its attention to that, ”he said.
“Laws like these are a pretext to repress the content they [leaders] just do not like.
BenarNews in Washington reached out to a high profile media source in Dhaka to comment on the issues, but declined, saying “So I can’t touch it at this time!” “
A rickshaw walks past a mural by the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in Dhaka on December 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 of an offense under the forerunner of the Digital Security Act, the Information and Communication Technology Act.
Malik, then a 27-year-old electronics store owner, was sentenced to seven years in prison for composing a song that parodied Hasina and Mujib, which a friend played on a loudspeaker.
Since then, official reverence for Hasina’s father has skyrocketed. Since 2020 – as the country marked the centenary of his birth – more than a thousand government-funded Mujib statues and murals have emerged across Bangladesh.
But two mayors – members of Hasina’s Awami League party – were recently ousted for allegedly disrespecting him.
The mayor of a Rajshahi municipality was arrested earlier this month under the digital security law 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 his skepticism last September that 3 million people were killed during the 1971 War of Independence.
Mujib himself gave this estimate for the war dead, during a trip to London, but it has since been called into question in a controversial 2011 delivered by an Oxford scholar who postulated that he meant maybe three lakh – or 300,000 – instead of three million. However, Bangladesh has never released an official report or census recording the number of people killed during the war against Pakistan.
Nonetheless, questioning the death toll is prohibited, said Ganguly, the HRW researcher, as part of a “retrieval of certain historical accounts” in the name of nationalism.
What would the founder of Bangladesh say about his daughter Hasina cracking down on free speech?
Ganguly of Indiana University said, “I doubt Mujib disagrees.”
“[F]or all the adulation of Mujib, he was not a Democrat. Towards the end of his term, he dissolved all political parties, ”said the professor.
“People like Mujib grew up in the melting pot of an authoritarian state, and Pakistan was also a corrupt state to begin with. “
Kugelman of the Wilson Center was more circumspect.
“Mujib was a strong supporter of independence and freedom, but I don’t know if that would have extended to freedom of civil liberties and freedom of expression,” he said.
“In many wars of liberation and independence movements… you have seen so-called Democrats who fought for independence to become despots themselves.