Hefazat-e-Islam amir Zunaid Babunagari addresses a press conference in Hathazari, Chatogram on 28 March 2021
Prothom Alo

In 2013, a massive rally and subsequently a day-night clash with police made Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh a much talked-about organisation in the country’s politics.

After eight years, the organisation has again caught public attention due to its fierce protest against the Indian prime minister’s visit to Bangladesh. However, this time, the Qawmi-madrasah-centric organisation is in tough crisis because of the government’s stern action against its leaders and activists.

Hefazat while waging protest on a 13-point demand tried to besiege the capital Dhaka on 5 May, 2013. Students and teachers of Qawmi madrasah from across the country thronged the Shapla Chattar. That very night, police succeeded in dispersing the agitating activists of Hefazat. But the government, for long since then, had not been showing harshness against the organisation.

Rather, the government developed a vibrant communication with the Islamist group and entertained several of their demands. But the Hefazat-led conflicts and death of 17 people while protesting against the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bangladesh visit has prompted the government to take strict measures against the protesters.

Currently, Hefazat-e-Islam is seemed cornered amid legal actions as well as political pressures by the government. Its organisational activities have become halted after the dissolution of the central committee.

Moreover, a crack dividing followers of Junaid Babunagri–ameer of the recently obsoleted committee (currently convener), and Hefazat’s founding ameer Shah Ahmed Shafi who died on 18 September last year–has been widening over the days. Members of the two fractions are maintaining communication with the government. In this context, discussions and analyses are rolling on by various sections of people about the leadership of Hefazat and its future.

Given the debates over Hefazat’s activities as well as its vulnerable position, Hefazat-related analysts said the activities of Hefazat may become weaker in the near future. It does not mean the activities of the madrasah-based religious group will come to a halt.

Rather, the analysts apprehend that the Islamist group may reorganise on a new issue under another name if Hefazat stops its function.

Hefazat leader Mamunul Haque
File Photo

However, researchers of madrasah-based education think there is no future of Hefazat. One certain university teacher and researcher, preferring to be anonymous, recently told Prothom Alo, Hefazat-e-Islam can be termed as a reactionary ineffective idealism. The one but 13 points of their demands have no logical ground.

Hefazat insiders have observed that a qualitative change in the top leadership of the organisation happened after the demise of Shah Ahmed Shafi.

Ahmed Shafi was a veteran Islamic scholar. Everyone admired him. No one raised voice against his decision even if they disliked it. But the situation has been changed, some Hefazat insiders said.

Some observers analysing Hefazat intensively say that divisions in the Hefazat’s leadership started developing a few months earlier of Shah Ahmed Shafi’s death. The rivalries became prominent amid a demonstration by students of Hathhazari Madrasah that eventually had forced the Hefazat founder to resign from the post of director general of the institution.

Hefazat’s policymaking is facing turmoil due to absence of guardianship as a number of its senior organisers have passed away in the last one and half year. Moreover, the controversies surrounding over Mamunul Haque, Hefazat’s former joint-secretary general, have made top leadership of the group questionable. The unusual situation appeared as a great blow to Hefazat and helped the government launch the anti-Hefazat campaign.

Islamic writer and researcher Sharif Muhammad, who closely observes Hefazat activities, recently told Prothom Alo, “The present generation students and teachers of madrasah are more active in exchanging their thoughts. They are skilled in modern communication media. Hence, the existence of Hefazat or changes in its leadership would not be the big factors. New banner would emerge.”

To protest against the government policy on women development in 2010, Hefazat-e-Islam was formed under the leadership of Hathhazari Madrasah director general Shah Ahmed Shafi. The organisation emerged with its 13-point demand. It became prominent in 2013 while taking to the streets against the Ganajagaran Mancha, a platform with its epicenter at Dhaka’s Shahbag. The platform demanded capital punishment of the 1971 Liberation War criminals.

On 5 May of 2013, Hefazat became a much-talked about organisation as it supporters locked into clashes with police while besieging the Shapla Chattar. The conflicting situation left 39 people dead on that very day and onward.

After that, Hefazat had good relations with the government till the death of Shah Ahmed Shafi. Many high officials including ministers and parliament members often called on Ahmed Shafi.

Some people concerned say that the government did not take the post-Shafi committee of Hefazat with Junaid Babunagari as its ameer easily. Because Babunagari was not in the government’s good book. Moreover, the reshuffled committee did not make room for some pro-government organisers. Ahmed Shafi’s son Anas Madani and his goons were aggrieved of the newly formed committee.

Presently, some organisers including Hefazat’s former joint secretary general Mainuddin Ruhee have become active to bring change in the Babunagari-led committee.

On 4 May, Ruhee told Prothom Alo, “Hefazat’s future would be bleak if the orgasation derails from ideals of Allama Shafi.”

Some organisers of Hefazat including Mainuddin Ruhee, another former joint secretary general mufti Faizullah, former assistant secretary general Hasanat Amini and Altaf Hussain called on home minister Asaduzzaman Khan at his home on 2 May. Through the meeting with the home minister, the importance of this faction of Hefazat becomes visible.

Five top leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam are waiting before entering home minister Asaduzzaman Khan's official residence in Dhanmondi at around 9:20pm on 4 May, 2021.
Prothom Alo

Talking about the meeting, Mainuddin Ruhee said, “We talked about Islami Oikya Jote. Besides, we requested the home minister not to harass any innocent Islamic teachers and madrassa students during in the Ramadan.”

On 4 May evening, a team of Hefazat organisers including member secretary Nurul Haque Jihadi also met the home minister.

Hefazat related people think that the government may develop a rift among the Hefazat organisers, even if it fails to take full control over them.

But the outcome is still unpredictable. Analysts have expressed concern that the ongoing legal actions against Hefazat organisers would politicise the new generation madrasah students more.

* This report appeared on the online and print editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman