In this new year, with a new elected government in power, I feel the dream that gave birth to the nation called Bangladesh is shattered. It is because of the Islamic fundamentalists, the war criminals, who had to hide at the time of the independence of Bangladesh in 1971; and who now, with the help of short-sighted politicians have raised their heads to turn this new country into an Islamic fundamentalist country.

Over the years, many lost all hope for this country. Just when everything looked so dark, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League have emerged with an immense majority in the recently concluded Bangladesh parliamentary polls.

The rise of the Awami League created new hope among the people of Bangladesh, who want to be freed from the clutches of the fundamentalists. After all, the Awami League is a political party that is in favour of secular principles and has a rich legacy of being involved in the creation of this nation.

In the past, however, the Awami League joined hands with the Islamic hardliners and took no steps against the War Criminals, despite giving assurances to do so; this raised doubts whether people should expect very much from it. But with the nation hit by political uncertainties, and with the people having lost all confidence in other political parties, they decided this time to vote for Awami League.

I believe that the Awami League would not have polled so many votes had the people not arisen against the War Criminals (read Islamic fundamentalists), and the fact that the elections were held this December, the month in which Bangladesh became a nation, reminding the people of the great role that the Awami League played in its liberation.

In the absence of a progressive political party in Bangladesh, Awami League is a secular, progressive and anti-fundamentalist force. It was another matter, however, that when it came to power in 1996, it did nothing to check the sway of the Islamic fundamentalists in the country. The coming of Awami League and Sheikh Hasina has created mixed feelings: we wonder if in the coming days it will correct the mistakes it made in the past.

In 2006, when the nation was battered by violence, religious fundamentalism, and terrorism, it was Sheikh Hasina who could have brought the nation back to order by championing secularism, by stopping the flourishing of madrassas, the Islamic religious schools, and by preventing the Islamic fanatics from issuing fatwas.

But the people were shocked when Hasina, much to their anger and dismay, announced that she would give authority to the clerics to issue fatwas; give college and university status to the madrassas; to enact the blasphemy law; and would go all out to turn the Republic of Bangladesh into an Islamic State. People could not believe their ears

Here is an interesting point: In 1993, the Sylhet-based, fundamentalist Habibur Rahman, who issued a fatwa against me and set a price on my head, was a candidate of the Awami League. Also, one cannot so easily forget that in those days it was Hasina who joined hands with the leader of an Islamic force, Shaikhul Hadis, who excels in spreading religious terror.

In the past, the Awami League has not lived up to its image as a progressive and a secular political party. I find hardly any difference from their thinking in the past to that of the Islamic outfits in electoral fray of Bangladesh. It appears that in ideological and moral terms, there is hardly any difference between political parties like the Awami League, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), Jamaat-e-Islami and the United Islamic Force.

The past activities of the Awami League and the others have proven that it is not necessary for Islamic parties to come to power to unleash fundamentalism in Bangladesh: their dreams are completely fulfilled by Awami League and the BNP whenever they have captured power through democratic means.

Has Hasina taken any action against the Islamic fundamentalists? Has she taken steps to enlighten people blinded and confused by religion? The leaders of her political party, like all other political parties, are competing with each other to show how religious they are. Has anyone thought where all this would lead to?

We understand that politicians play the religious card to hold onto power, but what about the common people who suffer the most? It is the women who face the brunt of the religious bigotry. With religion, instead national secular laws interfering in every aspect of their lives, they end up being exploited the most.

Islamic bigotry restricts women’s rights while giving all privileges to men. Women are forced into child marriage. Men enjoy polygamy; women are stoned to death on charges of adultery. Women call down the wrath of their husbands if they do not wear burqas, and they find themselves on the street at the whim of their husbands who show them the door by uttering talaq (divorce) thrice. Their condition of health, education, employment and freedom is furthermore pathetic. They are slaves leading a life of imprisonment - all because the religion does not want them to be better off.

However, this time, after Sheikh Hasina has taken the oath of Prime Minister, the ministry that she has formed has given me some hope. Shifting away for the first time from accommodating the fundamentalists, it is women who have been appointed to some of the most important ministerial portfolios: home, foreign, agriculture, labor and employment. And, of course, we have a woman prime minister.

But the most urgent question is: will Hasina get rid of the religion-based laws flourishing in Bangladesh and replace them with a uniform civil code that is based on equality? It is to be seen whether the very ideals of the liberation war that catapulted Hasina to power this time will be reflected in the adoption of secular principles of the constitution of the country. People should also watch keenly whether she will be able to check the fundamentalist forces and take action against the War Criminals.

I believe that if Hasina remains passive on these counts, next time people will not vote for her. If she fails to act, people will then bring the BNP back to power again. It is a vicious cycle - - if the BNP once again damages the fibre of the nation, people will then give the Awami League another chance. But neither the people nor the nation gains anything. It will be a journey from one failure to another.

This situation might continue unless we get somebody like Kamal Ataturk of Turkey, who could free the nation from the grip of the fundamentalists, secularize the state, and bring about major social and political reforms. But at present, there is no such person in sight, so we have to hope that Sheikh Hasina will bring about all the urgent changes that Bangladesh deserves. If the Awami League is uncompromisingly able to uphold the principles of The War of Independence - democracy, socialism, secularism and Bengali nationalism - it would set an example for the other nations of the Indian Subcontinent.

We need courageous leaders in our country, devastated by religion. Awami League is not behind in the race of using religion to obtain votes from ignorant masses. I am just hoping, with lot of skepticism, that the new government will be able to wage a war against corruption and poor administration, and bring back peace to our troubled Bangladesh. I hope Awami League will not be short-sighted, will not build madrassas and Mosques, which are the factories of the fundamentalists. I hope it will find the courage needed to put an end to the fundamentalist movement.

But will this happen? The problem is there is lots of popular support for the struggle against fundamentalists, but if this new government will go mad to show its love for religion, who will criticize them? No one has the courage to be accused of “blasphemy.” If there is no control of religion, fundamentalism will grow.

The coming of Sheikh Hasina’s regime has a special significance. It was her government that banned my book 'My Girlhood'; it was her government that refused to grant me permission to enter the country when my mother was dying, and it was her government that stopped me from seeing my father in his final days.

Will this new Awami League Government allow me to enter my country and settle in my homeland? I hope it will. For, if it does not give me permission to return to Bangladesh, this will mean that it has succumbed to the pressures of the fundamentalists and will continue its policy of appeasing Muslims. It will also mean that there will be no ray of hope or sunshine in new Bangladesh; it will remain a dark nation where freedom of expression has no place.

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