For Bangladesh's ruling party, the "more you hate Pakistan, the more you will love Bangladesh."
On November 25, a court in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka received a rather unusual lawsuit from a man named Mohammad Al Mamun. In it, Mamun had named each member of the Pakistani cricket squad, who had come to Bangladesh to play a T20 and a test series.
In the lawsuit, Mamun accused the Pakistani players of hurting the national sentiment of Bangladesh by hoisting the flag of Pakistan in Bangladesh's Mirpur cricket ground during their practice sessions.
For Mamun, the flag hoisting was a “nasty political move” made by the cricketers at a time when Bangladesh was celebrating its 50th year of independence from Pakistan.
Once called East Pakistan, Bangladesh separated from West Pakistan after fighting a bloody nine-month war in 1971. The violence ordinary people suffered from during the war has left a deep psychological mark on almost every Bangladeshi. It's a deeply emotional and sensitive subject for the younger generation as well, and much of the country still demands an apology from Pakistan for the atrocities its army had committed during the war.
The anti-Pakistan sentiment in Bangladesh has increased manifold in the last decade, especially because the Awami League (AL) party, which played a pivotal role in winning the country's independence, has been in power since 2009. The party has manufactured several anti-Pakistan narratives to dominate the national discourse and earn political dividends out of them.
Mamun, the man who took the Pakistani cricket team to court, is the secretary-general of Muktijuddho Muncha, an organization that champions the cause of Bangladesh's freedom fighters and claims to be run by their descendants. The group is also linked to the ruling AL party.
His move against the archrival's team however didn't bear any fruit as the lawsuit couldn’t stand the test of the Bangladeshi judiciary.
But the controversy generated a wider debate in society. While some say Pakistan intended to send a “political message” by hoisting the flag on Bangladeshi oil, others countered saying there's nothing unusual in the act as Pakistan's cricket team has been hoisting the national flag during practice sessions for the past two months.
As per news reports, the team's coach Saqlain Mushtaq introduced the practice of hoisting the flag during the training sessions to boost the team's morale.
But the controversy refused to subside as a new dimension emerged in the country. A significant number of Bangladeshi people were seen wearing Pakistani cricket jerseys and waving Pakistani flags in the stadium during the T20 matches. This rather unprecedented support the rival team received in Bangladesh made Pakistani batsman Fakhar Zaman believe that they were playing “home” matches rather than “away” ones.
Religion and fanbase
Dhaka-based sports journalist AHM Nayeem explained why a lot of Bangladeshis support Pakistan despite the two countries sharing a troubled past.
Nayeem said that the Bangladeshi cricket team wasn't competitive enough in the decade of the 90s and Bangladeshis largely supported the teams of either India or Pakistan. Since Pakistan had the upper hand over India on the cricket field, Nayeem said many Bangladeshis idolised the star players of Pakistan in the 1990s.
Religion played a key role as well. As the majority of people in Bangladesh and Pakistan practice Islam, many Bangladeshis supported the Pakistani cricket team on religious grounds.
Nayeem said a significant number of Sri Lankan Muslims have supported the Pakistani team even during their matches against the Sri Lankan team.
But this time, spotting Bangladeshis wearing Pakistani jerseys triggered outrage in the country. Researcher and political analyst Mohammad A Arafat said a Bangladeshi displaying his love for Pakistan's cricket team should be seen as treason.
“During the 1971 war, there were a good number of Bangladeshi collaborators who aided the Pakistani army. We call them ‘Razakar’. The legacy of Razakars is not lost in Bangladesh. There are still people who don’t believe in our liberation war and possess love towards Pakistan. We have seen how they support Pakistan during the cricket matches,” said Arafat.
As the controversy gained heat, things turned violent during one of the games. Some of the fans wearing Pakistani jerseys in the stadium were manhandled and forced to take them off. Some of them were beaten and forced to chant “Joy Bangla” (Victory to Bengal).
Bangladesh’s war minister said he will take legal measures against any Bangladeshi national seen in a Pakistani jersey or waving the Pakistani national flag.
Popular Bangladeshi social media commentator Asif Shibgat Bhuiyah told TRT World that the recent controversy basically pivots around the point that whether one's choice to support a team can be suppressed by political righteousness. “The answer is it can't and shouldn't be,” said Bhuiyah.
He said people can choose their sports predilection based on all sorts of factors, whether those factors are political or not.
“Someone can only advise others how to take a side on sports and based on what factors but can't shove that idea down others' throats. Whether sports should be mixed with politics or not is immaterial and to answer the question of whether it is possible to keep sports from the mix of politics, I seriously doubt it,” he said.
Talking with TRT World, sports journalist Shaquib Ahmed said, the manner in which Muslims in India are beaten up by Hindutva vigilantes and forced to chant “Jai Sri Ram”, Bangladeshis supporting Pakistan were harassed by a group stirred up by Bengali jingoism and forced to shout “Joy Bangla” as a proof of their loyalty to Bangladesh.
“This jingoistic attitude spilling over into outright fascism is reflective of how the authoritarian regime of AL led by Sheikh Hasina deals with dissent and criticism. Any criticism of the government’s corruption, graft, or glaring mismanagement is perceived as a direct assault on the state by the ruling elites and their flunkey followers,” said Ahmed.
He said if someone especially from opposing camp dares to speak up against the government’s misrule, they are quickly labelled as a “Pakistani collaborator (Razakar)”, “Pro-Pakistani” and marked out for being an antithesis to their “Muktijuddher Chetona” or the spirit of the Liberation War.
“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is also the president of Awami League frequently accuses Khaleda Zia, chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of having a soft corner for Pakistan and ridicules her for her love of Pakistan time and time again,” said Ahmed.
“Following their president, party members of Awami League and their supporters use this tactic to humiliate and ultimately vilify any opposing voices. For this purpose, they stir up the anti-Pakistani sentiment by continuously propagating anti-Pakistani rhetoric, focusing on what the Pakistani army did in 1971,” he said.
Ahmed pointed out that according to the ruling Awami League, as a Bangladeshi, the more you hate Pakistan, the more you will love Bangladesh.
“This is how they are feeding the machines of jingoism to wipe out any trace of opposition to their regime,” he said.