Hasina’s drift into conspiracy theories

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, long a centre-left stalwart in Bangladesh, is now adopting fringe far-right rhetoric.

Hasina’s drift into conspiracy theories

Classifying Bangladeshi political parties along a traditional ideological spectrum is a futile exercise. The ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for over four decades, has long claimed itself to be the custodian of the centre-left. But in her 16th consecutive year in office, Hasina increasingly has come to resemble a paranoid, right-wing conspiracy theorist.

Hasina’s dalliance with right-wing Islamists is not new. In 2006, she forged an alliance with four Islamist parties, even pledging to legalise fatwas — a stance she later abandoned after a secular revolt within her party. Following the 2013 crackdown on Hefajat-e-Islam, a qawmi madrasa-based organisation known for promoting blasphemy laws and other extremist policies, Hasina’s administration cultivated an alliance with them, leading her to earn the moniker “Mother of Qawmi.” While her supporters may dismiss these as mere electoral antics, some of her recent actions indicate a clear ideological shift.

Consider her stance on child marriage, for instance. Her government lowered the legal marriage age for girls from 18 to 16 in exceptional cases, reversing a hard-won achievement of her arch-rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), now the main opposition, which Hasina’s allies deride for its right-wing inclinations. Her staunch defence of allowing parents to marry off their 16-year-old daughters would shame even many social conservatives.

More recently, Hasina floated the idea that the United States would tolerate her continued rule if she had permitted a US military base on the tiny Bay of Bengal island of St. Martin. This is not new. Long a discredited conspiracy theory, it dates back to the pre-Bangladesh period, proliferating in the 1960s among Indian commentators and resurfacing in Bangladesh in the 1980s. But it always lacked any documentary evidence. Now, under pressure from the US, Hasina is mainstreaming these notions.

What’s more, she is giving this grand US conspiracy a right-wing twist. On May 23rd 2024, she told a conference of allied political parties that “a White man” sought her support to carve out a portion of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) to create a new Christian-majority state, similar to East Timor, incorporating parts of Myanmar. “Since I’m not allowing it to happen,” she claimed, she was under US pressure.

This is nonsense. It’s also offensive to the country’s minority Christian community, a traditional supporter of her Awami League party, which has suffered attacks from jihadist-inspired terrorists in the past. If East Timor is indeed such a bad state, one might wonder why Sheikh Hasina invited José Ramos-Horta, the architect of its independence and current president, to celebrate Mujib Year. When unable to meet other heads of state at the United Nations, why does she resort to meeting Ramos-Horta to maintain her diplomatic stature? Why did she dispatch her foreign minister to secure East Timor’s support to bolster her daughter, Saima “Putul” Wazed, for a lucrative role at the World Health Organization?

This particular conspiracy theory involving East Timor was once popularised by Bangladeshi commentators close to the military intelligence agency. One such veteran commentator claimed he had been discussing this conspiracy for 28 years and felt validated by Hasina’s comments.

By appropriating this unfounded theory, Hasina is also testing the tenets of Bangladesh’s left-right political spectrum. Traditionally, the centre-right was represented by the BNP, founded by the popular if brutal general-turned-president Ziaur Rahman, and the Jatiya Party, founded by Rahman’s successor and late military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad. While the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami has had a sophisticated agenda to influence secular state policies, the centre-right rhetoric was dominated by anti-India sentiment. A key component of this militaristic sentiment was the CHT, where the military has maintained its presence despite relative peace since the late 1990s.

That necessitated the fabrication of a grand plot to establish a Christian-majority state through large-scale conversion of Indigenous communities — which have shrugged off such threats — thus justifying continued military presence in the hill districts. This is a classic bogeyman. One that has been adopted earlier by Hefazat-e-Islam. One of its infamous 13-point demands was aimed at thwarting “the deep conspiracy being hatched by the Christian Western world regarding the Chittagong Hill Tracts.”

It also contains a disturbing anti-Semitic undertone, positing that a small indigenous community in Manipur and Mizoram, thought to be a lost biblical tribe of Israelites, are part of the grand plan. Hasina implicitly accepted this part of the theory by comparing such a future Christian nation with the foundation of Israel in British Palestine.

But Hasina’s echoing of this bogus conspiracy is intriguing as much for what she left out. The classic version includes not only the CHT and Myanmar but also parts of the Indian northeastern states such as Mizoram, which has a significant Christian population. Hasina avoided mentioning India in her version of the narrative, knowing it would complicate relations with her benefactor.

Overall, it was such a fringe idea that even the BNP and other centre-right parties never entertained it seriously. Astonishingly, it took Sheikh Hasina, of all people, to mainstream the notion. It’s hard to imagine today that it was her government that signed a peace treaty with the indigenous jumma rebels that brought relative calm and negated the need for a continued military presence in the CHT. Even her political struggle once centred on counteracting the military establishment. We are today witnessing a sad unbecoming of Hasina’s political persona.

Hasina’s detractors often gossip that some of her recent actions stem from her disappointment at not receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for the 1997 peace treaty with the CHT rebels, which she did at the great displeasure of the military establishment and the right-wing quarters at the time, or for accepting 750,000 Rohingya refugees in 2017. The notion that she would “retaliate” for the lack of recognition from Western governments and societies (“the White man”) by donning a tinfoil hat and appropriating right-wing narratives does not seem implausible anymore.●

📄 This leader was edited in the third paragraph to clarify that the law permits underage marriage under exceptional circumstances.