Millions of Bangladeshi students celebrated last month as the government gave away free textbooks, but some parents and educators soon questioned whether the contents violated secular rules for learning materials.
Complaints surfaced that the government approved books to satisfy conservative Muslim groups, particularly to appease the powerful Hefazat-e-Islam, a national organization of teachers and students at Islamic boarding schools – madrassas – whose influence is coveted by the ruling Awami League and opposition parties to win votes.
Four years earlier, Hefazat-e-Islam staged a huge demonstration in which the group issued a 13-point declaration for bringing sharia law to Bangladesh, whose constitution guarantees secularism. Changing the national curriculum for public schools was listed among the 13 points.
This year, members of the group praised the government for fulfilling their calls to change 29 articles in textbooks.
“After our long struggle and rally, the authorities could finally understand the gravity of the issue and brought changes in the textbooks,” Hefazat-e-Islam leader Shah Ahmad Shafi said in a statement. He criticized protesters from pro-secular government groups.
Intellectuals voiced concern that religion is seeping into the country’s education system.
National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) chairman Narayan Chandra Saha, however, denied that Hefazat-e-Islam had influenced the changes.
“We do review the curriculum every five years. We did it for this year’s curriculum. Only students, parents and academicians were welcomed for recommendation,” Narayan told BenarNews
‘A slow poisoning of children’
Efforts by Islamic-based political parties to remove the secular tone from literature textbooks began in 1975 but were unsuccessful until this year. Prior to that year, religion-based political parties were banned.
Critics pointed to changes occurring as early as class one in alphabet books.
“Ol,” a kind of yam, was replaced with “Orna,” a kind of scarf girls wear as they become adolescents.
Bangladeshi students study religion according to their faith, which should not be linked with literary textbooks, Rasheda K. Chowdhury, executive director of the Campaign for Popular Education (Campe), told BenarNews.
“Say, for example, earlier literature books had poems and prose written by Muslim and non-Muslim authors. This year, unnecessarily, some textbooks’ contents moved to religious content. If you want me to describe the situation, I will say, behind the scenes was a slow poisoning of children taking place,” Chowdhury said.
BenarNews analyzed textbooks on literature from grades one to 10, finding that the book in grade two contained an essay “sobai meele kori kaj” (“Let’s work together”), which told a story about a Muslim prophet, Hazrat Muhammad.
In grades three and four, students read the story of two Khalifas, Hazrat Omar and Hazrat Abu Bakar. The grade five literature book saw the addition of the farewell sermon of Prophet Muhammad.
‘Creeping into the mainstream’
Expunged from textbooks was the poem “Boi” (“Book”) by Humayun Azad, a secular writer and professor at the University of Dhaka, who was attacked by militants with machetes during the Ekushey Book Fair in February 2004, and died a few months later.
Literature text books from grades six to 10 saw similar changes.
Among the essays removed from textbooks was “Samay Gele sadhon Hobe na” by Baul, a group of people in Bangladesh and part of India who practice mysticism and believe that the soul is the abode of God, and who follow a late mystic known as Lalon Fakir.
Also removed were excerpts from an adaptation of the Hindu epic “Ramayana,” written for children by Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury, and “Lalu,” a popular novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.
“It means, the vested group has been gaining strength and creeping into the main stream education system,” journalist Julfikar Ali Manik told BenarNews regarding the Islamization of textbooks.
“The group tried to kill Humayun Azad and successfully removed him from the textbook. It means the group is moving forward with very specific agenda of destroying intellect,” Manik said.
Education ministry sources speaking on condition of anonymity said some of the books had to be reprinted to make the changes sought by Hefazat-e-Islam.
“During the process we forgot about two of their demands. About half of the total volume of books worth about 15 crore taka (U.S. $1.8 million) were published that time. We halted the process, excluded two articles and went into printing again.”