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In early 2017, a tussle around a statue of a woman personifying justice became a proxy for the longstanding tensions between Islamist and secular groups in Bangladesh. The sculpture, erected in front of the Supreme Court Complex in capital Dhaka, triggered a series of protests spearheaded by Hefazat-e-Islam, a hard-line Islamist group based in Chittagong. Islamist groups deem such statues to be anti-Islamic, often associating them with idol worship — a strictly forbidden practice in Islam.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina subsequently signaled support for the statue’s removal from the Supreme Court premises. Despite the outcry from secular groups, the authorities quietly relocated the statue to the annex building of the Supreme Court, away from the public eye. The ruling Awami League — an in-principle secular political party — is not new to the religious groups’ threats of escalating protests. In hindsight, this may look like a minor political compromise for a government in a Muslim-majority state. However, three years on, agitations over another sculpture has turned out to be Awami League’s deja vu moment. For Hasina, the ball this time has rather hit too close to home.

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