Few moments in the past century evoked as much hope in its stakeholders than the emergence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh as a secular state in the eastern part of the subcontinent. Drenched in the blood of martyrs and fired by lofty ideals that have still not completely died, this nation-state has not lived up to its promise. Often declared by some to be the greatest achievement of the Bengali people, Bangladesh is at a dangerous crossroads, once again. The ruling Awami League has an unenviable record of corruption and graft tainting its last 5 years in government. To be fair, the previously elected combined government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami had a track record far worse in this regard. But the country is young and the BNP-Jamaat was last in power 7 years ago – when a significant section of the present population had not reached adulthood. In addition to this, the opposition, especially the Jamaat, has been partially successful in using its massive economic clout and international propaganda apparatus to portray itself as a victim of state-sponsored witch-hunting. The ‘witch-hunting’ boils down to two things that can all but finish the Jamaat off as a viable political force. The first is the deregistration of the Jamaat-e-Islami as an electoral force, as it privileged divine ideas over democracy in the party constitution – something that the Supreme Court deemed to be illegal. The second is the War Crimes trial of those who committed crimes against humanity during 1971. Almost all of the present Jamaat leadership was heavily involved in murder, rape, arson and forced conversions. In a subcontinent where politics thrives on the erasure of public memory, this episode has refused to disappear. In fact, a dilly-dallying Awami League government was almost forced by the youth movement in Shahbag to pursue the war crimes trials seriously. Facing the prospect of political annihilation, the Jamaat responded by a three-pronged offensive. One, marshaling young Madrassa students to use them for blockading Dhaka. Two, lending BNP its activists to act as boots on the ground. Three, carrying out targeted attacks on the homes, businesses and places of worship of Hindus, the nation’s largest religious minority. But the collateral damage is often wider. tempmail.dev
[quote]Even those who believe themselves secular can discriminate in imperceptible ways[/quote]
Farid Mia, a fruit seller, had the extreme misfortune of being near the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel in Dhaka when the street-fighters of the opposition BNP–Jamaat hurled petrol bombs indiscriminately. They were aiming to create a scenario of fear in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of January 5, which they were boycotting. By January 8, the elections were over. So was Farid’s fight for life at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. The devastated face of Mohammod Liton, Farid Mia’s youngest son, will go down as a call to conscience, however transient. Farid was unlucky. He could not have known that he would be a victim.
However, there are more predictable victims. In 2001, after the BNP led alliance won the elections, the usual pattern of murder, rape and arson targeting Hindus happened on a wide scale. Hindus have traditionally voted for the Awami League. The guarantee for ‘jaan’ and ‘maal’ is important for the survival of any people. In the Awami League regime, although maal in the form of property and homestead has been regularly taken away by party powerfuls, the attack on life and methodical rape of minority women has not been part of the party’s policy (small mercies). The same cannot be said of the BNP-Jamaat whose cadres, systematically aided by the police forces, have regularly threatened both jaan and maal of Bangladesh’s minority citizens.
Thus, it is not hard to see why the Hindus chose the devil over the deep sea. The Hindus, who had voted BNP in 2001, learned their lesson when they were targeted in massive post-poll violence, most infamously in Bhola. This time around, the Hindus seemed to be out of favour from both sides. While they were targeted by the BNP-Jamaat for coming out to vote at all, in other areas they were targeted by Awami League rebels for coming out to vote for the official Awami League candidate who happened to be of the Hindu faith. There have been disturbing signs over the last few years that at the very local level, the difference between the ‘secular’ Awami League and the communal-fundamentalist BNP-Jamaat seems to disappear, though publicly the former does not tire in parroting the secular ideals of 1971 – the much used and abused ‘Muktijudhher chetona’ (Ideals of the Liberation War).
This time around, the targeting has been the worst in Jessore, Dinajpur and Satkhira, though many other places like Thakurgaon, Rangpur, Bogra, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Rajshahi and Chittagong have also been affected.
[quote]In Jessore, women were raped at gunpoint for voting in the January 5 election[/quote]
Large scale attacks on villages, businesses and places of worship; able-bodied men on night vigils; women huddling together in one place – all these things brought back memories of 1971 for many of its inhabitants. In Hazrail Rishipara of Jessore, women were raped at gunpoint for the crime that their families had voted in the January 5th election. Dinajpur has seen beatings, arson of home and shops, as well as the setting of fire to haystacks and crops. Both Jessore and Dinajpur, being areas bordering West Bengal, have been gateways to those crossing the border to preserve their life – a sad trek that many have undertaken. Such slow ‘squeezing out’ is not new, neither is it intermittent. It is a continuous process that aims to delegitimize the very existence of minorities on their ancestral land by always asking the question: ‘Why are you still here?’
The ‘solution’ to the ‘religious minority question’ has been achieved in West Punjab-East Punjab and Sindh, through the death of lakhs and the displacement of even more. In Bengal, through decades of blood and tears, many still live in the ancestral land in nations whose legitimacies are much more recent than people’s ancestral claims over their homestead. Nearly 30% of the West Bengal population is Mohammeddan. Even in East Bengal, little less than 10% of the population is Hindu. But the autocratic years of BAKSAL; the long years of army rule when the barracks used Islam to create a veneer of political legitimacy beyond the Awami League and pro-liberation forces; the overtures by mainstream parties to fundamentalist groupings – all of these gave religion-based politics a front-row seat in the nation. Nor have local religio-political organizations been immune to the violent turn of this brand of politics internationally in the last decade or so.
The issue of minority targeting, one must admit, has deeper roots than simple ‘communal politics’ and ‘mixing politics with religion’. Pro-Pakistan forces which looked to faith-based unity as the basis of statehood did not disappear after the Liberation War. They may have been temporarily delegitimized due to their role in the atrocities of ‘71 but what about the ideological moorings of the project that religion marks a nation? Its splinters are still very much alive.
One has to remember that even the Awami League in its inception is a faction of such a trend that reoriented later along the lines of Bengali Nationalism. In the imagination of all the ruling factions since 1947 – East Bengali, East Pakistani or Bangladeshi – there has been a tacit understanding of the normative citizen, i.e. a Bengali Muslim male. Hindus of East Bengal are a living reminder of a Bengali-ness that is not mutually exclusive with being a Bengali Muslim. Their marginality in numbers makes this conflation project easier. Such projects are not necessarily active political projects but often live in the underside of mindscapes that can be ‘secular’ in very many declarations. Thus they can be marginalized without being actively targeted in ‘innocuous’ everyday dealings. Communally targeted violence feeds off from a broader spectrum of support, from active to lukewarm to unconscious.
In any modern nation-state, there is a fear that the majority can decide to be whatever it wants and the minority has to follow suit. At any rate, the minorities are never ‘good enough’ citizens in whatever dispensation they find themselves.
But still one cannot but hope that the People’s Republic of Bangladesh would live up to its original ideals. Minorities have fled the nation-state for want of security in large numbers, year after year. Numbers matter. It also matters that nothing of the scale of Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2001 has happened there since 1971. The name of a ‘Hindu’ hero like Shurjo Sen can be chanted spiritedly by tens of thousands of mostly Muslim youths in the streets of Dhaka. There is no such parallel in the nation-states that are the other fragments of 1947. Even in the recent protests at Shahbag, lakhs raised slogans in his name. “Shurjo sen-er banglaye, jamaat-shibirer thhai nai (No place for Jamaat-Shibir in Shurjo Sen’s Bengal).” There is significant presence of minorities in the bureaucracy and local administration. Even in the recent spate of violence, the state has transferred police officials for failing to provide security. Gonojagoron Moncho, the youth movement that spearheaded the Shahbag protests for war crime trials, has led a road-march to violence stricken Abhaynagar to stand in solidarity with the affected. This is not a fly-by-night visit by VIPs or a handful of politicos. This reality exists, too. It is this reality that partly prevents a mass exodus of Hindus beyond the levels seen at present. There still is too much to lose to leave.
Risen from the embers of an ancestral place—plundered temple—
An unearthly voice vibrates in Sudhanshu
Are you, finally, leaving?’ At the end of the day
Sudhanshu gropes amidst cinders
For the deeds of his homestead, splintered bangles, the mute colours of a vermillion box.