A year ago, the sight of the vandalised temples and monasteries in Ramu quite gave the lie to the notion of this land being home to followers of all faiths and creeds. A year on, you cannot quite suggest that good cheer and camaraderie have come back in our lives, that secular society has restored itself to where it was before roving bands of Muslim fanatics put the monasteries to the torch. But that we in Bangladesh remain, fundamentally, a non-communal people is a reality that continues to uphold our self-esteem as a nation. These past eight months have in a major way convinced us that we cannot afford to hurt the sentiments of a religious community—in this case our Buddhists—or for that matter any religious community and expect things to go on as they always have.
In these past eight months, between November 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013, under the supervision of the Bangladesh army’s Special Works Organization, the 17 Engineer Construction Battalion went into the task of restoring as many as nineteen ruined and semi-ruined monasteries and temples and ended up finishing the job to public satisfaction. There is little question that the fast pace of the restoration has worked enormously to restore the confidence of the Buddhist community in the ability of the state to deliver on its promises. And the promise here was simple: that everything would be done to repair the damage that had been caused. It took sustained labour and Tk.20 crore to have that happen. Aesthetics was part of the endeavour.
Of course, not every instance of damage can ever be dealt with fully in any situation. There are the psychological scars that do not heal, or take a long time to heal. Something is always lost when heritage and history come under assault, as they did last year. As a young Buddhist man put it last week, the sight of all the gleaming places of worship, so assiduously put in place by the army, is surely uplifting for the soul. But how does one deal with a condition where centuries’ old religious scripture has been reduced to ashes and no copies of the scripture remain? It is a question flung at the heavens. It elicits no answer. There are, if you have cared to notice, too few answers, if at all, to the many questions life is daily pelted with.
The state knows that. The army knows that. One knows too how crucial it is to let the vulnerable sections of society know that the state cares, that government exists to ensure the security of all citizens and is a guarantor of rights across the spectrum. Through renovating, rebuilding, reconstructing and refurbishing the monasteries, the army has simply, and purposefully, reasserted the fundamental principles of the state. That a disciplined army, especially in the kind of volatile conditions in which societies like ours drift along, can make a difference is an image you come by in Ramu and Ukhia.
The good bit about the Bangladesh army is that it now comprises men and women who joined the force following the liberation of the country in 1971. These soldiers have not seen the war. None of them was a stranded Bengali soldier in Islamabad’s army in post-1971 Pakistan. The old baggage is gone. That the army has operated under a proper chain of command in these past couple of decades or more persuades the country that the chaos which insinuated itself into its ranks between 1975 and 1982 may well have become a bad memory of the past. Do not forget that good officers and men have been lost to the ambitions of a few generals; constitutionalism has often taken a beating because of the inordinate ambitions of a few.
That darkness has lifted. And we have grieved when BDR mutineers put fifty seven high ranking military officers to death in early 2009. Back in early 2007, the army’s intervention, through providing logistical support to a caretaker government, certainly helped avert a major crisis for the country. Through weeding out the farce of a Iajuddin caretaker administration, through empowering the Anti-Corruption Commission with the sort of authority it needed to go after wrongdoing, through putting in place a properly defined Election Commission, through going after corruption, the Fakhruddin administration with the support of the army did an enormity of good for this nation.
A circle of darkness came in, though, when the soldiers came into conflict with academics and students at Dhaka University. That ought not to have happened. Cool heads should have prevailed; and teachers and pupils should have been assured of their dignity remaining intact. Perhaps that lesson has been learnt?
On a more positive note, we have had occasion to celebrate the contributions of our soldiers to global peacekeeping. In Sierra Leone, in Liberia, in other places, the Bengali soldier has made his presence felt. It has been a role we have always wanted to experience, a performance that yet could serve as a precursor to a bigger role for the country in international fora, given of course stable politics at home.
A stable country, a well-ordered society is what you naturally look forward to, now and always. The restoration of those nineteen temples and monasteries in Ramu and Ukhia gives you a hint of how much more energy, now latent and bubbling, could be released if it were harnessed well. The soldiers have done a good job. And might do so again.
Long ago, the French military did an equally good job through reassuring President Charles de Gaulle of its support as he went about transforming the country through the Fifth Republic, through initiating a withdrawal of the French colonial power from Algeria.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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