• Saturday, August 02, 2014

Hindu, are you, or Muslim? Who asks?

Mahfuzur Rahman

The title should be recognisable to most Bengalis. In case it is not immediately obvious to you, here it is in Bangla: Hindu na ora Muslim oi jiggashe kaun jon? Kazi Nazrul Islam asked the question rhetorically. The implicit answer was a firm no: nobody asks such a question. In real life it is still asked, and in earnest.
    A few days back, we were watching a programme of live musical performance on a major television channel. Viewers could telephone the host and ask to talk to the artist. A number of viewers phoned in to request songs of their liking.
In came a question for which the young host was not prepared: “Are you a Muslim?” The viewer asked him.  The young man, who happened to be a Muslim, managed to mumble a yes. The viewer had no other question and did not have a request to make. Sometime later, another viewer reprimanded him for saying shuvashokal instead of salamalaikum.
The question and the reprimand must have shocked many. But I haven't seen any protest. Perhaps we are getting inured to such words? A few weeks earlier, a prominent secular activist taking part in a protest demonstration by the Gonojagoron Mancha, had a shock of her life. She was wearing a large red teep on her forehead. A contingent of policemen had been sent to stop the demonstration. In the scuffle that followed, an enraged policeman hurled at the teep-wearing activist this epithet: Malaoon! I hang my head in shame writing this, as I imagine you hanging yours reading it.
These are by no means isolated incidents. Neither should it be difficult to see their interconnection. They represent the same mindset. The person who asked the television presenter whether he was a Muslim had a clear preference. He wished that the presenter was a Muslim and would demonstrate his Islamic identity. The second viewer said the same thing, only directly. The policeman left no doubt in the mind of the activist (a Muslim, it turned out) what he thought about a Hindu identity.
Violence against the Hindus that spread in the run-up to the elections, and has persisted since, is a manifestation of the same hostility to that identity. Only it has been on a vaster scale and openly cruel. Once again, that violence is not new. It has happened all too often since our independence. The latest violence has perhaps exceeded all others in scale and cruelty. IF television images of a stricken community leaving home recall those of 1971, we have much to answer for.  
The latest round of violence is perhaps unique in that much of it seemed to have had slid out of the frame of attention of people who claim to be keepers of the democratic conscience of the nation. For months they kept their attention focused like laser on a single issue: the elections. Democracy was said to be in grave danger. Nothing else seemed to matter, not even ideals that lay at the foundation of our nationhood. It was that foundation which was in greater danger. I recall a remark by Professor Muzaffar Ahmed, then head of the National Awami Party, made some forty years back: In Bangladesh secularism is far more important than democracy. On close look, the remark should not startle. There would be no Bangladesh our people fought for without secularism as its foundation.
A million words must have been written, some of it on these pages, about attacks on the Hindu community over the past four decades. There has been much talk about the need to do something about it. Yet nothing seems to have changed.
Attacks on the Hindu community are sometimes said to be 'only' criminal rather than communal. Often such criminality takes place under the tutelage of corrupt politicians, especially those in power. In some cases this is undoubtedly true. But this does not account for the disproportionately greater suffering of the minority at the hands of the 'criminals.' Violence against it is basically the product of the mindset I talked about above. And that mindset continues to challenge the secular ideals that lay behind our nationhood.
What is to be done? Here, as elsewhere, we are never short of rhetoric and wishful thinking. Among these is the notion that an appeal to a religion's teaching of tolerance towards members of other faiths should help curb communal animosity in this case. Religion is not in the business of professing total tolerance and brotherhood towards other religions. Scripture says, “Love thy neighbour;” it never adds, “even if he is an infidel.” Statements in the Koran purporting to be accommodative to the unbelievers were made in particular historical contexts, as were statements denouncing them. Verse 109: 6, for example, is often quoted in favour of the former, just as verse 9: 28 is rarely quoted as an example of the latter. It is certainly not impiety to call attention to both. It would be naïve, in the present context, to fall back on one and ignore the other.
 If in fact the tolerant side of religion in this particular area is so potent, there must be some evidence for it. The total absence of calls for tolerance to members of other faiths in the hundreds of thousands of mosques and congregations in the country should put paid to the idea of using religion to promote brotherhood among communities. To say this is not to denigrate religion; this is only to highlight thinking at its most wishful.
Violence against minorities has to be combatted the hard way, within the broad framework of secular pluralism. The priority must be to take on religious political parties and groups which profess not to be political but are actually promoters of political Islam. The inability of successive governments to root out communalism must be considered one their biggest failures. This much is well-known and much talked about.
Relatively little has been said about the mindset that sees an individual mainly as a member of a particular faith. Perhaps we could chip away that mindset by a bit of compulsion to complement the various attempts secular activists have been pursuing against great odds.  Perhaps there should be legislation prohibiting identification of a citizen of this country by his or her religion in all walks of our public life, and make it a criminal offence to call anyone names, like malaoon, that denigrates a particular faith. It should be nobody's business to ask anyone in public whether he or she was Hindu or Muslim, or Christian, or Buddhist.
Politicians have taken turns to denounce the recent violence against minorities. Here they have a chance to prove they mean what they say. Let them call for such legislation in the first session of the newly elected Parliament. It will also be a test of their commitment to a truly secular Bangladesh.

The writer is a former United Nations economist.

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, January 26, 2014

Last modified: 11:34 pm Sunday, January 26, 2014

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