Lengthening shadow of communalism
Attacks on the minority communities across the country over the last few months have brought shame and ignominy for the country. Murder, loot, arson and even rapes that are being reported from across the country have shattered the façade of communal peace and harmony that we had long nurtured. These despicable acts, perpetrated by some criminal elements of the majority Muslim community on the religious minorities, have seriously tarnished the image of Bangladesh. While normalcy has returned to national life after months of political agitation and violence, the attacks on the minorities, especially on the Hindu communities, are going on unabated. A year-long political violence followed by the communal disturbance has taken the nation down few rungs on the Failed State Index (FSI). All that the nation gained over the last few years in international respectability was lost in a violent frenzy. While the administration promises punishment for the perpetrators, the minority communities continue to suffer physically, economically, and emotionally. Their religious freedom too is violated regularly with the destruction of their temples and idols. If the state cannot guarantee their security, the minorities will have no option but to migrate to India, which many of the perpetrators of violence want and which might further damage the already tarnished image of Bangladesh. Communalism's multi-headed hydra had been dormant for a long time within society. Especially over the last two decades or so, the poison of communalism has been infecting the Bengali Muslims as never before.
Despite religious, cultural and economic differences, the Hindus and Muslims, along with a tiny Buddhist and Christian minority, had been living in harmony and peace for centuries in Bangladesh. However, communal harmony started deteriorating rapidly by the third decade of the 20th century with the Indian National Congress represented largely by the Hindus and the Muslim League (ML) demanding a separate homeland for the Muslims. The British, through its insidious policy of divide and rule, widened the gulf between the two major religious communities. The partition plan for India gained huge popular support in Bengal. The reason behind Bengali Muslim's support for Pakistan movement was not so much for a separate Muslim nationhood, as for the land reform (Bengal Tenancy Act) that the Muslim League promised to the battered peasantry of Bengal. Bengal's Muslim peasantry saw in Pakistani state a hope to get rid of the absentee landlords and usurious money lenders, who were mostly upper-class Hindus living in Calcutta and other urwban centres. It is a little known fact today that the scheduled caste Hindus of Bengal, led by their leader Jogendra Nath Mondol and his political party “Tafsili Federation” supported the partition plan and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. With the support of the Scheduled Caste members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly, Muslim League formed the ministry in Bengal. Thus, on the eve of the partition in 1947, Bengal was the only Muslim majority province where ML was able to form a majority government; it was not so in the Punjab, Sind, NWFP or Baluchistan, which constitute Pakistan today. Jogedra Nath Mondol, who developed a personal friendship with Mr. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was made the first Law minister of Pakistan and was for some time heading the constitution sub-committee of the Pakistani Parliament. Jinnah promised a secular Pakistan where every citizen would be treated equally, irrespective of his/her religion, race or ethnicity. These promises were soon shelved with the death of Mr. Jinnah in September 1948. Pakistan was to be an Islamic Republic, an experiment that proved to be disastrous for not only the minorities in Pakistan, but is now leading Pakistan into the abyss of darkness. A disheartened man, Jogendra Nath, resigned from the cabinet and migrated to India in 1951.
The exodus of the Hindus started, in fact, from 1946, when serious communal disturbances occurred in Noakhali, Narayangonj, Khulna and other parts of Eastern Bengal, mostly as an aftermath of communal disturbances in Bihar. Extremist elements within ML fanned communal frenzy in Bengal with the aim of displacing the Hindus from the landed properties and ultimately grabbing the same for themselves. The migration process intensified with the partition in August 1947. It may be recalled here that according to census in 1941, minorities, mostly Hindus, were almost 30% of the population of what now constitutes Bangladesh. The percentage kept declining in every census; they were down to 23% by 1951, 19.6% by 1961 and 14.6% by 1974 when the first census of Bangladesh took place. The trend continues even today; in the census of 2001 the minorities were 10.3% and in 2011 census they were down to 9.4%. The decline of percentage of minority population indicates that there is an outward migration. Most of the elite Bengali Hindus have left Bangladesh over the last 60 years, leaving a sense of hopelessness prevailing among the minority community. The departure of Hindu teachers, doctors, lawyers and business entrepreneurs since partition had left a void that was difficult to fill in a short term. The minority community, mostly lower caste Hindus, left behind in Bangladesh, was virtually leaderless and increasingly marginalized.
In the early years of Pakistan, the progressive elements of the then East Bengal set up a political opposition aiming to establish a secular society in which the minorities would be treated as equal citizens. Thus, in the first provincial election in East Bengal in 1954, a coalition of secularist, progressive parties under the banner of United Front trounced the ruling Muslim League, giving a new ray of hope to the minorities. Incidentally, this was the election that gave 27% of the seats to the minorities, exactly the same number as their percentage in the country. However, this election was a short-lived fantasy; the United Front government was soon dismissed by the central government of Pakistan, dominated by the ML. Next big setback for the Hindu community was the communal riots in January 1964. As a consequence of the theft of a holy relic from a Muslim shrine in Indian Kashmir, the migrant Muslims from India, commonly referred to as the 'Biharis', who had settled in various urban centres started revenge attacks
on the Hindu community. They were encouraged by some of the ML leaders and local musclemen who were looking for an opportunity to grab Hindu properties. The trouble started in Khulna at the instigation of Mr. Khan A. Sabur, then a central minister. The riot soon escalated to other cities, often aided and abetted by the ML functionaries. Progressive political elements and civil society formed Danga Protorodh Committees to resist communal forces. Leading newspapers came out with editorials and a poster titled “Purbo Pakistan Rukhiya Darao” (East Pakistan rise up in resistance) that urged Bengali Muslims to stand beside their Hindu brethrens was widely circulated in the community. On 15 January 1964, Mr. Amir Hussain Choudhury, a prominent citizen of Dhaka, was stabbed to death by the rioters while he was engaged in relief activities in Hindu localities of old Dhaka. Similarly, Father Richard Novak, a respected teacher of Notre Dame College was killed in Narayangonj while trying to help the Hindu community there. These incidents triggered a shock that soon snowballed into a possible riot between the Bengalis and the Biharis. Leading Bengali Muslim leaders of the time such as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ataur Rahman Khan, Tofazzal Husain Manik Mian etc played a prominent role in calming down the situation and restoring peace in the province. Yet many, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were arrested on charge of anti-state activities for printing and distributing the poster “Purbo Pakistan Rukhiya Darao”; the authority saw the poster as an attempt to subvert the integrity of Pakistan. Riots in 1964 created a new bondage between Bengali Muslims and Hindus hitherto unseen. Despite the best efforts by progressive forces, the communal clash in January-February 1964 resulted in migration of about half a million Hindus into India; many were settled in central Indian forest of Dandakaranya, where they lead a pitiable life of poverty.
In September 1965, Pakistan's misadventure into Kashmir backfired. In the war that lasted 17 days, Indian forces made advances on to the outskirts of Lahore and Sialkot and threatened Pakistani heartland. Almost as a reprisal, the Pakistani authority targeted the Hindus in East Pakistan. Many were arrested as Indian agents, their business houses closed and their properties confiscated. A law titled “Enemy Property Act” gave the government sweeping power to take over Hindu property. The Hindus were again migrating to India or elsewhere. Then came 1971, when the Hindus were once again targeted by the Pakistan Army for genocidal killing. Members of the right-wing political parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League, collaborated with the Army in their killing spree, often acting as a guide to pinpoint the Hindu houses. Of the ten million refugees that reached India, a large proportion of those were Hindus. After the war was over in December 1971, there was a sense of security for the first time among the Hindus of Bangladesh; they felt that they are now in a land that they can call their home.
However, with the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15 August 1975, the communal forces again raised their heads and the minority communities were once again facing an uncertain future. The country moved away from secularism to Islamism, however cosmetic it might have been. The successive military governments in order to gain legitimacy sought the political support of the rightist forces. Parties such as Muslim League and Jamaat-e-Islami which had been outlawed since Liberation were allowed again as a counter to secular forces. While President Zia brought in some superficial amendments to the constitution to make it look more Islamic, President Ershad made Islam the state religion. Ershad's regime saw a phenomenal growth of Madrassas, especially the Quomi Madrassas, across the country.
These madrasas produce thousands of graduates each year who are the vanguard of the Islamisation process. Although President Ershad was pushed out of office through a mass upsurge in December 1990, the Islamisation process that he started continued to gather force. As a consequence of the destruction of Babri mosque in India on 6 December 1992, there was a flare up of communal violence in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country. Inquilab, an Islamist newspaper, ran highly inflammatory headlines to incite communal riot in the country. Many Hindu houses, temples and business concerns were looted and burnt. The government appeared to be vacillating in curbing violence. For the first time, the progressive elements within the Bengali Muslim community appeared to be cowed down in front of religious extremists. Over the last two decades, we have seen a gradual rise of the Islamist forces and a consequent rise in communal violence. The attack on the Buddhist temples in Ramu on 29-30 September 2012 was particularly horrendous because the victims identified their long-time Muslim neighbours as the perpetrators. The spate of violence against the minority community is still continuing as I write this paper at the end of January 2014. While most attacks are blamed on the religious fanatics, one cannot discount the hands of the local goons in terrorizing the minorities to occupy their landed properties.
It is time to take a deep look at the communal situation in the country. Police and legal actions, while it must be prompt and stern, are never enough. We need to look into the social fabric that has gone violent and communal. Our education system, especially Madrassa education is long due for a major overhaul. We need to bring back the inter-communal harmony that we cherished so long. Why the Muslim neighbours are not resisting the mob attacks on the Hindu community? Why are we not able to produce people like Mr. Amir Hossain Choudhury who gave his life for the defence of the minorities? Why have the Islamic scholars not been raising their voice against communalism? Why don't we see mass demonstration of solidarity on the streets? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves.
A democratic society must accommodate the minority – political, ethnic and religious. The minorities are already demanding proportionate representation in the Parliament, cabinet and administration. An analysis of the composition of parliamentary seats and the cabinet portfolios over the decades will reveal that the minorities remain underrepresented. Their representation in administration, especially in the law enforcement agencies and defence forces, needs to increase. We need to address the genuine concerns of those who are economically disadvantaged, politically marginalized and socially ostracized. We need to hear the voice of the religious and ethnic minorities. It is time for introspection.
The author researches on security issues.