The lights must not go out
Let us begin at the beginning. The state of Bangladesh was given formal shape through the War of Liberation by the people who constituted it. And those who constituted it were Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, in necessary union as a comprehensive Bengali nation. The state of Bangladesh, therefore, is based on the concept of Bengali nationalism. No room for compromise exists here. The fundamental principles of the state, among which are democracy and secularism, will not be trifled with.
In this state of Bengalis, there must be no room for anyone to malign a religion or its founder or its precepts. Those who seek to undermine Islam are only making life pointless for themselves. Those who torch the temples of Hindus only bring themselves into disrepute. Those who go on a rampage against the Buddhist community are men who are morally bankrupt. And those who intimidate Christians only send out the message that not religion but hooliganism is what guides them in life.
A secular state must ensure security of life, property and belief for every citizen. Modernity calls for a renaissance in life and within such modernity come scholars of all religious denominations. A scholar of religion is different from a not so informed preacher of selective faith. Men of faith do not threaten citizens. Men believing in Allah or God or Bhagwan do not assault women on the streets. But when they do, they do not speak for faith any more. It is the Almighty who turns away from them.
It is not the preserve of a group of men swearing fealty to religious orthodoxy to decree that men and women must not mingle, must not converse, must not enlighten society with a dissemination of their intellect. A secular, modern democracy has no room for individuals and groups taking it upon themselves to suggest that women must stay indoors, that they must therefore be officially relegated to being meaningless symptoms of pulsating life. To suggest, in Bangladesh, that its women go silent and submissive is to advocate anarchy. It is not the place of a man, any man, to determine the role the Bengali woman will play in Bangladesh. And thus it is that the policy on women and, with that, the policy on education must not be tampered with.
The beauty of this people's republic as it was conceived in 1971 and as its constitution so forcefully proclaimed in 1972 was the inclusiveness it enshrined within it. Of course, a big hole, or call it a festering wound, has been the failure of the state to record and register the autonomous existence of Bangladesh's indigenous people. That wound must be healed if the state is to gain extra substance. The wound can only widen and deepen if the opposite course is taken, that of pushing people outside the framework of secular society and rooting for a societal structure which is not willing to respect religious or political minorities.
The state of Bangladesh is what its cultural heritage has made it. It has been home to Muslim scholars and saints, to mystic bauls, to votaries of Hinduism and Buddhism, to Christian missionaries. Hindu philanthropists and teachers and Muslim men of letters have enriched the story of this land. It has been a country defined by aesthetic charm and poetic grandeur. Its historical politics has been a long, often bitter twilight struggle for the triumph of liberalism in collective as well as individual life. These shaheed minars, those statues, those tombs are but a mark of Bengali gratitude to those who made it possible for this country to emerge into freedom and literary and spiritual delight. And those monuments will stay, despite the fulminations of extremists against them. This happens to be a land of spiritual and artistic grandeur. It will stay that way.
A candlelight vigil is light unto the dark, a message that enlightenment is under threat, that good, decent men and women must come forward to warn their fellow citizens that the state is at risk from elements which have consistently waged a creeping war against it. It is a torch that has been passed to the younger generation of Bengalis from their ancestors -- poets, mystics, priests, politicians, peasants, workers -- for them to preserve the sanctity of the state, to keep watch on the gates and ramparts of freedom.
It is not the task of a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian to pass judgement on the beliefs of another, to ask that a particular community be pushed out of a faith it calls its own. To call a Muslim a non-Muslim, to decide unilaterally that an individual is an atheist goes against the principles of divinity. It is the Creator who decides. Those who claim to speak for Him do not know that they are turning their backs on the very faith they putatively defend.
In this country of political freedom and intellectual eloquence, parochial arrogance must not get the upper hand. In this landscape sketched by history and time, we have prayed, each to our distinctive God, each in our particular place of worship. That prayer must not be disturbed. In this land of fierce secular tradition, we have recited poetry of the sublime kind and made music redolent of the transcendental; we have studied history and then made it; we have waged war against warmongers to put an end to all wars and we have won that war.
It is time to ensure that the lights do not go out. We will keep the home fire burning.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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