To understand communal violence, we must dig deeper

Communal harmony lies in the very foundation of Bangladesh, and it is up to all of us to ensure that nothing disrupts it. Photo: UNB

Communal tensions in Bangladesh have recently escalated to an alarming level. During this year's Durga Puja, one of the biggest religious festivals in "secular" Bangladesh, some criminal elements unleashed unfettered violence on the minority communities. Over a period of four days, a group of radicalised individuals, including youths, torched and looted homes of Hindu families in various districts across the country. The festivities turned into a shameful episode for the nation. A country that is known as a land of communal harmony came under scathing criticism from the world community as they condemned the attacks.

The government is now saying that the attacks on the Hindu community were premeditated. Various quarters are trying to tarnish the image of the government and the country through these well-orchestrated attacks. There are conspiracy theories brewing in the neighbouring countries as well. For instance, a report published by Khabar 365 Din, a Kolkata-based daily, reported that in the context of the Tripura election, the attacks could have been carried out through a joint plan between Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and the Indian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in order to trigger pro-Hindu sentiments in Tripura by stoking communal tension in neighbouring Bangladesh. Gobinda Chandra Pramanik, secretary general of Bangladesh Jatio Hindu Mohajote, has also been accused of being a provocateur. And there are many more speculations floating in various quarters regarding the origin of the attacks.

However, amid all these narratives in this discourse, what we are missing is a conversation on what enabled the perpetrators to carry out such well-synchronised attacks. If the attacks were premeditated, how did our intelligence agency radars fail to pick up the signals? How could such a series of attacks be carried out in broad daylight, for so many days, under the very noses of the law enforcement agencies?

An even more alarming question is: Why did so many youths—video footage and press photos show that a lot of the zealots were in their 20s and 30s—take part in such mindless violence? What motivated the locals to turn against their own neighbours, with whom they have coexisted for so many decades?

One may recall the 2012 Ramu incident, one biggest attacks on a religious minority community in this country in recent years. Since then, over the last nine years, many attacks have taken place across Bangladesh. These attacks have not only shaken the confidence of the minority communities, but have also dented the secular spirit of the nation. Even in the 90s or early 2000s, such an attack on the minority communities would have been unfathomable to the average Bangalee citizen. Lest we forget, Bangladesh was born of the spirit of Bangalee nationalism, above creed, cast or religion.

Things have not been well in recent years. One would remember the incidents of violence in Nasirnagar, Rangpur and Bhola in 2016, 2017 and 2019, respectively. Such attacks have only grown in intensity. So how come a nation that was built on the spirit of secularism and Bangalee nationalism has morphed into a country where the minorities cannot even celebrate their religious festivals in a safe environment?

In any situational analysis, there is a context as well as a subtext. The current discourse centring around the recent spate of communal violence is more focused on the subtext, rather than the context. And the context here is multifaceted.

Rather than asking questions only about who Iqbal Hossain is and who are his accomplices, or why the police failed to disperse the mob or stabilise the situation, the authorities should also be assessing why this happened in the first place, or how this spread from Cumilla to other regions, including, Kurigram, Bogura, Chapainawabganj, Sylhet, Rangpur, Cox's Bazar, Bandarban, among many other locations spanning the length and breadth of the country. What would perhaps be more productive to ask is what made Iqbal Hossain who he has metamorphosed into: a radicalised man. What led to the creation of such a strong network of religious zealots, or who are the puppeteers?

The government now needs to look at the intel lapses that have resulted in the execution of these well-planned attacks on the Hindu community. There are multiple intelligence agencies in the country who are well-equipped with resources to gather intel, especially those of significance to national security. These agencies, along with the government, need to scrutinise where they went wrong. Were their priorities not right? Did they not have adequate resources to monitor the situation? Could they not anticipate the situation? Did they underestimate the capabilities of the radical elements in the country? Or were they just complacent? These are questions that need immediate answers.

At the same time, the government also needs to assess and understand why the nation is losing its secular spirit, and why its people are turning on each other. Where does the foundation of this destructive rage lie? The answers to these questions perhaps lie in the history of Bangladesh after the heinous assassination of the father of the nation.

In 1975, General Ziaur Rahman paved the way for Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh to re-enter mainstream politics by lifting the ban on them that had been imposed after the independence of the nation in 1971. Then in 1979, the Zia-led government removed secularism as a pillar of our nation's constitution. Later in 1988, former president Hussain Muhammad Ershad made Islam the state religion. Then, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh became a part of the Khaleda Zia-led BNP government and wielded significant power during their tenure. Even the Awami League government has had to adopt a compromising attitude under pressure from various religious quarters, not least the Chattogram-based Hefazat-e-Islam, which has staged multiple protests against many decisions of the current government.

Even school textbooks were not spared. These books have been "purged" of content written by non-Muslim writers and poets. For instance, in 2017, excerpts from Ramayana were removed from the National Curriculum and Textbook Board's (NCTB) books, meant for study by government school students. Poems by Gyandas, Bharatchandra Ray, Rangalal Bandopadhyay, and Sunil Gangopadhyay were replaced by other poems written by Muslim poets. Why were these changes made? What message did it send to the people? What are we trying to teach our children?

These decisions by various governments over the decades—resulting in gradual deviation from the core pillars of our nation's constitution and its values, secularism being one of them—have sent wrong signals to the fundamentalist quarters and the people in general: one that suggests that the political actors are religiously conservative in their outlook and could be coerced by radical religious groups into giving them leeway for their actions.

This, however, is not how the founders of this nation had envisioned the future. Whatever past mistakes were made need to be corrected. The radical elements and the radicalised people—be it from any religious community—should be given the message that there is no place for communal disharmony or hatred in this country.

While identifying the perpetrators of these brutal attacks, the government should not lose sight of the root of the problems that need to be thoroughly scrutinised and sensitively addressed. The government should also not give the radical groups of other religious communities the chance to exploit this situation to their advantage. And to do this, they need to thwart any future attempts to destabilise its religious harmony.

I like to think of Bangladesh as a land of communal cohesion, a land that cherishes all its people, that is secular and where all of its citizens are equals. This is how it has been since the beginning, this has been the philosophy behind its independence, and this is how it should be in the future.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb