For communal violence, the burden of guilt falls on the majority too

An open letter to the Hindu community
What does it say about us when we play silent bystanders as our Hindu brethren’s homes burn in the fire of bigotry and mindless hatred? Photo: Collected

My dearest Hindu sisters and brothers, I am overcome with grief, outrage and shame as I write to you. I live in the United States, on the other side of the world, but the heart-breaking anguish that I feel is so real, that the terrible events that took place a few weeks ago might as well have happened in front of my eyes.

As time passes by, such events begin to recede from our collective memory.

But that is most certainly not true in my case.

In fact, it is our collective moral duty to keep this harrowing memory alive and fresh in our minds—as a warning about the depths to which human depravity can descend in the name of religion.

I wince every time I revisit the ghastly experience you have gone through, my sisters and brothers.

The desecration of your idols. Attacks on defenceless fishermen a long distance away.

The fear, humiliation and helplessness that all of you feel.

The desolate feeling of being all alone and helpless in your own country, where you have lived for generations.

What support and consolation can I offer, when words seem so woefully inadequate? What use are tears of grief, when there is no substantive sign that the culprits will be brought to book?

The recent events have laid bare an awful paradox.

Bangladesh today has all the accoutrements of a plural, tolerant society—and the achievements are not inconsiderable.

Our celebration of Ekushey—and yes, I call it a celebration of our culture and our language—is a truly inclusive celebration that late author Sunil Gangopadhyay once described, tongue-in-cheek, as the first truly secular Bengali festival. We celebrate Pahela Baisakh with gusto. Our reverence of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam is widespread.

In the bureaucracy and government, after decades of unspoken discrimination, the presence of minorities is impressive and encouraging—full credit to the government for that.

But all of it feels utterly hollow when such terrible depredations befall you, our Hindu brethren. It reminds me of the furious rage that my African-American brethren in the United States felt when they asked: What good is it to have Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president, when a police officer in Minnesota can throttle George Floyd to death?

In Bangladesh, it is my hope that the government will eschew the temptation to sweep the incidents under the rug. It would do well to remember that the attacks against our Hindu brethren are as much an attack on the government itself as well as on our nation's lofty goal of a plural, tolerant, and humane society.

Rather than blaming the government, with deep anguish and shame, I would much rather point an accusing finger at broader society. It is the majority community which has to shoulder the blame. And yes, I include myself among the accused.

While it is heart-warming to see the fairly widespread expressions of protest and condemnation of the horrific attacks on Hindus, that, alas, is not the full story.

There is a chilling lack of outrage that borders on apathy in the broader majority community that encourages these bigoted miscreants. Is this the same country where the killing of a few students galvanised the nation in February 1952?

Humane, conscientious Muslims—and I do believe they constitute an overwhelming majority in Bangladesh—can no longer afford the unconscionable luxury of remaining bystanders as violent bigots take over their faith. The attackers—like bigots of every faith—are unprincipled scoundrels. They used an incendiary excuse to launch widespread attacks on innocent Hindus, knowing full well that they had nothing to do with the alleged incident.

Muslims must realise that the honour of their faith does not only rest on its teachings alone. How Muslims conduct themselves can sully its reputation grievously. The destruction of the Bamiyan sculptures by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the mass rape of Iraq's Yazidi women by the Islamic State soldiers are, among other things, also a direct attack on Islam's reputation as a tolerant, humane faith.

"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle," warned Edmund Burke, an 18th century Irish philosopher and statesman.

It is not enough to express our condemnation. As the majority community, let's take a page out of history. I have heard old-timers recount to me how, during the Pakistan era, they went on nightly vigils to protect Hindus during riots. Next Durga Puja, let's set up a multi-faith infrastructure to protect the freedom of religion.

The majority community needs to ensure the safety and honour of all minorities as if the honour of our faith depended on it. Because it does.

But I would like to believe that we will protect you, my sisters and brothers, for a simpler reason. We will protect you because for millennia we have shared this land, and shared together all the joys and sorrows that life offers. We will protect you because regardless of your faith, you are part of our family.

Over a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore returned the knighthood following the 1919 massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab.

In a letter to Lord Chelmsford, the erstwhile viceroy, Tagore wrote: "The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings."

Tagore's protest was against the British colonial government, but mine is a call to arms to the majority community.

My Hindu sisters and brothers, I share your grief, pain, and outrage. What I cannot share with you is a terrible burden of guilt that is mine alone.

We failed to protect you.


Ashfaque Swapan is a writer and editor based in Atlanta, US.


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