The attacks on minority Hindus in Bangladesh in the wake of the recent Durga Puja celebrations are a crying shame. The way the rabid religious fanatics flew into a howling rage and perpetrated the week-long spell of communal violence spreading like wildfire, is a shock to the system. The atrocities they committed and the reasons for these they showed are far from the basic decencies of civilized society. And the real thought they had at the back of their mind is way dangerous for the existence of independent Bangladesh. These are not only crimes against humanity but also against values enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh. However, the incidents have raised a storm of protest at home and abroad. The government is going all out to resist them. And we all should voice concern about our country’s safety.
These attacks on the Hindu community in Bangladesh, however, are not an isolated incident. As a matter of fact, Bangladeshi Hindus have suffered years of endemic violence and abuse. The recent occurrences are occasional outbreaks of the long-drawn-out hostility towards minority Hindus by Muslim fanatics in Bangladesh. Due to this sort of hostility, many fled the country and others grin and bear it. The religious community which once constituted 30 per cent of the total population (1941) in erstwhile East Bengal came down to 25 per cent after the partition of India in 1947, to 18.5 per cent during the Indo-Pak War in 1965 and to13.5 per cent after Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 owing to a mass exodus. Worst of all was the Liberation War period when the Pakistan occupation army and their local lackeys wrought havoc on the Hindus. The Hindu population rate kept declining even in independent Bangladesh, which now stands only at 10 percent. This steep decline has mostly resulted from the overall effect of the persecution inflicted on the Hindus for ages.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a champion of communal harmony and the1972 Constitution provided adequate protection against communal violence. However, this secularist value enshrined in the constitution was later vitiated by two notorious military Generals—Zia and Ershad who assumed power quite unconstitutionally and used religion to manipulate people’s religious sentiment to cushion their illegal power accession from public wrath. This has now become a Gordian knot and even the pro-liberation democratic governments find it difficult to cut it although they feel the urgency. This constitutional indulgence in a particular religion is antithetical to the basic tenets of our independence which may indirectly provoke the religious fanatics into acts of violence.
In October 2001 as the BNP-Jamaat alliance came into power, the incidents of communal violence assumed massive proportions. The people, who once constituted one third of the total population, have been reduced almost to a vanishing breed always threatened with extinction. If not protected before long, they would be in danger of becoming extinct. If that really does happen, what would be the future of our secular Bangladesh? Upon the destruction of the minorities of other religions, the trigger-happy communal rioters would wage war on the opposing factions of their own religion. The multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural Bangladesh would then turn into a mono-ethnic, mono-religious and belligerent land eating up all elements of religious and cultural pluralism. This is precisely what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bangladesh too may suffer the same fate if not held in check. The bigoted and communal rioters of Bangladesh are doing serious harm to secular Bangladesh, its people and culture on one hand and to their expatriate communities on the other.
The world is a melting pot of religions and faiths. The raiding religious fanatics of Bangladesh should not forget that they may be in the majority in their country, but their equals in another country are in the minority. What they would do to their minority may have an equal and opposite reaction, and inspire their opposite numbers in another country to come up with a tit-for-tat behaviour towards their equals in that country. Living in the glasshouse, one should not throw stones at others. Therefore, mutual tolerance and peaceful coexistence should be the foremost survival policy of the religious and ethnic communities. To exist is to coexist! One does not need to be crusader for the protection of their religion. There is no room for militancy in the civilized world.
We have every right to affirm our allegiance to our religion, but not at the cost of infringing other's religious liberties by exercising religious or political muscle. People may have the religions of their own, or may not have if they want. But the state must not be possessed of any religion and would remain completely neutral in regard to its religious allegiance. It would rather, by means of strict enforcement of the laws of the land, protect people's rights to their respective religions. The sublime beauty of religion does not lie in the high-handed display of communal supremacy. It rather lies in practicing religion singly in a meditative and collectively in a peaceful manner. The practitioners of all religions in a country should be allowed to perform their respective religious duties in their own sweet ways quite uninterruptedly and independently of each other and of the state. The constitution of independent Bangladesh ensured absolute religious liberty under one of its four fundamental principles, i.e. secularism, –"all religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the Republic"(Article 2A). The constitution also affirms that "all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law” (Part III, Article27).
However, is it the sign of harmonious practice of religion to destroy the temples and profane the idols? Is this the example of entitlement to equal protection of law to see people being chased or frightened to death, or to see those passing wakeful nights with fear and trembling in their own humble abodes worrying about further attacks? If things relating to minority persecution are not immediately struck with an iron fist by the government, and if the pro-liberation folks from all walks of life do not put up a strong resistance to this widespread communal violence, the dream of a secular, democratic, and non-communal country and of a pluralist society would be completely shattered. 'Live and let live'- is the key to the conservation and protection of a secular environment in Bangladesh as well as in the whole wide world- for now and always.
Bangladesh is a land of religious harmony. “This is the country, where still rise the sounds of azaan/And are heard the recitations of the Gita, the Bible, the Tripitaka and the Ramayani/”—Bhupen Hazarika sings of the glory of Bangladesh’s communal harmony in his famous lyrics. Let’s foster this communal harmony by any means. For 3 million martyrs’ sake, let’s save our Bangladesh from the fanatics.
Dr. Rashid Askari: Bengali-English writer, columnist, fictionist, translator and former vice chancellor, Islamic University, Kushtia, Bangladesh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org