There is no denying the fact that the minorities suffer persecution in Bangladesh every now and again the true extent of which ranges from intimidation to extermination accompanying vandalism, profanities, plunder, arson attacks, molestation and rapes in between. The latest incident of minority persecution occurred on 16 May 2015, when a Hindu community village named Dash Para (Majhi Para) under Sarpukur union of Aditmari upazila in Lalmonirhat district suffered a series of attacks by the students and teachers of a local madrasah. Many houses of the Hindu families along with a temple were vandalized by the attackers. Nearly a hundred families had sought shelter from the attacks in the surrounding neighbourhood. Though the attackers and the attacked put the blame on each other for provocation, the violence had, quite arguably, occurred as a sequel to the last Union Parishad elections in 2011 where the Hindu voters of that locality were 'accused' of not having cast their votes for the ringleader of the attackers. This is however, not a solitary example of racist blames. As a matter of fact, during different elections, the presumptive accusation of minority votes against the hardcore Islamists has become a communal stereotype, which paves the way for minority persecution in Bangladesh throughout the year.
The 10th national election of 5 January, 2014 was no exception! Much before the New Year's joys had been over, the sorrows of the incidents of persecution inflicted upon the Hindus and other religious minorities arrived with a shocking turn of events, and made us sink in gloom. In a frenzy of violence, the disgruntled rioters of Jamaat Shibir set fire to their houses, looted their shops, vandalized their temples and profaned idols, and even raped their women and killed innocent people in Jessore, Gaibandha, Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Bogra, Lalmonirhat, Rajshahi, and Chittagong , the worst affected of which is Abhaynagar upazila in Jessore. On the very Election Day, as dusk was falling, the marauding Muslim fanatics swooped on the innocent villagers-the elderly, women and kids- like the hungry wolves pouncing on poor little lambs. They vainly tried to flee their village by swimming across the Bhairab River in the chilling cold of winter. Why the rioters went on the rampage was obvious to everyone. They seemed to be sworn in to wreak vengeance on the Hindus, who have supposedly voted Awami League to power against the Islamist fundamentalists.
The crisis was getting worse and worse. Hardly a day went by without the recurrence of violence perpetrated on the minorities. The number of victims and places of occurrences were on the increase. Many of them were fleeing in terror and many were taking shelter from attacks in the temples, but to no avail. I, however, won't give a graphic description of the violent incidents in this short space. Our good journalists did the job in right earnest. I would only try to gauge the gravity of the situation by analyzing the incidents as they occurred and were reported in the print and electronic media.
As usual, after the fact, the minority associations howl their displeasure, the humanitarian organizations and civil society representatives raise voice, and the government agencies assure of all-out effort to curb further atrocity, ensure the victims' safety and conduct speedy trials of the perpetrators. But the communal fury shows no sign of abating. The immediate reason for this is that the perpetrators have been continuing to do this with impunity for ages. If the trials of minority persecution after 2001 election had properly been done and served the criminals right, history would not have repeated itself or things would have happened to a lesser degree. But the chilling truth is that the trials have been kept on ice and the perpetrators seem to get off scot free and have resumed atrocities with redoubled enthusiasm. However, violence fired up after the Jamaat firebrand Sayedee had been sentenced to death in early March last year (2013). It intensified after the execution of the verdict of another war criminal, Kader Mollah and culminated in wholesale outrage caused probably by the growing apprehension about the speedy execution of other war criminals languishing in prison. Though the Jamaat-Shibir fanatics are the real culprits, BNP may have a sneaking support in it, and even Awami League cannot fully disclaim responsibility. Some opportunists from ruling Awami League may try to fish in the troubled water. And because of this sort of party-men involvement, the trials of the previous communal violence are likely to have failed to dispense justice.
The torture on the Hindus in Bangladesh on, before and after 5 January 2014 is 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 majority Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh. For this continued hostility, many fled the country while others had to 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 1964 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 senior US Senator Edward Kennedy's November 1, 1971 report on international relations submitted to the senate committee testifies to the ferocity of the violence done against the Hindus. To quote: "Hardest hit have been members of the Hindu community who have been robbed of their lands and shops, systematically slaughtered, and in some places, painted with yellow patches marked "H". All of this has been officially sanctioned, ordered and implemented under martial law from Islamabad."
The Hindu population rate kept declining even in Bangladesh, which now stands only at a single digit (8 per cent). This steep decline has mostly resulted from the overall effect of the persecution inflicted on the Hindus over the decades. However, the post-election outrage started in October 2001 after BNP-Jamaat alliance came into power. This added a new dimension to the problem of minority torture. 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, which was later vitiated by two consecutive military rulers who tried to Islamize the constitution and the state for gaining cheap popularity. We do not know what good it brought for Islam in Bangladesh, but we know for sure it paved the way for prolonged communal disharmony and religious militancy in our secular soil. Even though there are clear instructions in our hugely dissected constitution as to how to practice religion in the country. "?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, Article 27).
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, dropped into the pond, and 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.r
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University. Email: [email protected]