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Bangladesh PM Hasina's assurance to Hindus has lessons for India's leaders

As New Delhi puts pressure on Dhaka to address anti-Hindu violence, it is time our leaders learn from Hasina and publicly address the harm communalism is causing
Last Updated : 18 October 2021, 09:24 IST
Last Updated : 18 October 2021, 09:24 IST

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The violence against Hindus in Bangladesh shows no signs of abating, but Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, seems to have her heart in the right place. With reports of Hindu temples and Durga Puja pandals being vandalised, people being killed and injured, she deployed paramilitary forces in 22 districts to contain the spread of violence. She sent out a clear message that the religious freedom of Hindus would be protected in Bangladesh under her leadership.

Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country. The violence began in response to the circulation of doctored images on social media showing the Holy Quran at the feet of Hanuman at a Durga Puja pandal. Anyone who has been to a Durga Puja knows that Hanuman is not worshipped there. Only Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh, Kartikeya and Shiva are present at the pandal.

Hasina went on record to say that the people who incited violence against Hindus would be hunted down and given appropriate punishments to prevent any recurrence of such incidents. Instead of plunging into a state of denial about what was happening in her country, she chose to address the problem and speak of justice. Leaders of other South Asian countries need to learn from this.

While exchanging greetings with the Hindu community in Bangladesh, she said, "This land belongs to you; you have your rights. Don't consider yourselves as minorities; you should have this confidence." Though Hasina's statement might be seen as an empty gesture without any real-world implications for the ones being persecuted, this acknowledgement of minorities as equal citizens is significant.

It is worth remembering that unlike Pakistan, created along religious lines, Bangladesh was created along linguistic lines. A Bengali linguistic and cultural identity is what binds the citizens of Bangladesh to each other. Islamist extremists in Bangladesh have been trying hard to undermine this, and Hasina's government has not had the easiest time dealing with their attempts to provoke violence.

Dousing the fire that is burning now is crucial, but a long-term strategy is also needed, and Hasina is doing the groundwork. At a media briefing, her junior information minister Murad Hassan announced that the Bangladesh government has decided to revert to its 1972 secular constitution. When this development comes into effect, Islam will cease to be the official state religion of Bangladesh.

Hasina is a leader whose father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh, was assassinated, and she has also survived several assassination attempts. She knows what it means to live with fear. Yet, she is standing up to the Islamist extremists in her country, conveying to the citizens of Bangladesh that they cannot afford to cower in terror and let themselves be divided along religious lines.

Hasina announced, "People of all religions shall live together in Bangladesh." As India is putting pressure on Bangladesh to address violence against Hindus, it is also time for our leaders to take a cue from Hasina and publicly address the harm that communalism and sectarianism are causing in India. Violence against Muslims in India has triggered violence against Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

We already have a secular constitution in India. But appreciation for that is diminishing, especially as the word "secular" itself has been politicised and associated with narratives of minority appeasement rather than seeing it as a recipe for how to coexist with differences. The South Asian brand of secularism does not expect individuals to give up their faith, and it requires us to respect the faiths of others.

Even as we hope for Hasina to back her words with swift action, we must remember that Bangladesh has not had the most glowing human rights record recently, thanks to enforced disappearances and attacks on press freedom. Hasina's characterisation of Rohingya refugees as a security threat to Bangladesh has also been heavily criticised as an attempt to escape responsibility.

That said, her decision to revert to a secular constitution is indeed a courageous one. She may already be anticipating a backlash from the Islamist extremists in her country, but that has not kept her from doing what needs to be done. Giving up the official state religion in favour of secularism is a highly unusual step for South Asia, where religious extremism is on the rise everywhere, be it in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka or the Maldives.

(Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors’ own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH

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Published 18 October 2021, 08:34 IST

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