Protect the minorities

Protect the minorities

Truth is, the minorities of Bangladesh continue to face a number of challenges to their freedom of religion or belief

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Credit: PTI File Photo

The recent incidents of majoritarian atrocities against Bangladesh’s Hindu minority community during Durga Puja sparked outrage in India, and not without reason. While the ruling Awami League has accused the opposition alliance of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami of masterminding the attacks to create communal tension in the country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made righteous noises about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for her country. Prime Minister Modi has praised his Bangladeshi counterpart for moving quickly to take control of the situation, which irked Bangladeshi Hindus, including the Bangladeshi arm of ISKCON, no end. According to them, the situation on the ground is still far from being normal.

Truth is, the minorities of Bangladesh continue to face a number of challenges to their freedom of religion or belief. It seems to be an endless spiral of communal violence, followed by some arrests and a round of pious platitudes about the secular credentials of Bangladesh — until the next round. Under all political dispensations — be it the first post-liberation government led by Mujibur Rahman, the military regimes of Zia ur Rahman or H M Ershad, the democratically elected Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government led by Khaleda Zia, or the Awami League governments led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed — the persecution of religious minorities has continued, albeit, in varying degrees.

According to Bangladesh’s 2011 Census, Sunni Muslims constitute 90% and Hindus make up 8.5 per cent of the total population, the rest being Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist, besides small numbers of Shia Muslims, Bahais, animists, and Ahmadiyya Muslims. Due to societal persecution, discrimination, and mistreatment on a regular basis, the declining number of the Hindu population is of particular concern, as demographers note that their numbers have come down to the present level from 23 per cent at the time of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. The tale of the missing numbers has given rise to many narratives of torture, dislocation and mass migration.

Systematic dispossession began when in 1965, Pakistan introduced the Enemy Property Act, permitting authorities to confiscate land and buildings owned by individuals, particularly Hindus, who had either migrated to India (even if only temporarily) or “were perceived to support India”. Post-liberation, Bangladesh retained the law, renaming it the Vested Property Act which, according to one observer, amounted to sheer land-grabbing, and “caused many Hindu families to emigrate to India and other countries.”

In 1974, though the High Court directed the government to refrain from confiscating property under the law, government officials continued to arbitrarily designate Hindu-owned land as ‘enemy property’, confiscate the land, evict the owners, and then lease it out to the majority population.

In 2001, the Vested Properties Return Act was enacted to repeal the VPA and return seized property, but the proper and full implementation of the law did not happen on the ground. In 2011, an implementing law was enacted, but its effective ‘implementation’ was marred by the fact that many of the confiscations that had taken place decades ago could not be returned.

The political dispensation of the Awami League, according to all received wisdom, is progressive and non-communal and, above all, friendly to India. It is also a fact that her government is fighting a pitched and protracted battle with communal forces. The determination with which it is clamping down on communal rogues, unlike a few other Islamic states that have capitulated to Islamist fundamentalists, is courageous. What is doubly reassuring is that her government is backed by a right-thinking civil society and student groups expressing solidarity with the cause of the persecuted minorities.

Clashes had erupted following social media posts about the alleged desecration of the Quran in a Durga Puja pandal in Comilla district. That the mob violence started after rumours spread through social media is alarming. The man who placed the Quran inside the Durga Puja pandal was arrested. The fact that he belonged to the majority community is proof that he did so to trigger communal passions. As has been seen in different communal riots elsewhere, including in India, this is a standard tool for majoritarian riot-mongers — to engage in surreptitious acts of subversion and sacrilege so as to invoke grounds of ‘blasphemy’ or ‘humiliation’.

The larger issue is how a number of people remain so deeply communalised in Bangladesh where, though Islam is the State religion, a Supreme Court decision reversed a 1975 amendment and reaffirmed secularism as a Constitutional principle in 2010. The Bangladesh Constitution provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions, subject to law, public order, and morality, while maintaining that every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain, and manage its own religious institutions. The Constitution-makers – and one may presume the people of Bangladesh as well – chose to stick to the principles of secularism (and freedom of religion) – in view of the communal havoc since the Partition of the subcontinent, and the brutal regime they experienced when they were part of Pakistan. But the removal in 1977 of secularism as one of the four fundamental principles of the Bangladeshi Constitution, and the declaration of Islam as the State religion in 1988, point to how the nation stands torn between religion and secularism.

That the 1947 Partition did not provide a ‘solution’ to the ‘communal problem’ is clear by now. And that there has been no let-up in religious persecution can be explained, in part, by the demographic movements across the borders, particularly in the Bengal region. But, if we take recourse to historical precedents arguing that, alongside minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, throughout history, majorities have responded to minorities by either acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing (as took place against the Jews in Nazi Germany) or expulsion (Pandits in Kashmir, or Christians in Iraq) or suppression (Kurds in Turkey) or intimidation (Copts in Egypt) or exclusion (Roma people in Europe and Tamils in Sri Lanka) or by demanding integration and assimilation with respect to its Maghrebian communities in France, we would miss the whole point of our sub-continental history and the sanguinary lessons it taught us — that is, to stay away from reactive communal outbreaks. 

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