Is Bangladesh becoming East Pakistan?

There are several lessons India can learn from the communal violence in Bangladesh, the foremost being the need to set an example at home

Is Bangladesh becoming East Pakistan?

Prakash Bhandari

Hindus in Bangladesh seem to be upset with Government of India’s cautious response to the communal violence in Bangladesh during the Durga Puja. Sections of the BJP in Bengal are also upset at the absence of strong language and a show of ‘Lal Aankh’ (red eye) by the prime minister. BJP leader and a Trinamool Congress turncoat Suvendu Adhikari, who wrote to the PM urging him to take up the issue with Bangladesh, was also advised to pipe down.

The Indian Government in its calibrated public response in fact praised the Bangladesh Government for taking steps to protect the minorities and in normalising the situation. PM Modi, who, during his visit to Bangladesh earlier this year, had visited Hindu temples and campaigned for Matua votes in the West Bengal election, too has been subdued.

With the minorities in India not feeling very secure, a point rubbed in by the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, reacting to the violence in Bangladesh could have blown up in India’s face. But that said, there is a lot that India can still learn from Bangladesh, where large sections of people condemned the violence, held protests and vigils, were scathing in their criticism of the Government and the police. Minority leaders were given space in the media to have their say and the reporting was factual and not slanted as we are now used to seeing in India.

Writing in Dhaka Tribune this week, Saleem Samad recalled a popular song of Sufi singer Fakir Lalon Shah. The revered singer’s 131st death anniversary fell on October 16. But since October 13, Bangladesh witnessed a frenzy of loot, arson and killing in Hindu homes, temples and villages, the like of which it had not seen in the last 20 years. The immediate provocation was said to be the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran at a Durga Puja pandal and an allegedly derogatory social media post, both unsubstantiated.

In this backdrop the fakir’s song seemed apt. “O how long are we to wait/For the birth of a society/Where castes and class and labels/Like Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian/ Will be forgotten?/And none will be there to swindle the innocent/ Pretending to be their saviour/Nor will there be bigots.”

As Bangladesh’s Prime Minister warned miscreants, while pointedly saying that events across the border in India were instigating mischief mongers in her own country, students and civil society staged protests and demanded harsh and exemplary punishment. Mindful of the poor image the communal clashes were projecting, Bangladesh Government did direct stern measures.

Five miscreants were shot dead by Bangladesh Police and between October 14 and October 20, 470 miscreants were arrested. The ruling Awami League ‘de-nominated’ some of their own leaders, who were found to have instigated the violence. The police however failed to prevent miscreants who set hundreds of houses on fire, burnt standing crops and vandalised over 80 puja pandals in Kumilla, Rangpur, Chittagong and other districts where the violence spread. At least two Hindus were killed though the full magnitude of the carnage is still not clear. Ironically, the police did manage to prevent any damage to the house of the teenaged boy who was accused of writing the derogatory social media post. The family fled and the boy’s statement was recorded. Students and members of the civil society hit the streets and demanded protection of minorities and exemplary punishment to miscreants.

Several commentators compared the attack on Hindus in October 2021 to the post-poll violence in October 2001 when Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, in alliance with Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, had swept to power. Thousands of Hindus had then taken refuge in West Bengal.

Bangladesh has around 12.73 million Hindus, who constitute barely 8.5% of the population. Samad quoted researcher Mohiuddin Ahmed to point out that nowhere in the world have racial strifes or violence occurred without state and the politicians’ tacit indulgence. “Not in Bosnia, Gujarat, Arakan, Nasirnagar or in Delhi.”

Commentators have also pointed out that perpetrators of violence on Hindus in the past were let off lightly. “In the last 20 years, the state has failed to bring the perpetrators and hooligans to face justice. They have enjoyed impunity, and this has caused a ripple of insecurity among Hindus and other minorities,” wrote Samad.

Dhaka University Vice Chancellor Prof M. Akhtar-uz-Zaman said: “Durga Puja celebrations in this country are a model of secularism for the entire world. This festival is open to people of all religions.”

Khulna and other University Teachers’ Associations also condemned the attack on the Hindu community. Rights activists under the banner “Poets, litterateurs, artists and journalists against communal terrorism” held a protest rally in front of the National Museum at Shahbagh in Dhaka. Protest processions and rallies also took place in Dhaka, Tangail, Chittagong, Rangamati, Barisal, Bogra and several other districts..

A newspaper editorial commented, “…whether pre-meditated by provocateurs or whether it is a failure of our law enforcement agencies to protect our Hindu and other minority populations, one thing is clear: This has to stop, and it has to stop now.”

Former cricket captain of Bangladesh and a Member of Parliament Mashrafe bin Mortaza posted a picture of a burning village in Rangpur and wrote on his Facebook page, “Saw two defeats last night. One was Bangladesh Cricket team’s (in the T20 World Cup) and that hurt. The other one was a defeat for the whole of Bangladesh, which tore my heart to pieces.”

Over 13,000 community Durga Pujas are held in Bangladesh. I visited some of these Pujas in Dinajpur in 2019, accompanied by Dr. Amjad Hossain, a leading orthopaedic surgeon in Bangladesh. The Hindu organisers were candid in telling me that they could hold it only due to the generous donations given by Muslims. “They are more prosperous and more in number. Without their help, it would not be possible,” said Pulak Debnath, a school teacher, who also pointed out that Muslim neighbours also shared the ‘Bhog’.

But even in 2019 it was clear that pressure was mounting on Hindus to stop holding Durga Pujas in public. Threats have been held out to Puja committees even in the national capital but Hindus in the rural areas are particularly vulnerable because of poor policing and access. Radical Islamic groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam have been demanding that Hindus should leave and migrate to India.

Sadly, Bangladesh is observing this year the golden jubilee of its liberation from Pakistan. The country had started off in 1971 with a secular constitution. But secularism was removed from the constitution in 1977 by Ziaur Rahman, who replaced it with a statement of “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah” while declaring Islam as the state religion in 1988. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored secularism but allowed Islam to remain as the state religion.

Hindus like Jagdish Chandra Das, a fisherman in Rangpur, are now waking up to a new reality, namely they are unwanted. Das did not recognise anyone in the mob which attacked his village with sticks and sharp weapons. He with others took shelter in the paddy fields in the dark while the mob set fire to the village. Das had bought a new fridge the day before and laments that the fridge too was burnt.

The Home Minister of Bangladesh Asad-uz-Zaman Khan Kamal told Press Trust of India over the phone that four rioters had been shot dead by the police (a fifth one succumbed to his injuries in the hospital). He blamed the Puja committees for not paying any heed to advisories to install CCTV cameras and deploy volunteers to keep peace.

There is a lull now in Bangladesh. It will require statesmanship of a high order to douse the fire of hate. India can help by extending a helping hand to both Muslims and Hindus of Bangladesh and by reining in the persecution of minorities at home.

Can the two countries put the genie back in the bottle is the question.

Views are personal

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