November  2001 

Hindu trauma

The increasing communalisation of Bangladesh polity lies behind the countrywide attacks on its Hindu minority immediately after the Jamaat-e-Islami backed Begum Khaleda Zia’s return to power


I happen to know a Hindu Bangalee family in Dhaka. Voting over on election day, the lady of the house asked her Muslim maid whom she voted for. "I voted for the BNP," the maid intoned. Curious, her mistress asked why. "Because the Awami League is a Hindu party", answered the maid.

There have been many analyses of the results of the last general election. And rightly so, even though I do not understand why they have sometimes been so morbidly called "post–mortems". The gloom implied in that term should in fact have been reserved for another phenomenon that the elections brought to the fore: communalism. Unlike the results of the elections, the nature of that phenomenon has scarcely been examined.

Press reports of the ugly resurgence of communalism have been numerous enough. They suggest an unprecedented number of incidents of violence against Hindu Bangalees all over the country. Public memory is notoriously short. But one must still remember the extent of violence against the community that erupted in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu bigots in India in 1992. Hindus were attacked and temples were destroyed or damaged by Muslim zealots in Bangladesh in mindless retaliation. This time around, there was no incident of provocation. Yet, by all accounts, the violence against the community surpassed even its Babri Mosque level.

It is not my intention here to go into the extent of the present violence at any great length. Yet it is impossible not to be drawn to the shameful scene being enacted in the country. Press reports from impartial sources speak of a vast number of cases of assaults on Hindus by Muslim hoodlums. These reports have come in from the length and breadth of the country and are not limited to a few areas. Frightened Hindus have fled their homes to places of relative safety. In many cases they were forced out of their homes. There have been numerous instances of Hindu images of worship being destroyed before Durga Puja, the most important festival of the community.

In one of the most recent acts of utter bestiality, reported in the Daily Star and elsewhere, a young Hindu girl was gang–raped in her own home while the other members of her family were beaten up and subdued. Many more reports of rape and mayhem have come to light. Leading groups of respected liberal intellectuals and non–government organizations have called the present spate of repression of minorities a national crisis, not a local problem. And how many such acts of barbarism have remained unreported?

One also recalls how only two years ago, in October 1999, there were widespread acts of violence against the community. It was Durga Puja season. In some dozen districts of the country, puja mandaps were ransacked and damaged, destroyed or desecrated. A Daily Star editorial on these incidents is still fresh in my mind.

Of course, not everybody agrees that there has been widespread violence against the minorities this time around. Some might not even have noticed anything unusual in such violence. An advisor in the last caretaker government reportedly called communal riots a "natural thing". And the present home minister maintains that reports of attacks against the Hindus are grossly exaggerated and politically motivated.

Most recently, the finance minister, on his part, has said that these reports were pure Awami League propaganda. It is strange, though, that on the very day when he was berating the League for the supposed propaganda, his government was assuring India that attackers of the Hindu community would be severely punished, in a clear admission that such attacks have indeed taken place.

Both the actual extent of the misery brought on the Hindu community and the attempt to belittle it lead, ironically, to the same overwhelming question: why? It has been almost thirty years since the ideas of secular democracy triumphed and led to the founding of Bangladesh. How is it that sectarian violence against a large section of the minorities continues to plague the nation?

To be sure, the vast majority of the Muslim population of the country has no involvement in acts of hostilities against the Hindus. But it has not prevented such acts either. Which is not far removed from saying that the majority acquiesced. The machinery of government, on the other hand, has been conspicuously lax in dealing with recurring acts of sectarian crime.

Let sociologists and other experts as well as politicians begin such an undertaking in earnest. A layman like myself would, however, wish them to begin by recognizing some simple home truths. One such truth is that the mental make–up of the maid we encountered above is not hers alone. It is widely shared. The antipathy of many Muslims towards Hindus comes in many shades. But it does exist. It prevails among the lowest rungs of the society as well as among the highest. It runs through the simple peasant, to the educated elite, to the political leadership. One can of course be sure that Hindus fully reciprocate with antipathies of their own towards Muslims. But the huge difference in size of the two communities should leave no one in doubt where the main responsibility for redress lies.

Much has happened over the years that tended to widen the distance between the two communities and may even have strengthened the antipathy of the average Muslim towards the Hindu Bangalee. By changing the secular character of the constitution of the country, Ziaur Rahman took the major first step in this regard. General Ershad went a step further by having Islam declared as the state religion. The democratically elected political leaders who succeeded them did little to stem that trend. In fact some of their actions and utterances had the consequence of further widening the gap between the two communities.

When, for example, Begum Zia told her countrymen that to vote for the Awami League was to replace azaan with uluddhwani she was clearly presenting herself as a powerful standard bearer for the Muslim majority and, by implication, as an adversary of the Hindus. She was of course playing to the (Muslim) gallery. But the net effect was the same.

To continue with the sorry tale, when she engaged in such propaganda as to suggest that to vote for the League was to vote out bismillah, she was championing the Muslim community. Or when she suggested that the water that flows into Bangladesh from Farakka was not fit for wazu (coming as it does from a Hindu India that forced on Bangladesh an unfair water–sharing treaty), she was pandering to the basest kind of thinking among her Muslim constituents.

Ordinary people take their cue from leaders, especially if they feel that it suits them. In the absence of any counterbalancing action by the leader, there was enough in those utterances to strengthen the latent Muslim antipathy towards Hindus. In this case, Begum Zia had no word of reassurance for her Hindu Bangalee compatriots. Neither was there the necessary preemptive warning to potential mischief–makers.

The role of the Awami League, on the other hand, would sadden any secular mind. The leaders of the party which led the struggle for a secular democratic state, have of late been preoccupied with attempts to prove how truly Islamic they were. Sheikh Hasina wanted to look devoutly Muslim, as did many of her colleagues. Like the utterances of the other major political leader mentioned above, public display of private faith can have unintended consequences.

It seemed as if the AL leadership was engaged in a kind of religious bidding game with the BNP and other political parties. The strategy has not worked to the advantage of the League. But, in the process, an important prop of psychological support critical to the minority community has been further weakened, making Hindu Bangalees more vulnerable.

If communal harmony is to be ensured, it is essential to separate politics from religion. To see the difficulty of that proposition in the Bangladesh context is not to deny its imperative. The BNP, now in power, offered volunteers to protect puja mandaps and Hindu worshippers during the just concluded Durga Puja. The government offered money and police protection to the community. There was also a report that even the Jamaat–e–Islami, in Khulna, offered volunteers to protect Hindu worshippers during the festivities.

That must be considered the very height of irony in the circumstances. Not to be outdone, the Awami League on its part asked its volunteers to protect Hindu worshippers during the puja.

It is extremely difficult to see all this as a change of heart. To create a national psyche that values communal harmony will need far more than mere gestures. n

(The author is an economist and former international civil servant who lives in New York).

(Courtesy, The Daily Star, Dhaka)


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