RECENT attacks on Hindus and their property demonstrate the immensely sad but blunt reality that even after forty two years of democratic pluralistic existence, the religious minority of Bangladesh have not been able to save themselves from the deadly embrace of communal fire. When the battered Hindu citizens propose to disenfranchise the entire community by publicly asking to strike Hindus off the voters list so that they can escape the wrath of politically motivated obscurantist elements, one can gauge the depth and severity of the wound.
Historically speaking, one has to admit that Bengal as a whole was not totally free from communal clashes, however loudly we may try to proclaim our non-communal mindset. Surely, Bengalis did not experience the horrendous brutalities that residents of greater Punjab went through in the wake of the greatly unsettling partition of 1947.The fact of the matter is that Bengali Hindus did suffer in great measure in the 1946 communal riot, particularly in Noakhali.
Thereafter, in 1950, in the then East Pakistan the Bengali Hindus were victims of communal flare ups. One can recall the Liaqat-Nehru pact which was aimed principally to protect and save the minority from communal violence. Such violence, however, did recur later owing to socio- political factors both in India and Pakistan. The Hindus suffered again in terms of life and property in 1964 before suffering en masse in 1971. Prior to that, following the India-Pak war of 1965, the enactment of Enemy Property Act reduced them to the status of second class citizens; and in 1971 they were quite clearly victims of what in later time came to be known as ‘Ethnic cleansing.’
On a sub-continental perspective, one could speak volumes about the genesis of communal friction tracing as far back as the conquest of India by Muhammad Bin Kashim. Others could refer to the communal award of early twentieth century by British colonial rulers that according to them was a corollary to the divide and rule policy; still others would point an accusing finger at the two-nation theory resulting in the partition of India on communal lines that according to them sanctioned communal politics.
The debate on the origin of sub-continental communal divide and the resultant tension, as also the identification of the malevolent actors, could go on indefinitely without producing durable solution for the sufferers. Hence, it is time to find out why the number of Hindus has decreased over the years, particularly since the creation of People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1971? Has our policy been same as it was when we were part of Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Has the mindset of the majority community really changed for establishing the ethos of equal rights society?
We in Bangladesh need to ask whether it is religion per se or the politicisation of religious identity and the mobilisation of this identity for community and state ends that have resulted in communal violence. We also need to find out whether the emphasis is on contests for power and resources. Have the recent violent outbreaks occurred with the acquiescence of the administration?
Experience indicates that quite often the outbreaks of communal violence have not been the result of spontaneous outbursts of passionately held religious beliefs; they are carefully planned and orchestrated and occur within a context of political mobilisation. Violence has been facilitated by the ability of officials and criminals to behave and act with impunity. It has been seen that in circumstances in which the state acts resolutely violence prone situations do not erupt into large scale disturbances.
Coming to specifics, in Bangladesh, why do we witness attacks on Hindu properties? Is creation of hatred a ploy for some of the majority Muslim politicians and influential people to grab Hindu property? The torching of Hindu houses over a petty altercation quite clearly indicates the malafide intention of terrorising and dislocating the vulnerable minority. Simple common sense should tell that the ferocity of attack on Hindus is caused by the victims’ weakness and the perpetrator’s immunity from the process of law. Are the patrons of the mischief-makers too powerful to be dislodged?
The immediate imperative, under the circumstances, is to effectively deactivate the vultures that are on the watch to grab the lands and properties of panicked Hindus. This requires political will and stern administrative measures for ensuring continued security. However, beyond that, the minorities need to politically organise themselves in such a manner that in course of time, issues of their honourable existence become a focus of mainstream politics. Such course of action is expected to provide substantial relief.
The politicians cannot be part of a deliberate effort to realign state and cultural power in the interest of the majority because that will result in non-Muslim minorities being defined explicitly or implicitly as second class citizens of Bangladesh. It is only proper that the flowering of a nation demands proactive action from the state. Finally, let us bear in mind that the concept of ‘Ummah’ in the historic ‘Medina Charter’ included all faiths.