The senseless attack on a minority village in Brahmanbaria and the destruction of property and a temple there do not reveal any new truth about intolerance and the communal side of a certain section of our population in the country.
It also does not forebode a sudden shift in the population, at large, towards bigotry and a surge in communalism.
What it does, however, is wake us up to the dangers of tolerance of such conduct at a political level and the continued existence of the mindset of the religious divide that has dominated the country since the time of the Indo-Pak partition.
It is a reminder that this divide was exploited for political purposes in Pakistan for as long we were part of that country and, more lamentably, even after the birth of Bangladesh, once wedded to the principle of secularism.
In the coming days, when our political leaders and government agencies probe into this unfortunate incident, like they did after the marauders ransacked a Buddhist village in Ramu, strong words of condemnation will be uttered. Everyone will decry the incident and call for the heads of those who caused this grievous assault.
In fact, it is most likely that some small time criminals and hired goons who probably took part in this riot will be found, brought to justice, and attempts will be made to assure the minority community that there will be no repeat of such heinous acts.
Life will again turn to normal for some time, until another similar incident happens in a different area of the country.
I say this rather shamefacedly because the Brahmanbaria incident is not unique in our country. It has happened before, maybe not on such a massive scale against a whole village, but against individuals belonging to the minority community. The individual murder cases, majority of which occurred in the last four years, were explained away as the handiwork of a politically committed group determined to undermine and embarrass the government in the public and foreign eyes.
Although none, or a very few of these murders, have been solved, people accepted the cases as targeted attacks which were not necessarily against a whole community. However, such explanations are not enough to assure the minority community as a whole of their safety in a country that has a long history of communal turbulence.
The recurrence of such incidents, despite our government’s apparent effort to prevent these and the prevalence of communal harmony among the majority of our people, have to do with a number of facts.
The facts are, not necessarily, in any order of importance: Growth of religious intolerance, considering secularism as the absence of religion, exploitation of religion for political purposes, and a resurgence of political Islam in the country and amongst its committed followers.
Those who are behind these calculated assaults to foment discord and cook up an excuse for a riot and mayhem are enemies of society, state, and secularism
Bangladesh is not alone in the first two; in India there has been a gradual corrosion of religious tolerance, notably since the rise of BJP and a stranglehold on politics by extreme rightist elements there. Secularism is under threat in India as these elements appear to force the government to accept their religiously-biased demands time to time.
Unlike India, we cannot say that secularism is threatened in Bangladesh because we effectively dissolved that concept, one of the four founding principles of our first constitution, when the military usurpers of the government declared Islam as the state religion.
The current government has tried to scotch tape that amendment by reinsertion of secularism in the constitution, but without changing the part that gives the country a state religion. Ostensibly, the state religion has been retained not to ignite or provoke the majority of the country but without any regard to the effect such a constitutional status given to one religion will have on the minority community.
This brings to my mind the historic speech given by Shrish Chandra Chattopadhyay, then leader of the opposition (Congress member from then East Bengal) in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, after the introduction of the Objectives Resolution by then Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan. The Objectives Resolution had brought into discussion the course of action that the country should follow to establish its laws in accordance with the Qur’an and Sunnah. Criticising it in the constituent assembly, Chattopadhyay said on March 12, 1949:
“In my conception of state where people of different religions live, there is no place for religion in the state. Its position must be neutral: No bias for any religion. If necessary, it should help all the religions equally. No question of concession or tolerance to any religion. It smacks of inferiority complex. The state must respect all religions: No smiling face for one and askance look to the other. The state religion is a dangerous principle.”
It is remarkable that in less than 25 years of this resolution, the eastern part of Pakistan would break away to form a country based on principles articulated by Chattopadhyay.
The birth of Bangladesh based on a concept of linguistic and cultural nationhood broke away from the concept of nationhood based on religion. However, the divide between communities was never completely gone from the psyche of many people. This is why we see a recurrence of the transgressions of the kind seen in Brahmanbaria and other places in the country.
In the same speech referred to above, Shrish Chandra Chattopadhyay had said while referring to the Hindu minority community of then East Bengal (about 25% that time):
“But we belong to East Bengal. One-fourth of the population is still non-Muslim. We are not going to leave East Bengal. It is our homeland. It is not a land by our adoption. East Bengal is my land. I claim that East Bengal and Eastern Pakistan belong to me as well as to any Mussalman and it will be my duty to make Pakistan a great, prosperous, and powerful state so that it may get a proper place in the comity of nations because I call myself a Pakistani. I wish that Pakistan must be a great state. We are living in East Bengal peacefully, in peace and amity with Muslim neighbours as we had been living from generations to generations. Therefore, I am anxious to see that its constitution is framed in such a way which may suit the Muslims as well as the non-Muslims.”
Had Shrish Chandra been alive today, he would have perhaps repeated his words, albeit in a different context. But his message would have been the same.
Bangladesh, once East Pakistan and East Bengal, had been home to both Muslims and Hindus (as well as other minorities) for centuries. They have lived together as peaceful communities, and despite political manipulation and resurgence of communalism from time to time, Bangladesh belongs to all communities.
But it is one thing to talk of religious equality and impartiality, and another to live it.
Our government and political leaders cannot fulfill their obligation only by reacting to crisis, but by creating conditions of safety and security in the mind of all. This cannot be achieved simply by catching the culprits, but by reinforcing religious equality and impartiality in our laws, the principle that the founding fathers of our constitution believed in.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.