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The de-secularization of Bangladesh

  • Published at 12:02 am October 24th, 2019
When will the hate stop? MEHEDI HASAN

All religious groups have a home in our country, and their rights should be protected

Bhola has been a shocker in the way Ramu was. One could argue that all these years after the Buddhist community came under attack in Ramu, communalism would be put on the leash, that no repetition of such sordid behaviour would occur. But the behaviour has occurred. The fanatics have created the perfect conditions for the sort of instability which a modern state does not need. 

But should we really be surprised at this retreat of secular politics in Bangladesh? What has happened in Ramu and now in Bhola are incidents held together by a common thread. That could be a good reason for us not to be taken aback, though alarmed at the ferocity of it, by the threat of persecution hanging over the Ahmadiyya community in this country, by the fears which have consistently assailed the Hindu community. The country’s Christians have been moving out of sight, making long treks to new homes in safer countries beyond the seas.

Even so, there are a good number of us yet holding fast to the belief that the country we forged on the basis of secular Bengali nationalism has continued to rest on the fundamentals of non-communalism. But that belief comes in for a rude shakedown when putatively liberal Bengali Muslims whisper their worries about the presence of “so many Hindus” in the civil administration. These are people who profess allegiance to the spirit of the War for Liberation and yet have no qualms about demonstrating in them the decline of the secular spirit so gloriously upheld by the leadership which took us to freedom.

In truth, though, the assault on secularism came even as Bangabandhu and his team went into a streamlining of the administration of the new state they had caused to be born through war. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani was the first man to hurl a rock at the fundamentals of the secular state through his new-found mantra of Muslim Bangla. It was a slogan which cheered the losing side in the war, those who lay low biding their time. Bhashani had suddenly given them hope. 

It was the first move in a calculated program of defeating secular politics through rekindling the communalism which had caused multi-dimensional tragedy in 1947. When, therefore, the life and career of the Red Maulana come under scrutiny today, his deliberate emphasis on a return to communal politics in secular Bangladesh cannot be ignored. It was the beginning of the thread.

Bigotry acquired a more fearsome form with the rise of Khondokar Moshtaq and his cabal of assassins to power in August 1975. They brought in the “zindabad” factor in the working of their blood-drenched regime; they inserted majoritarian religion into their concept of things, a move that was cemented further by the Ziaur Rahman regime. 

The seerat conference presided over by MG Tawab at Suhrawardy Udyan in February 1976 was the most potent hint of the direction to which the country was being pushed in the post-Mujib era. The merchants of communalism were cheered to no end, and awaited a formal re-emergence into the sunshine. De-secularization was in full play, the state having been given a dose of it through General Zia’s fiddling with the constitution by dictatorial fiat. The ban on communal political parties, imposed in December 1971 by the Mujibnagar government hours after victory, was soon put out of the way. Secularism cowered in the corner. 

For years, the people of this country have been enlightened on the thought that ours happens to be a society underpinned by communal harmony. And then you confront, as the puja season approaches, the very real threat of Hindu temples falling prey to vandalism that in a number of instances is well organized. Harmony is not to be measured by the silence of the religious minority. Communal harmony is non-existent in a climate of fear, the fear which has historically marred the lives of those whose religious beliefs have differed from those of the dominant religious denomination in a country.

The point for us, here in Bangladesh, is simple: All references to communal harmony have effectively papered over the truth of the battering secular politics has systematically taken over the years. General Ershad, our second military ruler, pulled Bangladesh down quite a few notches more when he decreed Islam as the religion of the state. Secularism suffered some of the more grievous of blows during his time, helped not a little by enthusiastic sycophants operating within the civil administration and egging him along in his mission of destroying democratic politics as a whole. 

Mayhem and murder

With the bigots constantly in a state of alert, always looking to strike blows at liberal politics, the country’s secular politicians remain unwilling to upset the cart. Indeed, appeasement of the religious right has in the last few years been the reality. The ability of the Hefazat-e-Islam to force changes, of a blatantly communal nature, in textbooks is certainly the most sinister sign yet of how secular politics continues to get bloodied and that too on the watch of a putatively secular government.

The mayhem and murder in Bhola, along the lines of Ramu, are only a lengthening of the thread which Bhashani spun in the early 1970s in secular Bangladesh. While we dwell on the thread, let us not ignore the campaign, launched in distant Saudi Arabia and put into implementation in Bangladesh, to have more than 600 model mosques built in this country. Mosques are part of our heritage, but that Saudi move is a brazen move to foist Wahhabism on our cultural traditions.

De-secularization nibbles away at the vitals of our social structure. Yet it may not be too late to push back, to reassert the old liberal values which have been the light in our hamlets and towns for ages. 

For the nation to be guided back on to the highway of secular democracy -- where Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, the many ethnic groups inhabiting this land, can live in equality as citizens, with all their rights guaranteed by the state -- leadership that is strong, assertive, and visionary is the order of the day. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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