Targeting Minorities: Emerging Trend in Bangladesh and Pakistan

27 Jan, 2014    ·   4274

Commodore (Retd) C Uday Bhaskar comments on communal violence in South Asia

Even as India celebrated its Republic Day to reiterate its commitment to the Constitution and the equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion, caste, language and ethnicity – a dangerous trend is emerging in South  Asia  where the ‘other’ has become the target of  murderous politics.

Nowhere is this more evident than in neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan where the minority community – however described - has become the target of such organised killings and rape. Constitutionally, both Bangladesh and Pakistan are ostensibly committed to the protection of their minorities but the reality is that a whole pattern of politics has become entrenched wherein a corrosive and distorted ideology has determinedly ‘bloodied’ the waters.

India and other South Asian nations including Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan are differently grappling with this malignancy and a review of what is happening in Bangladesh and the extrapolation to the daily violence that is racking Pakistan are instructive.

Almost twenty people were killed on 5 January when Bangladesh went to the polls that were boycotted by the main opposition party – the BNP. Scores more were killed in the run-up to the election, and the more disturbing aspect was the deliberate targeting of the Hindu minority by the BNP and their ideological alliance partner – the Jamaat. The community who are perceived to be staunch supporters of the ruling Awami League (AL), spread across Jessore, Gaibandha, Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Bogra, Lalmonirhat, Rajshahi and parts of Chittagong were  the targets of the BNP-Jamaat  violence. As is common in the region, shops were looted and burnt, temples vandalised and idols desecrated, while women were raped and innocents killed.

Liberal opinion in Bangladesh remains anguished but helpless in the face of this organised  pogrom  tacitly supported by the BNP, and some commentators have compared the 2013-14  blood-bath with the genocide of 1970-71 unleashed by the Pakistani Army supported by the local Jamaat prior to the birth of Bangladesh.
It merits repetition that a large cross-section of Bangladeshi opinion is ranged against such communal violence and condemns the politics and ideology of the BNP-Jamaat. A thoughtful observation by an eminent editor, Syed Badrul Ahsan, merits recall. Ruing the anti-Hindu sentiment that is being stoked, Ahsan writes: “No, communalism has not died in this country. When you yet have Hindu men forced out of their hearths and homes, when there are yet rapacious fanatics waiting to destroy the modesty of Hindu women, when it is Hindu property which is yet the object of covetousness on the part of many Muslims, you cannot say that this is a truly secular Bengali republic. Add to that the indifference of the police and the local administration in coming to the aid of the persecuted Hindus? Do not forget the brazen behaviour of the police in declining to come to the aid of the nation's Buddhists when their homes and temples were razed to the ground by Muslim bigots in Ramu. Civilized, educated, liberal Muslims have wept in silence at the humiliation of their Hindu and Buddhist neighbours.” (Daily Star, 22 January 2014).

The phrase ‘truly secular Bengali republic’ has a special resonance that warrants scrutiny. The blood-soaked birth of Bangladesh in December 1971 represented the triumph of a specific Bengali Muslim nationalism that was predicated on a distinctive identity. It evolved from a syncretism nurtured in Bengali language and culture wherein the dominant religious identity was not inflexibly prioritised. Led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman – the father of Bangladesh – the vision that he had for his fledgling nation was one that was very different from what had become of Pakistan even in the early 1970s.

The minority community – in this case, the non-Muslims of Bangladesh, were normatively seen to be part of the diverse demography that all South Asian states are endowed with. Yet this vision was soon abandoned.  The tragic assassination of Bangabandhu in August 1975 saw the politics of Bangladesh resurrecting the murderous communal venom of its genesis, going back to the pre-partition madness of 1946-47 and the minority became a target again.

While the Hindu population of then East Bengal was 28 per cent in 1941, this figure steadily declined and to about 14 per cent in 1974, and in 2011, it had further come down to under 9 per cent. The Hindu community in Bangladesh has been forced to flee or convert – and this is the sad reality of one of the most progressive Islamic nations in the world.

To her credit, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has tried valiantly to make the secular principle the guiding element of her nation even while emphasising its Islamic identity – but is fighting a losing battle.

Many Bangladeshi academics, journalists and analysts have drawn attention to the dangerous path that the politics of their country has embarked upon. A bitter zero-sum contestation between the two principal political parties, with one of them – the BNP – adopting a strident anti-Hindu (and hence anti-Hindu) position and supporting an inflexible form of Islam that is similar to the extreme right-wing in Pakistan augurs ill both for Bangladesh and the entire region.

The most recent spike in sectarian violence in Pakistan where the Shia community has become the ‘other’ to be deliberately butchered is a warning sign. Once the Hindus and other minorities are either forced to flee or steadily killed, the political compulsion in Bangladesh will be to find a different ‘other’ category to target. Gender equity will be compromised and the space for the liberal, tolerant dispensation will further shrink.

Religion and politics differently animate South Asia and neither can be pursued to the exclusion of the other. But while the former is personal – it is the collective that shapes the political temper. The entire South Asian region may benefit from pondering over the sage counsel offered by Mahatma Gandhi who asserted, “…I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern!”

An earlier version of this article appeared in Dainik Jagaran in Hindi.