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Bangladesh Violence: Indian Subcontinent is a Hard Place for Minorities

Instead of learning lessons from upheavals of the past, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India seem to be witnessing Partition redux.
Bangladesh Puja violence

The rising tide of religious intolerance in the Indian subcontinent breached the constitutional wall of secularism yet again. Last week, it was the turn of the minority Hindu population of Bangladesh to be trapped in the swirling waters of hatred in around 22 districts, even as they were celebrating Durga Puja. Temples were desecrated, vandalised or destroyed, shops and homes of Hindus were burnt down, leading to the death of five. Four days later, marauding Muslim mobs attacked the Hindus all over again. 

The subcontinent has become a hard place for religious minorities—Hindus, Buddhists and Christians in Bangladesh, Hindus and Christians in Pakistan, and Muslims and Christians in India. All religious minorities are demonised and targeted by right-wing religious groups in Bangladesh and Pakistan or, as in India, by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Violence against minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh fans majoritarian communalism in India—and vice versa.

As noted Bangladeshi economist, Debapriya Bhattacharya said to me, “The current round of violence should not be looked upon as discreet, accidental occurrences. This is the outcome of how political parties have eroded secular, democratic values in Bangladesh. Our experience parallels the Indian experience.” The rise of right-wing religious forces, he pointed out, envelopes not just the subcontinent but has drawn an arc of intolerance from the United States of America to the Philippines.

Rana Dasgupta, who is the general secretary of the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council, an umbrella organisation of religious minorities in Bangladesh, said to me that the Indian political class, in the manner of the Bangladeshi one, has harnessed religion for electoral mobilisation. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi plays the Hindu card. In response, Opposition leaders, from Priyanka Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee, have been visiting temples to court the Hindus,” Dasgupta said.

The use of the religious card to politically mobilise communities dates to the decades leading to Partition. The horrific violence from 1945 to 1947 created a memory of animosity and bitterness that continues to be exploited over the years to poison the present. And though the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was a testament to the inherent limitations of religion becoming a basis for nationalism, this spectacular failure has not stopped right-wing groups from trying to create Hindu and Muslim nation-states.

Bangladesh, for instance, adopted a secular Constitution in 1972. Article 12 of the Constitution said, “The principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of communalism in all forms.” It prohibited the state from favouring any religion and discriminating against people on religious grounds.

In 1975, however, under President-dictator Ziaur Rahman, Article 12 was amended to efface the principle of secularism from the Constitution. The amendment inserted the following words: “Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions.” In 1988, yet another dictator Muhammad Ershad introduced into the Constitution Article 2A, which declared Islam the state religion.

In 1997, the Arabic equivalent of “in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” became the opening line of the Preamble of the Constitution, much to the horror of minorities, liberals and Leftists.

In 2010, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court declared Rahman’s 1977 amendment unconstitutional, and Article 12, with its guarantee of secularism, was restored. But Islam as the state religion and the words “In the name of Allah…” remained, reflecting Bangladesh’s confusion about secularism. Or, it can be said, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed thought it prudent not to turn the clock back to 1972, fearing a backlash from Islamists who had grown from strength to strength over the decades.

About Bangladesh’s post-Independence history, Dasgupta said, “In 1975, Bangladesh was turned into a version of Pakistan. Those who had sided with the Pakistan Army in its oppression of the liberation forces [that is, those who had fought to create Bangladesh] were rehabilitated.” The country began to slip into the hell-hole of communalism. 

Hasina, representing Bangladesh’s idea of secularism, won elections in 1996, 2008, 2014 and 2018. Yet, she has had a hard time reining the Islamists. Their politics, for one, finds justification from the Constitution declaring Islam as the state religion. Attempts to establish a truly Islamic state cannot thus be philosophically faulted. Their growing influence, for the other, explains why the administration either ignores or goes slow on Hasina’s unambiguous instructions to protect religious minorities, as has been so evident in Bangladesh this month. 

India, too, has taken the path that Bangladesh took years ago. For instance, the Modi government’s decision to read down Article 370 and its enactment of the new citizenship law are insidious attempts to alter the Indian Constitution. The federal principle is under constant erosion. Like Bangladesh, India will find it difficult to reverse these changes, detrimental to the interests of minorities in their very design. 

The rise of right-wing religious groups, in fact, tempts secular politicians to make compromises with them for electoral gains. Academician and civil society activist Mesbah Kamal said to me that Sheikh Hasina has sought to woo the Hifazat-e-Islam to create a counterpoise to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami alliance. “Hefazat-e-Islami is an Islamist group which believes women should be taught only till Class IV. The group thinks this level of education is all what they need, for they are supposed to only manage household expenditure,” Kamal said. 

It was under the Hefazat’s influence that changes were made in school textbooks in 2017. Some of the examples are telling: From the textbooks for Class VI, Rabindranath Tagore's poem “Bangladesher Hridoywas dropped, as was Satyen Sen’s story “Lal Goruta”, as was the abridged version of the epic Ramayana from a Class VIII textbook. The censors did not hesitate to axe Nazrul Islam and Sunil Gangopadhyay. (The list of deletions from textbooks is here.)

Modi’s India, too, has demonstrated a remarkable passion for altering school textbooks to steep children in the ideology of Hindutva. The BJP has also sought to rewrite history to legitimise a long list of Hindu grievances. 

Likewise, as Kamal points out, “The history of the birth of Bangladesh begins [incorrectly] with the 1905 partition of Bengal and the emergence of the Muslim League.” This is a simplification, even falsification, of history, for East Pakistan (or Bangladesh) broke away from West Pakistan because Islam failed to bridge the Urdu-Bengali divide.

As religious majoritarianism sweeps the subcontinent, attacks on Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh are cited by the Hindu Right to justify their oppression of Muslims and Christians in India. It is the converse in Bangladesh. Bhattacharya said, “The argument that Hindus are mistreating Muslims in India cannot be a justification for targeting Hindus in Bangladesh. It is a myth that we are a subcontinent of harmony.” He said minority rights spring not from how they are treated elsewhere. Rather, these rights flow from the Constitution of the country to which they belong. 

That said, it is also true that happenings in India influence Bangladesh politics. For instance, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s rhetoric on the Citizenship Amendment Act had many Bangladeshis bristling, as did the reading down of Article 370, the ongoing violence in Kashmir, and the rhetoric of Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma this year.

It can be very well argued that Bangladesh showed India the potency of the religious card in politics. As Dasgupta said, “Indian politicians saw how Bangladesh easily ejected the secular principle from the Constitution and, therefore, decided to emulate our leaders in a tit-for-tat strategy.” But this is not strictly true, for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates have been striving since 1947 to turn India Hindu. 

It is just that it took them inordinately long to notch their successes. This could be because the founding fathers of India built a robust democracy—to which they, despite their ideological differences, were committed. 

This is more or less the point Pankaj Bhattacharya, the octogenarian president of the United Awami National Party, made to me, “We are reasonably confident that India’s democratic institutions are resilient enough to overcome the communal forces. But Bangladesh’s democratic institutions are not vibrant.” This is partly because the institutions there took repeated beatings from the military-Islamist alliance in the initial years of nation-building. 

It would seem that we in the Indian subcontinent have been overtaken by the suicidal wish to resurrect the ambience preceding the 1947 Partition. Indeed, as far as the geographical spread of the communal virus goes, we, particularly minorities across the subcontinent, already seem to be witnessing Partition redux.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal. 

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