By Syed Badrul Ahsan
January 22, 2014
MOHAMMAD Ali Jinnah's so-called two-nation theory has had a curious effect on many in this sovereign land of the Bengalis. Every now and then, you come across people who will inform you, without batting an eyelid, that had Pakistan not been created in 1947, Bangladesh would not emerge in 1971. How do you respond to these people? Tell them this: that because Pakistan came into being, it became an imperative for us to correct circumstances through driving it out of our lives. We did that, through creating Bangladesh. And we are happy we did.
But, again, how many among us can honestly place our hands on their hearts and tell ourselves that we have cleansed ourselves of communalism? If I do not remember the name of a Muslim acquaintance, I try to recollect it through describing his appearance and his mannerisms to someone else who might be knowing him. But when that acquaintance is not a Muslim, watch what happens: you forget the name and you tell that other person that the man with the forgotten name is a Hindu or a Christian or a Buddhist. So there you are.
It is amazing remembering the way how so many of our respected, sometimes revered public figures have, at some queer moments in their lives, succumbed to bouts of communalism, if not downright religious hate. Moulana Bhashani began propagating a Muslim Bangla soon after liberation; and then he did worse. Addressing a public rally, he wondered loudly if the food crisis the nation was confronted with in the early 1970s had something to do with the fact that the minister for food happened to be Phani Bhushan Majumdar, a Hindu. And, yes, there is the story of General M.A.G. Osmany inquiring of senior officers of the Rakkhi Bahini soon after Bangabandhu's assassination how many Hindus were there in the force.
These days, you will bump into a whole lot of people who are deeply worried about Narendra Modi becoming India's next prime minister. They think, perhaps rightly, that he has the taint of communalism about him. But these very same people lose no time letting you know of the democratic rights parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam should be permitted to enjoy. There are elements who cheerfully draw your attention to the 'fact' that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party is a liberal political organisation. Ask them about the impunity with which the founder of the party did away with secularism in the constitution. Don't expect an answer.
That the seeds of communalism, planted in our hearts and minds so assiduously by the All-India Muslim League, keep sprouting into dangerous plants needing to be cut down comes through another dimension. And that is the propensity of foreign diplomats, especially those from western nations, to describe Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim state. Whoever gave them that idea? If anything, their understanding of history is poor and paltry. This nation was founded on the principle of secular democracy. But, then again, you will come across whole swathes of Bengalis cheered by this 'encouraging statement' from the west. Washington has said we are moderate Muslims and that is all that matters. We are happy. How naïve and low in self-esteem can people be?
Hordes of Bengalis are around us, reminding us every minute of the living day why democracy must be our underpinning as a society. They are quite right to do so. But how do you have democracy, in that purposeful sense of the meaning, when you are unwilling to free the state of the communal fetters it was trapped in by military ruler H.M. Ershad in the 1980s? Faith or belief is a matter for the individual. The moment you turn the state into a Muslim or Hindu or Christian entity, you humiliate citizens and subject politics to indignities. Be assured, though, that these hordes, driven by a bizarre desire to inject communalism into the democratic discourse, are a big group.
And how do we know that? These days, we get to see a retired civil servant, now serving a rightwing political party, arguing loudly for democracy on television. A few years ago, this civil servant was heard ruing Pakistan's military defeat in 1971 because, in his opinion, it left the Muslims of Bangladesh and Pakistan weakened and, conversely, led to the rise of Hindu power in the subcontinent. There is another individual, again part of politics these days, whose fraternisation with the Pakistan occupation army in 1971 has not been forgotten by his erstwhile colleagues. He it was who gathered information on which Bengali academics and their families, persecuted by the army, were hiding in which village or town and submitting that information to Pakistan's soldiers.
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. Civilised, educated, liberal Muslims have wept in silence at the humiliation of their Hindu and Buddhist neighbours.
And we have been shamed before the world, repeatedly. Go around the world. Sing paeans to your country in the councils of the world. Declaim on the proud cultural heritage you are heir to. But when someone asks you why the number of Hindus has been declining in your country, you do not answer -- because you have no answer.
In 1947, East Bengal had a Hindu population of 35% of the whole. By 1971, it had come down to 29%. Today, in a putatively secular, democratic Bangladesh, the figure has come down to less than 9%. Try explaining how that has come to be.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.