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Bangladesh: Majoritarianism and Ethno-Religious Identity; How Did We Arrive Here?

By Ali Riaz

November 2012

A mixture of majoritarianism and ethno-religious identity has been in the making for quite some time in Bangladesh, notes ALI RIAZ.

Much has been written on the atrocities committed in Ramu in Cox's Bazar district on the night of 29 September. It is now well known that 12 Buddhist temples and monasteries and 50 houses were destroyed by mobs allegedly in reaction to tagging of an image depicting the desecration of a Qu'ran in the Facebook profile of a Buddhist man. Press reports, reports of inquiry committees of various groups and the government, and public statements of leaders have provided different perspectives of the developing story and who should be blamed for these heinous acts. Political parties, particularly the government led by the Awami League (AL) and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), took the opportunity to blame each other. Conspiracy and deliberate planning have been cited by politicians and members of the civil society as modus operandi.

An investigative report published in the Daily Star (14 October 2012) revealed that the Facebook tagging, which was used as the pretext of the attacks, was doctored first and then circulated en masse to create a frenzy. The success of the effort is beyond doubt. Therefore, the incidents cannot be portrayed as spontaneous attacks by outraged mobs. Burmese Rohingya refugees residing in the area have been described as suspects in the execution of the attacks, if not in the planning. Save a few individuals of the Rohingya community, widespread participation of the members of the community is yet to be established; but that has not inhibited the allegations. Pictures, mostly taken by amateur photographers and some on mobile phones, reveal that members of the local Bengali community -- irrespective of their political affiliations -- were at the forefront of the attacks. The complicity of the local law enforcement agencies and civilian administration is confirmed from eye witness accounts and follow-up press reports. The Ramu incidents took place in the context of two previous sets of events. The immediate one was the worldwide violence and demonstrations against the Youtube video trailer of a yet-to-be made movie insulting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) which came to light immediately before 11 September. As we all are aware, the distasteful video, available on YouTube since July, drew the ire of the Muslim community only after an Egyptian TV broadcast a part of it with a translation in Arabic on 8 September. In Bangladesh, as elsewhere, small Islamist groups staged demonstrations and enforced a day-long nation-wide general strike. During the demonstrations and the general strike, the Bangladeshi civil society acquiesced. The government went a step further and blocked Google and YouTube (still unavailable at the time of writing) demanding that the video trailer be removed. The second set of events took place in June. In the face of riots between minority Rohingya Muslims and the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine region, Rohingyas tried to take refuge in Bangladesh. The government refused them entry although the international community repeatedly requested the provision of shelter for them. The decision was hailed by a section of Bangladeshis who cited the involvement of Rohingya refugees in Islamist militancy in the country.

The reactions after the incidents in Ramu were somewhat slow and muted -- both on the part of government and members of the civil society. Soon a flurry of apologies to the Buddhist community was made.

The public discourse, to date, seems to have taken a narrow view of the incidents and has failed to focus on the way forward. Granted, there is an urgency to find out the perpetrators who burnt the religious sites, libraries and houses, those who unleashed the reign of terror and shattered the tranquillity of centuries in Ramu, those who planned and orchestrated the violence. These are necessary for the sake of the rule of law, rebuilding confidence among the Buddhist population in the region and sending a signal to planners that these heinous acts will not be tolerated. Simply stated, those who 'pulled the trigger' and those who instigated the violence must be brought to justice. But, I am afraid that these are not enough to prevent any recurrence; unless some acknowledgment of the deep-seated problems that triggered the violence in the first place is made. The question we must ask is: how did we arrive here?


It is my contention that Bangladeshi society at large cannot simply blame the faceless mob and bear no responsibility for the violence perpetrated against the minority community. While there were no precedents for planned attacks on the Buddhist community until 29 September 2012, systemic persecution of minorities, both religious and ethnic, is nothing new in the country. One shouldn't see these attacks as isolated events; neither should the events of Ramu be separated from the overall culture of intolerance against ethnic and religious minorities that has been on the rise for decades. The pre-planned, well-organised and executed incidents of violence against members of the Hindu community after the 2001 election are not something that happened too long ago to forget altogether. But those too were, in my opinion, reflections of a trend. The trend then, as now, can be found in many institutional documents and socio-political discourse.

Take for example the issue of the dwindling Hindu population in the country. An examination of the census data of the composition of religious minorities since 1901, led me to conclude in 2004 that there is a massive out-migration of the Hindu population: about 5.3 million in the preceding 25 years (God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh, 2004). I questioned the myth subscribed to by many secularists that Bangladesh is a land of communal harmony. Citing the absence of 'communal riots' they insist that the religious minorities in general and Hindus in particular enjoy rights and privileges similar to the majority Muslims. Indeed, barring sporadic incidents, there have been no large scale communal riots in Bangladesh since 1964. But as we all know, appearances can be deceptive. A fresh look at the concept of riot and its impact is warranted. A riot, be it communal or ethnic, takes place only when two contending parties face each other in similar fashion, not necessarily with equal strength. If one of the parties involved lacks support and access to resources, has a vulnerable social base and seems destined to lose, there is hardly any possibility of resistance and hence a riot becomes unfeasible. Under such circumstances, the weaker party either finds ways to live within the parameters set by the stronger party, or if and when possible removes themselves from the jurisdiction of the stronger party. In the former situation it is often the case that those who accept the parameters are subjected to routine persecution. This may or may not be observable. At times these are institutionalised to the extent that they are seen as 'common practices'. When the stronger party has the patronage of the state or in the worst-case scenario, when the state becomes the party itself, the weaker section(s) cross internationally accepted borders and become 'refugees'. When a large number of individuals from a persecuted minority cross borders, especially in an aftermath of any violent event, it draws the attention of the media. On the other hand, when persecution is institutionalised, the persecuted section of the society moves from one place to another in smaller numbers and fails to attract media interest owing to the relatively undramatic nature of the migration. In the case of Bangladesh, the absence of communal riots between Hindus and Muslems can be attributed to the reasons delineated above. The Hindu community in Bangladesh has been weak owing to its lack of access to resources and hence has never been able to mount resistance to the institutional persecutions faced. This has left Hindus with no choice but to relocate. In 2001, for example, a large number of Hindus from three districts (Barisal, Pirojpur and Bagerhat) initially moved to the neighbouring Gopalganj district in search of a safe haven. In the absence of a potential haven nearby the persecuted Hindus decided to cross the border. The porous border between Bangladesh and West Bengal, not to mention the cultural and historical ties between these two parts of Bengal, helped the intended migrants to move to the Indian state. Some returned later, but some didn't.

The census reports of the past 60 years show a steady decline of the Hindu population. This decline is not consistent with the population growth rate of the country. For example, the population growth rate was 3.13 percent for 1961-1974, 3.08 percent for 1974-1981; 2.20 percent for 1981-1991; 1.58 percent for 1991-2001; and roughly 1.34 percent for 2001-2011. It cannot be ascribed to low Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of the adherents of Hindu religion. Even if one takes into account that the TFR among Hindu women is estimated at 13% less (estimate is based on recent contraceptive use rates) until 1991 and 15% after 1991, the average annual growth rates of the Hindu population would have been 2.72 during 1961-1974, 2.68% during 1974-1981; 1.92% during 1981-1991; 1.34% during 1991-2001, and 1.14% during 2001-2011.

If we factor in these assumptions and reconsider the government statistics, the numbers change drastically. By 1991 the Hindu population should have reached 16.5 million as opposed to 11.16 million recorded in census data. The rate of the missing population has increased in the past two decades. The current Hindu population, 13.47 million, is far short of the number one should expect based on population growth rates. The decline of the religious minority community is matched by the increased use of Islamic icons and symbols in political rhetoric, not to mention deletion of secularism as state principle and official designation of Islam as the state religion.

The religious minorities are not alone in facing increased marginalisation; ethnic minorities have faced discrimination since independence. The constitution documents this more strongly than anything else. The original constitution, framed in 1972, stipulated all citizens of Bangladesh as 'Bengali', which was a clear rejection of the ethnic diversity of the country and a deliberate effort to erase the distinct identity of the ethnic communities. The opportunity to undo this mistake came as the parliament amended the constitution in June 2011.

Instead, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution reinserted the clause that stipulates that the nationality of the citizens of Bangladesh is 'Bengali'. During the process of the amendment the government not only declined to recognise the distinct identity of the ethnic minority, but also rejected the presence of indigenous people in Bangladesh. Equally important the BNP, while in power, took the same stand during the Year of International Indigenous People in 1992. As we all are aware, for more than two decades a war was waged against ethnic minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The war came to a formal end in 1996 with the signing of a peace treaty, but there is no inbuilt system within the treaty for its implementation. Thus most of its clauses have remained on paper. On the other hand, governments, of all political persuasions, have continued the process of bringing in settlers to the areas which are home to the tribal ethnic population. The latest census data provides the most telling evidence. Three districts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari, have experienced population growth far greater than the national average. The share of settlers has now reached almost 50% of the total population of the entire region and in two districts it has surpassed the indigenous tribal population. The post-1975 policy of government-sponsored settlement of Bengali population in CHT area has not changed in the past 37 years.

This policy has created a source of tension among the inhabitants. Unabated violence between Bengalis and indigenous population, often with the connivance of the local administration, is an all too familiar story. As Abul Barkat, an economist, has pointed out, “in the Chittagong Hill Tracts 22 per cent indigenous people had either been evicted or driven out of their households between 1977 and 2007 mainly by Bangalee settlers in the CHT. Their traditional social ownership of land came down from 83 per cent in 1978 to 41 per cent in 2009, and 90 per cent of indigenous people of the plains have become landless. The rate of poverty among the indigenous people is much higher than the average national rate of poverty.”


With both religious and ethnic minorities being marginalised -- physically and discursively, what is left as the national identity of Bangladeshi citizens can be deduced from the letters and spirit of the current constitution -- Bengali Muslim identity. Whatever garb the Bangladeshi political leadership places on this identity, it is laid bare in the constitution and daily discourse. The Bengali Muslim identity, in this instance, has two other characteristics that warrant our attention: its predatory and majoritarian aspects.

A quest for identity is deeply ingrained in the desire for certainty, who we are/who I am. This identification depends on defining the 'I' as much as it depends on defining the 'other'. They are simultaneously inclusive and exclusionary in the sense that the construction of 'I' also constructs a group to which s/he belongs. By definition, some are then left out. Those who are left out are bound to feel insecure as much as those who are included would enjoy the security of being a part of a community. This pairing of 'I' and 'We' is natural. But importantly, this endeavour may result in what Amin Maalouf (In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, 2000) has described as a “deadly identity” and prominent social scientist Arjun Appadurai has described as “predatory identities.” (Fear of Small Numbers, An Essay on the Geography of Anger, 2006). The defining characteristics of the deadly identity are 'negative, antagonistic and chauvinistic.' Importantly, this identity fears multiplicity. In Appadurai's formulation, predatory identities' “social construction and mobilization require the extinction of other, proximate social categories, defined as [a] threat to the very existence of the same group, defined as we.”

One important aspect of the construction of predatory identity is the use of the majority-minority discourse. These numbers are used to create an epistemic insecurity (i.e., the survival of the community is at stake). It is not unique to Bangladesh. In South Asia, it is the numerically larger community which continues to argue that the “minority” constitutes the threat. In the case of Bangladesh the exclusive Muslim identity allows the Islamists to go after the Hindu community as the 'enemy within' and the exclusive Bengali identity paves the way for attacking other ethnic groups. In India, the Hindutva ideologues and activists insist that the minority Muslim community poses the threat to the “Hindu nation,” the Christians are the mortal threat according to Islamists and the Pakistani state. These arguments are framed as the arguments of the majority. In India, the BJP's rhetoric of democracy is based on a simplistic majoritarian principle. We are witnessing this in Bangladesh as well. The proponents of majoritarian arguments assert that they are not only speaking for the “majority”, but also for the nation. Religion, ethnicity, nation and majority have been merged into one and the same.

In Bangladesh this mixture of majoritarianism and ethno-religious identity has been in the making for quite some time. It has now become an integral part of Bangladeshi culture, so much so that it is considered natural and does not draw attention any more. Occasionally, incidents like Ramu make it spectacular, as also in 2001. Some press reports have suggested that persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar in recent months may have enraged and galvanised the local Muslims to go after the Buddhist community in retaliation. Others have indicated that Rohingya refugees from Myanmar played some role in organising the attacks. Either way, it adds another element to the mix: national security. This makes the situation more combustible.

There is a reluctance to discuss these aspects of the incidents in Ramu; instead, two strands of discussion have emerged -- the political parties and their surrogates are busy in the blame game; and the members of the civil society are busy apologising for an 'aberration' where communal harmony is the norm, they have described this as “a blot on the nation's conscience.”

Unfortunately, none of these is going to prevent another incident like Ramu unless the Bangladeshi society bears some responsibility and undertakes some soul searching: how did we arrive here?

Ali Riaz is University Professor, a companion honour to Distinguished Professor, at Illinois State University, USA, where he is the Chair of the Department of Politics and Government. His recent publications include Inconvenient Truths about Bangladeshi Politics (2012).