By Rudroneel Ghosh
November 30, 2015
At a session titled ‘Bangladesh: Fighting Resurgent Islamism’ at the Delhi Times LitFest, Bangladeshi author Saad Z Hossain took great pains to assert that Bangladesh’s Muslims are hardly fundamentalist, recent attacks on secular bloggers are acts of desperation by marginalised Islamists, and that the spread of jihadi ideology is a foreign import driven by foreign money from the Middle East. He went on to stress that there is no widespread support for Islamism in Bangladesh and nobody wants a fundamentalist nation.
I wish Saad’s vision of a secular Bangladesh was indeed true. The fact is Bangladesh today is fighting to save the semblance of secularism it is left with. For decades after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975, Islamists in Bangladesh put that country on a firm path to Islamism. First they mauled the Bangladeshi Constitution, expunging secularism from the foundational document, introducing the Bismillah invocation in the Preamble to the Constitution and finally making Islam the state religion.
Secondly, Hindus in Bangladesh have been continuously persecuted. And this persecution continues till date, especially in rural Bangladesh. At the time of Partition in 1947, Hindus comprised around 25% of what became East Pakistan. Today, Bangladesh’s Hindu population hovers around 10%. When I asked Saad about the treatment of Hindus in Bangladesh, he replied that their persecution was driven by the desire to grab land and property. This is a specious argument. Hindu property and lands were grabbed by the majority community a long time ago, starting with the Enemy Property Act promulgated by the then Pakistan government in 1965. Hence, land grab can’t be a major reason anymore.
Plus, what explains the numerous cases of destruction and vandalism of Hindu shrines in Bangladesh? Every year before Durga Puja several instances of desecration of idols are reported. This clearly isn’t motivated by a desire to grab land. The fact is Bangladesh’s record of protecting its minority communities has been extremely lacklustre. It’s easy to understand why when one grasps the fact that for many years those who opposed the birth of Bangladesh were not only allowed to become a part of mainstream Bangladeshi society but even occupied high position in government.
It’s only under the current Awami League dispensation led by PM Sheikh Hasina that some efforts have been made to rectify these blots on Bangladeshi history. Towards this end secularism has been reintroduced in the Bangladeshi Constitution and war criminals of 1971 are being tried and sentenced. However, many would argue that the Awami regime’s efforts have been half-hearted and doesn’t go far enough to de-communalise Bangladeshi institutions.
The main reason why I disagree with Saad’s vision of Bangladesh is that one needs to have an accurate understanding of a problem and its history to prescribe a remedy. I truly believe in the spirit of secular Bangladeshi nationalism that birthed that country in 1971. However, unfortunately, that Bangladesh has undergone subsequent Islamist mutations. It’s now up to the civil society of Bangladesh to push the political dispensation to keep Bangladeshi secularism alive.