May 2022

The minorities question

Syed Badrul Ahsan  considers the progress made in Bangladesh vis-à-vis curbing communal politics and protecting minority groups – and what remains to be done

The good news from Bangladesh is that in recent years, a fairly appreciable number of government officials belonging to the Hindu community have made it to the decision-making process in their departments. In the police service, in the civil administration, in education, indeed in nearly every field of public interest, these officers have demonstrated skills and experience which certainly raise Bangladesh’s profile as a state rooted in secular norms, giving it a positive image in the global community.

And yet there are impediments to reassuring the country’s minority communities of their role that cannot be overlooked, owing fundamentally to the fact that the Bangladesh state, in the years following the assassinations of its independence leaders between August and November 1975, was commandeered by forces which clearly had remained linked to communal politics, a terrible legacy of the partition of India along communal lines in 1947.

MAVERICK: Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani propagated the cause of a Muslim Bangla

The first strike at Bangladesh’s secular structure came from those who seized power in mid-August 1975, through bringing in clear Islamic themes in their pronouncements. And once General Ziaur Rahman seized power a few months later, he exercised his dictatorial fiat of striking out the principle of secularism from the constitution and replacing it with the Muslim idea of belief in Allah. In his time, the country’s second military ruler, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, imposed Islam on the country as the state religion, dealing a further blow to the founding concepts of the state as they were outlined during the 1971 War of Liberation.

One could argue, with good reason, that the current Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina has, in these past many years, managed to roll back some of the damage done to the non-communal nature of the republic through moves such as having minority figures in the Hindu and other communities playing a larger role in the politics and administration of the country. But even as that degree of progress is recognised, the larger truth remains, which is that the present government is yet to take the decisive measures which will restore the secular character of the Bangladesh state. Islam continues to be the state religion and even ruling party figures are careful not to do or say anything that might be misconstrued as a move away from fundamental Islamic principles. In a country where close to 90 per cent of the population profess the Muslim faith, such caution is understandable.

For Bangladesh, a major problem has been the gradual decline in its Hindu population

Even so, one cannot quite close one’s eyes to the sense of deprivation, indeed fear, which has assailed Bangladesh’s religious minorities. Not many years ago, a well-organised assault on Buddhist homes and temples in the south-east of the country came as a rude shock to Bangladesh’s people, to say nothing of the sense of insecurity which gripped the Buddhist community. The government was swift in reassuring the community that its future was safe in Bangladesh, but that is not to say that Buddhists today feel as safe as they once did, before that coordinated assault on them in Ramu.

For Bangladesh, a major problem has been the gradual decline in its Hindu population. In  fact, the decline set in immediately after the creation of Pakistan (and Bangladesh happened to be the eastern province of Pakistan) in 1947, with Hindus of all classes – but especially teachers, doctors and scholars – opting for resettlement in the Indian state of West Bengal. The exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh was speeded up by the communal riots in East Pakistan in the 1950s and again in the period of the regime of General Ayub Khan in the mid-1960s. But when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, basing his politics on Bengali nationalism and emerging with the now famous Six-Point charter of demands for regional autonomy, propounded ideas of a secular Bengal from the mid-1960s and all the way to the emergence of a sovereign Bangladesh in 1971, the Hindu community, along with other religious minorities, felt reassured.

Bangladeshis remain wedded to their secular cultural traditions

One cannot, of course, dismiss the reality of the systematic persecution of the Hindu community by the Pakistan occupation army in 1971, compelling a very large number of them, along with Bengali Muslims, to seek refuge in India during Bangladesh’s war for freedom. In independent Bangladesh, despite Mujib’s reassuring presence and constitutional guarantees of secularism underpinning the state, disturbing signs of anti-secular politics began to be heard in the early 1970s. Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, the maverick elderly politician popularly known as the Red Moulana, went into overdrive propagating the cause of a Muslim Bangla through his weekly news outlet Haq Katha. His mission, as we have seen following the tragic killings of national leaders in 1975, had quite an impact on those who seized the state after the fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government.

Today, it is impossible to deny that the Hindu population in Bangladesh is a mere shadow of its former self. While as much as 35 per cent of the population of East Bengal post-1947 was Hindu, by 1971 the figure had dwindled to 29 per cent. At present, no more than 10 per cent of the population is Hindu. The question, certainly disturbing as well as intriguing, remains: where have Bangladesh’s Hindus gone? Research, at once thorough and credible, is required to arrive at an answer to the question. Periodical organised assaults, despite all the security measures taken by the authorities, especially in the Puja season, on Hindu temples and homes on flimsy and false grounds, have been upsetting, not only for the community but also for the broad masses of Bangladeshis in the country. Going forward, the Awami League government will need to be more determined than it has been in the matter of providing safety to all its citizens and to revive the idea, in very practical terms, of the state being home to all its people without prejudice.

Aftermath of assaults on Buddhists in Ramu

Reassuringly, despite the attempts by radical Islam to make inroads into the institutions and organisations of the state, Bangladeshis remain wedded to their secular cultural traditions, those that have come down through the generations. The recent debate in the country over the use of the teep, or bindiya, by Bengali women, as to whether it is part of Hindu or purely Bengali culture, is a powerful reminder –judging by the strong response of secular elements throughout the country –of the non-communal ethos on which the People’s Republic of Bangladesh conducts itself.

Overall, though, a great deal more requires to be done to neutralise the germs of communalism, in politics and in social life, for Bangladesh to be able to reassert its fundamental founding principles. That the Bengali republic is home to all its people –Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, indigenous communities – is a truth which must be set in stone. A failure to do that will be unfortunate.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is an independent Bangladeshi journalist and political analyst based in London