Few moments in the past century have evoked as much hope in its stakeholders as the emergence of the secular nation-state of Bangladesh in the eastern part of the subcontinent. That nation is in serious turmoil. In the last two years, the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party–Jamaat-e-Islami combine has been partially successful in using its massive economic clout and propaganda apparatus to portray itself as a victim of state-sponsored witch-hunting.
The ‘witch-hunting’ boils down to two things that can finish off the Jamaat as a viable political force. The first is the de-registration of the Jamaat as an electoral force as per a Supreme court order that bars any party that “puts God before the democratic process”. The second is the war crimes trial of those who committed crimes against humanity during 1971. Much of the present Jamaat leadership was heavily involved in murder, rape, arson and forced conversions. In a subcontinent where politics thrives on the erasure of public memory, this episode has stubbornly refused to disappear. A dilly-dallying Awami League government was almost forced by the youth movement in Shahbag to pursue the war crimes trial seriously. Facing the prospect of political annihilation, the Jamaat responded by a three-pronged offensive. It marshalled its cadres and young Madrassa students and use them for blockading Dhaka. It lent its activists to a BNP in disarray to act as boots on the ground. It carried out targeted attacks on the homes, businesses and places of worship of Hindus, the nation’s largest religious minority.
In 2001, after the BNP-led alliance won the elections, the usual pattern of murder, rape and arson targeting Hindus happened on a very large scale. Hindus have traditionally voted for the Awami League. The guarantee for ‘ jaan and maal ’ (life and property) is important for the survival of any people. In the Awami League regime, although property and homestead have been regularly taken away by the powerful persons of the party, systematic attacks on minorities are not part of the party’s policy. The same cannot be said of the BNP-Jamaat partnership, which regularly threatened both jaan and maal . It is not hard to see why Hindus chose the devil over the deep sea. This time, Hindus seemed to be out of favour from both sides. While they were targeted by the BNP-Jamaat for coming out to vote at all, in other areas they were targeted by Awami League rebels for coming out to vote for the official Awami League candidate who happened to be of the Hindu faith. There have been disturbing signs over the past few years that at the local level, the difference between the ‘secular’ Awami League and the communal-fundamentalist BNP-Jamaat is beginning to disappear, though publicly the former does not tire in parroting the staunchly secular ideals of 1971.
A throwback to 1971 The violence unleashed against the Hindus this time, before and after the January 5 polls, have been worst in Jessore, Dinajpur and Satkhira, though many other places like Thakurgaon, Rangpur, Bogra, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Rajshahi and Chittagong have been affected. Malopara in Abhaynagar, Jessore, inhabited by Bengali Dalit castes, has been attacked repeatedly. Large-scale attacks on villages, businesses and places of worship, able-bodied men being on night vigils, women huddling together in one place — all these things brought back memories of 1971 for many of the inhabitants.
In Hazrail Rishipara of Jessore, women were raped at gunpoint for the crime that their families had voted in the election. Dinajpur has been badly hit with cases of beatings, arson on homes, shops, haystacks and crops. Both Jessore and Dinajpur being areas bordering West Bengal, crossing the border in self-preservation is a sad trek that many have undergone. It creates an environment that forces the remaining Hindus to ask the question ‘Why am I still here?’ ‘Partition’ continues.
The ‘Partition’ was swift and vicious in the Punjabs and Sindh where religious minorities have ceased to exist for all practical purposes. This is not so in the Bengals, where many still live on the ancestral land claimed by nations whose legitimacies are much more recent than people’s ancestral claims over their homestead. More than 25 per cent of Bengal’s western half’s population is Mohammeddan (the figure was 19.46 per cent in 1951, after the 1947 Partition). In the eastern half, 8.5 per cent of the population is Hindu (it was 22 per cent in 1951). In Bengal, secularism has political currency. It was one of the foundational principles of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
How did things come to be this way? The autocratic years of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s BAKSAL, the long years of army rule when the barracks used Islam to create a veneer of political legitimacy beyond the Awami League and pro-liberation forces, the overtures by mainstream parties to fundamentalist groupings — all these have given religion-based politics a front-row seat in the nation. Religiopolitical organisations have not been immune to the violent turn of this brand of politics internationally in the last two decades. Pro-Pakistan forces, which looked to faith-unity as the basis of statehood, did not disappear after the Liberation War. They were broadly and transiently (as it increasingly seems) de-legitimised due to their role in the atrocities of 1971.
But what about the project — that religion marks a nation? What about the splinters of such an idea stuck deep in political and societal structures? That trend has persisted, even expanded. In the imagination of all the ruling factions since 1947 during East Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh periods, there has been a tacit understanding of the normative citizen — a Mohameddan Bengali male or a Bengali Mohameddan male. Hindus there are a living reminder of an identity that is not fully coterminous with ideas that conflate Bengaliness (or ‘Bangladeshiness’) with that normative citizen. Their progressive numerical marginality makes this conflation project easier. Such projects often live in the underside of mindscapes that can be ‘secular’ in very many declarations. Thus, they can be marginalised without being actively targeted, in ‘innocuous’ everyday dealings.
The majority can decide to be whatever it wants and the minority has to follow suit in a modern nation-state. So, Bengali Hindus were expected to become ‘Pakistanis’ overnight in 1947 just as others elsewhere were expected to suddenly become ‘Indians’. While Bengali Muslim politicians have the autonomous agency to de-Pakistanise themselves at will, East Bengali Hindus could only publicly do so upon an explicit cue from their Bengali Muslim brethren. Just like other minorities, “extra-territorial loyalty” is the slur that is bandied about. And this is also what makes minorities cautious, anxious and lesser citizens in a polity where they cannot critique their state in all the ways a majority community person can.
Still one cannot but hope that the People’s Republic of Bangladesh would live up to some of its original ideals. Minorities have fled the nation-state for want of security in large numbers, year after year. There is significant presence of minorities in the bureaucracy and local administration. Even during the recent spate of violence, the state has transferred police officials for failing to provide security. This reality exists too. It is this reality that partly prevents a mass exodus of Hindus beyond the levels seen at present. For many, they have too much to lose to be able to leave. And that is a problem for a religious majoritarian nation-state.
(The writer is a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology)