Bangladesh's dysfunctional secularism

Despite Islam being declared as its state religion since 1988, Bangladesh’s nationalism has been primarily defined in a cultural and linguistic idiom and it sees itself as a secular nation. The ruling Awami League claims a commitment to the secular values on which the republic was founded and is considered “minority friendly”. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party have had an uninterrupted tenure since 2009, one would think that secularism would have strengthened under her regime. Yet secular voices have become somewhat muted in Bangladesh. The recent communal v.....
Despite Islam being declared as its state religion since 1988, Bangladesh’s nationalism has been primarily defined in a cultural and linguistic idiom and it sees itself as a secular nation. The ruling Awami League claims a commitment to the secular values on which the republic was founded and is considered “minority friendly”. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party have had an uninterrupted tenure since 2009, one would think that secularism would have strengthened under her regime. Yet secular voices have become somewhat muted in Bangladesh.

The recent communal violence during Durga Puja is not unprecedented. A study by the human rights group Ain O Salish Kendra of Bangladesh records as many as 3,679 attacks on the Hindu community between January 2013 and September 2021 prior to the latest events. In these 9 years, 559 Hindu houses and 442 businesses were torched and there were at least 1,678 cases of vandalism and arson affecting Hindu temples, idols and places of worship.  This is a disturbing statistic during the tenure of a government that has monopolised the minority vote.

More disconcerting is the fact that the government’s response to the current violence is less solicitous compared to its actions in 2012 when Buddhist monasteries were attacked in Ramu Upzila in Cox’s Bazar district. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had then ordered the Bangladesh Army to rebuild the 12 Buddhist temples and monasteries destroyed, allocating Taka 200 million for the project. She herself visited the affected areas. Two years later, the then Bangladesh President, Abdul Hamid, visited several rebuilt temples and made it a point to inquire about the wellbeing of the Buddhist community.

While there was a protest at the historic Shahbagh demanding stern action against those who attacked the Hindu minority, it did not last more than one and half hours. Moreover, the protestors were mostly Bangladeshi Hindus with little visible social support.

Sheikh Hasina has announced that the culprits will be “hunted down” and several arrests have been made. The communal violence in Bangladesh has been reduced to a law and order problem, ignoring its political nature. Successive governments have failed to take on the Islamists so that radical Islamism of the period before Partition has only grown with the rise of political Islam from West Asia to Afghanistan and foreign funding for Wahabi madrasas.

Political parties across the spectrum have also made use of political Islam for electoral ends. The Awami League government may have decimated the most prominent Islamist grouping the Jamat-e-Islami, but organisations such as Hefazat-e-Islam and Islami Andolan Bangladesh are allowed to function with the connivance of the State. The Awami League has had an opportunistic relationship with Hefazat-e-Islam in the past which wants Sharia law to be implemented in the country. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, on the other hand, has had an electoral alliance with the Jamat-e-Isalmi. Because of political patronage, Islamist preachers, religious groups and militants have managed to raise the ambient religious temperature in the country. In this milieu any perceived insult to Islam sets off violence targeting not only minorities but also liberal bloggers, atheists and secular intellectuals.

Yet the discrimination against minorities is neither as deliberate, nor systemic as the Indian Hindu right makes it out to be. The minority population is 12 per cent of the total – of these 9.6 per cent are Hindus, 1 per cent Buddhists, 0.5 per cent Christians and less than 1 per cent other ethnic minorities. Their share in government employment is not insignificant -- 5 to 7 per cent in the administration and about 10 per cent in the police force. In the higher echelons of the administration and the police, minority share is estimated by some to be much higher. For example, in Pirganj Upzila in Rangpur district, where 65 Hindu homes were torched in a village, the sub-district officer was a Hindu as was virtually the entire police chain of command.

However, there is undeniably a growing suspicion of the minority community that is new. Even those who hold secular views are not happy when delegations of Hindus and members of temple committees interact with the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka in the aftermath of communal riots and he then meets Bangladesh officials with their complaints. It is seen as an infringement of national sovereignty and interference in their internal affairs. It may well be within the mandate of the United Nations to act on its “right to protect” but can India take up the violation of human rights of minorities in Bangladesh peremptorily? It increases suspicion about the allegiance of Hindu and they get seen as India’s Trojan horse.

This belief is fuelled further by statements from Indian Hindutva leaders who view Hindus across national boundaries as their natural constituency. India’s own treatment of its minority population has also sharpened anti-Hindu feeling among Islamists in Bangladesh. Indeed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina indirectly said as much when seeking the cooperation of India in fighting communalism.  She cautioned the “neighbouring state” that “they must make sure that nothing is done there which affects our country and hurts our Hindu community.”

Yet Hindutva organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have upped the stakes by asking the UN “to send a peacekeeping force to Bangladesh” in the wake of the communal violence and compared the attacks to “the brutality of the Nazis”. The BJP has been quick to use the violence in Bangladesh to political advantage in the by-elections due in four state legislative constituencies– Shantipur in Nadia district, Dinhata in Coochbehar district, Khardah in North 24 Parganas and Gosaba in South 24 Parganas - on October 30. Three of them are within a 10 to 20 km radius of the border with Bangladesh. The BJP’s election propaganda for the by-election predicts that Hindus in West Bengal would face violence similar to their co-religionists in Bangladesh if they did not mobilise against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Such short-sighted communal propagandising by Hindutva ideologues has had a deleterious impact on Bangladesh. However, the larger blame still lies with Bangladesh’s dysfunctional politics which is the cause of a continuous slide in its secular ideals.



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