How would you explain the incident of Cumilla? You boycotted BNP for discrimination against and repression on the minorities. You helped bring Awami League to power. Did the AL give you that safeguard?

When movement against Ershad regime was at a peak in 1990, a state-orchestrated communal violence was unleashed for three days in Chattogram and Dhaka by spreading the rumour that Babri Mosque was demolished to divert the anti-government movement. BNP came to power winning the general election of 1991 after the fall of Ershad. Khaleda Zia issued a statement that very day requesting people to maintain peace. We were assured by that statement. But the state-orchestrated communal violence started a day later that continued for 27 days at a stretch. We did not expect violence of that extent in the independent country. Minority repression started in Bangladesh after the killing of Bangabandhu in 1975. Awami League, which led the Liberation War in 1971, came to power through the general election in 2008.  It was beyond our imagination that the violence would continue in AL regime too. The communal violence that unleashed in Ramu, Ukhiya and Teknaf in 2011 continued till the Durga puja in 2021. So we do not see fewer numbers of communal attacks during AL regime comparing to BNP regime.

Do you see any difference?

The difference is during the BNP regime even FIR were not reported. None could even go to the court out of fear. Now FIRs get filed, charge sheets are submitted but justice is not meted out. When ruling party men are involved with such incidents, their names get dropped from charge sheets. The cases are filed in such a manner so that the accused persons walk out of jail within 15-20 days.   

As a lawyer, would you tell us that if these incidents are happening with minorities only (due to their identity)  or are manifestation of the overall lack of rule of law in Bangladesh?

In our country, trial of Bangabandhu murder took place after 21 years. The trial would not have taken so long if it were taken place in a special tribunal. We think there needs to be a special law for safeguarding the minorities as there is a special act for children and women in the country due to their vulnerability. That is why we demanded a minority protection law which the ruling party conceded. We demanded an anti-discrimination bill and the government has already taken initiative to pass the law. This law would be a good one for Dalits and untouchables. But the law would not be that much beneficial for the minorities as a whole. The sense of insecurity is the main crisis of the minorities right now. Minority protection law is required to weed out that insecurity. The ruling party in its electoral manifesto pledged to enact minority protection act as per our demand. But the government has less than a year left in office. We think this law has to be passed within this time. This law is necessary to free the minorities out of the culture of fear.

Awami League has been in office for 14 years at a stretch. How have the minorities been?

The country has seen development and increase in per capita income. All citizens were benefitted by the advancement. Socioeconomic position of the minorities has changed in comparison with 14 years ago, but it still far from expected level. There is a discrimination. In fringe areas, the minorities are left out of almost all social safety net programmes including widow allowances. Discriminatory outlook of the local people’s representatives are to blame for it.

Many people say that the minorities enjoyed extra advantage in the administration during this regime. What would you say?

Our slogan during the formation of Hindu, Buddhist Christian Oikya Parishad was we want a secular state instead of a theocracy and want proportional representation at all level of the state. At that time, there were only two minority members in the parliament. The number has reached to 23 now. In the past we have seen that many competent people were not recruited only because of their name and if recruited, were deprived of promotion. There has been visible progress in question of proportional representation in last 14 years. For example, the participation of minorities has increased in police and civil administration. There would be no vice chancellor from minority community in the past, but this has changed.

Do the 23 lawmakers speak for minorities in the parliament?

No, not at all. The parliament is the only forum of solving any problem democratically. We never thought and still do not think that there should be separate minority representatives in the parliament. The representation should come from the democratic political parties. But now 23 lawmakers cannot play the role once played by only 2 members. If they could discharge their duties properly, not only the minority community but also the government and ruling party would have been benefitted.

Yet, you have kept confidence in Awami League government.

Currently, we have no trust and confidence in the leaders of any political party, yet we want to maintain our hope, trust and confidence in the prime minister as she is trying to take the country forward positively amid myriad of barriers. A reality where minority in this country can trust any other party on the voting does not exist because no major party tried to gain the trust of the minatory.

But BNP in its 27-point charter mentions rights to religion for all based on the principle of “Religion belongs to respective individual; state belongs to all.” Do you not think this is a positive change?

BNP in its 10-point said they will give exemplary punishment to the perpetrators who carried out violence on the minority people during the 14 years of this government and this promise of them is a positive sign. BNP has categorically admitted that communal violence took place in Bangladesh and that is also a positive sign. Political parties did not admit it in the past. There is also fear over BNP’s proposal to reform the state. They amended the constitution in 1977 and changed the constitution of 1972. The constitution saw a positive change through the fifteenth amendment. What if BNP goes back to the constitution of 1977 through the reform now? BNP must prove it.

How will BNP prove it if they do not come to power?

Religious and ethnic minorities can trust no one in this country because of repeated persecution. BNP never wanted to consider 25 million people for its politics, not even for the voting. BNP thinks it is better for BNP to consider Jamaat-e-Islami than the vote of the minorities. We want to see minorities have equal rights and dignity and BNP must consider it. There is no alternative to taking the test in politics for BNP to gain the trust of the minorities.

Election itself is a test?

Awami League government in its 2018 election manifesto promised that if they come to power they would take proper initiative to implement the minority protection act, the minority commission, the anti-discrimination act, the vested property return act, the Chittagong Hill Tracts treaty and the land commission; they would from separate land commission for ethnic minority living in plain land. We have seen no visible initiative so far. Yet we want to keep our hope that the government will fulfill their promise and will not dishearten the minorities.

The counter organisation of Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Oikya Parishad, too, speaks for the rights of the minorities.

BNP formed the Hindu Buddhist Christian Oikya Front for the minority people and the organisation has been active recently with Gayeshwar Chandra Roy being its advisor. An opportunity has arisen for this organisation to work on frustration and lack of trust persisting among the minorities. Now the question is certain political parties consider the minorities as sacred deposit while certain political parties deem them dangerous. It is necessary for the minorities to come out from this situation and political parties must consider the minorities as citizens.

Recently, you have said during a speech that you do not want to become anyone’s war booty. Is this speech made out of frustration?

Of course, it was out of frustration and there have been reason behind it for long. We have been hearing political slogans on ‘game will be on,” and we have expressed concern since the game is played with the minorities. Some people think minorities will not vote for them, so persecute the minorities. Some people consider us as their vote bank. Those who think what the minorities will do other than voting for them also attack on minorities after conceding defeat and many such incidents happened. We do not want to be this pawn in politics. Minorities being such hostage in every election must end. Had the constitution of 1972 remained unchanged we would have not fight for this battle and democracy would have marched further.

The rise of communal politics in India has allegedly triggered the rise in communal politics here and that means politics of India influences the politics here.

I would say the communal politics here in our country has an influence on the rise in the politics of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. And, India has seen the rise of BJP over the past couple of decades while communal politics has continued here since 1947. Communal politics had taken a backseat for several years after the independence, but it came to fore after the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975. BJP did not exist at that time. Many temples were vandalised here spreading the rumours on demolishing Babri Masjid before the rise of India’s BJP. Temples were also vandalised after the demolition of Babri Masjid. We want no member of minority community from either Bangladesh or India is forced to leave their country because of politics. Statistics shows number of minority people has declined in Bangladesh gradually and that did not happen in India. Currently, minority people have decreased to 8 per cent from 14 per cent in 1974.

You allegedly lend support to the party that the India government want to support.

Minorities have been always become victim of torture and oppression here in since 1947, but they never compromised with reactionary force. No political party of India tell us either which party we will support and when it comes to discussion Indian leaders or government talk to all parties now. Even Gono Odhikar Parishad Nurul Haque reportedly held a meeting with an India diplomat. Minorities in Bangladesh side with them, whom the minorities deem safe for the sake of their existence and interest. No question even of instructions from outside even arises.

Have you protested when minorities come under attack in India?

Of course we did. When BJP leader Nupur Sharma made anti-Muslim statement not only we protested it here but also held a human chain.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Galib Ashraf and Hasanul Banna