Pankaj Bhattacharya is the president of Oikya NAP and one of the main founders of Sammilito Samajik Andolan. He first went to jail in the sixties, during his days of student politics. He has been incarcerated several times in independent Bangladesh too. He has played an important role in forming the tri-party alliance and the 15-party alliance. This veteran politician, with six decades of politics under his belt, speaks to Prothom Alo about the recent communal violence during Durga Puja, the role of the administration, the ruling party and the opposition, and more.

How do you view the attacks on the homes and temples of the Hindu community during this Durga Puja festival?

I would say this is unprecedented. Such an organised attack during the Hindu religious festival of Durga Puja has never taken place in the past. Earlier, the burning down of Buddhist temples in Ramu, Ukhia and Patia following allegations of a Buddhist youth's Facebook status, had also been unprecedented. A similar attack took place later at Nasirnagar. Even earlier, after the 2001 elections, minorities came under attack in 31 districts of the country. Such attacks during religious festivals never took place during the British or the Pakistan rules.

What could be the reason behind these attacks? Do you all have any idea about what could lie behind this violence?

How can we have any idea? It is the state's responsibility to find out. Before Durga Puja, home minister Asaduzzaman Khan had said there would be no militant attacks, but he didn't say there could be other attacks. If he had warned of such a possibility, perhaps the minority could have prepared accordingly.

I feel that the use of religion in politics is the reason behind the attack on the homes and temples of the minority. From the day that the use of religion in politics began, the attacks on the homes and temples of the minority and the usurping of their property, gained official acknowledgement. As long as religion will be used in politics, the Jamaat and Hefazat camps will gain indulgence. Whatever little spirit of the liberation war still remains, will also be harmed. The home minister said that no one will be spared, but because they are spared repeatedly, because justice is not done, these attacks are repeatedly launched on the minority community.

You mentioned that there were attacks on the minority both during the BNP rule and that of Awami League. So would you say that the stand of both parties is the same about the minorities?

It is not entirely the same. BNP have never even admitted to communal violence. They did not try the criminals. Awami League froths at the mouth with its rhetoric on the spirit of the liberation war. But the strategies they adopt are contrary to that spirit. They want to consolidate their power by compromising with a section of the communal forces. While the head of government speaks of taking a stern stance against communalism, her administration does not act accordingly. As a result, even the incidents which took place during the Awami League rule, have not been brought to justice.

Police set fire to Santal settlements in Gobindaganj and the local and foreign media carried pictures of this. They were not brought to book. The Awami League government formed the Shahabuddin commission to look into the incidents of communal violence which took place during the BNP rule. The commission submitted its report, but neither was the report made public, nor was any action was taken.

From Pakistan times we have seen members of the majority community come forward and protest whenever there was an attack on the minorities. But this time there was not much noticeable protest, at least for the few days that the attacks had been taking place.

Such inaction is in no way warranted. But it is the mud-slinging between the two major parties that is mostly responsible for this situation. Again, there are many instances of understanding between Awami League and BNP at a local level. They join hands with the identified communal forces. People with good sense in the community, the civil society, feel helpless.

I can share the Ramu experience with you. The Awami League leaders there, in their speeches said the demeaning of religion must be protested. Thousands of people turned up in trucks. I rang up the SP at 8:00 in the morning. He turned up at the spot at 1:00 in the afternoon. When asked, he said the situation hadn't required him to go then. The accused in that incident are roaming around freely. The people of the Buddhist community have given up any hope of justice.

The lack of justice is instigating communal violence further. Two Awami League leaders involved in the Nasirnagar incident were rewarded with nominations in the union parishad elections. Later, under a volley of criticism, their names were dropped.

Were both the local political leadership and the administration inactive in the Cumilla incident?

The administration did not take action in time. The Cumilla MP is of Awami League, the mayor of BNP. Both were inactive. Students from the madrasah next to the MP's house took out a procession and attacked the temple. The MP did not stop them. The mayor was informed of the happenings at 7:00 in the morning, but he only turned up there at 11:00. This is the sense of responsibility of the people's representatives.

If the local political leadership is inert, the administration is hesitant to take action. I spoke to a few leftist leaders in Cumilla. They tried to get the MP and mayor to come forward, but failed.

General secretary of the Hindu Christian Buddha Oikya Parishad, Rana Dasgupta, has said they have lost confidence in politics and politicians. He accused them of duplicity.

To borrow a line from Sunil Gangapadhaya's poem, "keu kotha rakheni" ("no one has kept their word"). Those who speak about the spirit of the liberation war, are also indulging and condoning the communal and fundamentalist forces. These elements lurk within them. Awami League leaders sometimes speak out against these infiltrators, but do not take any action. Politicians and officials of the administration are busy making money. In the meantime, Jamaat-e-Islami has declared they will come to power in 2028. Perhaps the Taliban rule in Afghanistan has inspired them.

So are we walking against the objectives and ideals with which Bangladesh's War of Liberation was fought?

The people are going through hard times because of the coronavirus outbreak. The price of all essentials has shot up. People are suffering. Such a situation had emerged in 1974. People have lost trust in political parties and the administration. This applies to the left, the democratic and the nationalist parties. The link between the people and the political parties has become weak. The politicians are leaning towards religion. This is not out of faith, but simply to gain certain advantages. In 1974 Bangabandhu had said that the greedy ones had devoured everything. He called for introspection, self-criticism and self-purification. There is no one to make such a call now.

All said and done, we do not want to lose hope. As Rabindranath Tagore said, we just have to speak our minds openly, to speak the truth with courage.

Many allege that foreign forces or quarters are involved in the Cumilla incident. What do you think?

Kolkata's Anandabazar Patrika mentioned involvement of Pakistan's ISI and Sarda Fund in India, that both had provided the funds. I think such statements without evidence are misleading. After all, the communal forces within the country do not need to bring in funds from outside. They themselves are very wealthy. In fact, it should be checked whether such statements are being made to divert attention away from the communal forces within the country.

BNP is well aware of what Jamaat is, who were the ones to form the auxiliary Al-Badr-Razakar forces in 1971 that killed the top intellectuals of the country. Awami League is also aware of what a dangerous organisation Hefazat is and how they occupied Dhaka city in 2013. Awami League took up a stern stance at that time, but later they compromised with Hefazat. They gave into their demands and even changed schoolbooks. Politics of compromise have brought the country to this situation.

Politics is the driving force of the state. But does the lack of ethics and ideology of such politics have any role to play?

The lack of ethics and ideology in politics has taken on horrifying proportions. The two major parties are not following their declared ideals and ideology. At times we see a glimmer of hope about overcoming this situation. Awami League leaders, in informal discussions, admit that the country is not running well. The country is being run by syndicates in the administration, by political syndicates. No one is bothered about ideology or principles.

The prime minister sometimes speaks the harsh truth. She speaks about cleansing operations. But her administration does not act accordingly. Democracy is steadily shrinking and falling into a crisis. The rule of law must be ensured, the criminals must be caught and punished, we must emerge from this lack of justice.

The Hindu Buddha Christian Oikya Parishad came forward in protest against the inaction of the political leadership and administration after the Cumilla incident. They observed a half-day hartal in Chattogram. They have also observed countrywide hunger strikes and sit-in programmes. I hail them for this -- if no one responds to you call, go ahead alone. It must be kept in mind that there are people with good sense among the majority community who will also stand up against these wrongdoings. The problem is not of the minority, but of the entire Bangladesh.

Arriving at the mid-term, various quarters have been talking about fresh elections. There is also controversy over the formation of a new election commission. The ruling party says the election commission will be formed by means of a search party. The opposition says a law has to be enacted.

The constitution calls for elections at the end of the term. The debate over forming the election commission is meaningless. According to the constitution, a law must be enacted to form the election commission. The government is saying that there is no time for a law. That is meaningless. Retired judges of the Supreme Court and legal experts do not agree that there is no time to draw up such a law. The election commission has to be independent. They can't just hold an election to adhere to the rules. They have to hold an election that actually reflects the people's verdict. Votes and elections detached from the people can instigate politics of violence. This can even lead Bangladesh down the Afghanistan path in the future.

Thank you

Thank you too