Rana Dasgupta is the general secretary of Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad and also prosecutor of the International Crimes Tribunal. The ruling Awami League in its election manifesto of 2018 made commitments to form a national minority commission and legislation of a special law for effective protection of the rights of the minority. These pledges have not been implemented. In this context, Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad leader talks to Prothom Alo about the problems of religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh. The issue of the upcoming election also came up for discussion.
Sohrab Hasan and Monoj Dey took the interview
It has been 75 years since the partition of the country. A section of the citizens of three countries in the sub-continent still remain as minority communities. Who is responsible for this failure?
After 75 years of partition, I want to recollect the cabinet mission. When Muslim League proposed to establish independent countries with Muslim majority in two regions of undivided India, saying the communal problems would be solved through it, at the time an outline was clearly placed in the cabinet mission saying if the country was divided, huge number of Muslims, Hindus and people of other religions would remain in both of the regions and communal problems will not be solved. The problems have not been solved.
Communal problems in Bangladesh have not been solved while in India the Muslim community is becoming helplessness through the rise of communal and fundamental forces. Communal riots take place in India while minorities in Bangladesh come under one-sided attacks. In India, if one group moves to carry out an attack, another group resists. What is the psychological basis of this resistance? There is a democracy and rule of law and the constitution is secular. As they find mental and political strength in it, they do not leave the country. But if we talk about East Bengal, today's Bangladesh, they don't think the state is in favour of minorities and they don't think politics is in their favour. They see a culture of impunity. Inaction of law enforcement agencies and administration pushes them towards helplessness.
There was a huge scope of building an inclusive society in Bangladesh which came into being through a liberation war.
The state was communal during the rule of Pakistan. But the non-communal spirit in politics was created through the language movement. The election in 1954 was held on a separate basis. Then, there were 71 seats for the minority. A bill for a united election was passed in 1957. The trend of Bangali nationalism started flourishing against the Pakistani state's hostility towards the language and culture of Bangalis. This trend started advancing through the political process in the sixties.
After the election in 1970, independence was achieved. But what did we see after 1972? Maulana Bhashani started anti-Indian politics. Followers of Jamaat-e-Islami infiltrated the politics of JSD. The leaflets distributed on 7 November brought forward the divisive communal policies of the Pakistan rule. After independence, the slogans chanted against India and Hindus were not by the anti-liberation force. Many of those who organised the liberation war chanted the slogans. Iur non-communal nationalism spirit was incomplete and vulnerable.
The frustration of minorities in Bangladesh started after independence. The constitution of Bangladesh was adopted with four fundamental principles on 4 November 1972. A month ago Durga Puja mandap came under attack in October. The attackers chanted slogans 'Pakistan Zindabad'. The government and administration at the time failed to understand its danger. After 1975, the constitution was changed. Ziaur Rahman excluded secularism while Ershad included state religion. Since then, we have turned into a minority community.
What are your hopes and fears ahead of the next parliament election?
We have hopes as well as fears. Let a fair election be held and the people cast their votes. Let all democratic parties work together to strengthen democracy. Now let me talk about our apprehensions. During the inaugural event of Janmashtami, Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader said communal violence may break out, and you all will remain alert. After four days, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said communal violence may take place and cases may be filed against BNP leaders and activists. Both the parties are worried over the security of minorities. Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad has been expressing concern they are worried over security during the Durga Puja and before and after the election. Political parties have recognised our apprehensions. We think a political negotiation between the government and the opposition is needed so that there is no communal attack before and after the election.
Do you expect such a consensus in the present context?
We always want to hope. However, it does not take time to get frustrated. Violence broke out in 32 districts during the Durga Puja in 2021. But we didn't notice that in 2022. We think the administration was active so violence did not take place. But idols have been vandalised in nine places so far this year. One has been arrested. Police said the man was mentally unstable. In 2021, when Iqbal was detained in connection with Cumilla incident, it was said he was mentally unstable.
After communal violence in 2021, we noticed there was a consensus among local Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party leaders over the violence. How do you view this?
During the anti-Ershad movement in 1990, there was state-sponsored communal violence in Dhaka and Chattogram for three days. On the basis of the outline of three alliances, an election was held in 1991. During the campaign of the election, the slogans we heard were chanted during the Pakistani rule. After the winning of the election, the prime minister at the time, Khaleda Zia, issued a statement. We were assured by the statement. But from the following day, communal violence started. We noticed state-sponsored communal violence in 2001-06. After the case filed against Maulana Delawar Hossain Sayedee in 2011, we have noticed communal violence at a stretch of 10 years till 2021 in Ramu, Bhramanbaria, Cumilla and Rangpur. Communal evil force was involved in these incidents. A section of Awami League and Chhatra League leaders and activists were also involved in these incidents. Earlier, cases related to communal violence were not recorded. Now cases are taken. But in most of the cases, names of Awami League leaders and activists are not included in the charge sheets.
Do you think there is no patronisation of the state that ruling party leaders and activists are excluded from the cases?
It does not seem to us that this is state sponsored. It is a failure or negligence of the administration and the law enforcing agencies. Otherwise, it is done deliberately. On the Ashtami day of Durga Puaja in 2021, prime minister Sheikh Hasina said there is zero tolerance against those who will carry out communal violence. After her declaration, the communal violence continued for 25 days. We said there are pro-Pakistani people in the administration, there is communal force in the ruling party and communalism is spreading in the grassroots politics. One the one hand, the perpetrators are not brought to book, if cases are ever filed, they are not caught and if ever they are caught, they come out after a few days.
Ahead of the election in 2018, in the context of your demands, Awami League made commitments to form a national minority commission, legislation of a special law for effective protection of the rights of the minority, implementation of the CHT Accord and a land commission for the ethnic minorities of the plane lands. What did you see after five years?
In 2021, when we saw none of these commitments have been implemented, we started movements. At one stage of movement, we had a meeting with Awami League general secretary. Afterwards, we held a meeting with the prime minister. But as there was no initiative, we started a hunger strike. At the time, Awami League election conducting committee co-chairman Kabir Bin Anwar assured that the minority commission will be formed in October session. We have no trust in politicians. But we have said we have hope and and trust in the prime minister. She has shown her commitment regarding vested property.
How much of the vested properties has been returned?
Awami League formulated the Vested Properties Act in 2001. The law was kept ineffective during the tenure of BNP. Six more amendments were made till 2011-13.
We engaged with bureaucrats in these amendments. In 2013, about 150,000 applications were submitted in the tribunals. In ten years, the tribunal has been able to settle only 30 per cent of the applications. But victims have not got back properties. According to the law, those who will be aggrieved after the verdict by the tribunal, they will go to the appellate court. The order there will be the final. But the reality is the court and the appellate court is very slow. Of the settled cases, 10 per cent of victims have not got back their lands. The deputy commissioners have halted. In the case of vested properties, we have been stuck in a vicious cycle.
The minorities of Bangladesh will not be pawns. What message do you want to give through this?
Many people term the religious and ethnic minorities as agents of India and of Awami League. We clearly said we are not agents of India or Awami League. We are agents of Bangladesh and the liberation war. We want a secular state in light with the constitution of 1972.
Although Awami League is in power for 15 years at a stretch, the party has not dropped the state religion.
This is unfortunate. They could do it through the amendment of 15th amendments. But Awami League did not do it, so we are in a movement. The politics of the subcontinent is changing. It is said in Bangladesh t there is no conflict between the state religion and the constitution, and BJP in India has started saying state religion Hindu has no conflict with the constitution. But these are false arguments. Irrespective of religions and castes, we want that people live in peace, in harmony, with dignity and equal rights everywhere whether it is India and Bangladesh.
Those of you who are talking about the rights of minorities have political divisions. Do you think these are obstacles to the establishment of rights?
Political ideology is a personal right. But we have no difference in opinion about the establishment of rights of minorities.
There are 22 MPs from minority communities. How many of them are talking about your rights?
It is unfortunate that a few of them only talk about the rights of minority people in the parliament. They may think that they will not get nomination if they talk about the rights of minority people.
Will the Oikya Parishad think of going to the parliament to realise their demands?
Many talk about this issue in the meetings of the council, but we do not the Oikya Parishad to be turned into a political party. Dhirendranath Dutta and others fought against the religious division in politics. We are their descendants. We don't want a political party established on the basis of communalism. However, out of anger and deprivation, some of us want Oikya Parishad to become a political party. But we are not thinking of that.
One of the conditions of democracy is fair elections, voting rights and protection of voters. Although the voters could cast votes in 2001, the minority people had no security. In 2018, people could not cast votes. How do you view this?
The political parties have to overcome this. The political parties that are talking about democracy have to take steps so that people do not suffer. It is not the question of minorities, people cannot be protected without democracy. We have fought against the Pakistani rulers for this democracy, that democracy is now weak.
What is the way out of this vicious cycle?
A country cannot run in this way forever. The civil society has to mount pressure on the political parties so that the political leadership understands. If the leftists could be a third alternative, the politics of Bangladesh would not be in such a state. They could not do that. If the leftists were strong, democracy would be strong. Minorities and marginal people were fearless.
Do you think the policy of BNP has been changed in the issue of ethnic and religious minorities?
We think a bit has been changed. We made a call that the political parties do not throw programmes during the Durga Puja. We are grateful to BNP that they have not scheduled any events during the puja. Awami League has given a programme on 23 October. We have requested them to change the programme. We hope they will change the programme. BNP has given a 32-point demand. They said what they would do if they were elected. They have said for the first time, "each to their own religion, the state is for all". If they bring about democratic amendments, we would welcome that. But let them apologise for the incidents in 1992 and 2001-06. We also make the same demand for the Awami League for the violence that took place during their rule.
Do you think there is any danger if the next election is not inclusive?
That would be unfortunate for the entire nation. Nobody knows what will happen the. It would not be a danger for only minorities, it would be a danger for the entire nation. It is a danger for those who will not join the election and for those who will not facilitate their way for joining the election.
*This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print and online editions, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.