Unfortunately, we failed to hold on to that unity after independence. Political leadership became embroiled in narrow political conflict and groupings. The Awami League which led the Liberation War, itself was divided within a year. A part of the party, particularly the majority of the student front, broke away in dissension to form a new party. Whether that was a correct or incorrect decision is another matter, but the fact remains that the freedom fighters failed to remain united. A part of the leftist parties that had joined the Liberation War, blindly supported everything that the government did. That did not bode well for the country. Another part took up an armed struggle to topple the government from power.
Unrest and agitation spread throughout the country. Added to that was the conspiracy of foreign powers. Subsequently, in just less than four years of independence, Bangabandhu and family were killed by a rogue group and the fundamental principles of Bangladesh underwent a change. The removal of secularism from the constitution served to 'other' the minority. It was basically from then that the problems between the minority and the majority took on larger proportions. The nine months of the Liberation War failed to erase the Pakistani mindset from the majority population of the country.
I agree with the readers that the majority-minority, Bengali-non-Bengali divide is most unwarranted in independent Bangladesh. But given the prevailing social and political circumstances in Bangladesh, the word 'minority' is relatively acceptable and safe.
Five days after the attacks and arson at the puja mandap in Cumilla, the ruling Awami League made an announcement and held a 'rally of peace and harmony'. Speaking at the event in Dhaka, the party's general secretary Obaidul Quader said until the poison fangs of the communal forces are destroyed, they would remain on the streets. Awami League has been in power for a stretch of 12 years. How do the communal forces have the courage to bare their poison fangs? Do these forces lie within the party? Are the claims of establishing the spirit of the liberation war nothing but rhetoric?
In an interview with Prothom Alo, the deliberations of Hindu, Christian, Buddha Oikya Parishad general secretary Rana Dasgupta echoes the anger, pain and deprivation of the minorities in Bangladesh. He said that the minorities did not have confidence in politics or the politicians. They cheat the minorities. They make big promises before the elections, but forget all this once the elections are over. Rana Dasgupta certainly wasn't referring to the communal forces when he spoke of these politicians. He was referring to those who consider the minorities their vote bank.
We are not saying that the Awami League government has done nothing for the minorities. Many members of the minority community are in important places of the administration, something that could not even be conceived of before. However, the divide that was created with the minorities during the governments of Zia, Ershad and Khaleda, Zia, more or less remains intact. The minorities are the first to be targeted in any national calamity.
It took five whole days for a party like Awami League, that has huge numbers of leaders and activists countrywide, supporters under various names and banners, to finally hold a rally of peace and harmony. Had such a gathering been held immediately after the incident and had the administration taken immediate measures, the damages could have been contained. In fact, the inaction of the administration and the police is responsible for the dangerous turn which the Cumilla incident took. They sent police to the puja mandaps only after the incidents were over. The mayhem raged on for three hours in Noakhali but no members of the administration or no Awami League men turned up there. The Awami League leaders claim that these incidents were part of a conspiracy of the opposition and communal forces and they had information about this from beforehand. The people, then, surely have the right to know what advance measures the government took in this regard.
Peace and harmony are nothing isolated. These are part and parcel of governance and political culture. Whether a society is built up on harmony or conflict, depends much on the practice of power. Many have called for religious leaders to stop hate speeches. This is a justified demand. At the same time, the language used by politicians in their vitriol against their opponents, the type of speeches and statements they make, all must be taken into cognizance too.
The constitution talks about people's sovereignty, yet those people are the most neglected today. The people have no role to play in how the state will be run. On the contrary, those in power determine what the people will be able to say or not be able to say, what they will be able to do, or not do
Communal harmony does not fall from the sky. It does not sprout from the ground either. Harmony is a matter of lengthy exercise. One cannot hope for peace and tolerance while hatred simmers in the political arena.
Political leadership was almost completely silent while the attacks were taking place one after the other on the minority community in various places of the country. Even the civil society hardly made a noise. Only now, after the incidents are over, are demonstrations and protests being held in various places. The political parties are taking to the streets. The civil society is voicing protests. Social and cultural organisations are becoming vocal. Many people are making fiery speeches in seminars and webinars. Will this give any sort of reassurance to the minority community? Can the state give them a guarantee that such violence will not recur? Now that the incidents are over, we are all talking big. This is a reflection of a hypocritical mindset.
Leaders of the ruling party often declare that the country must be built up on the spirit of the 1971. What was the spirit of 1971? The spirit of 1971 was to establish a state that was respectful to humanitarian values, where there would be democracy and tolerance. The spirit of 1971 was the dispelling of any disparity among people. But the totally opposite prevails in the society and politics.
The constitution talks about people's sovereignty, yet those people are the most neglected today. The people have no role to play in how the state will be run. On the contrary, those in power determine what the people will be able to say or not be able to say, what they will be able to do, or not do.
* Sohrab Hasan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]
* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir