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One of the main objectives of this initiative was to cultivate analysis, observation and criticism instead of blind emotion. As part of this initiative, at a conference joined by 40 people's representatives from 9 upazilas, we organised a debate competition on the issue of the recent communal violence. The topic of the debate was 'Political motive, not religious belief, was the only reason behind the recent attacks on the Hindu community.' The participants of the debate were not inexperienced college or university students. They were representatives of various parties and civil society at grassroots level. After the debate, the issue was discussed openly among all. Many issues emerged during the discussions that are valuable food for thought for all concerned.

The debate and the post-debate discussions began with a very important question: In 1971-72 if such an incident took place, if someone placed the Holy Book of the Muslims, the Quran, at a Hindu puja mandap, would there be such a fierce and violent reaction? At the end of the discussions everyone agreed that the despicable violence that took place following the 13 October incident in Cumilla, would never have occurred in 1971 because the mindset of the people in the newly independent Bangladesh was absolutely different. They were imbued with the teachings of democracy and socialism, that is social justice, along with secularism. In a society where true secularism exists, there is no place for communalism or communal-based identity.

During the Pakistan rule, the ruling class and their collaborators tried their utmost to spread toxic communal feelings and religious fanaticism among the people. They even tried to prohibit Rabindra Sangeet. They failed. The more they tried to suppress the language and the culture of the Bengalis, the stronger the spirit of Bengali nationalism grew among the people. As a result, it was based on Bengali nationalism that Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians fought shoulder to shoulder in the Liberation War, readily sacrificing their lives for each other.

Despite the ups and downs in Bangladesh's politics, many devious efforts to use religion in politics and the adding of Islam to the constitution in narrow political interests, a culture of secularism and non-communalism remained strong for long in the country. At various points of time we have seen the politicians from different political parties joining hands to thwart any form of communal riots. Such united efforts remained intact for as long as our politicians carried out their politics and ran the state in the interests and the welfare of the people, rather than in the interests of individuals, groups and parties. They do not have the slightest twinge of conscience now to take up misdeeds in narrow interests.

The debate competition and ensuing discussions also brought to light that over the past few decades, there has been much degeneration in Bangladesh's politics, leading to a gradual spread of communalism in the society. One such instance of degeneration is the culture of injustice, the absence of justice. Not a single incident of communal violence that has taken place in the past, has been brought to justice. The instigators of the violence against the Hindu community in 2001, the Ramu incident, the mayhem in Nasirnagar, all remain out of reach.

Any local or foreign vested quarter at any time can ignore the gunpowder on which we stand for their political or any other interests. And by then it may not be possible for the authorities to bring things under control. And, we fear, the elections awaiting us two years from now and the horrific conflict surrounding these elections, have increased this threat manifold

Another instance of degeneration is the use of religion for political gains and providing political patronage to religion-based parties and groups.

A significant example of this is the BNP-Jamaat election alliance on the eve of the 2001 eighth parliamentary polls. Another big example is the deal between Awami League and Khelafat Majlis in 2006. If that deal had materialised, it would have led to the promulgation of a blasphemy law, declaring Ahmadiyas non-Muslim and the implementation of many other fundamentalist agenda. Luckily, under a volley of protest, Awami League was forced to discard the deal.

Over the past few decades our politicians have become exceedingly subservient to religious groups, even implementing their agenda, an example of which is the changes brought to the school curriculum. Above all, it is because of government policy that all over the country public religious gatherings are spreading while there has been a drastic drop in cultural activities.

Another instance of erosion is the blame game played by our major political parties, which has got out of hand in recent times. From the very outbreak of the violence over the 13 October Cumilla incident, BNP blamed Awami League and Awami League blamed BNP without any inquiry, investigation, evidence or proof. The actual miscreants slip out and get away amid such mudslinging politics.

According to media reports, leaders and activists of both the major political parties were involved in these violent incidents. Many youth were in the forefront. Media reports and the statements of victims revel that law enforcement personnel were not guarding the puja mandaps in many areas and, in many instances, they did not even come forward in time to assist the injured, even though the prime minister had given instructions to take stern action in this regard. That is why many feel that the evil elements are within the authorities too.

The debate and post-debate discussions made it clear that seeds of religious-extremism, communalism and fanaticism are taking root in our society gradually. Another reason behind this is a propensity towards religious extremism among all religion followers in all countries. Incidents in our neighbouring India have also given rise to communalism among the people in Bangladesh. All this of this has placed the society on an explosive pile of gunpowder, the source of which is the growing communal intolerance and hatred among persons of all parties, views, professions, gender and age.

The placing of the Holy Quran at the puja mandap in Cumilla was akin to throwing a lighted match on the heap of gunpowder. The flame spread all over the country. So the flames that burn in Bangladesh today, have been fanned by religious fanaticism and the communal mindset as well as vested politics. Vested quarters have taken advantage of this and this may involve politics interests. All this must be revealed through thorough investigation.

One thing was clear in the debate and post-debate discussions -- the Cumilla incident and its fallout has been a wake-up call for the nation. Even after that if we do not awaken and take effective measures to bring all positive forces in society together to change the mindset of religious extremism and communalism and to rescue to the derailed youth, we will have to pay a steep price for this in the future. Any local or foreign vested quarter at any time can ignore the gunpowder on which we stand for their political or any other interests. And by then it may not be possible for the authorities to bring things under control. And, we fear, the elections awaiting us two years from now and the horrific conflict surrounding these elections, have increased this threat manifold.

* Badiul Alam Majumdar is secretary, SHUJON: Citizens for Good Governance.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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