Religion, politics and mass hysteria

There seems to be no accountability for the government’s responsibility to ensure the safety and dignity of the people, whether of the minority or majority community

There have been protests and demonstrations over the past few days over two incidents – one of the public humiliation of Swapan Kumar, the acting principal of Mirzapur United College in Narail, and the other of the killing of Utpal Kumar Sarkar, a teacher of Haji Yunus Ali School and College in Ashulia, Savar. The agitation, it must be said, has been on a limited scale. It is basically the progressive elements within the civil society who have been taking up and joining these protests. A number of teachers’ associations have also protested, but hardly stridently. The protests of the political parties have been even weaker. The left parties have been vocal. The major political parties have been more or less silent, probably for strategic reasons.

There is not one strategic reason, but several. What could these be? Firstly, when there is the question of religion involved, the parties dependent on vote politics, find it safer to go with the flow of public sentiment than take up a leadership role. And it is most unfortunate that because religion is a sensitive issue, religious sentiment is used the most to gain political mileage.

We may look at the Narail incident here, or even earlier, the incidents of Hindu teachers being humiliated in Munshiganj and Narayanganj. The hard truth is that even the party that is supposedly the safeguard of the minorities, is no different.

Many say that the apparent rise in religious practice has created communal propensities among the majority, but it has been noted that there is political linkage wherever these communal tendencies have emerged. And along with that, is the drive for unilateral and absolute political power.

The second reason behind the silence of the political parties is that even behind these untoward incidents at school and colleges, lies power politics. Such groupings and despicable incidents take place simply to eliminate the so-called obstruction to empowering the party people or providing them with benefits and facilities. In the Narail incident it was seen that there was a cold war among the teachers over the vacant post of principal and the local politics had a direct or indirect role in this matter. When these matters came out into the open, Awami League expelled a leader from the local committee. He had been a colleague of Swapan Kumar.

And in Ashulia, Savar, the boy accused of killing the teacher Utpal Sarkar, was the grandson of the school’s governing committee chair.

The most talked-about incident over the past one decade that serves best to explain understand the role of political parties and individuals, is perhaps the one that took place in Narayanganj. On 13 May 2016, Shyamal Kanti Bhakta, the headmaster of Pear Sattar Latif High School in the Bandar upazila of Narayanganj, was accused to insulting religion and made to hold his ears and squat up and down in the school yard. It is said that Shyamal Kanti Bhakta had to go through such physical and mental abuse because of the local lawmaker Selim Osman. The leader was temporarily dismissed from the school’s governing body. In face of protests and agitation, a case was even filed against the member of parliament. Mysteriously, the court relieved him of charges. Some ministers of the government did decry the incident in parliament, though in the case of Swapan Kumar Biswas, even that wasn’t done.

Educational institutions have long been used now as a tool to wield and expand political power. Earlier a leader, that is a member of parliament, would check whether a person was of his party or not. Now he checks whether the person is his person or not. The local MP plays the most important role in the government’s policy regarding forming the governing bodies of schools and colleges. There is not a single instance of any one in his area being elected head of the management committee of the school or college without his approval. The guardian representatives or the teacher representatives in the committees are also elected according to his wishes.

The role of teachers in various important elections makes it important for the MPs to have full control of the schools and colleges. In almost all elections teachers are used to conduct the voting and so their political loyalty becomes important. In the political terms, harassing teachers despite the political equation between the power of the politicians and the governing bodies of the educational institutions, may be difficult to comprehend. There is the problem of communalism as well as the role of politics.

There is no acceptable explanation of how the principal was publicly humiliated in the college grounds in presence of the deputy commissioner

Political influence becomes all the more important when the administration is inert or follows a go-slow policy. In the Narail incident, we learn from Swapan Kumar Sarkar’s deposition that, “at one point of time, the deputy commissioner turned up at the college campus too. At four in the afternoon it was announced over megaphone that the teacher would be garlanded with a string of shoes. Swapan Kumar Biswas and the student were inside the college building at the time. After a while, they were brought outside. They were brought in front of the collapsible gate on the ground floor and garlanded with shoes.” (Prothom Alo, 29 June 2022)

There is no acceptable explanation of how the principal was publicly humiliated in the college grounds in presence of the deputy commissioner. It would not be normal for the top official of the district not to go to the principal’s room when coming to a college. Local police officials are transferred, but deputy commissioners not only remain in their posts, but also form administrative inquiry committees. The inquiry report is also submitted to them. In return for the service they provided to the ruling party in the last two elections, the bureaucrats are now above accountability. And such incidents only prove this contention further.

In the past, educationists, cultural activists and leading citizens would take no time to organise strong protests against such incidents. But that is no longer so. There are a few statements and human chains, but with all out efforts not to antagonise the government. The so-called communal forces are blamed and that’s it. But nothing is said about under whose patronage these communal forces are gradually gaining such strength.

There seems to be no accountability for the government’s responsibility to ensure the safety and dignity of the people, whether of the minority or majority community. The right of the minorities, or the accused, to justice is overlooked. Mob lynching or so-called people’s tribunals cannot be the answer. No democracy or rule of law will permit this. But many within advanced quarters of our society are quite habituated, for political reasons, to encourage such mass hysteria. How can they avoid the responsibility of using religion to generate mass hysteria?

* Kamal Ahmed is a journalist.

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