Elections are coming, what about the minorities?

At the meeting to exchange views organised by the Hindu Boudhha Christian Oikya Parishad, L-R in the front row: Sarwar Ali, Sultana Kamal, Rana Dasgupta, Nim Chandra Bhowmik, Ramendu Majumdar, Shahriar Kabir, Tania Amir, Benedict Alo D-Rozario, Shamsul Huda, Subrata Chowdhury, Masuda Rehana Begum and Debapriya Bhattacharya. 2 June, Engineers Institution, Dhaka
Ashraful Alam

It is the majority community who should raise the issue of problems faced by the religious or ethnic minorities. After all, the problems and crises face by the minorities in any country, are created by the majority community. This is done on an individual, social and state level. Unless the majority comes forward, it is impossible for the minorities to resolve these problems.

Attending a meeting to exchange views, 'National Election 2023: Rights of the Religious and Ethnic Minorities', it seemed to me that the number of people in society to speak up for the minorities is on the wane. Earlier, civil society and the left-wingers were somewhat vocal in this regard. The left themselves are now on the wane. As for the civil society, they have been coerced into silence.

Many have asked the question, if the Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad (Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council) want to build a non-communal Bangladesh, why do they use a communal name for their organisation? It would be more pertinent to question, why did this organisation have to be created? There was no organisation by this name before the autocrat Ershad made Islam the state religion in the constitution. The moment the religious minorities were relegated to the category of second class citizens, they created this organisation for the sake of their existence.

We are so proud of the 1972 constitution, but even that constitution does not recognise any ethnicity other than that of the Bengalis. Through the 15th amendment to the constitution, Awami League restored the four pillars of state -- nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism -- but did not rescind state religion. Having both secularism and a state religion in the constitution is contradictory. The formerly Hindu state Nepal had adopted secularism, why Bangladesh and India are using religion as the state religion and a tool to win votes.

At the event, it was said on behalf of the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council that they had placed a five-point demand with the government before the 2018 election. The demands included the formation of a ministry for minority affairs and a national minority commission, a minorities protection act, implementation of the restitution of vested property act, a land commission for the indigenous people of the plains, enactment of an anti-racial act and implementation of the hill tracts land dispute settlement act.

Awami League did not make mention of any minority affairs ministry in its election manifesto, but it made commitment to form a national commission for minorities and abolish all laws and systems that are discriminatory for the religious and ethnic minorities. Four and a half years have passed since then, but none of this has been implemented.

According to the 2022 population census, 7.95 per cent of the total population is Hindu. In 1951 this was 22 per cent. In 1974 and 2011, this fell to 14 per cent and 8.4 per cent respectively. What is the reason of this dwindling of the Hindu populace in Bangladesh? Primarily, insecurity. It was the commitment of the Bangladesh state to ensure the safety of all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity. The state has failed in this regard. The majority community too has failed to offer a helping hand. And so the minorities are leaving. No one leaves their homeland willingly.

Many claim that the minority community fare better during the Awami League rule as compared to that of BNP or Jatiya Party. But how well are they faring? It is true that the number of minority persons availing public jobs is relatively higher during Awami League rule. But has the forceful grabbing of land, homes and property of the minorities in the small towns and villages abated at all?

After the 2001 election, the minority community faced a brutal backlash. BNP did not address the issue. Nor did Awami League, other than for a few isolated cases. There has been no justice for the communal attacks carried out during the rule of this government in Ramu, Gobindaganj and Santhia. Following an incident at a Hindu temple in Cumilla during Durga Puja in 2021, Hindu homes and temples were attacked all over the country. There has been no justice. On the contrary, a few illiterate youth of the Hindu community were sent to jail for so-called Facebook posts.

Speakers at the seminar that day lamented that it was not just the society, but the state that had become communal too. Even though the pro-liberation war forces had been in power for the last 14 years, the communal character of the state had not changed an iota

Simply rolling out a list of how many members of the minority community received jobs during the different governments, how many were made secretaries, is not a yardstick of overall security for the minorities. It is democracy, the rule of law and justice that can ensure the safety of the minorities. But in reality, that is still a far cry. Educationist Anisuzzman used to say with regret, the state was a communal one during Pakistan times, but the society was non-communal. Now even though the state is non-communal, society has become communal.

Speakers at the seminar that day lamented that it was not just the society, but the state that had become communal too. Even though the pro-liberation war forces had been in power for the last 14 years, the communal character of the state had not changed an iota. Even 25 years after the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace treaty, the ethnic population there were aliens in their own land. And the ethnic minority communities on the plains were steadily losing their land and home and left with nothing. In the election equations, the religious and ethnic minorities were steadily being relegated to the ranks of the 'untouchables'.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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