Communalism on the basis of religion is an identified and growing problem for most of the South Asian nations including Bangladesh. Communalism is associated with sectarian attacks, discrimination, atrocities on religious minorities, extremism, and violence against women. It also has influence over education and political system, cultural activities, ideology, economy and society. To say anything about the rise of communalism in Bangladesh requires some knowledge about history. Unless we go back to the history of partition of the sub-continent, the regime of Pakistan and the background of the independence of Bangladesh our understanding of communalism and its roots remain incomplete.
The proposed partition of Bengal in 1905 and acceptance of two nation theory as the main political doctrine in the late 1930s laid the foundation stone to bring communal element as a political instrument in the undivided India. Pakistan was created in 1947, consisting of two wings -West and East Pakistan (East Bengal), as a Muslim state with exceptional bitterness based on religious identity. Pakistan's national unity was based on the common religious identity of its citizens as Muslims which undermined the nation's linguistic diversity and the outcome was growing conflict between the ethnic groups. The anti-Bengali policies of the Pakistani ruling elites and socio-economic disparity raged the feeling of distrust and discontent among the students, politicians and mass people of East Pakistan which got its momentum during the Language Movement. Religious implications were brought into public discourse by propagating the issue of the assumed connection between the Bengali language and Hindu heritage since the religious text of Hinduism is written in the Sanskrit language, from which the Bengali language originated. To negate the Islamic nationalism of West Pakistan, a secular nationalism based on language and culture emerged in East Bengal. The establishment of the Awami Muslim League in 1949 (in 1955, the party dropped the word “Muslim” from its name and turned Awami League) was the ﬁrst attempt to institutionalize the Bengalee nationalist movement for emancipation.To materializing the oppressive policies the rulers used religion as a tool to divide people, by propagating Islam is in danger, only to obstruct development of secular culture in the East Pakistan. Due to the adoption of communal state policies many Hindu families migrated to India during 1960. Dr Abul Brakat argues that among various factors responsible for such a massive out-migration of Hindu population, the impact of Laws, such as the Enemy Property Act 1965 was notable one. Through this barbaric Act such non conductive environment was created that the Hindus who migrated leaving behind their assets failed to reclaim it or got back their land only after completing a lot of procedural work.
Against this backdrop, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formulated the historic 6-point program which voiced the demands of East Pakistan’s self-determination and economic emancipation. The ruling elites responded to the Bengali aspiration for independence by targeting the religious sentiment of the majority Muslims of East Pakistan. West Pakistan and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami propagated the Liberation War of Bangladesh as war against the enemies of Islam and a conspiracy of India to divide Pakistan, to give the Liberation War a pro-Indian tag. At the time of the Liberation Movement in 1971, one crore people including Hindu and other indigenous communities took shelter in India though the majority of them came back after independence.
The independence of Bangladesh in 1971 brought an end to the frightful communal tension which Bengalis have tolerated till the last days of Pakistan. The birth of Bangladesh through a nine month Liberation War was a victory of the pro-secular Bengali nationalistic movement over religion frenzy Pakistani nationalism. But after the independence it became apparent that some elements of communalism were still existent and were disturbing the social and political order in war ravaged Bangladesh. The war criminals and their collaborators including like-minded land owners, capitalists, and politicians realized that using communalism to create chaos and violence in the newly found State can help them to gain political power.
The first assault on Bengalee nationalism and secularism was perpetuated by the politician-writer Abul Mansur Ahmed when he claimed that the emergence of Bangladesh was a reflection of the Lahore Resolution of 1940. Reportedly communal attack during religious festivals, burning of the national flag and anti Bangladesh slogan like ‘Muslim Bangla Zindabad’, ‘pakistan Zindabad’ took place in different places. It is evident from the newspapers reports that during Durga puja some elements of communal disharmony took place in different parts of the country and the government immediately took action which indicates that there were elements of communalism but the government was determined to eliminate such disruption in the society.
One of the major accomplishments of the Awami League government under the leadership of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the early days of independence was the framing of a secular Constitution articulating a promise to eradicate communalism and abuse of religion for political purposes. In the Constituent Assembly debate Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the then Prime Minister said:
‘No one will be allowed to interfere in others’ religions. The people of Bengal do not want any interference in religious matters. Religion cannot be used for political ends’.The aspiration of secularism was articulated clearly in Article 12 and Article 38 prohibited religion based political parties. Article 41allowed every citizen to profess, practice or propagate religion and every religious community to establish and maintain its own religious institutions. Article 9 affirmed the unity and solidarity of the Bengalee nation, deriving from the homogeneity of its language and culture.
Reportedly on the day of the formal acceptance of the Constitution in 1972, a public procession was carried out against secularism on the streets of Dhaka enchanting “Joy Bangla joy-heen, Lungi chhere dhuti pin”. This particular slogan stated that the Awami League’s landmark slogan of Joy Bangla (victory to Bangladesh) is merely a replica of jai hind and now the traditional Bengali Muslim men’s attire lungi would be replaced by traditional Hindu men’s attire dhuti.
During the Mujib regime communalism was greatly weakened and its influence in politics was marginalized due to state intervention but a true secular polity, which reflects a common culture based on nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy could not develop as the brutal coup of 1975 (through which the Father of the Nation was mercilessly killed) brought into power Major Ziaur Rahman who ensured it by all means that he did not subscribe to the secularist principles of the Mujib regime. To gain political and constitutional legitimacy Zia deleted secularism from the Constitution and replaced Bengalee nationalism with Bangladeshi nationalism focusing on Muslim religious identity, which marginalized the minorities. Further the executive orders issued between 1976 and 1979 removed the ban on forming political parties based on religious ideology. A new clause 25(2) declaring the state shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based
on Islamic solidarity, was added in the Constitution. Article 38 which prohibited the formation of religion based political parties was deleted from the Constitution and consequently parties like Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh revived in the polity. On May 1979 the Second Parliament session started with recitation from the Holy Qur’an only whereas previously citations were made from the holy books of all religions, Friday, was declared a half-holiday to show solidarity with the Islamic countries. Furthermore, the popular slogan “Joy Bangla,” was replaced by “Bangladesh Zindabad”, which is closer to “Pakistan Zindabad.”. During the time of General Zia nearly 40 religion based political parties were registered and actively participated in the politics. Later Zia formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with fellows from the military, bureaucracy, business community and radical fundamentalist groups.
After the assassination of Zia in 1981 the then Army General Hussain Muhammad Ershad came to power through another military coup and faced the same legitimacy crisis like the Zia regime. In mid 1988 to legitimize his power through proving his Islamist credentials Ershad, amended the Constitution and declared Islam as the state religion. Friday was announced a full holiday, he contributed transforming the education system communal and retrograde and created anti secular socio-political structure. Ershad tried to impose Islam on secular Bengalee culture even by banning the drawing of Alpona in the Language Martyr’s day observation because of its similarity to Hindu/Indian culture. He ultimately changed the political discourse by strengthening the Islamist forces in the polity which affected democratic rights.
The Changes made by the military rulers in the Constitution, education system, media and social structure paved the way for the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, communalism and extremism. In the eighties, during the Ershad regime, 55-60 thousand Chakmas from the Chittagong Hill-tracts migrated to the neighbouring state of Tripura. The nineties witnessed a deterioration of communal harmony in Bangladesh due to the attack on the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists in India, which created atrocities against Hindus of Bangladesh. During the tenures of BNP Government (1991 to 1996, and 2001 to 2006) BNP and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami promoted the Islamic bigots and extremists like Bangla Bhai, Abdur Rahman Saekh and the state patronized killing of minorities in the name of Islam.
Khaleda’s regimes reflected the mere imitation of Zia’s policy of Islamization. In order to promote communal ideology to gain political popularity, the propaganda of Islamization took place and the blame of making the nation ‘irreligious’, ‘infedal’ or ‘Hindu state’ was directed against the secular political party Awami League and India - a Hindu State and hence enemy of Islam. The year 2001 witnessed pre and post election violence and the state instigated communalism against Hindus in particular as they were considered the vote banks of the defeated secular political party Awami League. According to The Hindu nearly 1,000 Hindus left for India at that time due to the severance of state condoned persecution. Bangladesh has observed massive communal attack on the Buddhist community in 2012 in Ramu, where thousands years old religious scripture and temples were burnt. In May 2013 fanatics vandalized offices and shops, uprooted trees in Motijheel, Dhaka upon a rumour that the Government has burned holy Qur’an. Before and after the general election of 2014, the temples, houses of Hindus were vandalized, men were persecuted and Hindu girls were raped. During the trial of war criminals communal and terrorists attack took place across the country. The rumour that Delwar Hossain Saidee was seen on the moon created communal tension.
In 2015 Islamist fundamentalists attacked and killed progressive writes, clergies and members of law enforcement agencies. In 2016 with Religious madness young stars brutally killed nearly 20 people in Holy Artisan Cafe, Gulshan. In the same year, in Kishoreganj, Solakiyaya the country's biggest Eid congregation, extremists attacked during Eid prayer. In 2016 the Malopara of Thakurgaon was attacked with communal instigation, in 2017 at Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria sectarian violence exploded. Pro secular writers, publishers, journalists, religious minorities and priests have been attacked time to time with communal motive.
The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh and Executive Director, Bangladesh Manobadhikar O Poribesh Andolon
(To be continued)