By Kamran Reza Chowdhury;
As expected, the street opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), comes up with allegations that Friday’s expulsion of three local Awami League leaders in Nasirnagar proves that the ruling party has been involved in the October 30 attacks on the minority Hindus two eastern Bangladeshi districts.
The BNP’s politics behind the allegation is apparently aimed at making the Hindus ‘understand’ that they are not safe under the custody of Sheikh Hasina who monopolises the secular politics and enjoys the minority votes in all elections.
And to some extent, I think, the BNP is successful as the Hindu leaders have openly bashed the local Awami League MP, Sayedul Hoque, also minister for fisheries and livestock, for his absence from Nasirnagar in the first three days since the attacks was carried out on Hindu temples and homes in Brahmanbaria. Minorities were also reportedly attacked in neighbouring Habiganj district.
The minority leaders said Hoque’s constituency was house to some 44,000 Hindu voters and on Friday the angry Hindu students and secular people demanded his resignation for the repeated attacks on the Hindus who constitute just over nine percent of Bangladesh 160 million people.
More important part of the BNP’s politics is to show the Hindu nationalist BJP government in India, which extends unflinching support to semi-elected but legally legitimate government of Sheikh Hasina, that the Awami League is also oppressor of the Hindus.
The BNP leadership is well aware of premier Narendra Modi’s policy of protecting the Hindus suffering in any part of the globe. Repression of the Hindus is one of the issues that can cause a dent into the Dhaka-Delhi solid relations. BNP wants the Hindu leaders to bring the Awami League’s failure to the notice of the Indian government.
Several months ago, BBC reported that Rana Dasgupta, the general secretary of the Hindu-Buddhists-Christian Oikya Parishad, sought Narendra Modi’s interference to stop minority repression in Bangladesh.
The BNP and its staunchest ally Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami have always been branded as the anti-Hindu and anti-India parties and more inclined to Islamabad while the Awami League is pro New Delhi.
Once the Awami League used to reject the BNP-Jamaat allegations that they were India-backed, but now many of the ruling party leaders compete to show their love for India.
Also, the BNP has shunned the decades-old politics of spewing anti-Indian venom in public for now they want a blessing from Delhi to return to power— of course for the changed global polity.
The Awami League says that it maintains the policy of secularism. The party proudly says that they expelled the three Nasirnagar leaders in line with the Awami League’s zero tolerance for minority repression and communalism.
But an open-minded discussion would give us the impression that the Awami League’s religious neutrality is in questions since the attack on the Buddhists temple in Ramu of Cox’s Bazar. Some local leaders in Ramu were found to have joined the BNP and Jamaat to burn the temples of the Buddhists and their houses in 2012 over an alleged defamation of Islam through a Facebook post allegedly by a Buddhist man. Ramu unit of Awami League did not attempt to protect the Buddhists who vote them. Hasina immediately took a measure to reconstruct the temples of the Buddhists and pay compensation to the victims.
The Awami League still maintains its secular policy but the trend at the grassroots is getting changed. A careful look at the posters of the local Awami League leaders show many of them wear Islamic cap to show, a ploy to portray themselves as Islamic.
With a limited political space for other parties, many of the BNP and Jamaat leaders have been joining the Awami League and its front organizations shouting ‘Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu’ slogan — some of them to make a fortune or to save skin.
The outgoing secretary of the Awami League, Syed Ashraful Islam, some years ago told in public that its student wing Chhatra League was led by a leader of Islamic Chhatra Shibir, the student front of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami.
Given the Ramu and Nasirnagar incidents, I want to see the Awami League’s change of secular attitude from another angle. Many of the fresh original Awami League leaders and activists are not genuine believers of secularism.
The Awami League had a high price to promote secularism in the post August 1975 politics dominated by the BNP-Jamaat-Jatiya Party. The BNP-Jamaat and other Islamic parties at the public meetings propagated that Sheikh Hasina was ‘anti-Islam’ as she did not utter ‘Bimillahir Rahmanir Rahim’ while Khaleda Zia and her slain husband and the BNP’s de facto founder Major General Ziaur Rahman used to utter ‘Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim’. Military ruler HM Ershad also utters Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim.
To counter such allegations, Sheikh Hasina, who is a devout Muslim saying prayers five times a day, started uttering ‘Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim’ before her public speeches. I still recall the day when the local Awami League leaders in my home town Naogaon heaved a sigh of relief when Sheikh Hasina started uttering Bismillah at public meetings.
Begum Matia Chowdhury, a conservative communist-turned Awami Leaguer, goes one step forward with: Aujubillah Himinashai Toanir Rajim, Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, to begin her public speech nowadays. Former Dhaka city Mayor Mohammad Hanif during election campaigns introduced ‘La Ilaha Illallh, Noukar Malik Tui Allah’ to Islamise the campaign. These Islamic shifts impacted the local Awami League leaders who now do not bother to sell the idea of secularism.
One of the factors that forced the Awami League to go for Islamic rehearsal is that the party needs to woo the increased number of people subscribing Islamic values while the number of minority votes coming down. The party needs focus on the 90 per cent Muslims than the 10 per cent minorities.
Democracy says of diversity and equal rights for all irrespective faiths. But unfortunate is the minorities across the globe are under repression in some form or others.
In Pakistan, the minority Hindus and Shikhs are under serious existential threats while the Muslims and Dalits in India are subjected to repressions in different forms.
The Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar are rated as the world’s most persecuted minorities in the world. In southern Thailand, the Muslims have been under oppression of the Buddhists. The ethnic Chinese in Malaysia have been under pressure from the majority Malay. The Hindu minority in the Buddhists majority Sri Lanka are second class citizens. The tiny Bhutan in early 1980s forcibly drove away hundreds of thousands of Hindu Bhutanese of Nepali origin to Nepal. In the Hindu majority Nepal, the Hindus of Indian origin have been facing discrimination.
Even in America, the allegation of violence and discrimination against the black people and the Muslims are there. The Shia-Sunni division has been eroding the whole Arab world and the Christians and Yazidis are the targets of the Islamic State.
In Israel, the Palestinians are the easy targets of the Jews and the Jews of Ethiopian origin are the victims of repression and discrimination.
What is heartening in Bangladesh is persecution of the minorities here is not state-sponsored. The violence against the minorities takes place in Bangladesh for petty economic and local political factors.
The Awami League should understand that the party should strictly hold its original secular policy keeping in the mind that thousands of people sacrificed their lives for a secular and plural Bangladesh.
Only secularism can guarantee a safer Bangladesh for all faiths. We have to remembers that Bangladesh’s economic strides since 1971 are the results of joint contribution of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, Christians and other smaller ethnic and religious groups.
The newly selected Cardinal from Bangladesh, Patrick D’Rozario gives me an example on how the minorities contribute to the country. “We are very small in number considering Bangladesh 160 million people. But we are working like salt of the society. You need a pinch of salt in a bowl of rice. But without the slat, you cannot eat the rice”.