Bangladesh: A Grim Landscape of Bloodletting and Violence
THE world was shocked and outraged with the bloodletting and violence between October 13 and 16, in Bangladesh. This is unprecedented in terms of emotional damage; because this was a direct assault on the Durga puja celebrations in some parts of Bangladesh. The violence broke out in the Durga puja festivity in Comilla’s Nanuar Dighi. Later on, it spread to Chandpur, Noakhali and Chittagong.
The forum of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians has formally stated that there has been violence, destruction and arson in seventy Durga puja pandals. Doubtlessly, this has not only aggravated a sense of fear and insecurity among Hindu residents of Bangladesh but has also triggered a great concern among Indian citizens particularly of Bengali origin across the country, especially in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.
PRE-PLANNED AND ORGANISED DESECRATION
With the official investigation now unravelling, the long-drawn preparation for unleashing such violence is now emerging. The Comilla incident on October 13, which acted as a trigger for violence leading to the killing of three people has now brought out the ominous game plan. Thirty-five-year-old Iqbal Hussein has been identified as being responsible for placing the Quran in the Durga puja pandal in Nanuar Dighi. CC TV footage has also revealed that Hussein brought the holy book from a local mosque and placed it on the thigh of a Hanuman idol in the pandal. It has also been revealed by the police that Hussein was assisted by Fayez and Ekram who raised the alarm and went public through a Facebook live event.
It is almost certain that the placing of the Quran was intended to hurt religious sentiments. Both Fayez and Ekram are now in police custody. Further investigations have also revealed that the green coloured copy of the Quran was not printed in Bangladesh but brought from Saudi Arabia by Fayez. Investigators have also established that Fayez had returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia a year ago. The Facebook live incited a religious appeal. The incident led to violence and provoked trouble in a number of districts outside Dhaka with a mixed population. Further investigation based on CC TV camera footage at various locations has captured Iqbal’s movements and involvements. However, Iqbal Hussein’s political identity is yet to be established.
Though the government has come out firmly against mischief-makers, a local human rights body points out that from January 2013 up to September 2021 there have been 3,710 incidents against the Hindu community. But the scale of violence cannot be termed as genocide as the right-wing forces are trying to emphasise through social media, particularly, in India.
GENESIS OF THE FAULT LINE
The genesis of the fault line can be traced to the British colonial historiography and the policy of divide and rule which aimed to establish nationhood based on religious identity. This had led to the partition and formation of a theocratic Islamic State of Pakistan. However, the immediate outbreak of Bengali speaking peoples’ struggle and their search for a Bengali linguistic-cultural identity underlined the basic flawed premise of the religious identity-driven notion of nationhood and statehood. It is eventually this movement that led to the liberation struggle and the eventual establishment of free Bangladesh in 1971.
But, the Islamists and subscribers of Pakistan and their military backers never accepted this quest for a non-communal identity. Though no longer in a majority in the newly liberated country, their attempts continued leading to the gruesome assassination of the undisputed leader of the liberation struggle Bangabandhu Mujibar Rahaman. Subsequently, the two military leaders, President Zia and Irshad who usurped power, removed the reference to secularism in the Constitution to smuggle in the notion of Islam as a State religion. Though in practice the principles of secularism and freedom to various religious faiths were accepted, the battle continued between Islamists and secularists.
Given the legacy of the liberation struggle for a non-communal Bangladesh have continued. This battle suffered a setback with the BNP of Khaleda Zia legitimising the Jamaat-e-Islami by including them in the ruling alliance. Subsequently, the electoral victory of the Awami League-led alliance has been able to partially roll back this tendency by re-introducing secularism in the Constitution; but it has not been taken to its logical culmination and the conflicting provision of Islam as the State religion continues. This was despite the note of dissent by sections of the Left.
THE CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT
It is in this general background that severe challenges have emerged with the outbreak of global Islamist fundamentalism and the incessant supply of petro-dollar particularly, from Saudi Arabia. This global context has been buttressed by legitimising the Jamaat-e-Islami with their record of war crimes not only rehabilitated them in the political mainstream but, further facilitated their participation in the State power as part of the BNP alliance making Bangladesh a religious State.
The protracted struggles leading to the victory of the Awami League has not led to the complete uprooting of the communal and sectarian tendency in the body politic.
The culmination of the global and the national factors saw the surfacing of an extremist organisation JMB which stunted the nation by orchestrating simultaneous explosions in 63 districts. Earlier in the 1996-2001 period of Awami League rule, Afghanistan returned Mujahids had formed an extremist organisation called Huji which carried out attacks on Sheikh Hasina’s life.
Post-2008, the Islamic State has inspired secret Islamist extremist groups which targeted free thinkers, writers, authors, bloggers, religious personalities and people from the Shia community.
Despite the broad positions of the Bangladesh government against these extremist groups, the level of activity of these groups is low-key but, there are a few underground outfits. There is every possibility that the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan may boost their enthusiasm.
TO WHOSE BENEFIT?
It is absolutely clear that the attack on Durga puja celebrations in Bangladesh is aimed at explicitly reviving the electoral fortunes of the Islamist right-wing in Bangladesh. After the successful campaign for action against the enemies of the liberation struggle and the Razakar assassins and their collaborators and finally, leading to Supreme Court’s decision to hand out the death sentence has affected Jamaat badly with most of their senior leaders facing a death sentence. Their political credibility is at a very low level. This violence would possibly energise their student activists who have resorted to sporadic violence.
What is surprising is the evidence of Hanuman along with Ram, Laxman and Sita in Comilla puja pandal. Bengali speaking people never offer to these deities, not to speak of doing it inside Durga puja pandals. This is a typical Hindutva practice. The subsequent reaction by organisations like VHP and utterances by BJP leaders in West Bengal leaders show that they are reaping electoral benefits from these extremely tragic incidents. This is happening notwithstanding, the Indian government’s official observation that the government of Bangladesh has been prompt in dealing with the horrendous incident.
THE ROLE OF THE GOVERNMENT AND THE PEOPLE
It is clear that the communal dimension of the attacks on Hindu believers and their religious practices of which Durga puja is the most important has more to do with politics of power than anything else. It has to be also accepted that the Bangladesh government including the prime minister has come out with a clear and unambiguous condemnation of the heinous crime. As extolled by prime minister Hasina, the government and the security forces have come down heavily arresting a few hundred who are suspected to have been involved in engineering the incidents and there is an effort to piece together the specifics of the organisation which attempted to foment discord. But what is equally clear is that given the changed context invoking the ‘spirit of seventy one’ and the liberation struggle is not adequate in staving off the challenge of communal animosity. It is simply not a law-and-order issue, but a multi-faceted approach is needed to cleanse the body politic and the social fabric of the process and forces of division.
Bangladesh has been making significant advances in recent times in economy and other development indicators. All that can end up in smoke unless amity and harmony are preserved.
Along with the government, the people also led by the political forces have come out in a very significant manner against attempts to create this harmony and instil a sense of fear and insecurity among the minority Hindu community. All across the country, massive mobilisation has taken place. The Left in Bangladesh has played a crucial role in mobilising the people. Innovative programmes like musical concerts against communal violence have attracted a large section of the people. However, meticulous planning must be initiated to areas where backward ideologies continue to hold sway. The fact that the main perpetrators identified so far happen to be unemployed youth, underlines the challenge in the days ahead.
A large number of young people going to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are seen to be carrying back a more pernicious version of political Islam which is not in consonance with the liberal traditions of how it was practised in Bangladesh. Therefore, the securing of the future would also involve addressing the questions of unemployment and opportunities within the country; ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’.