When the original Constitution of our country was written in 1972, Secularism was included as one of the Four State Principles along with Democracy, Nationalism and Socialism. Despite the subsequent changes that were made to transform us into an Islamic state, our mainstream society remained progressive and pluralist. We continued to hold close to our hearts, a culture that is a melting pot holding a mixture of faith, customs and traditions.
For decades since its independence, our country has seen the political reign change many hands, but sporadic acts of communal violence were present during each new regime. Despite this, our majority managed to live in harmony. However, those who believed in the idea of an Islamic state remained dissatisfied with what they thought were a deterioration of Islamic sentiments. To them, the word secularism became synonymous with anti-Islamic or atheism. This resentment, as it festered, became a tool for certain political parties who decided to exploit it to forward their own agenda.
The first sign that this resentment was reaching its boiling point showed itself on the fateful night of September 29, 2012, at Ramu, when within a matter of six hours, 18 Buddhist temples were destroyed and 50 homes were burned to the ground. “I watched from the roof of my house as the temples and homes were destroyed,” a Buddhist school teacher who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Star. “I watched the flames for hours feeling completely helpless.”
The reason behind these senseless atrocities was religion. A young Buddhist man was framed by a fake anti-Islam post on his facebook page. The culprits were two Muslim youths, one previously a member of Islamic Chhatra Shibir, Jamaat’s student wing. The rumour that a Buddhist had insulted Islam spread like wildfire through Ramu as well as neighbouring villages. A group of men comprising of local Awami League leaders, BNP men, madrasa students, Rohingyas and Muslim villagers did not stop to question the authenticity of the accusation as they launched a brutal attack on a peaceful community.
The shocked citizens all over Bangladesh were unaware that these shameful and horrific acts that left a community vulnerable were the first of many that were to follow. On February 5, 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) issued a verdict of life imprisonment for the assistant secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party and notorious war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah, enraging countless Bangladeshis who felt this punishment was inadequate and influenced by Jamaat’s intimidation during the trial. The verdict gave birth to the Shahbag protest, which started out as a peoples’ movement and soon became a political weapon. Awami League saw this as an opportunity to win over the public before the upcoming elections by supporting them, and the opposition parties saw this as an opportunity to malign the government. Targeting certain participants as atheists, BNP backed by Jamaat turned this issue into a religious one. The government was accused of being anti-Islamic murderers. Islam and the Liberation War were pinned against each other.
This time, the targets were Hindu communities across the country. Hundreds of temples, businesses and Hindu homes were vandalised. The victims were unrelated to Shahbagh. A religious group called Hefajate- e- Islam, emerged and took over Dhaka demanding all statues/idols be destroyed, the women’s policy and education policy be scratched and all atheist bloggers be hanged among other demands. The sight of thousands of religious extremists walking the streets of the capital and incidents of attacks on women instilled fear in every resident of Dhaka.
While the two major political parties point fingers at each other and refuse to come to a compromise regarding the appointment of a caretaker government for the elections, the death toll is rising with every political rally and every hartal. Life has come to a standstill and citizens, especially minorities contemplate their fate with rising anxiety and panic.
“In my community, we share a strong bond, a brotherhood,” says Topu Tripura, who belongs to the Tripura community. “We can never leave each other during these rough times, even if we have an opportunity to, which most of us don’t as we cannot afford it. We are scared, but this fear has strengthened our bond. We have decided to stay in this country to fight for our rights. After all this is our country as much as it is theirs. Our people are loving and trusting and have accepted people from all religions with open arms. These extremists have infiltrated our lives, taking advantage of this, but we are ready to defend ourselves if the need arises.”
Not all members of minority groups are ready for this fight. “I have a sister in the States and she is becoming increasingly worried about my safety and has urged me to move there,” says H Gomez (not his real name) who is of the Christian faith. “Many of my family members are moving to protect their children, but I don’t want to lose faith in my country so easily. I am as proud of my country as I am of my religious identity, but everyday my identity is under threat, I worry that I am losing my pride my country. I have friends who are of Hindu and of Muslim faith and there was a time when they all respected each other, but lately, they have misgivings. It hurts me to see us moving backwards after working so hard to get where we are now.”
A member of the Marma tribe, Ushe Mong, is worried about the recent changes in his hometown. “Chittagong is divided. After Ramu,there was a lot of mistrust and fear and these recent incidents have completely destroyed a community that was once strong and peaceful. With Pohela Boishak and all its festivities, people want to celebrate together like the old times, they want to bridge the gap, but it is not that simple.”
Ajoy Mitra, of the Hindu faith shares this worry, “I call myself a Bangladeshi, but I don’t feel like I belong here, I don’t feel free here. People who are uninvolved in all this are scared,” he says. “Leaving the country isn’t always the best solution. Life in another country will be harder and most can’t afford it. In my community, some don’t want to leave because they are too old, some don’t want to leave the others, others who have watched their temples destroyed feel they must leave to protect themselves and their families. We Hindus have seen communal violence before, one can say we expect to be targeted in these situations, but this time, it seems it will spiral out of control if something isn’t done soon.”
“My husband and I share different faiths but neither of us ever converted,” says Geeta Ahmed (not her real name), who is a Hindu woman belonging to the upper middle class of society. “Now we worry that people will not accept us anymore. We have lived abroad before, we have relatives there but never wanted to settle there despite the better opportunities, as we both have good jobs and are well respected in this country. Lately, we have been looking for jobs abroad and are thinking of applying for immigration wherever we find employment.”
A Buddhist student who wishes to remain anonymous says, “This year, for the first time, we were worried about going home as we have to go through Chittagong to get there. I find it difficult to accept that I have to live in fear in my own country. How can it be that women’s rights have come to question after all these years and no one stood up in our defense? If women are removed from the work force, I’d like to see how many men can keep running their households on their incomes alone.”
Meanwhile, Muslims who believe in religious harmony also feel insecure and frustrated. “I am angry,” says Najiba Noor, a university student. “Angry and ashamed at the lack of humanity and lack of knowledge about our religion that is making these people force us back into the dark ages. I am angry that I have to change the way I dress because I worry about being attacked on the streets. I am angry that my Hindu dance teacher cancelled all my classes because she worries she cannot protect her students. I am angry they are turning my country into another Afghanistan.”
In the face of these troubled times a religious exodus seems imminent unless drastic action is taken on the part of the government to come to an understanding with the opposition. If they do not put aside their differences and self serving agendas, our economy, education and identities will be further at stake. The power to rule cannot be so important as to destroy the lives of millions to achieve it. As for our part, we must remember the true meaning of secularism, which is the right to practice one’s religion without discrimination, and attempt to restore it to save the future of a failing nation.