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Volume 7 | Issue 02 | February 2013 |


Original Forum

Unequal Bangladesh
Why we need an anti discrimination law
--Ishita Dutta

The Way to an Equitable Society
Interview with Meghna Guhathakurta

Social justice: An Unfulfilled Dream
-- Farheen Khan
Food Security and Social Justice in Bangladesh
-- Reaz Ahmed
Bringing Justice, Equality and Inclusion to the Global Development Agenda Beyond 2015
-- Dr. Faustina Pereira

Photo Feature

A Spiritual Respite

Eliminating corporal punishment:
A Far Cry for Bangladesh?

-- Md. Ashiq Iqbal and Aurin Huq

Social Justice and Ekushey February

-- Tawheed Rahim

The Disappearance
-- Sushmita S Preetha
Gang Rape in Delhi
-- Kavita Charanji
Rape and the law: The Post-Delhi Syndrome
-- Saqeb Mahbub
Rape of India: Statistics, slogans and the supporting cast
-- Ikhtiar Kazi
Pakistan: Death to the Apostates
-- Shudeepto Ariquzzaman
February in Bangladesh's History
-- Syed Badrul Ahsan
Dynamics of Valentine's Day Celebrations in Bangladesh
-- Dr. Zahidul Islam Biswas


Forum Home

Farheen Khan

Social justice: An Unfulfilled Dream

FARHEEN KHAN positions the concept of social justice or the lack thereof in the context of the Ramu attacks.

We strongly condemn the acts of destruction and desecration of Buddhist temples, statues of Buddha, and the sacred scriptures “Tripitak” in addition to the heinous barbarism unleashed upon the Buddhist community in all places around the country including Ramu, and demand the speedy effecting of exemplary punishment on those found to be guilty.
-- Banner of the Bangladesh Buddhist Doctors' Association, at Raja Palong Zadi Buddhist Temple in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar

Liberal thought and leftist philosophy espouse the term 'social justice' when conceptualising a society that is just, fair and egalitarian. Champions of social equity seem to find it a neat way to underline their struggle by connoting a 'hard' legal basis for its outcome rather than a 'soft' moral one.

The natural concept of fairness in a society is given a judicial twist through the coining of this term, as it imparts to it a sense of legal obligation --a sense that social justice is an outcome provided for by the law. While the term has found common usage in liberal writing, 'social justice' is a social construct and not a legal one. Some scholars argue that there is no concept called 'social justice' but 'justice' only, and if a situation demands a legal consideration, then to serve it would constitute the meting out of justice, in the traditional sense. The term social appended to justice does not provide it any more clarity or import and is thus redundant.

'Social justice' however continues to be the central tenet of social work -- it indicates the removal of social discrimination and disenfranchisement and makes the case for justly breaking down barriers of class, education, religion, ethnicity, national identity, age, gender and so on, between peoples. It attempts to objectify that which is equitable, fair and humanistic. This concept is more relevant to a far wider group of people than legal battles ever concern.

To uphold social justice is to ensure the culmination of repeated intangible acts of equity. It may be observed through events that transpire between groups, and how policies discriminate one section of the population relative to another. A young nation like ours must continue to define and learn our own homegrown principles of 'social justice' that is based on global norms, but tempered to our local context. One such experience to learn from was the recent attacks by Muslims against the Buddhist community of Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar District where the gross violations were perpetrated.

It has been 115 days (at the time of writing this article) since the apparently spontaneous, frenzied, retaliatory attacks on Buddhist houses and places of worship in Ramu, Ukhia, Teknaf and Patiya of Cox's Bazar District. The senseless mayhem did not spare -- rather targeted -- sites of historical, religious and cultural value. It was a rare case of oppression by majority Muslims on minority Buddhists in collective punishment for the alleged crime of one. And naturally, it resulted in furious protests, demands for justice, and minority voices in the initial weeks but they have all died down. The State is also not making any investigative progress. Unaccustomed to normally having our social equity concerns met, we are back to coping and carrying on as though it never happened.

The quieting of the protests can mislead one into inferring that the grievances do not exist anymore, but that is not the reality. The crimes committed against the Buddhists were deliberate, frontal and heinous. That they were pre-meditated, has been confirmed. Evidence is aplenty, witnesses are many, yet uncannily there is no progress in punishing the guilty. Now almost four months later, the realm of 'social justice' is virtually void and the narrative of justice and reconciliation is scattered. If unresolved, these events can instil irreversible discrimination between the Buddhists and Muslims.


What are our facts? We know that an organised, well-equipped and significant mob of Muslim youth came together in Chaumohoni on 29 September 2012 seeking revenge for anti-Islamic activities of a Buddhist man. Subsequently, this mob attacked and looted Buddhist temples (vihars) and homes in 10 villages of Ramu upazila late at night. While some of them chanted Islamic religious calls, others desecrated vihars, looted and broke religious artefacts, burnt houses down to the ground and caused the community to flee their neighbourhoods into the wilderness.

Though their acts were portrayed as spontaneous -- in that they caught everyone off guard to the point that law enforcement agencies took over four hours to respond adequately -- the coordinated nature of the brutality indicates premeditation. The extent and fearlessness of the attacks speaks of the backing of some powerful vested group who were not dissuaded by the prospect of justice. In fact similar mobs went to neighbouring upazilas of Ukhia, Teknaf and Patiya the following night to enact similar hate crimes.

Hazy rumours and sporadic investigation reports indicate that the attacks were made in retaliation to an anti-Islamic photo posted -- or more accurately, tagged -- in the online profile of a Bengali Buddhist man. The vigilante mob was out to teach a lesson to all those who purportedly had heinous anti-Islamic agenda. But what is glaring is that Bangladesh's Buddhists have never practiced any such agenda. The entire narrative of the 'discovery' of the photo, to its speedy 'dissemination' to local users, to the innocuous 'informing' of enraged youths and then the 'mobilizing' and arming of miscreants is vastly problematic from the outset. The photo was strategically utilised to incite the mob to attack.

The opportunistic linkages made here to justify the violence should not fool any, because the level of preparedness, organisation and resources belie the claim of spontaneous reaction. The 'story' thus concocted is completely implausible because neither is it coherent with the historical behaviour and attitudes of Buddhists, and nor is it reflective of the level of internet savvy of lay persons in Ramu. Rather the whole matter reeks of political agenda, and systematic intimidation of the victims. When the flames died down, 18 temples were in various levels of destruction, 50 households had become homeless and the Buddhist community was broken, violated and humiliated. This is a matter of national concern because these attacks not only break the law but they violate our Constitution, and should be placed right up there with other crimes against humanity.

In this case the progress of justice has been brief. A police enquiry was ordered, but the government quickly embargoed its report and recommendations. The actions taken, speak of abysmal failure if not wilful reluctance on the part of the security forces which has made it convenient for our various ministries to insinuate that foreign forces or members of the opposition may be culpable for the organised violence. Investigations were foiled from the beginning by political blame game and finger-pointing. Even for these irresponsible and inflammatory claims no evidence has been produced. We infer that the multiple directions of finger-pointing can only mean that several powerful quarters whose identities are being protected, are vested in these acts of intimidation of the peaceful Buddhist community of Cox's Bazar.

Following one writ petition more than two months after the incidents, the high court has ordered a judicial probe that is unlikely to reveal the truth. The community is afraid to testify for fear of further attacks from the perpetrators who still walk free. Eight cases have been filed with the Cox's Bazar police but no chargesheets have been produced. As the lethargic wheels of investigation attempt to appease onlookers, the precious resource of time is running out. The trend of ethnic and religion-based discrimination in Cox's Bazar is consistent with other instances of religious radicalism prevalent and continual reports of rapes, repression and land-grabbing by Bengali Muslims that rise unchecked in that area.


Since October of last year, concerned citizens from all sections of society have expressed shock, horror and solidarity with the victims. Activists, human rights bodies, leaders and members of all faiths have jumped into campaigns demanding the trial and punishment of the perpetrators of those crimes, as a first step towards reparations with our Buddhist minority. In small collectives, these individuals and groups have provided reasonable succour and assistance to the grieving communities.

Their humanitarian actions and the financial aid provided by the local and the national government can put the communities back on their feet, but what humanitarian aid cannot do, is to restore their dignity and social standing. The attacks have violated their freedom of religion, movement, association, and State protection. With justice not yet served and the aggressors at large, Buddhists have to live without freedom and joy, in constant fear and apprehension. This is also a failure of 'social justice' as the discrimination against this community persists.

After a traumatic experience of this scale, reparations must begin at aid and reconstruction, but it cannot stop there. The attacks and arson were blatant crimes, and any citizen of this country in that position would demand a response from our State. They would want justice. But a legal response is one that the Buddhists do not have the luxury to anticipate; they must remain content to remain tents and handouts and the occasional television cameras and glossy banners that come with a visiting dignitary. (see photos)

Some quarters have asserted that Rohingyas must have perpetrated the acts to claim vengeance for their sufferings at the hands of Buddhists in Myanmar, completely unaware of the fact that Burmese Buddhists are a different race from Bengali Buddhists and even Rakhine (Arakanese) Buddhists.

Social justice tenets oblige that not only material, but judicial and post-traumatic support be provided for the Buddhist minority communities for reconciliation with their majority counterparts. Rudimentarily, the course of justice must now execute a thorough investigation, collaboration between concerned intelligence agencies to expedite such a case of national interest, and a sustained and heightened engagement by the government agencies and the opposition, to get to unearth the motives and perpetrators. Material support must include participatory needs assessments and the coverage of any critical gaps. And lastly and most subtly, truth and reconciliation activities must be undertaken between youth, children and the elderly of the majority Muslims and the minority Buddhists of Cox's Bazaar to normalise relations towards peaceful cohabitation again.

Sustained efforts of the security agencies are not visible, and being a marginalised minority community, the Buddhist population is not successful in bringing pressure to bear on the political forces that determine the outcome of sensitive investigations. The feelings of betrayal and trauma on their part is no doubt heightening as their violations are wrung through the washboards of political rivalry, administrative dilly-dallying, procedural obstructions and finally, intelligence and security concerns. With each act of political showmanship, the perpetrators are settling into a lull of impunity and the possibility of a fair investigation and justice is pushed further and further away.

As Buddhists do not constitute a powerful section of any of the mainstream parties, Awami League, BNP or Jamaat, or belong to any majority national or religious affiliation, they have not been successful in playing a significant role in the delivery of justice, or even in the provision of aid. Their cause has been haphazardly adopted by interest groups who are sometimes more keen about showcasing their own achievements than ameliorating the victims' trauma. In many cases, the affected communities have become dumb recipients -- not inquired or consulted about their needs prior to the provision of aid and support. The Buddhist voices remain unheard while aid agencies hawk the number of ironsheets and blankets they have distributed. This attempt by a hegemonic majority population to dictate social relationships with a marginalised minority community is a textbook example of disregard for social justice. It has even gone so far that we are now rebuilding temples in part or whole using military engineering know-how, ignoring the claims of the community that Buddhist statues and vihars required craftsmanship skills that are not found in Bangladesh but must be brought from Myanmar or Thailand. But we do not spare that thought for their place of peace as we lay bricks in a way that does not remind one of a temple, but of a warehouse.

When I visited in November, Army civil engineers, guarded by special police personnel were bulldozing the burnt remains of the historic buildings and putting up basic concrete structures. A senior member of the Buddhist community professed that the army was mobilised, but he did not really know how many vihars would be rebuilt or when the work would take place. One army personnel in a temple site in Ukhia told me that he had been mandated to spend 'what was required' but he was unclear about which aspects he could spend on. If that was his information, then the Buddhists were one step behind. Most of the artefacts that were stolen remain missing. The entire act of righteous rebuilding ignores the core principle of 'representation' that characterises social justice.

The face of social justice in Bangladesh has been distorted when its Buddhist minority was targeted. There are now police reports of arrests of suspects, but the victim community claims that some known perpetrators still walk free and those who have been apprehended may be released anytime, as a reminder of their own precarious standing in Bangladeshi society. Social justice for Buddhists here will remain a fantasy until their voices are heard, their scars are healed and fair treatment at the scales of justice can be guaranteed.

Farheen Khan is an independent researcher and humanitarian worker. She has worked internationally in post-conflict situations and in protection of human rights. She is a co-founder of Insight Initiatives Ltd.

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