Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Bangladesh : Ahmadiyas and our bruised secularism


Let us go back to the darkness of communalism that has been rearing its head in this secular People’s Republic of Bangladesh in these past many years. When you have in government political parties which clearly worked for the destruction of Bengali nationalism in the 1960s and for the defeat of the Bengalis in their war of liberation in 1971, you know only too well just how far the pendulum has swung. Or will it be truer to suggest that the pendulum has been manipulated by men and women seeking to derive advantages from the sensibilities associated with a political use of religion?. Here is a hint of how we have been changing, or been forced to change. In these past three years, since the tragedy of 11 September 2001 in the United States, American officials from the lowly to some of the higher ones have repeatedly extolled bangladesh’s virtues as a moderate Muslim democracy! If you think that is any reason for you to feel happy about your place in the world, think again. There is here clearly, for those of a discerning bent of mind, a clear strain of the patronising in these expressions of interest in what we do on the part of foreigners.

Ahmadiyas and our bruised secularism

The frenzied assault by a mob of self-proclaimed defenders of Islam on the hapless community of Ahmadiyas in Bhadughar of Brahmanbaria district speaks horrifyingly of the rising levels of intolerance in Bangladesh.

The Ahmadiyas have been under watch for quite some time now in this country, thanks to the gradual growth of a culture which is not willing to brook any dissent when it comes to either politics or faith. Just how huge a shift has occurred in the structure of the state can easily be determined through the visible happiness in our politicians when they become the recipients of encomiums from abroad.

Here is a hint of how we have been changing, or been forced to change. In these past three years, since the tragedy of 11 September 2001 in the United States, American officials from the lowly to some of the higher ones have repeatedly extolled bangladesh’s virtues as a moderate Muslim democracy! If you think that is any reason for you to feel happy about your place in the world, think again. There is here clearly, for those of a discerning bent of mind, a clear strain of the patronising in these expressions of interest in what we do on the part of foreigners.

But is that really what you need? Stretch the thought a little. Since when have we in this country been keen to project ourselves as a nation underpinned by thoughts of religious fervour? You can here argue that it all started with the way the Muslim League began to project the demand for Pakistan back in the 1940s. It propagated what was to all intents and purposes a spurious concept of Muslim nationalism, the price of which the Muslims of the subcontinent have paid enormously and pay to this day. The result of such religion-based nationalism, which was no nationalism, in pre-partition India has been most grievous for the Muslims of the region. You only have to observe Pakistan, where a fundamental weakness of the state has been its inability to reconcile the concept of modern democracy with its base as a communal entity. Given that democratic pluralism and Muslim nationalism have never gone together, and never will, it is only natural that Pakistan should lurch from one form of political experimentation to another. And within this experimentation will naturally come the army which, so far, has commandeered the state four times since August 1947.

That is not to suggest that India, the secular state forged into shape and form essentially by the Congress, has had a smooth sailing. The truth is unalterable that the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the pinnacle of national politics in Delhi remains the strongest evidence that there are people in India quite willing to undo the secular nature of the constitution and the state. But what happens to be a saving grace in India is that there are people, vast numbers of them, unwilling to turn to turn their backs on secularism and therefore determined to pursue a course of modernity, the same that was once so clearly sketched out by Jawaharlal Nehru. That is one of the explanations you can cite today about the fall of the BJP from power at this year’s elections. No one is even remotely suggesting that the BJP is finished as a force, that elements like the Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray have gone for good. But what is certainly remarkable is the fact that Indian democracy allows India’s people to put the picture back in its proper angularity once it has become tilted on the wall. Once you grasp the essence of Indian democratic principles, it becomes fairly easy for you to comprehend the nature of the detoxification now going on the country where such matters of public import, such as history as put forth before Indian schoolchildren by the BJP, are concerned.

But let us go back to the darkness of communalism that has been rearing its head in this secular People’s Republic of Bangladesh in these past many years. When you have in government political parties which clearly worked for the destruction of Bengali nationalism in the 1960s and for the defeat of the Bengalis in their war of liberation in 1971, you know only too well just how far the pendulum has swung. Or will it be truer to suggest that the pendulum has been manipulated by men and women seeking to derive advantages from the sensibilities associated with a political use of religion?

Then, what a lot of people keep forgetting as they go through their analyses of the foundations of the state is that Bangladesh’s reason for being happens to be its unequivocal rejection of the politics of 1947. Now, you might argue about the nature of the constitution as it operates now, about the unnecessary bringing in of Allah and His attributes into the constitution as part of the refashioning of state principles after 1975. That argument, no matter how vociferously put, does not at all change the fact that politically and socially this country has been a secular body of people for generations and will in all likelihood stay that way. But what happens if Bangladesh is coerced into being a Muslim state? The answer to that question can easily be surmised through the incalculable damage that has already been done through such acts as General Ershad’s bizarre attempt to characterise the Bengali state as one with a skullcap on its head. When his regime declared in the 1980s that the state would have Islam as its official religion, it swiftly, perhaps unwittingly (or maybe not, who knows?), gave politics a flavour of the ridiculous. Of course the general was doing all that in order to perpetuate himself in power. General Zia did nearly the same thing when through the weapon of martial law he spiked the secular spirit of the constitution in the later part of the 1970s.

But since all military rule is illegitimate —- and it does not matter how often you have Parliament validate all acts of a violation of the constitution through the very convenient arm of amendments —- we will ignore everything our military rulers and their friends have done as part of their programme to set our secularism at naught. Of course there will be whole bunches of people around the world going ecstatic at any sign of Bangladesh going Islamic. Remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the hours after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975? He swiftly, and prematurely, recognised the ‘Islamic Republic’ of Bangladesh and ordered sack loads of rice to be despatched to the ‘brotherly’ people of Bangladesh. A couple of years earlier, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman felt it necessary to ask Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal why his country or for that matter all those other Muslim states in the Middle East said nothing when the Pakistan army went butchering Bengalis in 1971. He was merely, and indignantly, responding to Faisal’s query as to why the Bengalis had destroyed Pakistan and so weakened Muslims in South Asia. Days after 15 August 1975, the Saudis came forth with diplomatic recognition for Bangladesh. That act begs the question: was it motivated by thoughts of Bangladesh’s perceived shift away from secularism and towards communalism of the kind set in motion by the Muslim League in 1940 and perhaps to be carried further by the likes of Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed?

But there are other points you might as well take note of. The government of Bangladesh, in January 1972, did not respond to the plea by the Hindu community for a reconstruction of the Kali Mandir razed by the Pakistan army on the night of 25 March 1971. Why was a government whose leaders had just waged a successful war of national liberation based on secular ideals reluctant to have the temple rebuilt for a religious community which had suffered grievously in the nine months of the war? And how do you deal with the fact that at the elections of June 1996, the Awami League, a political organisation freed of its communal leanings when the term ‘Muslim’ was dropped from its nomenclature in the 1950s, decided that it was convenient to bring an Islamic prayer, suitably positioned between the slogans of Joi Bangla and Joi Bangabandhu, into its posters? It was surely a strategic move on the part of the party. But do note that the act itself was in a significant way indicative of the Awami League’s unwillingness to be misunderstood on the matter of its religious beliefs. Call it a holier-than-the-pope attitude. But imagine as well how detrimental it was to the cause of secular politics in the country. When you pander to the whims of people not illuminating enough to know how the world moves, you only hurt yourself in the foot.

The intimidation of the Ahmadiyas, the stealing and destruction of Hindu idols from the temples, et al, are all a sign of the deepening darkness around us. But the darkness does not have to be irreversible. You only have to make a clear distinction between the church and the state, in this case the mosque and the state. And you have to pound away at popularising the idea that the ideal for Bengalis, even before 1971, was the creation of a secular society. Mercifully, Bengalis, despite their military rulers and despite the howls of the fanatics around them, have never quite repudiated their cultural traditions. An illegitimate regime may have placed a skullcap on Kazi Nazrul Islam and announced in pomp and glitter that he is our national poet. But those acts have done little or nothing to detract from Kazi Nazrul Islam’s reputation as a rebel poet whose songs served abundantly as an inspiration for us in our zeal to create for ourselves a state for all Bengalis —- for Muslims, for Hindus, for Christians, for Buddhists, for agnostics, for atheists, indeed for everyone in this country.

Let us call it a day. But, before that, let us inform ourselves that sooner or later the original features of this people’s republic will need to be restored in full if ours is to be a truly democratic state. And we will be doing that through going back to the constitution of 1972, minus the amendments that have distorted it across these decades.

New Age 01/11/2004