Prashanta Tripura

The minorities of our nightmares

October 2, 2012
Photo: bdnews24.com

Photo: bdnews24.com

Are you afraid to go to bed these days, out of fear that the forces of evil will leap out of your nightmares to rampage through your neighbourhood while you are asleep? If you have been following stories of recent attacks on minorities – first in Rangamati on September 22, then in Ramu starting at the late hours of September 29 – you would be. If you are not, you ought to be, at least if you care about yourself, about your dreams. If you ever dreamed of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Bangladesh, then need I tell you that what are under attack are not just the ethnic or religious minorities in faraway places, but also your very dreams and ideals?

In mid-August, in a note that I shared with my Facebook friends, I made a casual remark that “for all the people who long for a democratic Bangladesh, it is still a prolonged hour of nightmares.”  The immediate context of our discussion was surrealism in art and poetry. In that context, I was just trying to make the point that for many of us who grew up in the CHT, and for ethnic minorities generally, living in Bangladesh has been something of a surreal existence, more precisely like living through nightmares. As I skim through news reports over the attacks on Buddhist communities and temples in Ramu (and subsequent attacks, some targeting Hindus as well, in other parts of Chittagong), my eyes are drawn to a headline “A night of joy turns to nightmare” in a local English daily, carrying the story of a community that was preparing to celebrate a Buddhist festival the next day, only to see their plans and preparations give way to a sleepless night, when they had to watch homes and temples burn to ashes.

As news of the attacks in Ramu spread, strong condemnations have been voiced throughout the country, and government officials and media personnel rushed to the spot. Unfortunately, some news headlines indicate that the blame game or witch hunting also started in no time. The politicization of criminal activities can only mean allowing the real culprits to get away, if not encouraging them to carry on their acts. Therefore, it is perhaps not a surprise that after Ramu, similar attacks were reported to have taken place yesterday in other parts of Chittagong. Why is it that the law enforcing agencies always seem late in responding to situations like this?

This question came up last week as well, in the context of attacks in Rangamati carried out by rioters that remain to be identified officially.   Nonetheless, it was interesting that the outbreak of violence in Rangamati was instantly reported as a “clash between Paharis (hill people) and Bengalis”. I wrote a short piece, published in a Bangla daily, in which I questioned this tendency. I raised a simple question:  Of the entire population of Rangamati, say 60,000 people altogether comprising of various ethnicities, how many did really take part in, or condone, the attacks that were described as inter-ethnic clashes? 60? 600? 6000? Whatever may be the actual figure, it could not possibly constitute more than a small fraction of the total population. Given this, why was it that we allowed a minority (i.e. the real perpetrators of violence) colour the views of the rest? Why were we quick to describe the unfolding development as “clashes between indigenous hill people and Bengalis (or Bengali settlers, as specifically mentioned in some English dailies)”? My point was that such characterizations and perceptions mainly help the real perpetrators hide behind nameless, faceless mobs. Moreover, they also turn our attention away from the systemic roots of violence, namely state policies and laws that are discriminatory towards ethnic and religious minorities.

Photo: bdnews24.com

Photo: bdnews24.com

A Facebook friend of mine who lives in Ramu, provided a status update yesterday, saying, “The religious and communal harmony that we the residents of Ramu have always been proud of has been reduced to dusts in one night” (Translated from original post in Bangla). Many commented on his status expressing shock and anger at what had happened. More generally, through posts on the Facebook and blogs, there was expression of a strong sense of disgust and outrage that most people felt at the atrocities. “Shame!”, “Is this the Bangladesh that we dreamt of?”, “Is it what people died for in 1971”? – These were some of the typical reactions.

It seems to me that the kinds of anguish and soul-searching that are represented by the last two questions above are particularly strong among Bengalis (or Bangladeshis) who see themselves as embodying the ideals of the War of Liberation of 1971. What were these ideals?  One was the idea of ‘communal harmony’, which now lies shattered in places like Ramu. Government officials or many political leaders and intellectuals in Bangladesh may not like to admit it openly, but the sad truth is that communal harmony had been shattered on numerous other occasions in this country in the past. The incidents like that in Ramu by themselves do not necessarily indicate that the majority of people in Bangladesh condone such acts. In fact, personally I am convinced that in a statistical sense, the criminal elements of society targeting the ethnic or religious minorities constitute minorities themselves. But the question remains, how is it that people belonging to the latter category of ‘minorities’ can dictate terms for the rest of us?

To me, a big part of the answer to the above question lies in the Faustian pacts that two generations of Bangladeshis made with undemocratic regimes in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. We know how the euphoria of 1971 began to evaporate in the face of enormous challenges that the new country faced. For the country as a whole, the year 1975 marked the crystallization of deep fractures in the polity of a young nation, fractures that in many ways remain unresolved to date. In fact, for the ethnic minorities of the CHT, their alienation and marginalization began as early as in 1972, when police and BDR operations purportedly conducted against war time collaborators resulted into acts of brutalities, and the newly drafted constitution also disregarded the existence of non-Bengali ethnicities. Even though the concept of Bangladeshi nationalism was introduced after 1975, one cannot say that this was done for the sake of ethnic minorities. Instead, it was part of fundamental changes introduced in the constitution of the country, involving increased manipulation of religious sentiments of the Muslim majority as a clever ploy to legitimize powers grabbed illegally. Moreover, on the ground, by the end of the 1970s, the whole CHT region had become heavily militarized, with thousands of destitute households from the plains being resettled in the hills in a manner that made it abundantly clear that the Bangladeshi state did not really look at the ethnic minorities of the CHT as trustworthy citizens of the country. Did people in the rest of Bangladesh know much about what was going on in the CHT? I doubt it. Unlike today, there was very little in the media about the CHT during 1975-1990 when the whole country was under de facto military rule. But there is an even deeper question. Even if there were people who knew about what was happening in the CHT, did they care, or could they have done much about it? No, apparently not. Be that as it may, the 1980s were a period when economic liberalization took roots in Bangladesh, with active international support, and tolerance of rampant corruption at the highest echelons of power. It was during this period that a new class of entrepreneurs-politicians-bureaucrats consolidated their hold on power and wealth, with very little regard for the ideals and principles of 1971, or the older social values of tolerance and pluralism associated with rural Bengali communities. If holding onto power meant declaring Islam to be the state religion, and entering into alliance with political elements known to support bigotry, so be it. This is what I meant by the Faustian pact.

The forces that are invading the dreams and cherished ideals of most decent people in Bangladesh may indeed constitute a minority. But they seem well organized, and ready to pounce whenever the time is ripe, as have been shown on numerous occasions. Moreover, they may enjoy the support of those who made pacts with the devil. Such people too may be minority in numerical terms, but they have money and power on their side. Are we ready to face these merchants of despair and destruction who have leapt out of our nightmares?

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Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.

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21 Responses to “ The minorities of our nightmares ”

  1. Ahsanul Rajon on October 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    We, democratic people, believe in communal harmony. The fundamentalists and politicians are the perpetrators.

    But what do you mean by this line:
    Such people too may be minority in numerical terms, but they have money and power on their side.

    • Prashanta Tripura on October 10, 2012 at 8:45 am

      @A Rajon: Thanks for asking. I was thinking of people who are among the richest and most powerful, who obtained power and wealth through unscrupulous means including alliance with anti-democratic forces. Does this make sense to you?

  2. Dayal on October 4, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Merely a blame game over an incident between government and opposition did not help us in the past and will not in the future to stop heinous violence against minorities. Instead of blame game, it is obvious that an independent judicial inquiry could unearth the facts regarding this violence. Although eminent citizens and opposition demanded for an independent judicial inquiry, the government is unwilling to to do so probably because of some facts of the blame game – the government itself involved directly or indirectly with this violence. If the government’s blame is true (opposition did it), a question arises about the role of government, why the government is not interested to disclose the facts to people. The government limited its actions just to case-file-ling with known results – cases will not ultimately sustain due to sufficient evidence against individuals or real culprits are not included in the case.
    If the government fails to protect its citizen and establish rule of law, then who will do it? This fundamental question remains to be answered.

  3. Minu on October 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    We are so ashamed to call ourselves Bangladeshis! When did we become so communal?

  4. Toufique on October 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    The AL has yet again proved that law and order is their weakest forte when it comes to governing the country.

  5. Sadat Karim on October 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Many people, media and a section of the government as well are pointing fingers at the Rohingyas for the Ramu carnage. But did the Rohingyas made the attack on their own? They couldn’t have had because they are one insecure group of people taking shelter in our country. If a group Rohingyas was responsible for the attack then there must have beeb a ring leader(s) who is Bangali and an extremist Muslim(s). Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.

  6. Anwar Azim on October 3, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    I blame the government for not being able to protect its citizens. What was the administration and the law enforcement authorities doing?

  7. saifur rahman on October 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Reference to the heinous attack on Rohyngyas in Myanmar can no way justify the Ramu tragedy. If we really mean peace and harmony in our land,it is indeed unwise to drag problems beyond the border to inside the country. Unfortunately,a significant proportion of the Muslims across political inclinations here fail to realise the truth, thus easily fall prey to provocations made by the communal bigots.

    • Kalam Ahmed on October 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm

      If Mr Rahman is answering to my previous letter I feel dutybound to say that nobody is ‘justifying’ any dastardly attack on peaceloving people of Ramu. But when such things happen across the border, perhaps the Buddhists here can use their influence on similar communities in Burma to warn them that their attacks can have ramifications in Bangladesh. That it provides communalists with the weapons they need to set fire to temples and homes. And the attacks on the Rohingyas should have been condemned in equally strong language by the minority writers being very eloquent now that the Ramu tragedy has happened. All these things provide a kind of check on extremist violence. Bangladesh is bordered by Burma and Assam, and ethnic troubles there will backlash here.

      • saifur rahman on October 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm

        It’s some sort of majoritarianism to dictate the minorities to repent of something for which they are in no way responsible. It’s totally an individual’s choice whether s/he will react to an incident taking place across the border. It’s an important feature of a democratic society as well. However, in terms of anything involving national interest, every citizen is expected to respond. Overall, i am always for not allowing communal issues in other land to disturb our harmony.

        • Kalam Ahmed on October 5, 2012 at 7:56 pm

          Nobody is dictating anything to anybody. The Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas have links of history and community. If one link in the chain is abused then other links will sooner or later be abused as well. This can be prevented if the communities take action, not sit by, and cry only when the hammer blows fall on them. When Rohingyas are attacked, Buddhists at Ramu and all the minorities in Bangladesh ought to shed tears about it and write about it, so that when Ramu is attacked they are taken seriously, and not seen as biased only when they are attacked.

  8. Kalam Ahmed on October 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    The people across the border in Burma should also be aware that their actions will inevitably have a backlash in Bangladesh. This writer and similar others should have also written about the Rohingya Muslims, who were also heinously assaulted as the local law enforcement agencies stood by, and who are passing their days in camps as Aung San and the Burmese president insist that they are not Burmese citizens. However, not as much tears were shed by the minority writers on behalf of the Rohingyas as they are being shed now for the Ramu tragedy.

    • Prashanta Tripura on October 4, 2012 at 10:15 am

      @ Kalam Ahmed: Regarding your suggestion that “this writer and similar other writers should have also written about the Rohingya Muslims”, I admit that I have not been much vocal against the atrocities committed against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, or against other oppressed people around the world for that matter – e.g. the Dalits, Kashmiri muslims or even fellow Tripuras in India; the Palestinians; the underclasses in the US; the Burakamin in Japan; the native americans of Amazon rain forest; you name it. But does that mean that I support injustices committed against these people? I don’t want to get drawn into any pointless debate in this regard, which would be diverting our attention away from the atrocities committed in our own backyard. They say charity begins at home. I will add: demand for justice too. I hope you are not against that.

      • Kalam Ahmed on October 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

        That is not the point. Rohingyas are linked to the present trouble, Kashmiris and Palestinians are not directly linked to this atrocity by common history, border adjoining area and community links. No Kashmiri joined in the atrocity in Ramu but reports suggest that a few Rohingyas did. It gives the actual assault persons who are guilty a symbolic legitimacy. But especially if the minorities including Hill Tribal people condemn the Burmese government and condemn the burning of Rohingya homes then when attack comes on the Ramu Buddhists it is a common front against all attacks. Otherwise where is their creditibility? It is only selective sympathy.

        • saifur rahman on October 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm

          From media reports, it is quite clear how Rohingyas, though intruders, have dared to attack our brothers and sisters. How did we fail to protect our brothers and sisters from them? What’s the point of our shedding crocodile tears now?

        • Prashanta Tripura on October 10, 2012 at 9:04 am

          We can keep on arguing about what the point is. But don’t you think that the alleged Rohingya connection could at best be an attempt to distract attention from the main criminals? I for one am not ready to buy such tales. Even if some Rohingya individuals may have been involved, they could have never carried out the Ramu atrocities on their own. To me, attempts to put the blame on Rohingyas is just an instance of victimizing them further.

  9. Trimita Chakma on October 2, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    Very well articulated and some very good questions raised. I think the future of Bangladesh lies in the answers to those questions.

  10. Abul Kayyum on October 2, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Secularism and democracy are two among four founding ideals of our state. Demoracy is a political system manifesting peoples’ participation in the form of representation. In other words, democray is a form of government constituted by both major and minor groups of representatives elected by the people. So democracy is for the people, for the interest of the people and also for maintaining peace and integrity for them. On the contrast, secularism is a system for co-existence of peoples of different communities (whether religious or not) of a land with fraternity and mutual respect. So, democratic government have to play the vital role to keep a country communally peaceful. Our state is secular by declaration, but secularism here has not yet been established everywhere in true sense. Mainly fundamentalism is liable for that. So, the government should always exert endevour to control this ideological evils. If this is not done properly, meanings of both democracy and secularism will be useless resulting in a chaotic and fanatic nation for us.

  11. Zareef Hossain on October 2, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    This is a secular country and we are all Bangladeshis. Let’s not forget that people!

    • Prashanta Tripura on October 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

      Declarations are important, but words remain empty if principles are not reflected in practice. In BD, we all know that secularism was meant to be one of the four founding pillars of the constitution. But did the founding leaders of the country – let alone ordinary citizens – understand this term in the way intended? One could even ask whether the Bangla word ‘dharmanirapekkata’ captured or conveyed the notion of secularism as copied and pasted from elsewhere, ultimately from western modernity. But given the post-1975 tinkering of the constitution, such questions are mostly academic now. Mere juxtaposition – as opposed to reconciliation – of incongruous or incompatible elements, as we observe in the constitution in its latest amended form, hardly helps. Many of us do wish to see Bangladesh as secular country with a well-rooted democracy, but I don’t think we can utter with any conviction that it is one right now.

  12. Zareef Hossain on October 2, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    This shouldn’t have had happened in any way.

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