After the Cox’s Bazar religious violence against the minority Buddhist community was headlined in the international media, one of my Indian colleagues at China Radio International asked me ‘what happened in Bangladesh’. The question was seemingly simple but its inner meaning was not that simple. His gesture suggested he did not simply want to know the incident; rather he wanted me to admit that Bangladesh is religiously intolerant and prone to communal violence, whatever strength we deploy to claim that we are a secular country.
My friend did not forget to refer to the post-2001 election violence that the country’s largest minority community, the Hindus, had to go through. I could have answered his question in a crooked way. I could have defended Bangladesh (foreign people are not blaming the population’s handful of religious fanatics; rather they are blaming the whole nation for the Ramu attack), drawing an analogy between the communal violence in Bangladesh and India and shedding light on history of such violence in India from the ancient period to today’s modern India. But I only uttered ‘yes it’s a very unfortunate incident and we, most Bangladeshi people, are ashamed of and condemn the attacks’. I felt I should not try to lighten, in any way, the gravity of the incident even before an Indian national despite the fact that communal violence had taken place against the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Shikh and other community at different times in India in more severe forms. Crimes perpetrated by anybody cannot be a defence enough for committing such crimes.
I guess it is not a question I am alone facing; Bangladeshi people at every corner of the globe are being asked the same question. In reality, no one from a nation can skip responsibility of such an incident, as no one can be deprived of sharing a success of the nation. We all have been honoured by Dr Muhammad Yunus’ wining the Noble Peace Prize without having to do anything on our own.
In that sense, the foreign people are right to blame the whole nation for the violence. And if a small percentage of people can carry on attacks on religious minorities for long three days and the rest of the people and the whole administration fails to prevent them from the onslaught and protect the minorities, indeed the whole nation is to be blamed. And this way we have lost our long attained image of a secular nation to the misdeeds of a handful of fanatics.
Now one can lessen his pain to see the post-violence uproar in the media against the mayhem and be convinced that most of the Bangladeshi people are against it. But the harm done to the Buddhist people in Ramu, Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas and damage to property and relics at the temples and monasteries there are irreparable, as irreparable is the damage done to the image of the nation. Whatever actions the government takes against the perpetrators of the violence, the bruise inflicted on the heart of the minority people will never go away and their sense of insecurity will remain. Can we convince them that Bangladesh is a safe place for them to live in? Such insecurity, which has long been prevailing in the minds of the members the Hindu community, is responsible for the decrease in number of their population in Bangladesh. There are many people in the country to overlook or deny the fact. But I know why most of my Hindu school friends are no longer in Bangladesh; why they had set for uncertain journeys leaving behind their ancestral homes where they were born and had spent their childhood with the near and dear ones.
Now only sincere handling of the post-violence matters – neutral investigation, arrest of the perpetrators and putting them on trial, compensation for the damages, restoration of the damaged relics and most importantly ensuring security of the severely scared people – can heal the pain of the affected people.
But the way things are going, it is very difficult for one to believe that the affected will get justice. The most important thing that is needed right is having a consensus among the political parties who do not pursue religious politics. But the two major parties – the ruling Awami League and the main opposition BNP – are on different trajectories over the matter and far away from such a consensus. Like in most other cases, they have launched a blame-game. It seems that the aim of the row between them over such a sensitive matter is not for ensuring justice to the unfortunate people; rather it is aimed at attainment of their political gain. Who does not believe that in a country like Bangladesh if the government gives any version about any incident, it is very hard (better to say impossible) for the investigators and law-enforcement agency to do anything that goes against the stance of the government, and work neutrally and put the main criminals on trial?
Bangladesh needs to protect its minority people not only because they are its nationals and because it has constitutional obligation, but also because it is pledge-bound to the international community to protect them. The country signed, accessed or/and ratified the international statutes, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which have obligated the country to protect the minorities and their rights. The government’s failure to protect the minorities has invited protests, sometimes violent, in front of Bangladesh missions in different countries prompting the foreign minister to call foreign diplomats in Dhaka and assure them that the government will pursue the policy of zero tolerance to hate crimes.
In such a situation, if the government can ensure fair trial of the onslaught through neutral investigations, it can save its face domestically and internationally though only to limited extent. It can say that though we could not prevent the incident, we did not tolerate it. By ensuring fair trial the government can also prevent such incidents from recurring in future.
Shihabur Rahman works with China Radio International in Beijing.