The big question today is whether we have any secular political parties around in the country. With all the outcry arising out of the inclusion of non-secular themes in school textbooks, issues we can only ignore at risk to ourselves, it is fairly obvious to citizens that the secular ethos which has consistently shaped our place in history is under threat in these times. Professor Ajay Roy speaks for many of us when he draws the attention of the Prime Minister to the creeping dangers of communalism in a country the ruling Awami League continues to define as a secular nation. When Rasheda K Chowdhury expresses her worries over the communalization of education, when the leading lights of the country point to the pernicious shadow of the Hifazat in school curricula, we as a people are concerned.
Our worries are not mitigated, are not lessened by what we have coming from the Bangla Academy. The authorities there have made certain that nothing resembling or hinting at profanity or blasphemy will be permitted to creep into the books that will fill the stalls at the Ekushey boi mela beginning in a matter of days. The principle is understood, but it is the details of the plan, or their absence, which raise questions. In this country as also in some other Muslim-majority nations, the stress on cracking down on blasphemy has by and large meant dealing with those who have, consciously or otherwise, sought to denigrate the religion of Islam. That is understandable. But, again, in a country like Bangladesh, the application of blasphemy laws should have been broadened to bring into the net of trial and subsequent dispensation of justice those who have over the decades attempted to or have pounced on other faiths in the country.
There have been regular attacks on Hindus and their homes and temples in Bangladesh. There have been clear instances of political elements swearing fealty to different political parties engaging in the horrible job of intimidating the country’s Hindu population. Every Puja season in Bangladesh has placed the Hindu community in a state of alert. And with that has come the added responsibility of the law enforcing agencies to ensure that no temples are vandalized, no Hindu home comes under assault. And yet in the many nooks and corners of Bangladesh, temples have been vandalized and Hindu families have borne the brunt of communal assault.
No one has suggested, in light of such a perpetration of horror, that blasphemy has been committed. The silence has been terribly loud.
The question for the Bangla Academy is therefore plain and easy to answer: if and when the police go visiting the bookstalls checking for works that promote or smell of blasphemy, will that search include an application of blasphemy laws to religions other than that of the majority religious community as well? Since ours is not an Islamic republic — and we do not foresee it turning into one in the future — it makes sense to argue that blasphemy in Bangladesh has been committed in respect of every religion that has had a home here. The coordinated attacks on the Buddhist community in Ramu a few years ago are a point of reference. We cannot honestly say that we have been able to reassure our Buddhist citizens, post-Ramu, that their home is and always be Bangladesh. We have never said, never had the courage to state unambiguously that what was done to the Buddhists in Ramu was an act of blasphemy. Yes, it was lawlessness. But more pertinently it was a sheer, naked display of communalism on the part of those who went after the Buddhists.
The principle of a commission of blasphemy must come in every time the beliefs of a religious community come under assault. One hopes that in their new-found zeal to weed out all blasphemous thoughts from the book fair, the Bangla Academy will not paper over the rights which the Hindus, Buddhists and Christians of Bangladesh are constitutionally entitled to share with the majority Muslim population of the country. We emphasise this point because of the clear decline we have gone through over the years where the practice and propagation of religious beliefs are concerned. The Hindu population has been declining alarmingly over the decades. The country’s Christians, an increasingly small community, have largely gone silent. Our Buddhists are careful not to collide into people who do not share their faith.
None of this makes us happy. The ministry of religious affairs is a pretty large organization whose remit should have been a creation of equal opportunities for every religious community towards propagating and promoting itself in Bangladesh. That idea does not appear to have worked out. The extent to which we have been pushed back into a collectively communal state of being and mind comes through patently when such state-administered media as radio and television hold themselves back from speaking to the followers of Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism in the same way they address the adherents of Islam on a regular basis.
And this is where you come into a larger, rather different sort of question: whatever has happened to the secular political parties which so dominated national politics in the 1960s and till the mid-1970s? Through dictatorial patronization in the aftermath of the national tragedy of August-November 1975, the political right — and that has included the local enemies of a sovereign Bangladesh — have prospered by leaps and bounds. That was a stab in the back of secularism. But where were the votaries of secular politics to counter such regressive trends in the country?
The Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) has shrunk into a shadow of what it used to be in the days of Moni Singh and Mohammad Farhad. There has been no perceptible membership drive on its part, a sign of which is the reality that hardly anywhere in the rural interior of the country will you find young men and women informing you of the socialist aspirations they entertain for the country in the future. Public rallies called by the CPB in the nation’s capital draw a handful of people. Where have the old sparks gone?
In the early 1970s, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) emerged as a powerful, though chaotic force in the country, enough to leave the ruling Awami League rattled. And then, down the years, it petered out, became factionalised, engaged in things conspiratorial under Colonel Abu Taher. The hope it offered the young ended up in ruining the futures of the young. Despite all such contradictions, the JSD could yet have come together in upholding the secular cause. It failed to do that. ASM Abdur Rab lost his political appeal through linking up with General Ershad and then finding a berth in Sheikh Hasina’s first government. Shahjahan Siraj did a complete reversal in political belief when he teamed up with Begum Khaleda Zia and served as a minister in her government. Hasanul Haq Inu is an influential member of Sheikh Hasina’s team in these times.
The Workers Party led by Rashed Khan Menon should by now have been miles ahead of some other putatively secular parties. Like the CPB, it has remained confined within itself. How many of its leading lights other than its leader, now part of Sheikh Hasina’s government, are we aware of?
The National Awami Party of Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani is today a tale of the past. The National Awami Party led by Professor Muzaffar Ahmed goes on breathing through the ageing life of its leader.
Our disappointment as a people is thus huge. Every day and in every way secular politics slides, retreats and recedes in the face of the assaults of communalism and in the pious hopes of those who think appeasing it will keep it at bay. The secular political parties which could have given us cause for a renewal of hope are trapped in midlife crises of their own.
Is it any wonder, then, that we will now be treated to sights of policemen thumbing through the pages of the books on display at the Ekushey book fair in the expectation that some ‘blasphemous’ writer will be detected and ‘appropriately’ dealt with? Should we be surprised at the warning given out by Ajoy Roy and Rasheda K Chowdhury on the creeping dangers of religious fanaticism in the textbooks our children should be studying at school?
It is time to revisit the Proclamation of Independence we shaped and acquainted the world with in April 1971 at Mujibnagar. It is that unnerving moment of deepening crisis in our lives when we need to go back to the Constitution as it was enacted in 1972 — to understand who we are, to reinvent the principles which underlined the struggle we waged for liberty forty five years ago.