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Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

“We, the people of Bangladesh, having proclaimed our independence on the 26th day of March, 1971 and through a historic struggle for national liberation, established the independent, sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh;

Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution.” (1)

– The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Although secularism is one of the four founding pillars of the constitution of Bangladesh, the recent attacks on the Buddhist and Hindu minorities make us question its practice in reality. As I write this piece, reportedly 19 Buddhist and Hindu temples and more than 100 houses have been looted, vandalized and torched in Ramu, Patia, Teknaf and Ukhia of Chittagong over the last two days by religious fanatics, allegedly because a Buddhist man was ‘tagged’ in an Islam-insulting Facebook photo by an unidentified person. Following the rampage, Section 144 was imposed in Cox’s Bazaar’s Ramu Upazila, prohibiting assemblies of more than five people in the concerned areas. (2)

I was just recovering from the trauma of the recent attacks in my hometown of Rangamati that took place on 22-23 September 2012; where also Section 144 had to be declared.

Apparently this was yet another planned attack on minorities – who also happen to be indigenous peoples – where some 50 were wounded and property that predominantly belonged to indigenous people were vandalised. Locals present at the events reported that Bengali mobs were not stopped by security personnel in the areas. Indigenous groups who were patrolling their own localities for securing their boundaries and properties were dispersed by the security personnel, leading to the Bengali mob advancing into the indigenous localities. It is to be noted that the Right to Private Defence is sanctioned by the laws of Bangladesh, including the Bangladesh Penal Code.

This was not the first attack on the religious minorities this year. Earlier on 9-10 February several Hindu temples were vandalised and torched following which the authorities had clamped Section 144.

It is noteworthy that in all the above mentioned cases the authorities only took action after significant damage was caused. Where were the tear-gas shells and the police barricades when the temples and houses were burning in Ramu? Oh wait; the police were probably busy charging batons on the leaders and activists of the oil, gas committee on Sunday  (3) while our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was attending the 67th Session of United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. The fire service men did not show up in any of these arson attacked areas till much much later.

All these incidents bring out various questions that remain to be answered. Have the administration and law enforcers continuously failed to protect the religious and ethnic minorities from violent attacks, or they have been deliberately indifferent about these attacks?

According to a recent report published by a local daily, the Hindu population in the country has reduced by 900,000 between 2001-2011. (4)  Wonder why?

The religious and ethnic minorities of Bangladesh – constituting less than 10 percent of the total population (5) – have been facing continuous attacks by a small group of Bengali Muslims, who most often are granted impunity on political or other grounds. The reality is that the minorities of democratic secular Bangladesh do not feel safe. At least not anymore. They have developed mistrust on the system of governance from experiencing decades of injustice.

The historical event of ‘71 happened because of the silence of the good people from the then West Pakistan. To this day, many of us still detest those Pakistanis, because they watched us suffer and did nothing to stop the brutalities that were perpetrated on their fellow citizens by the Pakistan Army and its cohorts. As Napoleon said, “The world suffers a lot not because of the violence of the bad people, But because of the silence of the good people.”

The majority population of Bangladesh may not be responsible for the recent attacks, but they cannot avoid the responsibility for the suffering being caused by these attacks. We are collectively responsible for actions that our fellow citizens and our government take or do not take to ensure the basic rights of fellow Bangladeshis.

As citizens of Bangladesh it is your and my responsibility to participate in the political and social processes of our country, to actively take part in processions, petitions, dialogues, forums, blogs and other forms of advocacy in order to create mass pressure on our administration bodies and mainstream media into taking action to protect our rights. It is your and my responsibility to look up and educate ourselves about the history of our country and shape its future. You and I are responsible for our own ignorance. There will be no secularism or diversity in Bangladesh if we do not protect our minorities.

Because simply being good is not good enough.

Trimita Chakma is a member of Kapaeeng Foundation, A Human Rights Organisation for Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh.

(1) Website, Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/pdf_part.php?id=367


(3) http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/latest_news.php?nid=41272

(4) http://www.prothom-alo.com/detail/date/2012-09-22/news/291536

(5) BBS, Census 2011

27 Responses to “Secular democracy in Bangladesh, a failure or a sham?”

  1. Nabil Khan Sujoy

    Truly speaking, Bangladesh is a land of peculiar conservatives. Even the ones who claim to be liberals are also having a skewed vision of what secularism really stands for. Again, we cannot let two appallingly divergent system run at the same time which will eventually erupt into a civil war. Either you severe the mollahs or you abolish the Secular democracy-however severing the latter will only harm the country in reality and throw the country into an abyss that was experienced by Afghanistan. We don’t want to be guinea pigs and experience the same traumatic experience that Afghanistan had faced. Literally we don’t want to be a theocratic country. My opinion-dissipate all the madrashas and their education system.


    What happened in Ramu is something that should be codemned and resisted with steadfastness. But I do not like the term indigenous or minorities.

    Trimita is as much a Bangladeshi as I am. And to call a group of people who had fled Burma as recently as the 17th century as indigenous is a half truth at the best.

    Identifying a group of people as indigenous or minorities is wrong, because it pushes these people into groups or ghettoes, away from the mainstream.

    We should take affirmative action to bring every Bangladeshi into the mainstream so that they can benefit from the secular and vibrant Bangladesh we have managed to achieve. There are flaws in our society I agree but to castigate the entire system is self defeating.
    – See more at: http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2012/10/01/secular-democracy-in-bangladesh-a-failure-or-a-sham/#sthash.S1gaoMrL.dpuf

  3. Arun Dutta

    Making a promise through 11 points and/or 6 points demands of pre-liberation movements were a need of time only. Those were eye washes and that finally surfaced in the minds of last constitutional amendment. And some nationals of Bangladesh and their future generations will always have to enjoy the acceptance of apologies sine die. They will always be maid of the bride and never a bride and will never have the worth to apologise. Constutional beggars will have no choice ever but to accept apologies only.

  4. Utpal

    The early birth of this nation was not through the process of secularism, it was created through the theory of Mr. Jinnah (Pakistan),that conclude… the country will be divided by religious belief, and Bangladeshi people did cast their opinion for a country by religious beliefs. So, it is very reasonable for Bangladesh not to be a secularist country.

    Now the solution should be like this….all the Buddhists should go to Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Thailand. Hindus can go to India. Christians can go to the USA or another country or they also can find some secular country in the world and Bangladesh can welcome Rohingya or other Muslims to fill that gap and this way both the parties will be better off.

    No more fighting, no more cry, no more shame….

  5. Shamaita

    I think if every individual stands for the right of every other individual irrespective of race,color and religion then the government chose by the people of Bangladesh will take care of everyone irrespective of race,color and religion.

    I strongly support Trimita Chakma and really regret that we still have people among us who treats this huge problem as a single act of violence.I dont understand why some people comparing this issue with other countries?Will it be a right thing if it happens to every other countries?No,its not.Its totally wrong to attack any other individual and will be wrong.No matter if it happens to other countries too.

  6. kgazi

    “”According to a recent report published by a local daily, the Hindu population in the country has reduced by 900,000 between 2001-2011. (4) Wonder why?””
    (see Prothom-Alo link Footnote 4)

    For many years, folklore has been spreading that the % Hindu population has been declining in BD, due to “fanatical, bigoted and backward people” of BDesh who have apparently driven the Hindus out. But when I see the social harmony in BD between Hindus & Muslims, even compared to India, in the arena of jobs, culture politics etc, this explanation of “gradually driving Hindus out of Bdesh” appears to me somewhat unfounded. Better explanation that I believe makes sense are:

    1) Hindus migrated to India for better opportunities, like Mexicans migrate to USA
    2) Hindus found higher religious devotion in proximity to Ganges belt than in BD
    3) The heightened muslim culture in BD over-shadowed the Hindu lifestyle
    4) During the same time since 1951, The Buddhist & Christian % population remained the same (or grew), thus refuting the bigotry theory.

    This week that % stat has popped up again, in the heels of Ramu Buddhist temples, but I am told that BDesh never attacked Buddhist temples before – (Rohingya/Myanmar may be a new factor in the political equation but not since 1951).

    Conclusion is, Hindu % may have declined in BD, but NOT because of “bigotry” in BDesh.

    • Sumit Mazumdar

      Please check out the population distribution in neighboring West Bengal. 30% of us are Muslims. While doing this also check out the number of political leaders, ministers, administrators, social scientists, high level police officers in W. Bengal that are Muslims. Do a careful thorough job. Yes, I insist you as a Bangladeshi will be ashamed.

  7. suraiya farzana shanta

    Any wrongdoing is always wrong which must be stopped and resolved. The dignity of a nation is largely expressed through the way the minorities are treated. If this is the way we treat the minority people of our country, then it is a great failure on our part.

    We, the Bangladeshi people need to stand together to resolve this issue. We need to stop the violent acts which are absolutely wrong and inhuman.

    Thanks to the writer Trimita for attracting our attention towards the issue which needs urgent attention and solution.

  8. ddj

    I don’t think any democracy, be it secular or otherwise, promises that hate crime will never occur. Democracy is not a mind controlling mechanism to manipulate how the citizens should think. If a bunch of people nurture hate in their mind and act upon it on the first chance they get, it’s not the failure of the democracy. I think the system of governance in our country is mainly to blame.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do empathize for the victims and also hope and pray that the perpetrators are caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of law so that they face the full force of justice.

    • Samir

      The incumbent government can no way shrug off their responsibility as regards the Ramu incident. The AL government has failed miserably to maintain communal harmony in Bangladesh. The recent several incidents are testimony of AL’s failure.

      • ddj

        I don’t think things would be any different had it been under any other administration cause as I said it is the system.

  9. As

    What happened in Ramu is something that should be codemned and resisted with steadfastness. But I do not like the term indigenous or minorities.

    Trimita is as much a Bangladeshi as I am. And to call a group of people who had fled Burma as recently as the 17th century as indigenous is a half truth at the best.

    Identifying a group of people as indigenous or minorities is wrong, because it pushes these people into groups or ghettoes, away from the mainstream.

    We should take affirmative action to bring every Bangladeshi into the mainstream so that they can benefit from the secular and vibrant Bangladesh we have managed to achieve. There are flaws in our society I agree but to castigate the entire system is self defeating.

  10. Golam Arshad

    Trimita: You are absolutely right in your concluding remark, and I quote, “Because simply being good is not good enough”. Where is the nerve shattering PROTEST? The major parties are at ODDS, the country is DIVIDED, and the GREED MONGERS, on every side are playing TENNIS of deception and confusion.

    In such a state, the government of the day, will be held responsible, the OPPOSITION in such instances, gets a PASS, and herein lies the limitations of parliamentary democracy! I protest this dastardly act. Both AL and BNP must MEET immediately, and assure the NATION and the WORLD that right of the MINORITIES must be protected and guaranteed. The NATION waits to see how serious the politicians, policymakers are in resolving this unacceptable crime against their fellow citizens.

  11. Taj Hashmi

    Dear Trimita Chakma,
    The recent barbaric attacks on Buddhist and Hindu temples and plundering Buddhist and Hindu minorities by bands of Bengali Muslim settlers (I presume, in collusion with outside agents provocateur) are not just incidents of communal violence or attacks (as we use the expression “communal” in South Asia). These attacks have had causes and implications which cannot be simply understood in terms of the typical communal disturbances/rioting etc.

    The apparent cause — a Buddhist is said to have desecrated the Quran or the Prophet — was just an eye-wash, a red herring to divert our attention from the real motives and long-term plans of the culprits. They are not just the typical Islamist fanatics or bigots, but they are exponents of racially motivated ideologies (in the name of religion) of Bengali chauvinism. These people simply do not believe that they are outsiders in the traditional homeland of the so-called “Hill People” of Bangladesh, who are like Hindus, Garos, Santals and other minority targets of majority chauvinism. Religion has just been the excuse. Again, these attacks are not solely reflective of Islamist fanaticism; there are elements of crime, racism, chauvinism and opportunism behind such ghastly attacks on innocent people. Let good sense prevail.

  12. Matiur Rahman

    Dear Trimita Chakma, while many of the information you put herein are true at the same time it is also true that secularism is a failed concept. Look at India, China, Burma, USA.

  13. Alobikash chakma

    A very good write-up.

    The government must punish the culprits responsible for the attack in Ramu. The government is duty bound by the constitution.

  14. anonymous

    This is total rubbish, a few isolated incidents of ethnic violence is not a barometer for measuring the entire scenario. In our neighbouring countries, these things happen on a daily basis and many end up being killed. Please stop highlighting a situation which is still better than most countries. I actually think Bangladesh is a better secular country than even many countries in the West. I wonder which western government would declare government holidays on Eid, Durga Puja, Janma Ashtami and Christmas. Our Bengali society I think is a model for religious tolerance.

    I definitely regret these misdeeds carried out on the minority communities but blaming the society as a whole is just crossing the line. A 99% homogeneous Bengali population is living in harmony and we are thankfully not in a religious turf war. Let’s be happy with that.

    • td

      Really? How about I come and burn down your house, chop of the limbs of your family member with a machete, and call it an isolated incidence and see how happy and thankful you would be! This is not an isolated incident, I suggest you do your research on how many times even in the last couple of years there have been violent attacks, rape, and atrocities committed against the minorities. And as for public holidays during different religious festivals — it has little to do with religious tolerance– if you are smart and want to increase the country’s productivity then shutting down the whole country doesn’t make sense. Instead as western countries do, allow you to have holidays for your religious or personal occasions.

    • Sara

      Damn man! I need to praise your guts! How could you even think this??? I am literally shocked.

      I strongly agree with the author! Trimita, you are right…we do need to participate actively and raise voice against all these coinsurance..I really hope and pray that things will get changed…

    • Samir

      You are one of those people who are responsible for violence in Ramu. I say this because you are as narrow minded and obnoxious thinking you are doing the people of other religion a favour by ‘ensuring’ somewhat better situation than other nations where minority people are more oppressed.

      Shame on you and your bigoted thoughts! We, the Hindu, Muslim, Buddist, Christians all are Bangladeshis and as the citizens of this country, each and every one of us has equal rights. When the rights of one citizen is violated due to his religion or ethnicity, it questions the very basis of our constitution that ensured equal rights to its citizens. It doesn’t matter a tiny bit if people in other countries are in a worse situation or not.

    • Tahmina

      I am really curious too know what exactly is your barometer for measuring the “entire scenario”, as you put it. Seems like the concept of a secular state, according to you, is when we have public holidays! If you think our Bengalis and all these cases (which by the way are not “isolated” cases unless we prefer living with isolated minds) reflect a model for religious or any form of tolerance, then your standards and more importantly knowledge is really questionable. The reason why we have landed where we are today as a state, is because of unfortunate existence of people who prefer to close their eyes and ears and live in illusions as stated in your remarks. What is worse is that you put such low standards for a land that you belong to, and claim to love. Really a shame.

  15. Mashkur

    A single act of violence should not be considered as defining character of Bangladesh’s democracy and its people. This cowardly attack not only failed to break people’s spirit rather brought them together in support of each other. Just cross over the border to Myanmar, you will see how their minorities are being treated.

    We should be careful and sensitive to give our own judgement. It is extremely degrading to attack religious minority based on an anonymous statement in Facebook, it is equally dangerous to jump on a bandwagon to criticize the religious belief of the majority of the people. Both acts are the same.

    It should be pointed out there has been strings of incidence in CTG in recent times. It’s also a coincidence, that there has been a lot of outside pressure from foreign NGOs regarding CTG Peace Treaty. It wouldn’t be the first time to use pre-planned violence against minorities to pressurize government to implement anti-national act.

    We need to be more sensitive and extra cautious regarding our act at this moment. We need to find real motive behind this attack.

    • Anwar Azim

      A single act of violence?! In the last couple of months, several incidents like these took place. How many more do you need to think that there is an actual problem in our country? The communal harmony that used to exist is diminishing? That people are becoming more and more religious minded (not necessarily following the actual teaching of religion but the twisted ones propagated by the intolerant mollahs) and therefore unaccommodating of people from other religion and ethnicity? Do you need a full fledged riot like that takes place often in our neighbouring countries?

      Please don’t keep your eyes shut and think that everything is fine. It isn’t. Believe me something is very much wrong and we must fix that before it’s too late.

      • As

        Look at what is happening in India and Burma. Rohingyas are being killed like dogs in Burma, and in Assam the Bodos have been killing Bengalees. And we have nothing to say about these atrocities. I want to know if there were any casualties in Ramu.

        The burning of temples and homes of peaceful Buddhists because somebody had posted something in the net is not right. We should fight such acts with due diligence, but please stop castigating the entire nation of Bangladesh.

        We are much better than many.

      • As

        The fact that Trimita can write so articulately supports my contention that democracy and secularism is alive and kicking in Bangladesh. The state has managed to give her a very good education.

        Look at the Rohingyas I doubt if you can find anybody in that community who has the level of education that Trimita has. The state has failed there.

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