Why a standalone ministry for religious minorities is a bad idea
In this Bengali republic we inhabit, there are no religious minorities. That, at least, was the principle on which the Liberation War was waged in 1971. We went into battle against the communal-militaristic state of Pakistan on the strength of a few core values, among which was secularism.
The state of Bangladesh, all the way from the guerrilla warfare waged by the Mukti Bahini and till the adoption of the Constitution in late 1972, was deemed an entity where followers of all faiths --- Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism --- were to be regarded as citizens privy to all the rights embodied by a modern nation-state.
In a larger sense of the meaning, we the people of this land were all Bengalis, for it was Bengali nationalism that powered our drive for democratic expression in the period stretching from the early 1950s to the late 1960s.
In the early 1970s, the six points advocated by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were a powerful machine which only deepened our aspirations for secular democracy.
That being the truth, it is, therefore, reasonable for us to argue that when the Hindu-Bouddho-Khrishtan Oikyo Parishad tables the case for the creation of a ministry of minority affairs, and when people in the corridors of power agree with it, it is the essence of the constitution which comes under a shadow. One quite understands, given the sorry circumstances Bangladesh’s non-Muslim citizens have confronted in the past nearly four decades, the sentiments of the Parishad.
But when the Parishad begins to believe that a standalone ministry for people other than Muslims would be a solution to its concerns, our worries become ominous. Matters are made murkier when the government of the day agrees that a separate ministry for religious minorities is not a bad idea.
It is a bad idea.
And equally worrying is the thought that the ruling circles plan to have a national minority board cobbled into shape should they return to an unprecedented fourth term in office.
Bangladesh was not conceived as a state of religious majorities and minorities. The idea of Bangladesh, coming down to us all the way from the Jukto Front electoral triumph in 1954, was the forging of a nationalism where Bengalis would matter and faith would remain outside the bounds of national politics.
Bengalis were not to be segmented into Muslims and Hindus and Christians and Buddhists, which was a crucial reason why the Awami Muslim League dropped its communal appendage in the mid-1950s to become the Awami League.
Go back to the six points, the basic principle of which was the creation of a society where politics would be secular and democratic and would eschew the communalism underpinning the state of Pakistan.
And in 1971, it was Bengalis who gave shape to the Mukti Bahini to wage war for freedom. This nation, officially christened a People’s Republic through the crucible of war, was light years removed from the Islamic Republic that was, and is Pakistan.
Today our secular state is under threat from creeping communalism. It does not have to be. It is under no obligation to build on the parochialism foisted on it by the illegitimate political dispensations keeping the nation in their vice-like grip between the mid-1970s and early 1990s.
Khandakar Moshtaq damaged the ethos of this land when through the bloodletting of August 1975 he wielded the shrill “zindabad” weapon on Bengalis; Ziaur Rahman thought little of the criminality he was committing when he knifed through the principles of secularism and nationalism in the Constitution; and Hussein Muhammad Ershad unabashedly informed us, and the world beyond, that secular Bangladesh would now have a state religion to call its own.
These are some of the saddest realities we in Bangladesh have tried to roll back in order for the country to renew itself on the wings of the nobility shaping our struggle for liberty in 1971. We have argued, endlessly and consistently, that while faith may matter to every citizen, it in no way comes between him and his secular political persona. Our history is proof of the fierce approach we took to dealing with men and organizations willing to undermine our secular republic.
Back in the early 1970s, we rounded on Moulana Bhashani over his screaming demands for a Muslim Bangla because his political revisionism militated against the Bengali soul. At the end of the Liberation War, wisdom was manifested in the Mujibnagar government’s decision to outlaw the Muslim League, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Nezam-e-Islam, and the Pakistan Democratic Party, for communalism had spilled Bengali blood to no end.
Our secularism is left badly wounded when the old collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army have a free run of the country with their closed-mind politics. Our belief in a non-communal Bangladesh takes a bad hit when the Hefazat-e-Islam is pandered to by those we have looked up to so long as defenders of the humanism which defines the Bengali.
There were no religious minorities in this land in the year when our young freedom fighters went off to the fields of war, for they were all Bengalis. The nation was not, between January 1972 and August 1975, segmented into dark spaces walled off from one another by questions of faith -- for people worshipping or in thrall to their deities remembered that at the end of the day they were equal citizens of the land. They were all Bengalis.
It is to that land of Bengalis -- Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists -- we need to return if our history is not to get caught in a bad squall. Democracy without secularism is a fallacy.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge of The Asian Age.