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OP-ED: A different sort of pandemic

  • Published at 07:56 pm June 19th, 2020
Black lives matter
The Black Lives Matter movement is relevant all over the world, even to Bangladesh / REUTERS

It is our duty to fight oppression wherever we see it

The oppression of minority communities is a pandemic that is as bad as Covid-19. The difference being that this oppression has managed to plague the world for a lot longer. Much like the virus, it takes on different forms among different populations, but in all cases, it hinders humanity. 

In America, it is the plight of the black community. In Bangladesh, it is the plight of the Hindu and other religious minorities. In India, it is the plight of the Muslim community and those who are disenfranchised due to their Hindu caste. In all cases, the acknowledgment of the problem and our responses have been grossly inadequate. 

In particular, the black community has suffered disproportionately. Displaced from their homes and forcefully brought in for hard labour without compensation or remuneration of any form, they started their time in most first world nations as “property.” Dehumanized and degraded, these communities were for the longest time denied any means of recognition as deserving for dignity. 

The wounds of history

The end of slavery in America signalled the possibility for change. Yet, for decades after the official legislation, the black community has been structurally and systematically disenfranchised. From Jim Crow laws preventing black minorities voting, to legislation banning black individuals from buying property, black communities have been denied access to meaningful justice, education, property, or means of production. 

Tormented by mass incarceration, harassment, and abjectly ignored by leaders placed in power to help them break the shackles that once bound them, they have battled disproportionate policing mechanisms and brutality for the longest time. The wounds from their history have left scars that have crippled them for generations and continue to do so. 

At every turn, the community has had to fight for their rights through mass protests and pay for it with blood. The “American Dream” managed to weaponize capitalist structures and inflict nightmares on people whose backs it was built on. 

In contrast, most other minorities in the US were introduced under relatively different circumstances and treated very differently over the years. Chinese and Japanese immigrants were denied voting rights for the longest time, but they were given access to education and property a lot earlier and were later brought in through immigration as high-skilled workers. 

Similarly, in 1965, South Asian immigrants were brought in to fill high-skilled job vacancies. This skewed perception through the creation of the “model minority.” Naturally, individuals brought in as “property” would be seen differently to those brought in to fill important societal roles. A classic example of divide and rule. 

The mistake we make is believing that this only happens in the US. It is true that the black community in America has faced the brunt of this form of blatant discrimination. However, the spectres of oppressive colonial history still haunt nations all over the world. 

All nations under colonial rule at some point or the other were subject to division based on race or religion, colonized by either an entirely foreign power or by our neighbours. In almost every nation, one minority community has always been demonized and disenfranchised.

Closer to home

The systematic oppression of minority communities is just as rampant in Bangladesh and other nations all around the world. Adapted from our history of oppression under the Pakistani rule, Bangladesh’s adaptation of the Enemy Property Act displaced the minority Hindu communities from their own property. 

Years of attempts at reformation and restitution has at best resulted in a rhetorical change with only the smallest number of cases being decided by the judiciary. Yet, there is no real means of formal restitution. 

Without even addressing the constitutional significance of having a state religion, it is no secret that Bangladeshi society has been less than kind to its religious minorities. Evidence of violent actions and targeted attacks lay in abundance, accompanied by the brutal assaults on the tribal and indigenous communities. 

The impacts here are less evident, arguably because the size of our minority is only about 10%. That is to say, they are unable to raise their voice when it is most needed. What is worse is that this demography is sometimes terribly reflective of the majority’s willingness (or lack thereof) to support or protect the minority communities in any meaningful way. 

An odd monster

Attention, therefore, must turn to the question of why this has been allowed to perpetuate. Democracy is an odd monster. It was meant as a process to ensure that everyone had a voice. However, where everyone speaks, often the cries of a few are drowned by the overwhelming roars of the many. 

This is predominantly due to the forms of oppression mentioned above. The impacts of being systematically denied property and access to means of production results in a cycle. First, it disproportionately disempowers individuals by taking away their access to wealth which they could use to fund housing, education, or a search for a job. 

Because these individuals are too busy looking for their basic needs, they are willing to overlook their need for civil and political rights, making them almost unwilling to engage politically. Not by choice, but because they are put in the difficult position of having to choose between political engagement and finding shelter. 

Second, the inflicted lack of education makes them unable to seek jobs or argue reasonably for better access to wealth or rights, and this also infringes on their ability to demand socio-economic rights. 

As a result of the two preceding impacts, these individuals are then unable to collectivize. Too busy trying to survive, these individuals are hence unable to form a critical mass effective enough to meaningfully engage with the systems that govern them. Not to mention their inability to hire lawyers to defend their rights. 

In some parts of the world, the problem surrounding this is bad enough that these individuals are unable to fund their own human security. Furthermore, all of this has trans-generational impacts. 

Majority vs minority

If the minority community cannot improve their position or access to wealth, the following generations are subject to the same dehumanizing process where they are continually denied education or jobs. The problem perpetuates unless policy-makers actively make the effort to make change.

However, change is naturally harder to bring about. What is worse is that the system of political engagement thrives on this divide between the majority and minority. Democracy is a system where leaders are born from the support of the many. 

Naturally, there is an intuitive desire to support the majority population. Unless the minority communities can form enough political clout to form a voting bloc, the incentive for political parties to care for them significantly declines. 

The problem is made even worse by the fact that, even where the minority is able to join in numbers, their ability to engage with the system is still grossly hindered due to the systems in place. 

Not only does their lack of access to wealth or property make it difficult for them to engage, but also, they fear retribution. It is not unfounded that those who are made to feel powerless by the system, fear those who are perpetually empowered by the system. From over-policing to something as common as communal violence, minority communities all over the world have been subjected to abject instances of violence every time they have managed to demand their rights. 

The Black Lives Matter movement in America is emblematic of how the struggles against systems of governance can become a tool for oppression. For generations, the black community has been treated as lesser beings by their fellow citizens. It is abhorrent to say the least. Minority communities all over the world deserve redress for all the horrors they have suffered. Policy needs to address the trans-generational impacts of the system as it existed. Even if it means aggressive redistribution. 

They deserve access to meaningful political engagement. This only happens with effective collectivization. It is unforgivable that when one of us suffers, the rest of us stay silent. To bring about the changes we crave to see, it is imperative that all communities band together and work towards them. 

Across nations and across racial lines, it is our duty to fight oppression where we see it. The ubiquity of injustice needs to end through the collectivization and galvanization of the oppressed. 

Whether one is a part of the concerned minority or otherwise, where unjust power structures exist, no one is safe from its crippling impacts. It is all of our jobs to ensure that each member of society, each citizen of our nations, every human being, is afforded the opportunity to live meaningful lives, free from the shackles of unjust power. 

Ahmed Shafquat Hassan is a Barrister (non-practicing), The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, LLM in International Law and Governance (Ongoing), Durham University, LLB and Bar Professional Training Course, University of the West of England.

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