• Monday, Dec 06, 2021
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OP-ED: Collateral damage

  • Published at 01:04 pm October 20th, 2021
Gonojaoron Mancha spokesperson Imran H Sarker
Hundreds of people have protested in Dhaka, calling for an end to religious violence that has gripped the country, leading to at least seven deaths. Photo taken during a demonstration at the capital’s Shahbagh on Wednesday, October 20, 2021 Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Once again the Bangladeshi Hindu minority are being used as pawns in a larger political game

The recent attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh have been distressing, and made more so by the thought that there is an extremely cynical and destructive politics of religion – local, national, and perhaps international - that may be behind it.

The trouble, by all accounts, started after a Quran was found resting on the thigh of a Hanuman statue in a Durga Puja pandal near a pond in Comilla called Nanua Dighi. Videos of this went viral and were used by some Muslim fundamentalists as an excuse to start riots against the local Hindu minority.

Now, there are a couple of odd things about this story.

Why was there a Hanuman statue – and statues of Ram, Lakshman and Sita in front of whom the Hanuman idol was placed - in a Durga Puja pandal?

I have never seen or heard of such a thing in my entire life. It is definitely not Bengali Hindu culture. This is a new innovation in Durga Puja worship, and one that would fit in with the culture of North India rather than Bengal.

Secondly, and very obviously, anyone looking to create trouble, Hindu or Muslim or atheist, could have placed that Quran on the Hanuman statue, and did so deliberately.

However, who found it there and why did they not quietly and respectfully remove it? What was the need to make a big hungama over it by shooting videos, gathering crowds, calling the police ... in other words, fomenting trouble?

Elements of the Muslim right-wing in Bangladesh seem to be making the most of this incident to create as much trouble as possible. They have been politically decimated in recent years, and not always by entirely democratic means.

There are national general elections due at the end of next year. They will probably be hoping to recover lost ground, and for them the default method of doing this is by demonizing minorities, an old and familiar method of politics in this subcontinent.

This is exactly what the Hindu right-wing in India is also doing, day in, day out, for the last seven years. The trouble in Bangladesh has been very useful for them. Social media in India is awash with videos and photos of attacks on Puja pandals pushed by supporters of the ruling BJP saying it has become impossible for Hindus to live in Bangladesh. 

It's a message they seem delighted to spread. When I pointed out, in a WhatsApp group, to one such person who had posted a message about the ongoing “genocide” of Hindus in Bangladesh, that the total number of Hindus known to have been killed in the current riots is two, which is two too many but hardly a genocide, he got very angry at me. He would have probably felt happier if the number was much higher.

Politically, the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh are a god-send for the BJP and the broader Sangh Parivar of Hindu right-wing outfits.

It justifies the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act which was passed in 2019 but has not yet been implemented.

So basically, the Muslim right-wing in Bangladesh and the Hindu right-wing in India are both capitalising on the trouble, which was obviously artificially and deliberately created to start with, for their respective political gains.

The only losers in this are the victims: the minority Bengali Hindus of Bangladesh to start with.

It was exactly the same kind of cynical politics of religion started by the Hindu Mahasabha on one side and Muslim League on the other that led to the bloody Partition of the subcontinent (which was really the Partition of Punjab, Bengal, Sylhet from Assam, and the de-facto division of Jammu and Kashmir) in 1947.

Hindus in Nagpur, where RSS headquarters are located, were never in any danger of becoming refugees. It was people like my grandparents, who lived as Hindus in East Bengal, who had to suffer the bitter consequences of divisive religious politics.

The Bangladesh genocide of 1971 in which countless numbers were massacred by the Pakistan Army was the conclusion of the Partition process in Bengal.

When Pakistani General Yahya Khan wanted the losers of an election to retain power because West Pakistan could not tolerate the thought of a Bengali, Sheikh Mujib, as prime minister, the Bengalis, and especially the Hindus among them, again became "collateral damage."

When the BJP wanted to find an issue in the last Lok Sabha polls, they tried first through the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, both of which would disproportionately affect Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim, in Northeast India and Bangladesh.

Once again, ordinary Bengalis were the pawns in a political game.

Now when someone in South Asia seemingly wants to provoke latter-day Razakars to harass Sheikh Hasina’s government – a strategy likely to backfire – it is again the turn of the Bengali Hindu minority to become collateral damage.

How long will this kind of religious politics continue to boost the flagging careers of political entrepreneurs in the region?

The writer is a West Bengal-based author and journalist. His most recent publication is The Braided River, a travelogue following the Brahmaputra and Jamuna.

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