• Monday, Nov 29, 2021
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OP-ED: Assert leadership, restore 1972 constitution

  • Published at 12:26 am October 22nd, 2021
Violence against Hindus Protest
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 October 19, 2021 Reuters

The reality is that Bangladesh is under threat from within

Let us be under no illusion. The reality before us, before the multitudes who constitute this republic, is that Bangladesh is under threat from within. The threat is real, stares us in the face, enough to have us worry about the future. It is not enough to mouth old platitudes. It is foolhardy to try convincing ourselves that the land we inhabit is a land of communal harmony.

Of course, if the petrified silence of those Bengalis who practise faiths in the shadow of majoritarian religious belief is a mark of a peaceful society, there is nothing to be said. Fear has through the long phases of historical time been a spur to silence. 

And what the self-appointed merchants of majoritarian faith have been doing to the Hindu community in Bangladesh in this puja season, indeed what they have been subjecting our fellow Bengalis who happen to be Hindus to for years on end, is to drive home the macabre narrative that the state which Bengalis of all faiths struggled to achieve a half century ago does not or should not exist anymore.

That is communalism of the unadulterated kind. Judging by the organized way in which bigots across vast stretches of the country have gone around smashing Hindu religious idols, breaking into Hindu homes, emptying those homes of all valuables and then torching those homes, it is as clear as spring water rushing down from mountain peaks that we as a nation are today face to face with monstrosity of the worst kind. 

When a young Hindu woman must hide, with her children, in a nearby field and watch those fanatics burn down her home, we ask ourselves: Is this the state we built through the sacrifices of three million of our compatriots 50 years ago?

No, it is not enough for our political classes to inform us ad nauseam that ours is a land of communal harmony. Burning homes, smashing idols in temples, and beating up people of faiths at variance with the faith of the majority quickly leads to silence of the ghostly kind. That silence is no harmony. It is a resounding slap across our faces, an eerie reminder of the shame we have all muddled through ever since the denizens of political darkness began to tamper with the ideals we gave ourselves a half century ago. 

Our ideals, come to think of it, are yet fugitive. It is the gross behaviour of those agents of darkness -- the knifing out of secularism and socialism and the adulteration of nationalism -- we have not been able to decree out of our collective life. 

The imposition of a religion on the structure of the state, subverting the ethos of Bangladesh, is a dictatorial act we have not had the courage or the readiness to roll back. The legacy of shame painted by the old dictators and their camp followers yet looms over us.

A half century ago, we celebrated the arrival of freedom for Bengalis, all Bengalis, irrespective of the gods they believed in. A half century on, a growing band of bigots armed with medieval hate today are bending over backwards, as they go after our Hindu fellow citizens, to drill into the public mind the falsehood that this land is one where the followers of one faith are supreme, possessing the right to let the followers of all other faiths live but by their leave. 

Must we then remain silent? Must we then lull ourselves into the delusion that in this land of putative communal harmony, these troubles which rock the country will blow over, that we must be patient? We as citizens have always been patient. Our patience has had terrible ramifications: It has undercut our self-esteem as a nation, it has left us pusillanimous to a point where the dark elements unhappy with secular Bengali nationalism now shriek in fearsome manner through our streets and our villages and towns, doing all they can to push this nation into a state of unmitigated misery.

We need to turn around. We need to inform those who administer the state today that they must do more than pacify us with the anodyne thought that the guilty will be punished, that the law will deal with each and every transgression. The men and women in power are possessed of vast authority, for their hold over parliament is unprecedented and the laws they have enacted are tough in texture and practice. 

Let that authority and those laws be applied against the fire-spewing manufacturers of religious hate. The agents of disorder have been burning the country down in this puja season. They have challenged the state and the government through the ignoble behaviour they have indulged in. It is for the state and the government which administers it to beat back the challenge, with firmness, without pity. 

Let the message be loud and clear: Anyone and everyone, be they part of any political formation or organized bigotry, will be brought before the law and will be seen being brought before the law.

And there is more the state can do, if future generations of Bengalis are not to pay the price for the mistakes made by their parents and grandparents. The constitution framed in 1972, because it defined the state and its principles in all clarity, must be restored in full. 

That restoration will on its own grind the detritus gathered in subsequent times -- all the amendments that followed and all the commandeering of politics and policy -- into dust and inaugurate the restoration we sorely need. 

That this land accords equal rights to every citizen, that religion does not define politics, that rule of law is an article of faith, that appeasement of bigotry is an insult to the sacrifices of those who perished in the cause of freedom in 1971, that the blaze and smoke rising from the homes of those who subscribe to faiths different from that of the majority is an assault on the political philosophy of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and on the battlefield triumph of the Mujibnagar government -- are truths the 1972 constitution will restore.

The state of Bangladesh must not be taken for a ride anymore. Those who govern it today must respond to the call of history -- through firm belief in our collective goodness, through faith in the four fundamental principles -- to give us, once again, the homeland we saw rise in freedom 50 years ago. Assertive leadership is called for.    

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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