• Monday, Nov 29, 2021
  • Last Update : 02:19 am

OP-ED: The last chance to embrace secularism

  • Published at 12:27 am October 23rd, 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 government needs to take strong action against murderers and looters

It is less than two months before the country celebrates 50 years since Victory Day of December 16, 1971. Many Bangladeshis, including this writer, witnessed, in 1971, that among the freedom fighters and the refugees, all faiths were very active and cooperative. 

In the refugee camps, it was touching to see how the people of different faiths helped each other at significant times. During Ramadan, some Hindu elders approached the Muslims suggesting that, because many of them were sick and short of food, they should not observe the fast from dawn to dusk and that, perhaps, they could fast at a time when they were healthy again. 

During Durga Puja, Muslims helped make rudimentary pandals and some even managed to make sweets to be distributed. In addition, at Christmas 1971 there was a double celebration -- Christmas and the victory over the Pakistani forces of a few days earlier.

At this time, I am also reminded of a very moving incident which took place in West Bengal in January 1972. As thousands of the refugees were returning home to Bangladesh from India, Bangladeshi Hindu leaders from some of the Oxfam-supported refugee camps came to my Oxfam office in Calcutta to request for extra funds so that their Muslim “brothers and sisters” could be given sweets as they crossed the Bongaon/Benapol border in the last few days of January when Eid-ul-Azha should have been celebrated.

Immediately after the brutal attacks on the Hindu community during Durga Puja celebrations in 2021, Eid-e-Miladunnabi has just been observed. In 1972, Eid-e-Miladunnabi was observed at the end of April. Just before that, it is seen from the archives, that Dr Kamal Hossain, then chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, said at a meeting that the constitution would incorporate the four principles of democracy, socialism, nationalism, and secularism. At the end of April 1972 on the occasion of Eid-e-Miladunnabi during a speech at a gathering at Baitul Mukarram, Bangabandhu declared that his government would not allow religion to be used for political purposes. 

He also said that the four basic principles -- democracy, socialism, nationalism, and secularism -- are compatible with the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) and a happy and prosperous nation could be built on these principles. Bangabandhu also said that there would be no attack on any religion and the citizens of Bangladesh would be completely free to practice and profess their respective religions.

The government that seized power in 1975 was strongly influenced by religious extremist groups which made the government remove “secularism” from the constitution and replace it with “faith in Allah.” In addition, Islam became the state religion. The Awami League government has, however, restored “secularism” in the constitution and it should be pointed out that Article 12 (d) of the constitution states that “The Principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practising a particular religion.”

Over the last 20 years or so, there have been numerous attacks against minority communities -- Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Garos, and Chakmas to name a few -- and I understand that none of the murderers and looters have ever been convicted. For instance, after the 2001 elections, hundreds of Hindus were killed and a judicial inquiry found that 25,000 people -- including 25 former ministers and MPs of the BNP-Jamaat led alliance -- were linked to the attacks. 

What is the reason that no action has been taken? It is high time that the Home Ministry explains why no action has been taken in respect of the numerous murders committed at the time of the elections in 2001 as well as on other occasions including the atrocities against the Buddhists at Ramu in 2012. 

In April this year, while writing about Boishakhi, I wrote: “As the country celebrates Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, the concept of secularism and respect for all religions has been coming under attack by brainwashed followers of Hefazat and others. Therefore, it is even more vital and important to celebrate, with loud voices, all aspects of religious and cultural diversity that are present in this beautiful country.”

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting that when I came to live and work in Bangladesh over 30 years ago, I remember writing that I had found that Hindu/Muslim friendship was far better than my experience while living in India for 15 years. What on earth has gone wrong? The current government MUST put things right. There are also other avenues that need to be checked, particularly the school textbooks, but that is a subject for another day’s writing.     

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the British award of the OBE for ‘services to development in Bangladesh.

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