Bangladesh, Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Sister, my Sister

My sister: Your departure from this Earth on 25th April 2021 was a great shock and deeply painful to everybody who knew you. You touched the hearts and minds of not only your near and dear ones, but also everybody who happened to come across you.

But why did you have to leave Earth on the day I was born? Was there a sublime message you were leaving behind for me? Couldn’t we stay together, as we had been doing for many, many years now? A few more years together, happy care-free lives, wouldn’t have caused anybody any harm. So, why did you have to go now? Life is undoubtedly brutal and Tagore expressed that very succinctly in one of his songs:

আমি তোমারি মাটির কন্যা        

জননী বসুন্ধরা !!

তবে আমার মানব জন্ম

কেন বঞ্চিত করো ?

Translated in English, it may read like this:

I am the product of your soil, Mother Earth,

then why do you deprive me of my human life?

Your life and my life, as your younger brother, kept flashing in front of my eyes now. The days when I was just a tiny tot, I used to trail you, follow you, copy you, do everything you did. In my childhood years in Hemnagar, Mymensingh you were my guide, my mentor. Although I was not of schooling age, but you showed me the English alphabet and taught me very gently and lovingly how to write my name in English. I used to wonder how on Earth you can read English and even understand it! You used to tell me stories from your books.  You told me the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala’, which I liked very much and asked you to tell me over and over again. Years later in Dhaka, you told me in simple Bengali language the story of The Merchant of Venice, and I developed a deep dislike for Shylock who asked for a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body for non-payment of debt!

As our father was the Manager of the Hemnagar Zamindari – appointed by the government of Pakistan in the absence of Hindu Zamindar after the partition of India – we had all the trappings and social privileges of zamindari life style. Although we did not live in the Zamindar’s palace, our home was quite spacious and very comfortable. At the crack of dawn, you used to wake me up, put a flower bucket (ফুলের ডালা) in my hand and asked me to go and collect ‘bokulful’ (a very fragrant flower of jasmine genus). There were two or three bokulful trees just outside our house. Bokulful opens up its buds and becomes extremely fragrant in the early morning and drops on the ground. When I used to bring back bucket full of ‘bokulful’, you used to make garlands. The perfume was simply divine. The habit of rising in the early morning that you induced in me stayed with me almost all my life.

In the tin-roof bungalow type of house where you used to stay while in Hemnagar, there were two tiger cages at one side, each about 3ft high. You used to have one tiger cage and I had the other. There were four mango trees behind the bungalow you had been staying. During the seasonal fruit time, at the slightest of breeze, the ripe mangoes would fall on the ground and that was the time when you and I would compete. Although I was much smaller, I managed to fill my ‘tiger cage’ almost to half of its height, whereas your cage was no more than third full. The reason was that I was more persistent in collecting mangoes than you were. Eating mangoes was not the purpose, filling the cages was.  

When we came back to Dhaka to live permanently and you were in Kamrunnesa Girls school, I was your outside arm. You used to ask me to take your sarees to the laundry that was good 15 minutes’ walk and then a day or two later I had to go and collect the sarees. You used to give me your letters to post at the post office, which was more than 15 minutes’ walking distance. All these things I used to do for a little cuddle and a praise from you. When I learnt how to ride bicycle, one day I borrowed an almost dilapidated bike from my cousin next door and as I was going out, you gave me a letter to post. So, I headed for the post office. On the way there, through the bumpy road, bicycle chain fell off and it took me quite a while to put the chain back, post the letter and come back home. Seeing me back, you said, “You came back quite quickly”. Although that was not exactly true, but that pleased me quite a lot.

Years later, after the death of our father, when within a few months your marriage had been arranged, it was a big occasion. However, the arrangement of this wedding was bit dramatic. In the summer of 1958, you and I went to Boro Khalamma’s (eldest auntie) house in Boiyder Bazaar for a holiday. After about three days, we saw that our Mum had sent a man to Boiyder Bazaar to bring us back to Dhaka immediately. As per instructions, we came back to Dhaka cutting short our holiday and found that your marriage had been arranged. The groom’s side needed no meeting with the bride, no background check of our family etc, as the groom’s side had surreptitiously been fact finding for months and just waited for the opportune moment to propose to our family.

The wedding was on 27th June. I do remember the date because many of the wedding presents came with the inscription, 27th June, Zu-un’s wedding (২৭ জুন , জুনের বিয়েতে). The large gathering, the glitch and the glamour of the wedding party were all very enjoyable to us all. I was at the centre of attraction in the party as the younger brother of the bride. But within a month, Dulabhai took you away to Karachi, his place of work. When after three or four months, you did not come back, I got impatient. I asked my mum, “Mum, why Chhoto Apa is not coming back?”. Mum said, “She is married now.”, I said, “So what? Pay back all the money Dulabhai had spent on Chhoto Apa and bring her back”. That did not go down well with Dulabhai! I was only 12.

About ten years later, in February 1968, after my M.Sc. exam I went to visit you and our other siblings in Karachi. Probably realising that 10 years earlier I had to endure the agony of losing you to Dulabhai, he made up for everything. He treated me as if I was the most precious person in the whole world! I had the most fantastic time with you in your house at the Karachi University campus. After coming back, when I got the M.Sc. result and immediately got the University Lecturer’s job; you and Dulabhai were the first persons to congratulate me.   

Just after a short four years, after the liberation of Bangladesh, all of you came back to Bangladesh and Dulabhai took the teaching position at Jahangirnagar University Bengali Department. By that time, I came to England to do my Ph.D. However, I visited your place at Jahangirnagar University every time I went to Bangladesh and found you so happy in the academic atmosphere of the University. After Dulabhai’s retirement from University, you did come back to our parental home in late 1980s(?), with Dulabhai of course, from where you left with Dulabhai over 30 years earlier. Of course, our parental home had changed into a multi-storied apartment block and my apartment was right next to your apartment and then I would have no grounds to complain that you were not with me.

I visited your apartment many times. In fact, most of the times when I visited Bangladesh, I stayed with you. Years earlier when I was staying with you, on the second or third day, you wanted me to make sure that I dine with you. Not knowing what was going on, I stayed home to dine with you and you brought duck meat. I said, “Oh, my God, this is my most favourite meat”. You said, you knew and that’s why you had cooked it by yourself. And then you brought Bhuna Khichuri. I was taken completely aback. I thought, only my Mum knew about my most favourite dish. But you knew too and entertained me with such a dish. You took the role of our Mum.

You were the glue to the whole of our family. You always treated everybody with love, care and affection. Even if someone misbehaved with you, you never fought back. When you told me many of such instances, I used to ask you, why didn’t you reply back? You used to say, what was the point in hurting the feeling of that person. You were always compromising to maintain amity within the family. 

You were very proud of all of us. When I wrote a text book about 10 years ago on “Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management” for graduate and post-graduate studies in British and European Universities, you asked me to give you a copy. I said, I wouldn’t expect you to read it. You said, “No, but I would show others that my brother had written it.” So, I gave you a copy.

Your love and affection to all our relations, even to strangers, were legendary. When you were in the ICU with Covid infection only a few days ago, a doctor came to see you; after his visit, you asked the doctor whether he had his lunch yet. The doctor was stunned, no patient ever enquired about doctor’s well-being or his lunch. The doctor said that she was like his mother. You loved and empathised with anybody who came in contact with you. That is why, the helpers in your apartment building were so very distraught at your demise.

We all love life and despise death. It is definitely very painful to see someone gone forever. But to create a false narrative that heaven and hell are all waiting (somewhere) is just misleading and delusional. The poet, D L Roy expressed the ultimate truth in more realistic and mundane way when he said:

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

আলোর মতন, হাসির মতন

কুসুমগন্ধ রাশির মতন

হাওয়ার মতন, নেশার মতন

ঢেউয়ের মতন ভেসে যাই

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

Translated in English, it may look like:

“We just come and float away

            like the ray of light, like a smile,

            like the sweet smell of a fragrant flower,

            like a breeze, like an intoxication,

like the crest of a wave,

            We just come and float away.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Enemies of Bangladesh striking from within

More than fifty years ago, Bangladeshi people fought a bloody war against Pakistani brutal oppression. In suppressing the legitimate demands of the people of then East Pakistan, Pakistani military authority had the ready and willing support of armed gang of the 5th columnists – the so-called Islamist thugs trying to save the country for religion.

Bangladesh won the independence after shedding tremendous amount of bloodshed, sacrificing the dignity of tens of thousands of Bengali women, millions of people had to flee their homeland by crossing the borders in all directions to India. After nine months of war, the country achieved independence by beating the Pakistani force.

Now the 5th columnists are attacking the very foundation of Bangladesh from within and to add insults to injury on the day of independence, on the day when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inspired the Bengali people to rise up and fight for our national dignity, for our national identity. How dare these Hefazat-e-Islam thugs attack Bangladesh’s national emblem as well as national properties when the country was primed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of its independence.

These Hefazati people are not only the enemy of the State, they are also the vicious people and criminals. They cannot tolerate the celebration of independence of Bangladesh, which broke away from their stark racist religious state of Pakistan. Even after 50 years, they are hankering after their fanatic country Pakistan and scheming to end the secular state of Bangladesh.

Now the question is, who are these Hefazati people and how did they get such a strong foothold in the country which they opposed so violently? To answer this question, one has to look back to the political history of Bangladesh. The killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, on 15th August 1975 was the turning point when the country had been wrenched out from secularism towards Islamisation. Ziaur Rahman who took control of the country after the turmoil of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s death started to change Bangladesh Constitution from secularity to Islamic Constitution, putting Bismillaher Rahmanir Rahim in the Preamble of the Constitution and stating Islam as the State religion. He then allowed Rajakars, al-Badr and other blatant religious groups who were violently involved in killing innocent people during the liberation war to come back to Bangladesh.  

At the same time, Saudi money started pouring in to open madrasas – Qawmi type which is of the fundamentalist variety – throughout the whole country. In addition, mosques were established in almost every street corner of the capital city and all major cities of the country with Saudi money. Ziaur Rahman surreptitiously encouraged these religious activities and with the explicit and implicit support of these religious bigots, he started a political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). After Ziaur Rahman, Mohammad Ershad continued in the same vane allowing and encouraging clandestine foreign supply of funds for political-religious purposes.

At the moment, there are at least 64,000 Qawmi madrasas in the country and the number of students is assumed to be nearly 10 million (as par Institute of Commonwealth Studies). The exact number of madrasas or madrasa students is not known as these madrasas are not registered and regulated by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, as these madrasas are financed privately. That is where the problem lies and the dark side of madrasa education starts to emerge. It is an open secret that Saudi Arabia as the main sponsor of the Salafist / Wahhabi ideology is the financier of these Qawmi madrasas and mosques, not only in Bangladesh but also in many other Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia also financed the setting up of Ibn Sina banks, Ibn Sina hospitals, universities, primary schools and even bus services and hotels in Bangladesh. The tentacles of Islamic financial activities go far and wide and are deeply rooted. Obviously, with such financial muscle comes the political muscle and any democratic government of a relatively poor country would be hard pressed to confront them.  

Hefazat-e-Islam as a political organisation emerged in 2010 when millions Qawmi madrassah people were readily available to populate this blatantly communal organisation. In fact, Hefazat has become the political forum for these Madrasa-trained people who have no vocation or skill to offer, other than simply reciting some verses from Quran without even understanding anything about it. These madrasas only produced millions of morons and enemies of the State. These people are total dead weight to the country.

Over the years, these madrasa-trained people had been piling up and they would now demand employment. That they are not suitable for any productive work is beyond their comprehension. However, the government should have warned them before they were allowed to go down the blind alley and now it falls on the government to train them and move them towards the constructive sector of the economy. These people, as they stand now, are now primed to be radicalised and can very easily be turned into Islamic terrorists.    

Demonstrating against foreign leaders or foreign powers, vandalising private and public properties, attacking minorities and their properties etc would seem to be the pastimes for these people. The government must stop them firmly. The whole sector of madrasa education should be closed down without any delay. The problem that the military-people-turned-politician had created in the past to get a foothold in the political field has to be tackled now. The country has to bear the brunt of the thuggery of Hefazati people by deploying the Border Guards to protect foreign leaders and saving government and minority properties, but can this extra vigil continue indefinitely? The root cause, the source of the problem needs to be tackled head on; otherwise, the mayhem caused by these illiterate madrasa-trained people may continue.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, Life as it is, Political

COVID-19: Pauperisation of the Poor

South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) conducted a survey late last year to appraise the socio-economic condition of families in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The findings of the survey contain enough negatives to alarm the policymakers and the concerned citizens alike.

Bangladesh

According to the survey findings, the proportion of Bangladesh’s total population living below the poverty line has doubled from 21.6 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in late 2020 and the proportion of extreme poor tripled from a mere 9.4 percent to 28.5 percent over the  corresponding period. The pandemic has caused serious economic hardship, especially for the poor, all over the world. But such a mammoth slippage is unfathomable, especially when the country achieved nearly 4 percent growth last year compared to negative growth posted by most South Asian countries.

The findings raise serious questions about the efficacy of the government’s recovery packages in reaching the population in dire need of government assistance. The population living marginally above the poverty line or in poverty are always vulnerable to slip into one level down at the slightest sign of any economic instability.

Our policymakers should keep in mind that no degree of economic growth is fulfilling if its benefits fail to reach the downtrodden masses.  Development, no matter how glittering it appears, carries little value to the poor unless its benefits trickle down to them in some form or other. Else, they feel left behind as then they only see the glitter of development but not its benefits.

Moreover, such a substantial spike in poverty level may derail Bangladesh in its journey to achieve middle income country status. Apart from maintaining the required per capita Gross National Income (GNI) level, which it likely will, the country must also maintain the threshold level in one of the two other criteria, the Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) criteria, in the next triennial review to be held in 2021. Only then the chances of Bangladesh being recognized by the UN as a middle income country in 2024 will remain alive. Otherwise, there will be, at a minimum, three-year delay in Bangladesh achieving middle income status unless the UN relaxes the conditions due to the pandemic. 

As of today, the chances of Bangladesh slipping below the threshold level on both counts appear real, demanding immediate pragmatic measures to counter them.

Now the question arises, what went wrong with the government’s relief packages. Why did they fail to deliver the desired benefit to the population in direst need? Was sufficient resources allocated for the vulnerable population in the relief packages? Did the mechanisms used for the delivering the resources to the target beneficiaries work? Well, the time has come to look seriously into the foregoing questions as a first step to mitigate the suffering of the people living below or hovering around the poverty line.

Understandably, the major goal of the relief packages is to keep the economic wheel rolling at a time of unprecedented difficulties caused by the pandemic. It’s common knowledge that preventing the consumption level from rock bottoming is pivotal to succeed in achieving this goal. The following measures may help the country in improving the poverty situation as well as giving the economy a boost:

1) Delivery of increased food and cash resources to the population in dire need;

2) expansion of agricultural grant or loan, as appropriate, to subsistence farmers; and

3) enhancing employment opportunities via increased assistance to small and cottage industries.

Both cash relief and cash freed through food relief will help increase purchasing power of the target population enabling them to buy more manufactured consumer goods, essential for steady economic recovery.

Much thought should be given on formulating the best possible path of achieving speedy economic recovery. The path on which poverty alleviation and economic recovery walks hand in hand. A path on which each complements the other.

It is heartening that the country has attained the economic capacity to make it happen. What’s needed is due diligence to develop necessary plans and programs and their effective execution.

ASM Jahangir is a former Senior Program Manager of USAID/Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Life as it is, Political

The Completion of Partition of India

From the early part of 17th century, the great news about India’s wealth and affluence started to spread far and wide and invariably it reached the Western ears. The West was, of course, the centres of political and military might of the world at that time. Although India’s population was about 10% of world population, its economy was more than 30% of world’s GDP, taking the whole of Western economy into consideration. The amazing quality of muslin fabric in Dhaka, the exotic aromatic spices of South India, the evocating flavour of Assam tea etc were great attractions to the Western explorers, adventurers, fortune seekers and, of course, colonizers.

The Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and latterly British fortune seekers and colonizers all started streaming in various guises at various ports of India, Sri Lanka and even beyond into Indonesia and so forth. But the golden goose of India was the province of Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal in India) where wealth was fabulous, people were generous, mild-mannered and hospitable. But the provincial administration was ridden with selfishness, sycophancy, antagonism and conspiracy; in short, it was simply in dysfunctional state. On top of that, the Moghul Empire at the centre in Delhi was just crumbling down. The European fortune seekers and colonizers could not dream of a better set of conditions to fulfil their ambitions than in India.

The East India Company of Britain started their stall in Calcutta in the 17th century as a simple trading post for import and export of various commodities. As they made jaw-dropping profits and their economic and political powers grew much bigger for their boots, the British government took notice. Moreover, when America managed to tear itself away from the British hegemony, Britain turned its attention towards the East. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (the 1st Indian War of Independence) when the British colonizers just managed to hang on to powers by the skin of their teeth, the East India Company was nationalised urgently and India was taken under the British Crown and it became officially a British colony in 1858 CE.

Fast forward nearly a hundred years and come to the turbulent period of 1940s, when World War II was ravaging and tearing apart the very fabric of human society and civilisation, Britain as a major combatant had no option but to agree to grant freedom to the people whose support she needed badly at that time. America also had been exerting tremendous amount of pressure on Britain to decolonise its territories. After the end of war in 1945, Britain started to decolonise in earnest and in great haste.

In India, the poison of sectarian division had been sown for decades, if not centuries, first by the petty bourgeoisie administration and then firmly by the British Raj to ‘Divide and Rule’ the country. The Hindus and Muslims had been told that they were totally different people, different race and different culture. It played very nicely at the hands of opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians and rulers, although the great national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and a few other leaders took a somewhat different stance. They asserted that the Muslims and Hindus in independent India would live in self-governing states based on democratic principles. But that that did not assuage the fear of the underclass Muslims being overwhelmed by the Hindu majority or the Hindu superiority. The political leaders of the Hindu majority did nothing to dispel such fears of the minority community; on the contrary they were rather flaming the fears.

The two communities started drifting apart ever since Allama Iqbal proclaimed his sectarian Two-Nation Theory (TNT) in 1930, where he envisaged the creation of a separate Muslim State in the North West part of India for Indian Muslims. Only as an after-thought Iqbal said years later that there was no reason why Bengal should not join the Muslim State. Although Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not keen to have a separate Muslim State at the beginning, but under Iqbal’s persuasion and, to some extent, due to antagonistic attitudes of some communal Hindu politicians, he gradually drifted towards separate two-nation-state idea.

However, when at the Lahore Conference of the Muslim League (ML) in 1940, the creation of a Muslim State, called Pakistan, on the basis of two-nation theory was adopted, the partition of India was virtually sealed. Communal feelings ran high throughout the whole of India and sometimes they boiled over into communal riots. In the 1946 provincial election in British India, the creation of Pakistan was a matter of patriotism, self-preservation and religiosity all rolled into one for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslims in the province were mostly landless farmers, day labourers and contract workers. So, they took the election as an opportunity to seek emancipation from not only the British colonial yoke but also Hindu dominance.

The election was also taken as a new dawn for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslim League got nearly 95% Muslim seats (114 out of 119 of all Muslim seats) in Legislative Assembly of Bengal. That was the best performance of the Muslim League in the whole of the country. Although 114 seats out of the Provincial Seats of 250 were not the majority, but they were the overwhelmingly dominant group.

Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as a student leader, was a staunch supporter of the Muslim League and was associated with Husain Shahid Suhrawardy, a very prominent leader of the Muslim League from Bengal. He went to Sylhet with about 500 students from Calcutta to campaign for Pakistan before plebiscite in that district of Assam. The election result was the outcome of emancipation of dispossessed and landless farmers who had been promised to be made landed farmers.

Things started moving at break-neck speed after the Provincial Election in 1946. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared on 20 February, 1947 to give independence to India within two years. On 3rd June 1947, British government formally accepted the division of British India into India and Pakistan. However, nobody, not even the top leaders like Jinnah and Nehru had the faintest idea on 3rd June what the two countries would look like. Communal riots broke out throughout the whole country due to uncertainty. This vagueness had created a grave chaotic situation and aggravated the plight of people who suffered tremendously during the partition. Hindus in their millions moved from anticipated Pakistani territories in one direction and Muslims from Indian territories moved in the opposite direction and anger spilled over these moving migrants!

The British government washed its hands off from all responsibilities for the peaceful transfer of power and oversight of proper partition of the subcontinent under the guise of its commitment to transfer power as soon as possible. On 17th August 1947, the first batch of British military troops set sail out of Bombay for home. Both India and Pakistan had been left on their own devices to slug it out.

But the province of Bengal (the then East Pakistan) where the British East India Company first set its foot some 200 years ago was in much disorientated state. It joined up, albeit on the strength of the provincial election in 1946, with another province (in fact, four provinces in West Pakistan which were later merged into one) which was some 1500 miles away, separated by an enemy state (as per Pakistani version). There was no common tenuous bondage between these two provinces except only religion; everything else like culture, language, attire, attitude and even race were different. The state of Pakistan was simply huddled up on the outcome of an election, which was based on emotion and centuries of pent-up injustices on the Muslims, and from undue haste of the British colonial masters to depart.

Within one year of Pakistan’s independence, in 1948, the severe fault line appeared when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in Dhaka, East Pakistan that Urdu would be the national language. But by far the majority, nearly 55%, of the whole country’s population was Bengali speaking and Urdu was spoken by less than 20% of the population. So, what was the justification for Urdu to be national language other than sheer subjugation of East Pakistan?

The Language Movement ensued in 1952 when police opened fire on unarmed university students and killed eight of them, when they demanded Bengali to be the national language.  Ever since that time, West Pakistan tried to kowtow the Bengalis into total submission and keep them as the underclass in the country. The Punjabis of West Pakistan started dominating by sheer military strength all spheres of activities in life – economy, education, employment, the civil service, sports and so forth and worst of all, they were conducting organised campaign to wipe out the Bengali identity by disenfranchising Bengali and to force people to learn Urdu. When Britain withdrew in 1947, Pakistan became the de-fact colonial power over East Pakistan and started exploiting with even more ruthlessness than the British.  

Independence Day 2018: London rises for Bangladesh liberation war 1971

Pertaining to Bangladesh liberation war, 1971

The independence for Bengalis (Muslims and Hindus) in Bangladesh did not come about until 16th December 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan and became a sovereign independent state. So, it can truly be said that there was a hiatus of 24 years for the Bengalis. The process of independence, which started on 14th August 1947 when the British Crown hurriedly left the scene without fulfilling its colonial obligations and responsibilities, did not come to completion until the 16th December 1971. Then and only then the true partition could be said to have been completed.  

  •   Dr. Anisur Rahman (a nuclear scientist) is an author and a columnist and
  • Dr. Jadabeswar Bhatrtacharjee (a medical doctor) is a freelance writer.

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Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary

Secularism in Bangladesh: The troubled Constitutional pillar

The ubiquity of the word “secularism” (it is mentioned in more than 75 of the world’s Constitutions as an ideal the State promotes, or an organising principle that it affirms), and the passionate discussions it generates throughout the world, sometimes distracts us from the fact that its origins are relatively recent.

It was only after the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries; after the bloody inter-denominational conflicts in Europe, or the clashes between ecclesiastical and temporal authorities, which eventually led to the sovereignty of the State (occurring between the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815); after Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation between Church and State”, and Voltaire’s “privatisation of religion” found a welcoming environment in the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century, did the idea of secularism become well entrenched in European literary and political consciousness. The English writer George Holyoake was the first to use it in a systematic manner only in 1851. It was during the French Third Republic (1870-1940) that it was declared to be the “defining ideology of the State”.

Not only is it a relatively new concept, it was also delimited by geography. It was essentially a European phenomenon, both in terms of the intellectual tradition that generated it, and the military conflicts that necessitated it. Hence for the rest of the world, which did not share that reality, it was a foreign concept where its relevance was dimly understood, its meaning fuzzy, its embrace clumsy.

It may be argued that the idea of “democracy” is similarly alien. But democracy was easier to explain, it animated the anti-colonial struggles, and it was reflected in some concrete practices and institutions that were identifiable and populist. Secularism was not. But, more importantly, while democracy did not challenge deeply held commitments and values, secularism problematised the core of their belief systems, and sometimes even their identity. It should be pointed out, as Karen Armstrong has done, that the notion of “religion” understood in the West, is subtly but substantially different from what the Arabic word “deen” or the South Asian word “dharma” connotes.

It was expected that the road to secularism would be rocky in South Asia, perhaps more so in Bangladesh. There were pre-existing tensions between Hindus and Muslims (mitigated to some extent by Sufi teachings, some syncretistic cultural practices, and the moral economy of the peasantry) which were aggravated by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 that conflated class and religion and sharpened earlier divisions. There were the machinations, and sometimes the confusions, of the British. There was the emergence of a middle class in both communities (a little later, and weaker, for the Muslims) which led to a competition for political power and economic favour from the British, and provoked the self-conscious exploitation of religion, the creation of the dreadful “other”, and the divergence of the faith communities. And finally, there was the Partition of India in 1947 which appeared to confirm the primacy of faith as the very basis of personal and national identity.

Nonetheless, its journey in independent Bangladesh began in some optimism and apparent clarity. The constitution of 1972 unambiguously accepted secularism as one of the four foundational pillars of the State. This was entirely expected. This followed the logic of linguistic/cultural nationalism that had challenged the earlier Pakistani formulation, as well as the defeat of the Pakistani military which had pursued an overtly religious agenda. They lost. While the other pillars, such as democracy and socialism, were going to entail further negotiations and struggles, this issue, it was felt, had been settled. That confidence was seemingly misplaced.

Secularism was not killed with Bangabandhu’s brutal assassination in 1975, but it was dealt a crippling blow. The subsequent leadership did not pursue this ideal with the courage, commitment or the charismatic authority that he had represented. Religious groups and leaders, who had remained defensive and tentative initially, were allowed and, at times invited, into the political arena, gradually began to assert their presence, eventually emerged as critical players in bargaining-based and alliance- oriented “democratic” arrangements, and steadily pushed back against earlier secular guarantees. Even its location in the constitution became far less settled than had been originally assumed.

In fact, the 5th amendment (1979) removed secularism from the constitution, and the Divine invocation (Bismillah-Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim) was inserted at the beginning. By the 8th amendment (1988), Islam was declared the “State religion”. In 2005, the Supreme Court invalidated the 5th amendment (not on the religious question per se, but on the unconstitutionality of the Martial Law that had been promulgated and hence all laws, acts and amendments passed at the time were deemed to have been automatically nullified). In 2011, Part II, Article 8 of the 15th amendment restored secularism as a fundamental principle of State policy, and Article 12, Part II specifically indicated the elimination of communalism, the non-privileging of any religion, or any discrimination based on faith. However, in Article 2A, Part I, Islam was retained as the State religion, and the invocation remained unchanged. Thus, the constitutional position of secularism became a bit murky.

The increasing influence of the religionists was reflected in other areas as well. First, in education, Prof Abul Barkat reported that between 1970 and 2008, the number of alia madrasas increased from 2,721 to 14,152, and the number of qawmi madrasas went up correspondingly. By 2015, the government indicated the existence of 13,902 qawmi madrasas (though, largely because of definitional imprecisions, some estimates could be several times higher).

Moreover, in 2017, the qawmi madrasas, which had always resisted any government interference in terms of academic substance, quality or control, was able to get its Dawrah degree recognised as equivalent to an official MA degree.

These forces, spearheaded by Hefazat-i-Islam, were also able to influence the curricula of the official education system. In 2017, as many as nine chapters were quietly deleted from school textbooks (which included contributions from Lalon, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sarat Chandra, Satyen Sen, Humayun Azad and Rabindranath Tagore) and substituted them with more religious-minded pieces (from Shah Ahmad Sagir, Alaol, Golam Mostafa, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Habibullah Bahar). Similar other texts were added. Further changes were demanded and remain under consideration.

Second, such groups, and others emboldened by them, carried out various acts of repression and violence against religious minorities. Odhikar (a Human Rights based organisation), reported that between 2007 and 2019, 12 people belonging to minority faith communities were killed, 1,536 injured, seven abducted and 19 raped, while 62 pieces of land and 40 houses were grabbed, 1,013 properties and 390 temples were attacked, and 889 idols damaged or destroyed. It should be pointed out that the victims were mostly Hindus, but also included Christians, Buddhists, and Shia and Ahmadiyya adherents. Minority organisations report numbers that are understandably higher.

A large number of minorities have felt compelled to leave the country. According to the official census reports published by the government, in the 1951 census (i.e., after the early exodus forced by the Partition), Hindus were 22 percent of the population of East Pakistan. By 1961 it had come down to 18.5 percent, by 1971 to 13.5 percent, by 1991 to 10.5 percent and by 2011 to 8.5 percent. Some of this may be partly explained by economic and family factors, but it would be quite implausible to deny that the atmosphere of threat and vulnerability they faced did not contribute to this migration.

Third, these groups have also been successful in creating an intimidating environment that has caused a “chilling effect” on free speech. They have assassinated secular and atheist writers and bloggers, attacked teachers and editors, and threatened artists and performers on the pretext that their religious sentiments and sensibilities had been hurt or offended. Even the suspicion or accusation that someone had done so may lead a Hindu principal of a school to be forced to do sit-ups in front of an entire assembly of students and citizens, or a person being burned to death.

The Digital Security Act vastly expanded the arsenal of weapons available to the politically or religiously hyper-sensitive. With its sweeping generalities and lack of clarity about the meaning of “religious sentiments” or what constitutes being “hurt” or “offended”, legal harassment was added to public humiliation and physical attacks as a relatively safe and seductive tool in the service of intellectual and religious intolerance.

It must be pointed out that the most serious and worrisome challenges to our democracy do not come from wild-eyed, bomb-throwing fanatics who can attack a cultural programme celebrating the Bengali New Year’s Day and kill 10 people (April 14, 2001), cause more than 400 simultaneous explosions in 63 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh (August 17, 2005), or slaughter 28 people, including 17 foreigners in an upscale Dhaka restaurant (July 1, 2016). These are dramatic and dangerous manifestations of Jihadi militancy. But, they can be, and have been, largely contained. The much greater threat, more insidious and more far-reaching in its consequences, is the creeping advance of religionists in the country through a process that has been deliberate, organised and strategic.

It must be emphasised that there is a distinction between the concepts of being “religious” and becoming a “religionist”. The first refers to a commitment to personal piety, rigorous practice and spiritual salvation, the second indicates an interest in attaining political power, dictating government policy and dominating the public discourse. The first is perfectly compatible with secularism, can embrace modernity and scientific progress, and peacefully co-exist with other faiths and persuasions. The second is skeptical of science, judgmental about other faiths, and ready to retaliate against any questions about their own. Secularism is integral to, and a precondition for, democracy, while religionist absolutism is a threat.

This does not mean that secularism automatically ensures democracy. History is replete with examples of very secular authorities being cruelly illiberal and authoritarian. This only refers to the fact that unless there is tolerance for other ideas, respect for other faiths, acceptance of questions and criticisms, openness to science and evidence-based enquiry, trust of the will of the people (and not merely the assertions of dogmatic clerics) to make right decisions and judgments, and a strict separation between the private sphere of individual faith and the public space for civic engagement—unless these “secular” values and practices are upheld, democracy cannot be sustained.

The secularist argument, hence democracy itself, has been under considerable stress. The anxieties and uncertainties created by technology and global dislocations, the increasing inequalities everywhere, world-wide conflict particularly the instabilities in the Middle East (and the feeling that Islam is under siege), and the corruptions and inefficiencies in so many countries, have all contributed to a widespread skepticism about the West, a hostility to its traditions and examples, and a turning inward among Muslims.

Reinforcing this anti-secular backlash here has been India’s unfair and selfish pursuit of its interest (in relation to Bangladesh), and the increasing bigotry and viciousness it has displayed against Muslims. Moreover, financial patronage and Salafi indoctrination flowing in from Arab countries provided support and direction to the religionists. Finally, the stereotypical dismissal of religious people as backward, misogynist, violent, one-dimensional and unpatriotic has been arrogant, counter-productive and polarising. Instead of helping the cause of secularism and democracy, it has only strengthened its enemies.

But, more importantly, the leaders of supposedly secular parties in Bangladesh have probably been complicit in creating this Frankenstein. It is not a question of apportioning blame, as the parties are now childishly doing. Almost all parties had probably tended to this poisonous plant (perhaps some more readily than others), and helped it to flourish through compromise and accommodation.

It may be argued that compromise is part of the democratic process, and hence should be supported. But compromising what, and with whom, is relevant. This was the fatal fallacy of the (in)famous policies of “appeasement” pursued by the Allied powers in dealing with Hitler. Throughout the 1930s he consistently violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles—building his armed forces, remilitarising the Rhineland, stopping reparation payments, reuniting with Austria through the Anschluss, and finally claiming the Sudetanland (at that time a province of Czechoslovakia). The Allied Powers, desperate to “secure peace for our time” once again, gave in. Hitler not only occupied the province, but the entire country. And then he demanded Poland, and invaded it in 1939. World War II, preventable earlier, became inevitable.

“Appeasement” was destined to fail. To a bully, a compromise is a capitulation. It does not make the problem disappear, it only encourages the next demand. The religionists kept on steadily advancing their agenda (affecting the constitution, education, public policy, free speech, etc). The parties in power did not confront them. In this sense, our “Sudetanland moment” was perhaps the removal of the Lady Justice statue from the High Court premises. That crucial “victory” may have paved the way for the unimaginable and unforgiveable audacity of the religionists in defacing Bangabandhu’s sculpture in Kushtia, and demanding that none others be built.

If we care for Bangabandhu, the spirit of our Liberation War, our obligation to our own constitutional principles, and our commitment to democracy, we must be bold, decisive and resolute to protect secularism in order to consolidate democracy. A Faustian bargain with the religionists may provide political gains that are illusory and temporary, but moral losses that are substantive and permanent. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who forsake their constitution for the sake of power, deserve neither.

Dr. Ahrar Ahmad is Professor Emeritus at Black Hills State University, USA.