For the past week, media has been going gaga on how Dhaka attacks are an abomination on Bangladesh’s otherwise secular culture. In fact, Bangladeshi secularism is nothing short of a fib of gigantic proportions. Born as a result of the flawed Two nation theory, Bangladesh and its precursor, East Pakistan have both systematically sought to eliminate the non-Muslim minorities that were once pervasive in that region.
Between 1947 and now, the proportion of Hindus in the region now called Bangladesh has dropped precipitously from nearly a quarter of the population to less than 8%. The fact is that successive Bangladeshi governments have done nothing to safeguard the rights of minorities in the country. For years, extremists have targeted the minorities to rid the nation of their supposedly baleful influence. Now that the minorities are no more, these extremists have turned on Muslim Bangladeshis to quench their thirst for blood. Over the last few years, in addition to the Hindus, Islamic radicals have targeted atheists, LGBT activists, and secular politicians among others.
The government of Bangladesh, after every attack has expressed its helplessness in dealing with the deteriorating situation and has done nothing more than wring its hands anxiously, while firmly denying the evident hand of ISIS. In line with the old adage, Bangladesh today is reaping what it has sown in the preceding decades.
While it is the partition of Punjab that is most talked about in academic and literary circles, Bengal too was convulsed with violence and bloodshed at the time of partition. The great Calcutta killings of 1946, where zealot Muslim leaguers massacred Hindus in wholesale and the violence in Noakhali, where Hindu villages were burnt, Hindu women were abducted and Hindu men were forcibly converted stand out as incidents when the Muslim identity of Bengalis triumphed over their supposedly secular ethos.
Even after independence, there was no attempt from East Pakistani Muslims to stem the tide of Hindus who were fleeing to India in droves. Fortunately, the Bengali language movement united the Hindus and Muslims against a common Urdu speaking enemy and thus shifted the focus from the pervasive anti-Hindu sentiments in the country. Even so, Media lampooned Hindus for causing disorder and unrest. As a result, Hindus continued to leave East Pakistan for India. By the time East Pakistan rose up in revolt against Pakistan, the proportion of Hindus in the population had fallen to nearly 15%. During the Bangladesh Liberation war, it was the Hindus who suffered disproportionately.
Of the 30 Lakh Bangladeshis that were massacred by the Pakistani army, 24 lakh were Hindus. As many as 70% of Bangladesh’s pre-war Hindu population was forced to seek refuge in India. The Hindu citizens of Bangladesh rejoiced when Bangladesh was declared to be a secular nation. While outwardly, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman shared the grief of Hindus, he laid the foundation of many policies which would be used by Islamic extremists to decimate Bangladesh’s minorities.
Secular Bangladesh that was born in the aftermath of the mammoth struggle against the Pakistanis used provisions of the detested Enemy Properties Act to divest Hindus of their properties.
It is now proven that the biggest beneficiary of Hindu properties was Mujib’s Awami League party. Even with his supposed devotion to Secularism, Mujib did not allow re-building of Dhaka’s most important temple-The Ramna Kali mandir that had been demolished by the Pakistani army. Most Bangladeshi Hindu refugees chose to stay back in India rather than returning to Bangladesh.
Soon, their fellow religionists would join them. Mujib also began moving towards political Islam, banning gambling and alcohol and giving up his trademark ‘Joy Bangla’ for the Islamic ‘Khuda Hafez’. While Mujib was at least outwardly an avowed Secularist, leaders who followed him chose to hobnob with Islamists who had supported the Pakistani army in its rape of Bangladesh. President Ziaur Rahman removed the principle of secularism from the constitution, calling instead for ‘absolute trust and faith in almighty allah’. Zia in fact lifted the ban on the hated Pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami and allowed it to regroup and contest elections. Zia also defined Bangladeshi nationalism in a way that made belief in Islam a key element of Bangladeshi nationalism.
In 1988, Secularism in Bangladesh was further dented when President Ershad declared Islam to be the state religion of Bangladesh. While there were protests and intellectual discussions on this, no mainstream Bangladeshi party sought to undo the change immediately. Hundreds of Hindus were killed and their temples desecrated in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya. Once again, Bengali Muslim identity had trumped the secular Bangladeshi culture.
In the 90s, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Ziaur Rahman’s widow, Khaleda Zia allied itself with the Jamaat and other radical Islamic extremists and furthered an anti-Hindu climate in the country. In one of her speeches, she declared that the country risked seeing the Islamic Azaan replaced by the Hindu Uludhwani. Incidentally, Khaleda Zia had served as the Prime Minister of the country previously. When she returned to power later, supporters of BNP and Islamic parties unleashed a campaign of terror against the Hindus.
Additionally, since most Hindus support the outwardly secular Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, they are targeted by the BNP and Islamic parties. The aim of BNP and the Islamists is to force the Hindus to flee so that they can dent Awami League’s vote bank. Even with their dwindling population, Bangladeshi Hindus hold sway over at least 20-25 seats. For this reason, Bangladesh Hindus are frequently portrayed as Indian agents and as being disloyal to Bangladesh. This is turn is used by vested elements to whip up riots and direct violence against Hindus. Even hangings of Quislings of Bangladesh Liberation war have resulted in violence against Hindus. Even after years of litigation, the status of secularism in Bangladesh remains unclear. One need only look at the minorities to decide whether Bangladesh is secular or not. Overwhelmingly, minorities have voted with their feet and settled the question of secularism in Bangladesh once and for all.
Over the last couple of years or so, the intensity of attacks against Hindus and other minorities have picked up. One reason for this is political. Ever since the 2014 elections that were boycotted by the opposition, BNP has resorted to violence to dent the image of Awami League government. The other major reason is the flourishing of salafi madrassas funded by Saudi money. These madrassas are pumping out radicalized youth as never before. Instead of actively countering their malignant influence, Bangladeshi government is turning a blind eye to them to appease the extremists.
The results of this disastrous policy are already evident. Less than a week after Dhaka attacks, Islamic terrorists have attacked an Eid congregation outside Dhaka. Every day reports of Hindu priests, laypeople, Buddhist monks and others being brutally killed are surfacing. It is in the interest of Bangladesh’s government to actively combat the Islamic radicals and enlist public’s support to prove its commitment to secularism. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that once the radicals are done forcing the minorities to flee, they will unleash a bloodbath by turning on the Muslims.