What does it mean to be a secular nation?
A glance through any book written about Bangladesh would inform readers that ours is a secular nation, comprising of many religions and ethnicities living in harmony.
Additionally, you would also learn that Bangladeshis celebrate festivals and rituals with equal fervour, regardless of religion or culture. This is what every primary school student in the country is taught from a very young age.
But as those children grow up, they start to realize that perhaps things aren’t as ideal as they were taught. And this applies especially to children from religious minorities.
As these children grow up and learn more about the inner workings of the state, they come to know that Bangladesh has a “state religion” despite claiming to be secular. They also come to know that the constitution of Bangladesh begins with a religious phrase.
Religious minorities in Bangladesh are doomed to struggle every step of the way. Whenever a puja rolls around, you are most definitely going to read about broken idols and sectarian violence. If that was not bad enough, these incidents have been used in the political machinations of some of our less-than-noble politicians since the beginning of time.
The two political parties blame each other, but nobody ever really does anything to stop these incidents.
There are far subtler ways that the system in Bangladesh works to ostracize religious minorities. Just take a look at the academic calendars of leading private universities. How many of them offer holidays during Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in Bengal? Not many. Imagine not getting holidays on Eid. Sounds crazy, right?
If Bangladesh is so tolerant, liberal, and secular, I wonder why the idea of not getting holidays on the days of Durga Puja is not just as crazy as that. That being said, there are some private universities which offer religious holidays along with government ones.
The marginalization does not end there.
Much has been said about the toxic online culture that has been growing in Bangladesh. Perhaps the biggest targets of such behaviour are religious minorities.
If you look at any news article related to pujas or other festivals, you are more than likely to find at least one comment that is toxic or hateful, even borderline extremist.
This especially extends to pages of celebrities who are religious minorities. While the Digital Security Act has been heavily criticized for its potential silencing of opinions, hopefully, it will discourage people from spreading hate online in Bangladesh.
The number of Hindus in Bangladesh have steadily declined since 1971. This is not only sad but shocking, given the rise of the population in that time period. It is unacceptable that in a country supposedly founded on the principle of equality that religious minorities would be treated in such terrible ways.
I’d like to tell you that it is not all doom and gloom, but in reality, that is what it looks like. Sure, there are places in the country where people are celebrating every religious festival together in harmony and sharing in that happiness, but there are serious problems which persist, and they need to be addressed both from the top level and the grassroots.
Otherwise, we will end up with a religiously homogenous state with an identity crisis.
Nibir Mostafa Khan is an intern at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
First published on Dhaka Tribune