Message from Bangladesh

What happens in India has a strong ripple effect throughout South Asia

While the Thackeray arrest drama unfolded in Mumbai in the latter half of July, I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was very interesting to watch the episode from a distance, to see how others looked at the event and our city. The entire affair was widely covered in the Bangladeshi newspapers. Their interest in Thackeray is because of his role in the Mumbai riots, the response of the Indian State and the judiciary to it, and also because of his campaign for the deportation of poor Bangladeshis in Mumbai. Many Bangladeshis maintained that the poor Muslims being hounded by Thackeray are not from Bangladesh but from West Bengal.

Talking to social activists, lawyers and others, it was evident the Bangladeshis were showing such keen interest in the entire Thackeray drama as they are also engaged in similar battles in their own country.

The Mumbai riots of 1992–1993 that claimed almost a 1000 lives, is a matter of concern not just for Indians but to all those in South Asia who stand for amity and peaceful co–existence between Hindus and Muslims. If in India all thinking citizens are deeply concerned about the religious intolerance towards minorities and contempt for the rule of law by the religious right wing and extremist Hindu groups, in Bangladesh, too, they are concerned about similar intolerance of the Muslim right wing and extremist groups. In both the countries such groups are trying to occupy the democratic space by taking a religious and moral high ground. Religion is being used for political purposes. This is creating unease in the common and educated people.

During my weeklong stay I was to learn how what happens in India has a strong ripple effect throughout South Asia. People asked me many questions about the Mumbai riots and what happened to a city known for its cosmopolitan nature? I could tell them about my own experience of the Mumbai riots as I was on the streets and in slum colonies that were the scene of much bloodletting.

As I shared my experience they, too, spoke of what happened in Bangladesh after the Babri masjid demolition. I was keen to know the reality of Bangladesh as Taslima Nasreen’s novel Lajja had caused such sensation in both the countries. Those I met were at pains to help me to understand both the issues — the persecution of Hindus and Lajja — from their viewpoint.

A large number of Bangladeshi women activists and human rights activists feel quite differently about Taslima Nasreen than how we look at her in India. Sukumar Biswas, who works with Bangla Academy, wanted me to let Indians know that "Lajja is a fiction although based on facts. But it is also an old story happening since 1947. It is provocative and has ill–served the cause of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. It is shameful for a long cultural tradition of India to uphold Taslima Nasreen".

Without exception, those I talked to told me about the anti–Hindu riots in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri masjid. Yes, it was true that hundreds of temples and homes and business establishments of Hindus were destroyed and rape of women reported. Many told how ashamed they were of what happened and were concerned by this new religious intolerance which has been on the increase. Although it was true that there were Hindu–Muslim riots before partition in Calcutta and Noakhali, in the subsequent decades there was marked absence of these in East Pakistan and later Bangladesh.


My Bangladeshi friends saw a direct co–relation between usurping of democratic institutions by the ruling class and increasing human rights violations and persecution of minorities by the religious extremists. The religious extremists in both the countries are using the ‘Religion in danger’ slogan as a bogie and an excuse for spreading intolerance and thrusting their own brand of narrow religious belief.

One person told me that Bangladesh could be called an industry of fatwas, as all kinds of fatwas are being issued all the time. Most women and human rights activists have stopped taking these fatwas seriously. They just ignore them and get on with their work.

I visited Sylhet. My local host, Supriyo Chakraborty, gave me a brief history of Sylhet. During British rule, Sylhet produced the largest number of educated people. They occupied high posts in government as well as in educational institutions. The British took many of them to Assam. At one time it was part of Assam.

Sylhet was the only district in Bengal and Assam to have a referendum for people to decide if they wished to join Pakistan or India. The scheduled castes voted for Pakistan under the lure of ministerships and government posts. But the Assamese also did not want this Bengali majority district to merge with Assam for fear that Bengalis would become dominant in Assam.

The referendum resulted in Sylhet becoming part of East Pakistan. A large number of Hindus left after 1947, turning Sylhet from a Hindu majority to a minority Hindu province. Across the border from Sylhet is the Karimganj district of Assam.

Today Sylhet has become the centre of Islamic religious extremism. In recent years most controversial fatwas have been issued from this town, including the one against the writer, Taslima Nasreen. In the post-Babri demolition riots Sylhet town and district saw much vandalism against Hindu property and religious places. I met several victims of that riot. These Hindus still carry deep psychological scars and feel insecure. It is worth our noting what they feel and live through, as in India we have a moral responsibility to ensure that our actions do not put to risk the life and property of the Hindu minorities in countries across our borders and cause forced migrations.

As I listened to the accounts of Hindus from Sylhet, I felt as if I was listening to the account of the Mumbai riots. In many places Hindu properties were attacked and damaged in the presence of the police who did nothing. In some cases police were contacted and help sought but the police arrived too late — after the damage was done. In many localities, Muslim neighbours stayed indoors out of fear when the attackers came. If the government won’t protect the life and property of the innocent people and the minorities who else would?

Were there no examples of Hindu lives, homes, businesses or temples being protected and saved from attackers? Yes, in Sylhet and in Dhaka, I came across several examples of these. Muslim neighbours sheltered Hindu families in their homes for days. In other cases, neighbourhoods prevented outside attackers from entering their localities.

There were also instances of police officers taking prompt action and individual politicians protecting Hindus and organising relief for the riot victims. Scores of intellectuals condemned the attacks on the Hindu minority. My hostess in Dhaka herself had one Hindu family staying with her for a week. She received threats at the time but simply ignored them.

Every Hindu I met told me how they had a choice — in 1947 and in 1971 — to stay or to leave. They chose to stay with the deep conviction that they belonged there and had fought along with their Muslim brethren during the Bangladesh liberation war. Why were they being persecuted and discriminated now? Where can they go? What will be the future of their children?

I thought of many Muslims in Mumbai who had uttered similar words of despair after the Mumbai riots. I remembered Shabana Azmi telling me only recently how deeply hurt she had been at the time when she was called pro–Pakistani, a Pakistani agent, during the Mumbai riots. I remember her pain when she told me, "My father had a choice to go to Pakistan in 1947, but he chose to stay in India as they had fought for the freedom of India. Now I, the daughter of Kaifi Azmi, has to prove my loyalty to India."

These words of anguish of a proud Indian who never thought of herself as a Muslim but was made to feel that way for the first time, feels marked for life. Just as the Hindus of Bangladesh who shared a bond as Bengalis with their Muslim brethren but are today made to feel different and aliens in the land of their ancestors. This feeling of being under constant threat has caused a steady migration of Hindus from Bangladesh in recent years.

I was deeply moved by the fact that the justification for the most recent attack on the Hindus in Bangladesh was provided by events in India. I told many Bangladeshis how sorry I was that these tragedies in India had provoked persecution of the Hindu minority in their country. We have a responsibility as a Hindu majority in India to also ensure that our words and actions do not put lives of others at risk.

When I expressed these sentiments to my hostess Sultana Kamal in Sylhet, she responded with these words: "In any society the onus is on the majority to protect their minorities and make them feel secure. We cannot use happenings in India as an excuse to shirk from our own responsibility."

Sultana Kamal is very well known in Bangladesh for her work in the field of women’s rights and human rights and is a recipient of the prestigious Humphrey Award. She and her husband Supriyo have taken a consistent stand against injustice. Their house has been bombed twice and they constantly receive threats. But their spirit is undaunted.

Swami Chandranathnanda who is head of the Ramkrishna Mission in Sylhet told me, "Confrontation, hatred and enmity is very harmful to human beings. Politicians are constantly preaching it. Our mission preaches humanity. The crying need today is to have greater interaction between communities and to learn to live peacefully."

Will this new millennium change the trends in South Asia and make every minority feel safe and secure whichever country or region they happen to be in? We owe this to the future generations.

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 2000 Year 8  No. 63, Neighbours



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