Shuddhashar expresses its deep concerns about reports that Hindu temples, establishments, and Puja venues are subjected to vandalism in Bangladesh during the ongoing Durga Puja festival. Local news media reports that as many as four people were killed and hundreds were injured in the clashes between the rioters and the police. The situation remains volatile and has left an indelible scar on Bangladesh’s reputation of fostering a tolerant society.
South Asia has a troubled history in maintaining inter-faith harmony. Like most past outbreaks of communal violence, the most recent one in Bangladesh occurred after accusations of blasphemy were levelled against the organisers of a Puja festival in the town of Cumilla. Social media company Facebook played its usual role in first providing the perfect platform to hurl these accusations and later amplifying them — resulting in the destruction of scores of temples, minority-owned businesses, and Puja venues across the country.
Though often claimed as an outpouring of legitimate grievances against an act of sacrilege, these violent protests are initiated and sustained by political actors with a particular political goal in mind. In a police state like Bangladesh, where this-worldly aspirations regularly get trampled under the juggernaut of brute force, sacred fires are often lit to repel this force, even if it requires offering the innocent as sacrifices. Sometimes the police state itself sacrifices its most vulnerable minority subjects as peace offerings — to placate the wrath of the majority. It is at the constellation of these two acts that this festive period has turned into a paroxysm of fury.
The Hindu community has long been regarded as a loyal block of voters — ‘Votebank’ in South Asian political parlance — for the ruling Awami League. With Bangladesh hurtling towards a full-blown dictatorship under Awami rule, every public symbol of its rule arouses contempt in many laities. To a large section of Bangladeshi Muslims disillusioned with the Awami League, the Hindus and other minority religious groups epitomise Awami rule. To them, these minorities symbolise the tyranny of a party despised by the majority. Hindus are identified as cohorts of the ruling party, as foreign agents of the neighbouring Hindu state India, which has effectively turned Bangladesh into one of its satellite states.
Awami League’s ambivalence towards the plight of the minorities should be understood against the backdrop of two successive rigged parliamentary elections. Electoral fraud on a massive scale that allowed the Awami League to cling onto power has rendered its ‘minority Votebank’ irrelevant. In other words, the Awami League no longer requires the minority votes to stay in power. The minorities can no longer count on the Awami League to come to their rescue. In recent years, Awami League leaders and party activists have been implicated in most cases of communal violence directed against minority religious communities. On the one hand, religious and ethnic minorities are being driven out of their homes, and their lands are being invaded by land grabbers. On the other hand, non-religious minorities and sexual minorities are hounded down by religious fanatics, sentenced to prison by state authorities, or forced into exile.
A pall of impunity has blanketed the political landscape of Bangladesh. For it to be lifted, a systematic change is warranted. Unfortunately, democratic culture and a pluralist society essential to bring about this change have been vitiated by the rise of demagoguery. To defeat the scourge of communal violence, we believe Bangladesh needs to rediscover her democratic and pluralistic ethos and shed herself of all the authoritarian accoutrements of the past decades. Nurturing pluralism, fostering interfaith solidarity, and mounting a unified front against authoritarianism could be the first step towards that goal.