Last month, in the Ramu area of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (PRB), a large crowd of the majority religionists destroyed 24 Buddhist and Hindu temples. The crowd included many functionaries of three major political groups – Awami League, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami. Thus, it was not simply a Rohingya response to the Buddhist-on-Muslim oppression in Burma.
When British India was partitioned amidst massive violence, the conception of mutually assured security – that minorities would be safe because attacks on them would risk retribution by their majority co-religionists elsewhere — was blown to smithereens. Macabre minority-less zones were created in vast stretches of the Punjab, Sindh and Rajputana. In Bengal, the story was different. Except events in Kolkata, Noakhali and Barisal, mass-blood letting was not as prominent as feature as it was in the west. But there was migration of epic proportions – with more Hindus moving into the Indian Union than Muslims moving to Pakistan. This, in part, indicated the difference in security and threat-perception of minorities. The migration of persecuted minorities from East to West Bengal still continues. East Bengal (as East Pakistan and later PRB ) has recorded a continuous decade on decade decrease in the percentage of its Hindu and Buddhist minority population since 1951 – a matter of no small shame.
This is especially tragic because the Liberation war of 1971 was also believed by many to be a triumph of secularist forces against the forces of religion-based politics. Valiant people like the famous Shahriar Kabir and the lesser known Shamim Osman Bhulu, both belonging to the majority community of East Bengal, have often risked their own lives to protect the minorities and uphold the values of ‘71. But they are powerless in front of a crowd of 25,000, a constitution that discriminates and a state that is apathetic to the plight of the minorities, at best.
The large-scale anti-minority riots of 1950 in East Bengal partly prompted the Indian government to develop a framework that would safety and security to minorities in Pakistan and India. The resulting Nehru-Liaquat pact remained only in paper. Later in 1970-71, tens of millions of refugees, mostly of minority religions, arrived in West Bengal and Tripura to escape selective extermination in East Pakistan. The famous Ramna Kali temple that dominated the skyline of Dhaka then was bull-dozed to the ground by the Pakistan army. Lamentations notwithstanding, successive governments of Bangladesh, secular or not, elected or dictatorial, have not rebuilt it.
However, the worst point of minority persecution comes through the destruction of their economic means and homestead. Painstaking research by Professor Abu Barkat of Dhaka University has shown that as of 1997, through various version sof the Enemy Property Act, 53% of the land owned by Hindus has been forcibly taken over, most of it between 1972 and 1980. This has affected 4 out of every 10 Hindu households. The largest beneficiary of these illegally dispossessed lands were those affiliated to the ‘secular’ party Awami League, followed by BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami.
The subcontinent is a tinderbox that is never too far from explosion. What happens in one nation exacts a heavy price in another. The destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and the anti-Muslim rioting in Mumbai led to anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh with many temples destroyed. Mutually-assured protection has degenerated into mutually-assured violence prevention in these times. That is why, when one sees the perpetrators of anti-Muslim rioting in India shedding copious tears about the state of minorities in the Republic of Bangladesh, it is important to call out their dangerous game of cynical and selective concern for minority rights.
The solutions to peace do not reside in any one nation of the subcontinent. By trying to ensure that all the butchers of Gujarat 2002 and Mumbai 1992 are prosecuted to the last man and woman, one gains the moral right to condemn the brutalization of minorities in the Republic of Bangladesh. Certain followers of Ram want the Ramna rebuilt and Ramu violence condemned, while maintaining silence on the rubble at Ayodhya. This silence needs to be exposed and broken. The many big and small Shahriar Kabirs and Shamim Osman Bhulu’s of East Bengal want us to break the silence.
Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral scholar,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology