“We, the people of Bangladesh, having proclaimed our independence on the 26th day of March, 1971 and through a historic struggle for national liberation, established the independent, sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh; Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution.” (1) – The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Although secularism is one of the four founding pillars of the constitution of Bangladesh, the recent attacks on the Buddhist and Hindu minorities make us question its practice in reality. As I write this piece, reportedly 19 Buddhist and Hindu temples and more than 100 houses have been looted, vandalized and torched in Ramu, Patia, Teknaf and Ukhia of Chittagong over the last two days by religious fanatics, allegedly because a Buddhist man was ‘tagged’ in an Islam-insulting Facebook photo by an unidentified person. Following the rampage, Section 144 was imposed in Cox’s Bazaar’s Ramu Upazila, prohibiting assemblies of more than five people in the concerned areas. (2) I was just recovering from the trauma of the recent attacks in my hometown of Rangamati that took place on 22-23 September 2012; where also Section 144 had to be declared.
Apparently this was yet another planned attack on minorities – who also happen to be indigenous peoples – where some 50 were wounded and property that predominantly belonged to indigenous people were vandalised. Locals present at the events reported that Bengali mobs were not stopped by security personnel in the areas. Indigenous groups who were patrolling their own localities for securing their boundaries and properties were dispersed by the security personnel, leading to the Bengali mob advancing into the indigenous localities. It is to be noted that the Right to Private Defence is sanctioned by the laws of Bangladesh, including the Bangladesh Penal Code.
This was not the first attack on the religious minorities this year. Earlier on 9-10 February several Hindu temples were vandalised and torched following which the authorities had clamped Section 144.
It is noteworthy that in all the above mentioned cases the authorities only took action after significant damage was caused. Where were the tear-gas shells and the police barricades when the temples and houses were burning in Ramu? Oh wait; the police were probably busy charging batons on the leaders and activists of the oil, gas committee on Sunday (3) while our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was attending the 67th Session of United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. The fire service men did not show up in any of these arson attacked areas till much much later.
All these incidents bring out various questions that remain to be answered. Have the administration and law enforcers continuously failed to protect the religious and ethnic minorities from violent attacks, or they have been deliberately indifferent about these attacks?
According to a recent report published by a local daily, the Hindu population in the country has reduced by 900,000 between 2001-2011. (4) Wonder why? The religious and ethnic minorities of Bangladesh – constituting less than 10 percent of the total population (5) – have been facing continuous attacks by a small group of Bengali Muslims, who most often are granted impunity on political or other grounds. The reality is that the minorities of democratic secular Bangladesh do not feel safe. At least not anymore. They have developed mistrust on the system of governance from experiencing decades of injustice.
The historical event of ‘71 happened because of the silence of the good people from the then West Pakistan. To this day, many of us still detest those Pakistanis, because they watched us suffer and did nothing to stop the brutalities that were perpetrated on their fellow citizens by the Pakistan Army and its cohorts. As Napoleon said, “The world suffers a lot not because of the violence of the bad people, But because of the silence of the good people.”
The majority population of Bangladesh may not be responsible for the recent attacks, but they cannot avoid the responsibility for the suffering being caused by these attacks. We are collectively responsible for actions that our fellow citizens and our government take or do not take to ensure the basic rights of fellow Bangladeshis.
As citizens of Bangladesh it is your and my responsibility to participate in the political and social processes of our country, to actively take part in processions, petitions, dialogues, forums, blogs and other forms of advocacy in order to create mass pressure on our administration bodies and mainstream media into taking action to protect our rights. It is your and my responsibility to look up and educate ourselves about the history of our country and shape its future. You and I are responsible for our own ignorance. There will be no secularism or diversity in Bangladesh if we do not protect our minorities.
Because simply being good is not good enough.
Trimita Chakma is a member of Kapaeeng Foundation, A Human Rights Organisation for Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh.
Footnotes: (1)Website, Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/pdf_part.php?id=367 (2)http://bdnews24.com/details.php?cid=2&id=218015 (3)http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/latest_news.php?nid=41272 (4)http://www.prothom-alo.com/detail/date/2012-09-22/news/291536 (5)BBS, Census 2011
*This piece of originally published on 1 Oct 2012 in bdnews24.com: http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2012/10/01/secular-democracy-in-bangladesh-a-failure-or-a-sham/