When there’s no secular state, there’s only discrimination and oppression

How democratised a society is can be judged by how it treats its minorities. From day one, Bangladesh has endeavored to be a secular and pluralist state – but concessions to various extremist forces have created a volatile situation in which the ambiguities of the state regarding its ruling principles are driving some very dangerous developments, writes activist Priyanka Bose.

December 17 2015 Text: Priyanka Bose

In Bangladesh the discrimination of minorities both religious and ethnic is both visible as well as hidden, but oppression is overt. While we see the state’s bias in the constitution and also in its reluctance to deal with offences against minorities, we sense that discrimination is evident. Besides, there has been quite a history of repulsion of the minorities in Bangladesh, which has resulted in a diminution of them. As a result of state and private practices upon the religious minorities, their numbers have decreased significantly over time. According to a recent publication by the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist and Christian Unity Council, in 1947 there were 29.7% religious minorities living in the newly established East Pakistan; in 1974, after the independence of 1971, this percentage dropped to 14.6%; and presently, only 9.6% of the population are minorities living in Bangladesh.

In independent Bangladesh this decrease in numbers is not a sudden phenomenon. Many infamous incidents, for example the continuation of the acquisition of enemy properties in the name of vested property, the 90’s Babri Masque aftermath, and for example the continuous pre and post electoral violence is responsible for such diminution. Another difference from the secularist era is that nowadays Bangladesh is mostly known as a moderate Muslim country. Its ambience is certainly a changed one. The former implied an equal existence for all, while the latter implies that other people are merely tolerated because in Bangladesh Muslims are moderate and they are letting people stay.

Even though cultural pluralism has been the key feature of the sub-continental social structure it suffered a mighty blow when the sub-continent was divided by the very controversial ‘Two Nations Theory.’ Consequentially the then East Pakistani people bitterly realized the fact that a nation cannot be formed only on the basis of religion, instead, proper democracy could be the ideal path. The 1971 liberation war was a realization of this fact. In the independent Bangladesh, the 1972 constitution contained all the democratic principles that were the basis of our morals in 1971, including secularism. However, this fabric was ruptured by the later rulers, and religion became a mighty weapon in their hands, a weapon which they utilized shrewdly in order to trick their subjects.

In 1977 General Ziaur Rahman passed a presidential decree that replaced the principle of secularism from the preamble of the constitution and in its place set the “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” claiming that it “shall be the basis of all action.” In his regime, a purely Islamic address ‘Bismillaher Rahmaner Rahim’ (in the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful) was also added at the head of the text of the constitution. If this was a mighty blow towards secularist notions in the 1972 constitution, on top of this General Hussein Muhammad Ershad later perpetuated religion-based politics by using Islam for leadership legitimation purposes by means of the insertion of state religion in the constitution in 1988. This caused a substantial damage to the secular character of the constitution putting the members of minority communities, that is, the Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians in an unequal position in relation to the Muslims.

With the annulment of the 5th Amendment of the constitution, the supreme law has, at least theoretically, gone back to the original constitution of 1972, which was formulated on four fundamental principles including secularism. But, in spite of the 15th Amendment, the true meaning of secularism during the early 70’s is yet to be introduced within the present context. This is evident from the presence of contradictory terms such as secularism as a state policy and Islam as a state religion.

A constitution is not only a legal document; it is also a political document. It signifies the political consensus of a citizenry and thus every word in it bears specific political connotations. If it is agreed upon  that secularism is interlinked with democracy and democracy, along with secularism and other principles, is the core of our liberationist zeal, then anyone will be bewildered by the presence of other contradictory wordings in the constitution. In Bangladeshi constitutional history, secularism has never meant profanity but an inferred prohibition for the state to grant political status by favoring any specific religion. But when the “state Religion Islam” clause is inserted in a political document like the constitution, it certainly has political implications. People with other religions are not the people of the “state religion,” and are they then seen to be denying the constitution by their respective religious beliefs? And, if anyone claims this what will be the consequence especially when the minority people cannot hide their religious identities? The connection between the secularism clause and the state religion clause in the Bangladeshi constitution is too vague to understand and which one is to prevail is quite uncertain. Here I need to refer some of the discriminatory events to a better understanding of the existing constitutional dichotomy in Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi government officially used to encourage forced conversion to Islam by giving incentives. As per B.D. government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs circular number 2/a-7/91-92 dated November 28, 1991, the new Muslims were paid cash doles through budgetary allocations in the name of so-called rehabilitation. The trend is still informally ongoing. The political parties, despite electoral promises written in election manifestos, failed to stand shoulder to shoulder with the minorities. Not a single political party has ever come forward for a cause of solidarity with the minorities. Instead of protecting the minorities, the government of Bangladesh has always tried to hide the whole gamut of torture, rape, and murder incidents behind a cloak of lies.

The right to own property is a human right that is recognized by Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 42 of the Constitution of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. The Enemy/Vested Property Acts is a group of legislation that denies Bangladeshi Hindus the right to own and enjoy property. The Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order II of 1965 was passed by the Pakistani government in order to acquire the properties that were left by the Hindus during the Indo-Pak war in the 1960s, thereby technically declaring the Hindus the enemies of their own motherland. The Indo-Pak war ended and so ended the regime of Pakistan in 1971, but the law continued to exist. In this process, the State became the owner of these vested properties and transferred a lot of these lands to private individuals. Formally, so far, approximately 2 million acres of land have been labeled vested property, and, informally, the total number is predicted to be closer to 10 million acres. In 2001, the government passed the Vested Property Return Act. However, it was not implemented until recently in 2011 when the government declared the establishment of two separate legal entities: a tribunal to return the properties owned by the government and a commission to return the privately owned properties. However, this has again resulted in complete chaos.

Soon after Independence in 1971 the remnants of the historical Ramna Kalibari, a sacred Hindu temple situated in Dhaka City, were unjustifiably demolished by the government, thereby curtailing the religious freedom of the Hindus even after Independence. These relics were the last symbol of this historical temple after the massive attack upon it by the Pakistani invaders in 1971. During the infamous incidents at Babri Mosque in India in December 1990 a communal riot demolished many Hindu temples. Many properties owned by the Hindus were looted and burned down. In December 1992 hundreds of temples were demolished, properties were looted, and Hindu women were raped and killed. The racial violence in December 1992 was the worst in terms of damage and destruction. Several months after the riot (1990-1992), in mid 1993, the BNP government issued two orders, which were interpreted as the official government policy of persecution of the religious minorities. First, the Home Ministry asked the commercial banks to control the withdrawals of substantial amounts of cash for account holders of the Hindu community and second, the commercial banks were asked to stop the disbursement of business loans to the Hindu community in the districts adjoining the India-Bangladesh border. 

The militant attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh escalated dramatically following the October 2001 general election that brought the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) to power in coalition with hard line Islamic parties. Following the elections, the BNP coalition and its supporters unleashed a large-scale campaign of violence targeting the Hindu community that lasted more than 150 days. A series of violent incidents against the Hindu minorities in different areas were reported. Systematic human rights violations encompassing for example forced evictions, rape, attacks against the places of worship, abductions, and forced conversions compelled many Hindus to flee from their homes. Nearly 200,000 Hindus were forced to move to safer places or to migrate to India as a direct consequence of post-election violence. A Catholic Church in Baniarchar of Gopalganj, 100 miles southwest of the capital Dhaka, was attacked by miscreants who exploded a bomb during prayer killing at least ten people and wounding twenty-five others. On September 29, 2012 there was the incident called the Ramu Buddha Mandir Tragedy, which was the result of propaganda by means of a fake Facebook ad and hate speeches against the Buddhists, which resulted in an attack against the Buddhist community at Ramu, Ukhiya, and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar all resulting in severe losses of statues of the Lord Buddha, ancient manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures, the collected holy Constituents of the Buddha, and other precious antiques. The 300 year-old monastry built of wood, Ramu Kendriya Seema Vihara, was ravaged totally and irretrievably damaged.

On the 28th of February 2013 the International Crimes Tribunal sentenced Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the Vice President of the Jammat-e-Islami, to death for the war crimes committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Following the sentence, activists of Jammat-e-Islami (fundamentalist political parties) and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir attacked Hindus in different parts of the country. Hindu properties were looted, Hindu houses were burnt to ashes, and Hindu temples were desecrated and set on fire. Earlier in 2014 post poll violence with communal agitation was similar to the scenes that had been observed during the elections: armed gangs attacked minority communities, mostly in the southwestern and northern districts, including Jessore, Satkhira, Thakurgaon, Panchagarh, Chittagong, Nilphamari, Kurgram, Lalmonirhat, Satkhira, Gaibandha, and Dinajpur. International aid agencies estimated that as many as 5,000 families were affected by this violence. The wave of violence against the Hindu community was unprecedented and thus heavily dis-heartening for the citizens of Bangladesh at large.

Minorities in Bangladesh have been victims of expulsion since the emergence of the state. From the discussion above it is evident that the state is reluctant to protect and promote its minorities. While current and past Bangladeshi governments have taken pains to note that the perpetrators were not government agents, they have been complicit nonetheless since they prosecute few and punish even fewer for these crimes.