[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Oct 2012 ; Dilip Simeon’s blog ; South Asia Citizen’s Web, 16 Oct 2012 ; The Friday Times (Lahore) October 19-25, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 36]
You lifted one fistful of salt
And an empire was shamed.
One fistful of rubble
And pour it on our shameless heads.
(written by Gopal Gandhi on 6 December 1992 – the day of Babri demolition)
On 29 September, in the Ramu area of the Cox’s Bazar district of the Republic of Bangladesh, an estimated 25000 strong crowd of people belonging to the majority religion destroyed 22 Buddhist temples and monasteries and 2 Hindu temples. The participants in this orgy of violence included, among others, many functionaries of 3 major political groups – the party in goverment Awami League, the main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. The purported ‘cause’ was the offence caused by a Facebook post – an absurd theme in an area with very poor internet reach. Also, the serious preparedness as exhibited by the modus operandi also suggests otherwise. It was clearly not simply a Rohingya response to the Buddhist-on-Muslim oppression in Burma. Ramu can be reached by the N1 highway after taking a right from Feni. Feni is not too far away from Noakhali, where in 1946, in my opinion, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi got closest to some of the ideals he talked about.
When the British administered areas of the subcontinent were partitioned amidst massive violence, a popular conception was blown to smithereens. That was the twisted idea that minorities in partitioned area would be akin to collaterals that would ensure peace and safety of life and property. This would be as follows – Hindus in East Bengal would be safe because attacks on them would risk retribution on Muslims in West Bengal and other areas were Muslims were minorities. In Punjab, a near-complete ‘population exchange’ was conducted with millions of lives being paid as a price of that politico-demographic barter. With clinical efficiency, ethnic cleansing happened in Sindh, Rajputana and the Punjab. No sizeable minority remained in the post-partition areas. Those who were left were at the mercy of the majority, sections of whom have periodically shown immense mercilessness ever since.
The story of the eastern partition was somewhat different. Here, the second partition of Bengal was incomplete and haphazard. Even, mass uprooting and forced migrations of people, sizeable minorities remained in West and East Bengal. However, there was a certain asymmetry in these migrations. Many more migrated from East Bengal to West Bengal than in the opposite direction, indicating, among other things, the difference in security and threat-perception of minorities in the two adjacent Bengals. In fact, this is the long partition, for this migration of persecuted minorities from the East to the West continues up until this day. East Bengal ( in its East Pakistan and present Bangladesh avatars) has recorded a continuous decade on decade decrease in the percentage of its Hindu and Buddhist minority population. This ought to be a matter of shame to any state. The deeper tragedy lies in that the Liberation war of 1971 was also believed by many to be a triumph of secularist forces against the forces of religion-based politics. This is a matter of particular shame to the present avatar of the East Bengal state, Bangladesh because it was founded by defeating currents that denied human rights to minorities. In the run up to 71, sectarian hounds of the majority religion brutalized the populace indiscriminately – Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Such a trial by fire, like the one that Germany had during the 1940s ought to act as a bulwark against the socio-political legitimacy of majoritarian oppression of this grade. Unfortunately, this has not happened.
From the long saga of second-class treatment of Hindu and Buddhist refugees from East Bengal by the government of the Indian Union vis-à-vis its treatment of refugees from West Punjab to the present day denial of citizenship to persecuted Bengali refugees fleeing the Republic of Bangladesh, this story of a long-unfolding and relatively unsung humanitarian crisis has not engaged the attention of the Subcontintent as it should have.
Valiant people like the famous Shahriar Kabir and the lesser known National Awami Party functionary Shamim Osman Bhulu, both belonging to the majority community of East Bengal have toiled hard, often risking their own lives, to protect the minorities and uphold the values of 71. It is love for one’s land and basic humanity that makes people do these things. A plural ethos takes time to build, and is even harder to rebuild. Humanity in some can be very hard to kill. But they are powerless in front of a crowd of 25000, a constitution that discriminates and a state that is apathetic to the plight of the minorities, at best.
The Nehru-Liaquat pact in the wake of the 1950 massacre of minorities in East Bengal, especially in Dhaka and Barisal, was supposed to develop a framework that would safety and security to minorities in Pakistan and the Indian Union. The Government of India deserted the cause of the minorities of East Pakistan soon after. It was only much later in 1970, when tens of millions of refugees, mostly of minority religions, arrived in West Bengal and Tripura to save themselves from selective extermination in East Pakistan, that the Government of India planned a response that suited its geo-political interests. I mention this because few of the wrongs that were done to the minorities of East Bengal during the Pakistan period were reversed. The famous Ramna Kali temple that dominated the skyline of Dhaka at the time was bull-dozed to the ground by the Pakistan army. Lamentations notwithstanding, successive governments of the Bangladesh republic, 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. As of 1997, through various version of the Enemy property act, 1.64 million acres (6640 square kilometers) of land owned by Hindus have been forcibly taken over since 1948, with a large portion of the usurpation happening after 1971. The amount of land translates into 5.3% of the total land area of the Republic of Bangladesh that is equivalent to 53% of the total proprietary land of the Hindus, affecting 4 out of every 10 Hindu households. Most of the land was snatched between 1972 and 1980. This was the result of pain-staking research by Professor Abul Barkat of University of Dhaka. He also showed that the largest proportions of the snatched away lands were with those affiliated to the ‘secular’ party Awami League.
The subcontinent, divided the nation-state, each of them of confessional character, explicitly or implicitly, is a tinderbox that is never too far from explosion. What happens in one nation-state exacts a heavy price in another. The destruction of the Babri mosque structure in Ayodhya and the anti-Muslim rioting in Mumbai led to anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh with many temples destroyed. This was the old theory of mutually assured violence prevention in the post-partition nation-states turned on its head. This was not the first time either. That is why, when one sees the perpetrators of anti-Muslim rioting in the Indian Union 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-state of the Indian subcontinent, but by making sure that all the butchers of Gujarat 2002 and Mumbai 1992 are prosecuted to the last man and woman, if need be by extra-ordinary judicial commissions, one gains the moral right to condemn the brutalization of minorities in the Republic of Bangladesh. If one believes that his or her faith is one of love, they might do well to dwell on what Cornel West said, that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’
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 broken by others. The voices of the Shahriar Kabirs of the world are strengthened by those of the Teesta Setalvads and Ansar Burneys of the world. The subcontinental walls are designed to shut-out voices of despair and voices of hope, voices that sound much akin to ours. Asian Dub Foundation, that trans-subcontinental band had given an important message to all of us, way back in 2003 – Keep Bangin’ on the Walls.