Bangladesh is the only country seriously enforcing blasphemy laws and allowing for mob justice like Pakistan and Iran that is not designated by the US State Department as a Country of Particular Concern. In this interview we hear from Subrata Chowdhury, a Senior Attorney with the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in Dhaka on Bangladesh‟s promise of secularism.
Please give us a background of some of the issues in Bangladeshi laws that affect Hindus.
Before our liberation war in 1971, we were part of Pakistan. Pakistan consisted of two provinces, East Pakistan and West Pakistan. In 1971 there was a freedom struggle against the Pakistani occupiers. We liberated our country through a 9-month bloody war against the Pakistan regime.
We had a specific goal with our Liberation War at that time: 1) All people are equal in the country with regard to religion, sex creed, etc., 2) Social justice for all, 3) Human Dignity. After our freedom was achieved in 1971, we framed our constitution which we called „1972 Constitution.‟
In that constitution, we introduced four principles: 1) Secularism, 2) Democracy, 3) Socialism, and 4) Bengali Nationalism.
Constitution passed in the Parliament on November 4, 1972. Thereafter General H.M. Ershad took the power and introduce “Islam as” the state religion in the 8th amendment in 1988. The Awami League government reaffirmed the state religion in the constitution in 2011.
By the 15 amendment this is very unfortunate for the people of Bangladesh. We are very frustrated. From 2011 to present, with the present government, 3,600 occurrences of attacking Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians took place since 2015.
What started the violence during Durga Puja in Bangladesh this month?
What happened in Cumilla, in the southern part of Dhaka, there was an occurrence in a pandal where the Quran was placed by miscreants in the decoration of the pandal not the main pandal. The police took the Quran and showed it in Facebook Live and the Officer in Charge of that area was showing that Quran to the public. As a result, so many people were angry, so many people came to the area. The deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police also came to visit the mandap. They did not take any action or help anyone. There was a huge risk for violence but law enforcement did not take any action. Thereafter, this occurrence spread throughout the city of Cumilla and so many people were injured. From here it spread over 22 districts.
Many Hindus on the ground have shared that they feel these attacks were planned. Do you agree?
Not every time it is planned. Sometimes it happens and then it spreads all over the country. Every time, the government fails to take action to protect the minorities. The police came after the attacks, not during the attacks. This is the same situation in all the incidents. This is the plan of the Bangladesh government — they don‟t bother whether these communities will survive with honor and dignity.
In what ways has Bangladesh failed to maintain its promise of secularism?
They are always shouting for secularism, for non-communalism, but their direction is the other way. We are very much frustrated with the present government. The present government does not bother for elections, they needed votes from Hindus, Buddhists, Chrisitian. Nowadays, there is no election, no vote. They are not bothering to get the votes from these communities. The Awami League government has also affirmed the state religion by the 15th amendment of the constitution. They also changed the textbooks in schools and colleges as per the advice of Hefat-e-Islam, friends of the present Awami League government. This is very dangerous. Our secular culture has totally changed. This is a u-turn by this government.They are moving towards Muslim extremist culture.
How and why has the state failed in its duties to protect its minorities?
As a human rights activist, I work on the vested property law which we have been suffering from since before independence. The government is not very serious in protecting minorities. Sometimes they are shouting but day by day they are shifting away from their secular pledge. They are not taking any steps towards a “Minority Security Act” or a National Minority Commission. The Minority Security Act is a [proposed] law which was pledged in the Awami League election manifesto, but they haven‟t done anything since 2009. The National Minority Commission is another [proposed] commission to assist minorities. There is a National Human Rights Commission but they are doing nothing during all these incidents and occurrences. We are not hopeful.
What can be done right now to help Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh?
We the people cannot change the national policy of the government. We are shouting in the streets and taking protests and processions. Thousands of people are participating in it but the government is blind. They are doing nothing. Everytime they are promising. But they are doing nothing. This government says they are the champion of secularism. All these issues are to be sorted by the government. Where the government is doing nothing, how proceed? How can we be hopeful? We are waiting for more dark days to come.