Whatever region we look at and whatever headlines we follow to make sense of the world today, it appears to be very complex and chaotic picture. There is no part of the world that is immune to the hatred, tension, hostility and irrationality. The challenges to secularism and the threats of extremism affects us all no matter where we are in the world – even though the level or degree of that affect may vary.
Turkey, India and even in western countries where religion and state are separate by law multiculturalist paradigms are under threat. For example the banning of ‘Burkinis’ in France, xenophobia during the campaign and in the post-Brexit United Kingdom, the backlash against Angela Merkel’s pro-migration policy, the intolerant and prejudiced culture that allows an bigoted and misogynistic individual to occupy the most powerful office in the free world – the same culture that embraces indecent level of impunity, all point towards some unresolved tension between secularism and the interference of faith/ religion in state governance and administration.
Yet if we take a look at some of trend lines rather than the headlines – we’ll find there is a formidable thirst for free and rational thinking which is helping us to create a world that is more peaceful, more stimulating and more just.
Bangladesh is no exception when comes to being caught in the middle of this conundrum and battling with the polarisation.
From the legacy of colonialism – the breakup of the Bengal province in India,1905; partition of Indian Sub-continent in 1947 to the birth of a free and independent Bangladesh in 1971 – the relationship between Britain and Bangladesh and the implications for dealing with this conundrum goes back a long way.
The 1947 Partition of Indian Sub-continent resulting in unforeseen bloodbath in Bengal and Punjab left a permanent mistrust in their heart of people of all faith and led to migration of millions of Hindus mostly from Bangladesh and Punjab to India.
With Pakistani nationalism being fundamentally based on religion – good number of Muslims considering Pakistan to be the homeland for Muslims migrated to Pakistan from India. India on the other hand continued to claim/retain their national identity as a secular nation.
The rather inconvenient alliance of West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) was forged on the false premises that the creation of a nation can be based on religion alone.In fact the people of East Pakistan had to endure oppression, hostility, aggression and injustice at an unprecedented level between 1947 -1971. The nine months long liberation war between March-Dec 1971 was arguably one of the worst genocide in human history since records began. The Pakistani army and their collaborator brutally killed over 3 million of freedom fights, raped and tortured hundreds of thousands of women, millions were forced to flee to India. Religious minorities were specifically targeted.
The sheer horror of what the Bangladeshis had to endure during their struggle for freedom perforated the consciousness of people around the world but there is no question that the unshakable courage, determination and the self-less sacrifices of a commendable leader in Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the millions of freedom fighters made independence of Bangladesh inevitable in December 1971 against all the odds.
London Times (1971) printed the news of Bangladesh Independence with the headline of -“If blood is the price of independence, then Bangladesh has paid the highest price in history”.
What is also evidently clear is that Secularism was the moral fabric in the struggle for freedom and independence of Bangladesh. Under Bongobondhu’s watch Secularism was embraced as one of the four founding principles in Bangladesh’s first national constitution (the other three being nationalism, socialism and democracy) in 1972.
In their unity and progressive thinking Bengalis had rejected communalism and the brutal oppression deployed by Pakistan.
Whilst the roots of religious discrimination stretches back to colonialism and the bitter legacy of Partition, the marginalization of Bangladesh’s minorities has persisted since independence.
A journalist in July 2016 was quoted saying:
After the independence of the country, this country became a country where majority people were Muslim and they developed a behaviour of ruling the minorities. Somehow it was also spread that the minorities were not in favour of the country’s development. That myth was passed on from generation to generation.
Regional and global political context as well as political instability within Bangladesh after liberation –has meant the restoration of democratic politics, the role of religion in civil life and the status of minorities within Bangladesh has continued to be contested.
Political tensions between supporters of the secular Awami League, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), as well as a number of other parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami, have frequently led to boycotts, arrests and even violence. This political turbulence persisted and escalated between 2001 and 2008, with the BNP and Jamat e Islam forming a coalition government.
Since 2013 and in particular since the inception of the war crimes tribunal Bangladesh has experienced a series of violent attacks by extremists. The victims have included atheists, secular bloggers, liberals and foreigners –many Buddhists, Christians and Hindus as well as Ahmadis and Shi’a Muslims.
For these groups, who have borne the brunt of these attacks, this violence is the latest chapter in a long history of discrimination. Despite the promise of independence in 1971 and the passing of a secularist Constitution the following year, in the ensuing years particularly after the asssination of Bongobondhu in August 1975 an increasingly restrictive religious nationalism has side lined Bangladesh’s minorities as Second-class citizens within their own country.
Consequently, though the recent violence has highlighted how vulnerable minorities are to attacks, their situation is also informed by wider structural issues within Bangladeshi society, including political marginalization, social prejudice and economic opportunism. The variety of abuses they experience, from forced abduction and sexual assault to land grabbing and arson, have occurred within a broader climate of impunity.
The continued inequalities facing Bangladeshi women are especially acute for minority women, who face multiple forms of discrimination both from within their own communities and from majority members. For
instance, the continued prevalence of separate personal laws, covering areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, leaves Buddhist, Christian and Hindu women vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their partners and in-laws. More broadly, they face social, economic and political exclusion, and in the context of intercommunal conflict they have often been targeted with sexual violence.
As well as protection by law and enforcement a wider process of social transformation is also needed, with authorities investing greater efforts to challenge stereotypes and champion respect for all beliefs. This requires an environment that nurtures rather than represses freedoms, while ensuring the basic right to religious expression – a right that, in the context of Bangladesh, is increasingly under threat.
And it is in this context Secular Bangladesh Movement UK was formed a few years ago – some of the founding members are here today.
Our aim is very simply put:
Is to create a movement that reaches out, creates awareness and engages with all those that are affected by these injustices and drawing in to involve those believe in a pluralist society in order to create a movement that nurtures and promotes the values and principles of secularism in Bangladesh.
A movement that actively promotes freedom, democracy and the protection of universal human rights of all citizens in Bangladesh not just reacts to moments of when these rights are violated.
Because losing sight of the principles that Bangladesh was formed upon would be the biggest betrayal of all the victims including Father of the nation – Bongbobondhu and their sacrifices throughout the bloody path to freedom as well as post liberation Bangladesh.
Whether its migration, cricket, trade, cuisine, or parliamentary democracy Britain and Bangladesh have strong links that connects the two countries strongly.
Also the global rise of right-wing demagoguery needs a global response.
Our response needs to be optimistic captivating – a movement that lays out a long term and sustainable plan for tangible improvements in protecting basic human rights, social justice – one that is resistance and promotes peace and unity.
The forthcoming election in Bangladesh as with every election has raised concerns amongst minorities in Bangladesh. We want to encourage all main political parties in Bangladesh to use this as an opportunity to think long and hard about how they would address these concerns and tackle extremism in Bangladesh. The election manifesto can be an instrument for thinking about the systematic changes that confronts the challenges and tackles the root causes of extremism, hostility and intolerance.
Our vision of a movement is not just about resisting but modelling and teaching the way forward – of raising hope. This will need coordination of all our efforts and mobilisation of all resources to educate and empower people with values of humanity.
We are not seeking to be ‘protestors’ out to make trouble! – We see ourselves more as supporters and allies of those that are trusted by the citizens of Bangladesh as their ‘protector’ – the elected government that as a duty to protect the society from a whole order of trouble and ideologies of hatred and hostility.
It is vital that all our efforts are joined up and coordinated – and work with all different sectors and across geographical boundaries to challenge, scrutinise and support the government in their role as the ‘protector’ of all citizens.
We want ideas from government about how we can help.
I believe media and social media can play a big role to help us get concrete about what a real alternative to right-wing populism can and should look like. As a plank in a true people’s platform. We need to be creative, aim higher in our ambitions and accomplish more with our actions – if we genuinely want to be the hope for unity, peace and justice- that ultimately helps us to create a better world.