Thursday, 2 December, 2021

Bangladesh, Bangabandhu, and Communal Harmony

Dr. M. Shahinoor Rahman

Bangladesh, Bangabandhu, and Communal Harmony
Dr. M. Shahinoor Rahman

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Bangladesh has been a land of communal harmony from the very beginning of its history. The people of this country have long been living in a peaceful inter-community relationship. Historically, the delta crisscrossed by the mighty Padma, Jamuna, and Meghna rivers has been the womb of crops aplenty and therefore has become the cradle of bountiful civilized societies that have always been closely knit with togetherness and solid cultural bonding. So many people from near and distant lands migrated here, settled, and got accommodated into the social fabric. So many times, invaders intruded and took over the governing power of this resourceful land. Our golden Bengal has always become the perfect homeland for all of them. In this course, many different cultures mixed up to form the unique and flexible culture of Bengal. In this process, groups of people believing in various religious doctrines have also shared the uniform culture of Bengal. In this way, many different religious communities have lived here with sustained peacekeeping continued communal harmony.

This communal harmony has turned out to be the bedrock upon which the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman laid the foundations of the Bengali nation. The founding Father of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also used our long-rooted tradition from history and quickly understood that religious sectarianism cannot be the unique feature of a nation. Although propelled by misleading movements and events in the pre-partition of India, young Mujib once gave way to the politics of the Muslim League and joined the movement of Pakistan; soon after the partition, he understood the futility of religious identity as a nation-binder. He then took to the uniformity of language and culture to be the basis of a nation and propagated it in his vision of the formation of Bangladesh, a country where people of different colours, castes, and religions would live harmoniously.

If we look at the life and politics of Bangabandhu in pre-independent Bangladesh, we can easily discern how he prepared himself for the future leadership of a nation through a profound sacrifice. A significant struggle in Bangabandhu's life was his relentless fight against communalism. Despite the threats of captivity, suppression, and persecution looming large around the corner, he never sat asunder from spreading the mantra of liberation among the people. He was also gradually sharpening his non-communal spirit all along.   

Bangabandhu demonstrated the fascinating and surprising height of his perception regarding the relationship between the different religious communities living in Bangladesh. As a student of the Gopalganj Mission School, the adolescent Mujib understood quite wisely that there were attempts from vested quarters to inflict and sustain communal disparity among familiar people. He resisted the issues like the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy as he asserts in his Unfinished Memoirs that the Hindu-Muslim matters didn't matter a jot for him at that time. Such a non-communal spirit of judging people by his humanistic rather than religious identity was rare, even among elderly political leaders.

Later, as a student of Calcutta Islamia College and a full-time political activist, Bangabandhu stood firm against communalism. Hindu-Muslim riots and communal atrocities in Kolkata, the capital of undivided Bengal, in 1946 made a deep impression on his mind. About his experience at that time, he wrote: "I also helped in rescuing stranded Muslims. In one or two places I came under attack while trying to help them in this work. We also rescued Hindus wherever possible and had sent them to Hindu localities. It was obvious that people had lost their human sides in the violence and had regressed to their animal selves" (Unfinished Memoirs).

Afterward, Bangabandhu saw so many instances of abusive religious sectarianism in politics, which is why a strong desire to build a non-communal country shook Bangabandhu's mind. He writes: "If people were truly religious, there would not have been a struggle for ages among men and states like this. But people have tried to promote the meaning of religion whimsically to protect own interests' (Amaar Dekha Naya Chin).  In a couple of years of the establishment of Pakistan, he understood as a visionary leader that there was no scope for the economic and cultural liberation of Bengal in the structure of communal Pakistan. He jumped into the movement as he spent the golden hours of his life fighting to build a non-communal and non-discriminatory society.

Following his dream, he tended to justify that the abolition of Hindu estates would consolidate the rights of the Muslim farmers. That is why in the Pakistan movement, we see him endorsing a liberal trend in the Muslim League led by Hossain Shahid Suhrawardy or Abul Hashim instead of communal leaders like Mohammad Ali Jinnah or Khawaja Nazimuddin. When he found that Muslim landowners and nawabs were showing up in Hindu zamindars under the Muslim League's leadership, he thought of forming an alternative political party going out of the Muslim League and eventually starting the Awami Muslim League with Maulana Bhasani at the helm. Later, the party assumed a true non-communal character by dropping the word 'Muslim' and becoming only 'Awami League.' Through the six-point movement in 1966, Bangabandhu demonstrated that the people of East Bengal have only one identity—not Muslims nor Hindus—they are Bengalis. They needed only economic, cultural, and Martial freedom to attain autonomy. That is why Bangabandhu added Secularism to the Awami League manifesto before the 1970 elections.

Even after establishing independent Bangladesh, Bangabandhu understood with his deep insight that even if political freedom came, it was not possible to form a non-communal society without Secularism in the state structure. On November 4, 1972, Bangabandhu participated in a discussion on the Constitution Bill in the Parliament and said, "Secularism does not mean void of religion. 75 million people of Bengal will have the right to perform religious activities. We do not and will not want to stop religion by law. ... Muslims will follow their religion—no one in this state has the power to stop them. Hindus will follow their religion—no one has the power to resist. Buddhists will follow their religion—none of them can be prohibited. Christians will follow their religion—no one can stop them. Our only objection is that no one can use religion as a political weapon."

Nobel laureate Bengali economist Amartya Sen recently said that Bangabandhu is an ideal leader for the entire subcontinent on the question of non-communalism. At a meeting held at the London School of Economics in January this year, he compared Bangabandhu with Emperor Akbar on Secularism and non-communalism. He said, "Learning from the way Sheikh Mujib and Emperor Akbar clarified the concept of secularism is important not only in India but in many countries." The people of Bangladesh got once truly inspired by Bangabandhu's secularist view of the nation. Therefore, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians, all of them fought for liberation, forgetting all the differences between religions, castes, and communities, waded through a sea of blood intending to live together in harmony. But the most unfortunate thing is that even after 50 years of independence, we observe the vested communal quarters attacking the non-communal state. There is still communal violence. Just because of religious beliefs, distrust, or differences in religion, there is murder, terrorism, attacks, vandalism, and anarchy.

Observance of religion or non-observance is one's personal matter. Religious provisions also do not imply forcing anyone to observe faith. Every religion prioritizes peace, yet we are left clueless with many abusive politics, unrest, anarchy, fights, and violence around belief. Undoubtedly, behind all these, there are a small number of political carnivores who only value their vested interests and tend to cash on in the fondness of the people for religion. They have made religion their weapons and try to fish in muddy waters of communal disharmony. It is high time we engaged our best efforts to identify these culprits. It is still not too late to establish the egalitarian society in Bangladesh devoid of any communal disharmony desired by the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

We are enthusiastically very hopeful that under the leadership of the Honourable Prime Minister Jononetree Sheikh Hasina, we will uproot the last sapling of religious vandalism and ensure communal harmony, a prominent feature of our national culture. Let us promise that we must identify and punish the vested communal culprits who, with pre-planning, are trying to destabilize the smooth sailing of the ongoing development of Bangladesh.


The author is a columnist, writer, academic, folklorist, senior Professor of English, and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Islamic University, Bangladesh