Our vanishing minorities

Ziauddin Choudhury

The striking news that there was a decline in the minority population of Bangladesh stands in contrast to the more than 1% growth in the majority Muslim population since the last decennial census. Was I surprised, shocked, or unfazed by this news? Probably unfazed, because this country of ours has not retained its image of secularity since it changed substantially from the course it had taken during the war for independence and the constitutional principles it had adopted at the time of its birth. The first change in our avowed belief in secularism had occurred when we introduced a state religion and inserted language to that effect in an amendment. Our government made that decision, albeit it was a military-led government, without any problem. Ironically, once introduced, this religious bias was never changed by subsequent governments, all of which were elected, at least apparently. But is the change in the secular image of the constitution the only reason why the minority population of Bangladesh has been on a declining path over the last 52 years? Did any government pursue an overtly anti-minority policy that led to this decline? It is perfectly understood when the majority Muslim population grows, it is a natural population growth. But why is this natural growth not reflected in the numbers of other minorities that include not only Hindus, but Christians and Buddhists as well? Over the last 50 plus years, the Hindu population has been consistently declining in Bangladesh from 20% in 1971 to less than 9% in 2011, the last census. And now we hear the population has further declined by nearly 1% in the last 10 years. Not only the Hindu population, the number of other minorities -- such as Buddhists and Christians -- has also declined, although by less than 0.5%. Did we do something that scared our minorities to leave their homeland? No rights Minorities in any country feel insecure when they do not have constitutionally guaranteed rights, access to justice, and the protection of law enforcement. But even with these rights they still may feel insecure when they are socially isolated, do not have equality in employment, and are intimidated by the environment. This becomes worse in a country with poor governance, absence of rule of law, and dearth in democracy. Because, the Constitution may give the minorities rights, but to exercise those rights they need support of government, and rule of law. Justice in many countries is biased against minorities as the people dispensing justice may not view them with an egalitarian eye. We may argue that Bangladesh has made substantial progress towards communal harmony and protection of minorities through timely actions and suppression of communal elements. Still, we have had incidents of communal strife, acts of vandalism, and in some cases even deaths involving minorities. These incidents have gone beyond one community to others, including even our Indigenous population. These are not extraordinary in a country of over 170 million with diverse religions and ethnic compositions. Yet, the onus is on the majority community which, in the case of Bangladesh, constitutes over 91% now. The government can do so by taking actions against people who take recourse to violence and the persecution of minorities. The ultimate protection or security comes from the environment the responsibility of which lies with the majority. Why is our environment not minority friendly one may ask? Is it just people or the government or is it also provocation from outside forces? In the past we had seen a snowball effect of communal incidents occurring in one country due to similar incidents in another. Many of these were used politically by parties to further their own agenda. Today, we cannot say the attitude of the majority in the country is shaped by policies in India. If the policies in India were a cause of this unhealthy climate for the minorities of Bangladesh, why don’t the minorities in India emigrate to safer countries? They don’t do so, because they know in a democratic country such as India, the minorities can also have their day in the court. Perhaps our minorities do not have that faith. Perhaps, our leaders do not inspire that confidence. Is it us? It is ironic that a country which has an image of being overly-friendly with India, our Hindu minorities feel they are safer across the border than here. Our closeness with India and bilateral relationship are not enough assurance for the community’s safety. A large part of this unease may come from the gradual transformation of the country as a religiously moderate, progressive Muslim country to a more aggressively Muslim one withthe proliferation of religious schools, changes in appearance, dress, and presence of clerics who try to dictate our government policies. Take, for example, the movement from a few years ago by a collection of Madrasa students demanding changes in education and social policies, protests by religious clerics against statues and murals of Bangabandhu, and many others demonstrating to the world the increasing role of religious leaders in our national politics. We provide a clear image of our country’s heavy Muslim bias from all these incidents. To the world at large we are a Muslim country and we behave as such at a grassroots level -- from having an expanding Madrasa education, practicing religious injunctions, religious garments for women, and rejection of anything not abiding by the Muslim faith. It is no wonder that our minorities are shrinking in numbers. I don’t think the majority behavior in Bangladesh is provoked by, or is a reaction to, what is happening in India. It is our own which we have been demonstrating since the last few decades. We have not found a way to contain the expansion of religious fanaticism or disavowal of secularism in the last 50 odd years for fear of repercussion from the religious clerics. But, actually, it is not fear, it was rather the embrace of the clerics and their acolytes, initially by the military rulers of the country and later by our political parties, for political gain. We never attempted to rein in the expansion of religious schools and institutions but facilitated them instead. Our politicians found allies in these clerics and their institutions for retaining political control. Hence, we helped establish a country where even a moderate Muslim feels unsafe because they cannot oppose anything that a cleric or a madrasa wants. They are afraid to espouse even true Bangla culture because it runs counter to the policies of the religious clerics. Unfortunately, we cannot reverse a process that began so long ago. What we can hope for is that these downward population trends can be reined in by the government by following policies that encourage secular education, cultural practices, and protection of religious institutions of minority communities. Our independence was fought for an areligious, secular country that would be home to all in then East Pakistan, irrespective of faith and ethnicity. If we had wanted a country based on religion, there would have been no necessity to break away from Pakistan. Let us remember that and restore the country to its promise. (Courtesy Dhaka Tribune)