There is a new verve of change and empowerment in the air in ‘secular’ Bangladesh. And India’s creative engagement can mark a turning point

Sanjay Kapoor Dhaka 

Dhaka traffic jams are legendary. During peak hours—and that is 24/7—traffic moves at a pace that can at times be measured on a six-inch scale. The only time this heaving city of 17 million empties out is during the holy festival celebration of
Eid-ul-Zuha—the day when the faithful sacrifice animals.

For ordinary people it is an occasion to spend time with their families, shop for new clothes and eat Eid food and delicacies. The big news in the Bangladeshi newspapers before the day of sacrifice is about the movement of lakhs of sacrificial animals to the capital, and how, again, they are causing traffic jams. According to official estimates, about 30 lakh animals were sacrificed this year compared to 23 lakhs last year.

“There would have been more qurbani (sacrifice) of animals if people were richer. The majority just cannot afford the high price of the animal,” explained a local, standing in a queue outside the fancy Gulshan Club to collect Eid alms or Eidi.

Two weeks earlier, the Hindus of Bangladesh celebrated Durga Puja with colour, pomp and gusto. About 23,000 Durga Puja pandals were set up in the city. This was followed by Dussehra. Street festivals passed off peacefully. “Dhaka’s Durga Puja is celebrated in a manner that is different from that of Kolkata, and those cultural differences are preserved here,” explained a Hindu Bangladeshi.

The hike in the number of animal sacrifices and the peaceful conduct of the festivals provide a firm indication that the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, despite allegations of governance deficit, is doing a few things right. First, the economy, despite the global slowdown, maintains a robust 6 per cent, the impact of which can be felt on the ground; the other, more compelling issue, is that of law and order. 

Women working in the garment industry, as well professionals, mark an open expression of women’s empowerment. They serve as a living, secular challenge to the Islamist orthodoxy unleashed by hardliners

Peaceful celebrations of festivals in a plural society are an important test for any administration. It is more so in Bangladesh where Islamist forces are aggressively trying to challenge the secular, plural culture of this country. Some time back these forces of atavism had bared their hand in Cox Bazaar where historic Buddhist shrines that housed valuable manuscripts were torched as retaliation against the violence against Muslim Rohingiyas in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The Awami League government promised to rebuild the destroyed shrines.

Women working in the massive garment industry, as well as professionals in the government and private sector, and also NGOs, mark an open expression of women’s empowerment. They serve as a living, secular challenge to the Islamist orthodoxy unleashed
by hardliners.

However, the challenge to preserve the secular soul has proved to be unrelenting ever since the country gained freedom in 1971. In the last 40 years of independence, many of the issues that proved to be the raison d’être of the freedom movement led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, remain unresolved. These pertain to both its relationship with India and its identity. (see pg 20)

These dilemmas have shaped Bangladesh’s past and cast their imprint on the future; that is, till India abandons much of its approach of the past and gets down to ironing out all the creases and bumps that have developed in this relationship. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s conscious attempt to meet half-way with Sheikh Hasina to sort out river water and territory disputes and restore connectivity between the two countries and pass on its dividends to the people trapped in poverty, could be a major game-changer. 

In many ways, Bangladesh, in the act of its creation, destroyed and undid the Partition project of Mohammed Ali Jinnah where he had claimed that Hindus and Muslims are two different cultures and cannot stay together. During the run-up to the brutal crackdown unleashed by the Pakistani Army in 1971, it was evident to the Awami League and its supporters that West Pakistan, as it was known then, had little respect for Bangla culture or its aspirations. Expectedly, the Pakistani Army went about brutally imposing their version of how Pakistani society should conduct itself. Pakistan believed that the Bangla identity was a Hindu one, a fact disputed by many political scientists.

With the return of Hasina in 2008, a lot of unresolved issues are sought to be corrected. The first decision with serious implications is the war crimes trial of those who collaborated with the Pakistani Army 

During the organised crackdown and brutality against Bangla nationalists, Pakistani forces targetted the Hindu population, intellectuals and those who were proud of Bangla language and culture. They sought to ethnically cleanse all the Hindus, leading to mass exodus to India. As the Pakistani Army justified its actions with a religious mandate, they got help from razakars and members of the Jamaat in killing thousands of people. Rape was used as an instrument to bring shame and humiliation to a people that did not agree with Pakistan’s version of building an Islamic society. (see pg 24)

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012