Even as ‘Happy Deepawali’ ads are being attacked and withdrawn in India, in a persistent and relentless climate of polarizing hate and intolerance accompanied by illiteracy and lack of a sense of cultural or linguistic history of Indian and other civilizations, the Bangladesh government and larger civil society has set an excellent example for the entire subcontinent, and especially contemporary India. Even as ostrich-like, sections of our mainstream media and power elite refuse to look at our neighbourhood with sensitivity, respect and interest, while the political establishment chooses to carry a big brother baggage with reasonably adverse consequences on the ground, Bangladesh has yet again shown the way.
Not only are its human development index and social indicators reflecting its success in terms of quality of life, the small country has yet again proved to be a citadel of secular and pluralist scaffoldings. Human rights activists might argue that there are rights violations in the country while the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina often shows authoritarian streaks. Secularists might contend that she and her party also hide subtle linkages with certain groups of Islamic fundamentalists. Others might argue that it is not really a perfect democracy, as yet. However, these criticisms apart, Bangladesh has once again proved its secular and democratic credentials, and this has been in ample display during and after the Durga Puja festival celebrations in the country.
Durga Puja is celebrated in the east and west across both sides of the border by Bengalis with great passion, unity, happiness and love, and all communities join the auspicious occasion of the arrival of the goddess beyond the barriers of caste, religion, hierarchy and class. In Bangladesh all the communities participate in the Durga Puja with special joy. In any case, Bangladesh, and West Bengal are deeply rooted with a shared synthesis of shared cultural and social history in terms of food, cuisine, dress, customs, languages and dialects, oral and folk traditions, music, theatre, cinema, arts, literature and culture, and even in terms of the inherited progressive culture of resistance and struggle against the British. Kazi Nazrul Islam’s intense and passionately rebellious songs and poetry are loved across the beautiful landscape beyond the Ganga and Padma rivers, and Rabindra Nath Tagore remains an eternal icon. Indeed, the eternally melodious national anthem of Bangladesh has been so beautifully penned by Tagore.
The Chittagong Armed Struggle led by Master Surya Sen and his band of brave revolutionaries is still remembered across both sides of the border, even while ‘Bagha Jatin’ and Khudiram Bose, young revolutionaries, among hundreds of others, are revered and respected both in Bangladesh and West Bengal. In a realm of shared icons, West Bengal and the rest of India whole-heartedly supported and helped the liberation war in Bangladesh in 1971, and Bengal opened its doors willingly and happily for the thousands of refugees who streamed into the state. Tens of thousands of hardworking and resilient refugees arriving in various waves across the various decades, since then, and before that, have settled in West Bengal and they have been welcomed with open arms. There have been no sign of hostility, conflict or distrust ever.
That is why, the Hindutva and BJP campaign of ‘infiltrators and outsiders’ have found no buyers in West Bengal during the recent assembly elections, or before during the three-decade rule of the Left. The BJP was decisively drubbed in the elections despite all the pomp and show, money and muscle power. Not only that, the people of West Bengal have decisively rejected the polarizing and communal politics behind NRC/CAA, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has categorically stated a number of times that NRC and CAA will not be implemented in West Bengal — come what may.
However, in an unprecedented scenario of serial enactment of violence and arson, Durga Puja festivities were attacked in different locations in Bangladesh this October, including in Noakhali, Comilla and other districts. Even in Dhaka, where there were more than 230 Durga Puja pandals, there were inflammatory gatherings. A copy of ‘Quran’ was surreptitiously placed by someone in a Durga Puja pandal, in a sinister move to create communal discord and thereby attack the peaceful Hindu community of about 10 per cent population in the country.
The Sheikh Hasina government acted with tremendous resolve, speed and efficiency immediately and without losing time. Special forces were deputed to protect the festival pandals. The government said that those who were against the liberation war are behind the organized violence – clearly implying the hand of Islamic fundamentalists. Scores of miscreants were arrested. A violent crowd had to face police firing. Sheikh Hasina said that investigations are serious and fast, and those who are behind this violence will be hunted down and punished. She virtually addressed the Hindu worshippers in the famous Dhakeswari Temple in Dhaka and assured them of total support, safety and security during and after the festival. Her party leaders asked the “Hindu brothers and sisters” to feel totally safe and secure in their own secular country, and declared that they will fight the communal elements on the streets. The miscreants who placed a copy of the Quran has been tracked and he was on the run. All the immersions of the idols consequently went of peacefully. The entire Hindu community felt safe and reassured.
Not only that, thousands of people brought out peace and harmony processions. Students of universities and intellectuals, artists, eminent citizens and others joined hands to reassert the secular identity of Bangladesh and in support of the Hindu community. A huge music concert was held to celebrate this spirit of pluralist unity at Dhaka University. Shahbagh movement that fought hard to preserve Bangladesh’s secular soul soddenly seemed to have stirred again.
Indeed, the Bangladesh government and civil society has shown what a secular and non-partisan State and society can do and achieve to protect and safeguard the minorities in the country in a spirit of dignity, equality and collective bonding. This is a lesson deeply felt, appreciated and shared by secular people across the sub-continent. Surely, this is a lesson also starkly lacking in the current scenario in contemporary India. The withdrawal of the festival ads are just one of the repetitive and recurrent indicators of this vitiating and vicious climate of hate and bad faith generated by those who seem to flourish only with this brand of politics and cultural ethos. They would do well to take a leaf of learning from across our neighbour – Bangladesh. Will they?