Chart­ing New Di­rec­tions

Bangladesh, deeply di­vided along eth­nic and re­li­gious lines, faces a loom­ing iden­tity cri­sis. Is the coun­try ready to save its next gen­er­a­tion?

Southasia - - Religion & politics - By Saiyida Tas­meera

What? Bishu won’t take beef? What has got­ten into him since he got mar­ried? But of course I had bet­ter things to worry about than my un­cle’s Hindu stu­dio pho­tog­ra­pher go­ing cold turkey on beef. Please give Aroti a call, my head is pound­ing, I need a good mas­sage. Sorry… she es­pe­cially took a day off for Shab-e-barat. Ok; some­thing was clearly wrong.

Hav­ing lived in Is­lam­abad, I had re­cently re­turned to Dhaka; a city where Hindu and Mus­lim neigh­bors could gob­ble down beef and play holi. But things seemed dif­fer­ent this time in Bangladesh. Why was the smell of dif­fer­ent spices in the air not merg­ing into one great com­bi­na­tion? As I re­call, I was in the Peo­ples Repub­lic of Bangladesh and not the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Bangladesh. My mind strug­gled to come to terms with the stark dif­fer­ence be­tween re­li­gious pri­or­ity and mish­mashed na­tion­al­ity. Hang­ing heavy was an air of hot spices, an easy recipe for evok­ing ha­tred and tur­moil.

Bangladesh had banned re­li­gion­based pol­i­tics af­ter it gained in­de­pen­dence from Pak­istan in 1971. The first con­sti­tu­tion of Bangladesh made sec­u­lar­ism one of the four state pil­lars but this pil­lar soon crum­bled af­ter the mur­der of the Founder and Pres­i­dent of Bangladesh, Shaikh Mu­jibur Rah­man. By 1979, Is­lamic par­ties were al­lowed to oper­ate again. When Zia-ur-rah­man be­came Pres­i­dent, he le­git­imized “Bis­mil­lah-ar-rah­man-arRahim” in the pre­am­ble of the coun- try’s Con­sti­tu­tion. Sub­se­quently, when Gen­eral Er­shad be­came Pres­i­dent he in­cor­po­rated the Eighth Amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion and de­clared Is­lam as the state re­li­gion.

The largest Is­lamist party in Bangladesh to­day re­mains, Ja­maate-is­lami, an ally of the main op­po­si­tion group, Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party, led by former Prime Min­is­ter Khaleda Zia. Grow­ing Is­lamiza­tion and po­lit­i­cal na­tion­al­ity has se­verely tam­pered with pub­lic sen­ti­ment and has deeply af­fected the so­cial fab­ric of so­ci­ety. Fur­ther­more, it has caused deep con­fu­sion and an iden­tity cri­sis as the peo­ple of Bangladesh ques­tion whether they should ad­here to an ini­tial sec­u­lar past or a loom­ing re­li­gious fu­ture?

Bangladesh has a dis­tant past of com­bin­ing Dra­vid­ian, Indo-aryan, Mon­gol, Per­sian and Ara­bic cul­tures. Urdu-speak­ing, non-ben­gali Mus­lims, descen­dants of Nawabs and oth­ers of In­dian ori­gin co-ex­ist in Bangladesh. Var­i­ous tribal groups, mostly in the Chit­tagong Hill Tracts, com­prise the re­main­der. De­mo­graph­i­cally, 83% Bangladeshis are Mus­lims and Hin­dus con­sti­tute a siz­able 16% mi­nor­ity. A small num­ber of Bud­dhists, Chris­tians and An­imists also re­side here.

Why then does such a healthy mix of cul­tures and eth­nic­i­ties, that would other­wise co-ex­ist peace­fully, find it­self threat­ened by the bonds of ha­tred? A po­lit­i­cal agenda guided by re­li­gious fa­nat­ics could be a plau­si­ble an­swer. How­ever, ev­ery re­li­gious fa-

natic is not an Is­lamist and ev­ery po­lit­i­cal gain is not fol­lowed blindly. For in­stance, the Awami League does not have to tilt to In­dia to il­lus­trate ha­tred for Pak­istan. Pak­istan is part of a rich his­tory and the need to for­get the past and seize the fu­ture is im­per­a­tive. The Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party need not Is­lamize the coun­try only in or­der to fill their vote bank but should serve its peo­ple re­gard­less of re­li­gion. Bangladesh was not formed solely for Mus­lims or non-mus­lims. It was for the peo­ple who be­longed to the holy land sans dif­fer­ences and it should re­main like that, re­spect­ing all.

The re­search of Kazi Nu­rul Is­lam states: “Bangladesh is the only coun­try in the world where the birth­days of Sri Kr­ishna, Gau­tama Bud­dha, Je­sus Christ and Prophet Muham­mad are cel­e­brated with equal im­por­tance and with equal re­spect by the govern­ment and also at the pri­vate level. These days are also cel­e­brated as national hol­i­days. Again, Bangladesh is the only coun­try in the world where ma­jor re­li­gious fes­ti­vals of all faiths are ad­hered to by large sec­tors of the pop­u­la­tion and pub­lic schools and col­leges re­main closed as a sym­bol of re­spect to the peo­ple be­long­ing to the re­li­gious tra­di­tions con­cerned. Bangladesh may also be dis­tin­guished for spe­cial and sub­stan­tial an­nual bud­get pro­vi­sions for the de­vel­op­ment of mi­nor­ity re­li­gious tra­di­tions. For ex­am­ple, the Hin­dus, Bud­dhists and Chris­tians are pro­vided with spe­cial fi­nan­cial sup­port for the de­vel­op­ment of tem­ples and churches – and for cel­e­brat­ing re­li­gious fes­ti­vals in a be­fit­ting man­ner.”

With its ex­cep­tional cul­tural her­itage, Bangladesh re­mains bal­anced enough to be a last­ing habi­tat of re­li­gious co-ex­is­tence and national har­mony. Dif­fer­ences are a na­tion’s spice and a coun­try’s pride; any dis­pro­por­tion­ate spice can ruin it. Long live the aro­matic blend of dif­fer­ences, shap­ing it up to uni­for­mity and sim­i­lar­ity, and fill­ing the air with a com­bined and unique fra­grance.

A melt­ing pot of cul­tures.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.