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?
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.