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Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai in a Small Town in Bangladesh

Following Partition, the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 and later the Babri Masjid demolition in India in 1992, the Hindu population in Bangladesh has been dwindling, targeted as it is by politicians and communalists. But Sunamgonj in north-east Bangladesh is different and it owes its communal harmony to the residents. In Sunamgonj, Saraswati puja is a time for Hindus and Muslims to engage in festivities and for both groups to participate in the "best idol" competition.

COMMENTARY

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Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai in a Small Town in Bangladesh

Delwar Hussain

Following Partition, the The barely audible strains of R abindra sangeet compete with the

Bangladesh Liberation War of

deafening sounds of the latest Ben

1971 and later the Babri Masjid

gali pop music blaring from loudspeakers;

demolition in India in 1992, the

groups of men dressed in their finest kur-

Hindu population in Bangladesh tas and women in sarees accompanied by the children are being ferried to and fro

has been dwindling, targeted

on bicycle rickshaws; the intoxicating fra

as it is by politicians and

grance of doop (incense) hangs still, thick

communalists. But Sunamgonj in

and hypnotic in the air. This is day one of

north-east Bangladesh is different Saraswati puja in the small town of Sunamgonj, north-eastern Bangladesh. Saraswati

and it owes its communal

is worshipped by Hindus as the goddess of

harmony to the residents. In

culture, education and the arts. She is

Sunamgonj, Saraswati puja is a

popular among students, musicians and

time for Hindus and Muslims to artists who believe that praying to her will help bring success in these areas. The puja

engage in festivities and for both

is held during the winter and is celebrated

groups to participate in the “best

with much fanfare and energy throughout

idol” competition.

the country. At the local Sunamgonj Girls High School, students wearing fashionable salwar kameeze suits tailored especially for the event have organised a fund to have an idol of the goddess made. This now holds court in the middle of the school playing field, sitting on a white lotus flower, the epitome of splendour. Saraswati’s trademark swan peers all-knowingly over her shoulders. In her hands the mother g oddess cradles a sitar, and information technology (IT) and science textbooks are placed at her feet. The high school’s Saraswati will be competing with more than 100 other idols for the coveted title of Sunamgonj’s Best Saraswati 2009. While the saffron-clad brahmin purohit recites verses in Sanskrit, students of class 10 begin the anjoli (prayer), ululating with their Delwar Hussain (dh368@cam.ac.uk) is a PhD tongues, inviting Saraswati to grace them

student at the University of Cambridge,

with her presence. Flower petals are

United Kingdom.

thrown at her. As it ends, the next class of

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girls come forward to repeat the process. Not all of the girls participating are Hindu. In fact, most of the students of the government school are Muslim. A few are even covered in face-concealing burkas. This should come as no surprise as throughout the Indian subcontinent people have

a lways participated in the celebrations and rituals of other religions. However in the light of a deepening conservatism amongst some Muslims who would rather this kind of tradition did not exist and consider the arts to be an anathema to their understanding of the faith, Saraswati puja in Sunamgonj confronts this idea head on. After a traditional meal of kichuri and as the sun begins to set behind the evening smog, the girls join thousands of town residents in paying their respects to the other idols, while at the same time e yeing the competition.

Sunamgonj Is Different

There are around 13 pujas in the Hindu r eligious calendar and Saraswati puja is the first to come around this year since the Awami League (AL)-led coalition came to power in the general elections of December 2008. All four upazillas (subdistricts) of Sunamgonj district overwhelmingly voted for the coalition. In spite of its questionable convictions towards secularism, Hindus (as well as other religious and ethnic minorities) have remained faithful to the party. However, it would be difficult to find anyone here who would say that it is the secular ideals of the AL that makes Sunamgonj as it is. Sunamgonj is not a bastion of communal harmony. The place is subject to the same pressures as the rest of the country, where minorities feel the stress of their less than coveted position everyday of their lives. Furthermore, examples of Hindus and Muslims celebrating each other’s traditions can easily be found throughout Muslim majority Bangladesh. But there is a difference in Sunamgonj. For most ordinary people across the religious divide,

COMMENTARY

there is a desire and a will to go beyond communal politics, something that has been a reality around these parts for too long. This attitude, emanating from the bottom up takes no inspiration from national or party politics, both of which, throughout Bangladesh’s troubled history, have created friction and discord rather than any sort of tangible unity. This desire for potentially divisive communities to coexist with each other is the reason why Sunamgonj has managed to stave off the violence, hatred and communalism evident in other parts of Bangladesh and the Indian subcontinent. The outcome is that Hindus play a prominent role in the public life of the district, as teachers, doctors, lawyers and police. One of the ways through which this has been done is through the proliferation of quite innocuous committees. There is the bazaar committee; the women’s committee; the mosque and temple committee, the rickshaw, labourers’, students’ and teachers’ commitees. All of these ensure that Hindus and Muslims have to work with and interact with one another, overcoming any potential for divisions or distrust. For example, the title of Sunamgonj’s Best Saraswati 2008 had gone to the Hindu-Muslim Puja Committee, Hindu Muslim (HM) for short. Held up by white Grecian columns on either side of her, the life-size idol was painted gold. It was placed on top of a floating platform in a water hyacinthfilled pond. At night, a local rock band serenaded her and floodlights, powered by car batteries, illuminated her. This committee was started in 1995.

I met Milon, one of the committee’s Hindu members in his tiny grocery shop which sells everything from paraffin to condoms. He is suspicious of my questions, all too aware that his and his friends’ intentions may not be shared by everybody. I ask Milon if the committee came about as a result of some need. Did something happen which made them decide on something like this? “Not at all” he says. “We were a group of friends and this is something we did anyway. When we were at school, we would organise pujas throughout the year. Once we’d graduated, we just continued with them.” Milon claims the committee is made up equally of the two communities. Today they are all middle aged, have jobs, and businesses and are married. Younger members have slowly been introduced. HM organises pujas by collecting money from members as well as neighbours, colleagues, friends and family. They raise money for the celebration of Eid as well. For the last Qurbani Eid, they had an arch made out of flowers on the same spot where the goddess Saraswati currently sits. The fact that cattle are usually slaughtered on the day, a traditional source of discord between the two communities in India, does not seem to be a contentious issue here. Liton, a Muslim member of the committee joins us in the cramped shop. “The norm is that Hindus and Muslims have lived side by side so our committee is not particularly unique” he says. “There are groups such as ours all over Sunamgonj and they organise religious and non-religious events alike”. Litton remembers that when they were young, Hindu and Muslim friends would do even more things together. “But over the years, things changed. When we were growing up we didn’t think this was for this community and that was for that community. We did what everybody else did. It was later that people with bad intentions tried telling us that what we did was wrong.”

Litton says that all his friends and family approve of the committee and its work. In a part of the world racked by communal violence, hatred and suspicion for too long, Liton’s words seemed to be slightly optimistic. I thought so until I speak to Mijan, a more conservative Muslim, who runs the mobile phone shop next door. Mijan has a thin, wiry beard and large white teeth that deserve to be in a toothpaste advertisement. Mijan does not celebrate puja. He did when he was young, but over the years he “educated himself” and has decided that puja is idol worship and is something that the Quran prevents him from participating in. However, even Mijan’s beliefs are of an equable nature, in keeping with other people’s beliefs in Sunamgonj. He states that Allah has created many people, many religions and ways of being. “I feel it is my responsibility to try and live life as Allah has decreed, but I have as much respect for other beliefs as I do for my own. We all have a path that Allah has created for us.” He

may 23, 2009

says, “They are all different and no two are the same.”

A Troubled Past

Hindus are the largest minority group in Bangladesh. Today their dwindling numbers make up just 9.4% of the total population.1 This number is in marked contrast to the 28% they had constituted during the 1941 Census of East Bengal. During the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, millions of them had sought refuge in India. For many, fear, threats, violence and indignities were too great a risk in the fledgling state. Those who remained have become constant targets for politicians of all hues, discriminatory state policies and Islamic extremists. Hindus were singled out by the Pakistani army in 1971 when Bangladesh was founded.

Sharing a language and religion with the Indian state of West Bengal, they were accused of loyalty towards India against whom Pakistan was at war with at the time. Unknowable numbers were killed, and dispossessed while many more left for India. Though the elections last year passed off with little or no violence, in the aftermath of the 2001 elections when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in coalition with the far-right Jamaat-I-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote had come to power, Hindu communities throughout the country faced state-sanctioned violence for their support of the AL.

The human rights organisation Amne

Amne

ss
--
ty International expressed its concerns and noted that hundreds of Hindu families had been driven off their lands by groups affiliated to the BNP. In some cases they raped women, burnt and looted homes and destroyed temples. Many people were reportedly killed.2 Amnesty International called on the Bangladeshi government to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, they were met with a barrage of denials. The home minister at the time dismissed reports as “baseless, exaggerated and politically motivated’’. He said during a visit to Barisal that he had not found any such evidence (he later admitted the atrocities did take place). Shahriyar Kabir of the South Asian Coalition against Fundamentalism told the BBC that many Hindus had been prevented from voting in the 2001 elections. He was

vol xliv no 21

COMMENTARY

arrested for treason after returning from India where he was documenting evidence from Hindus who had managed to flee across the border for safety.3 Kabir believed that extremist groups were forcing Hindus to leave the country in an attempt to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state. During this period, pujas across the country were cancelled. Arguably, no government in Bangladesh since its independence has taken any steps to protect Hindus. Even when the AL came to power under the charismatic Mujibur Rahman in 1971, his public espousal to secular ideals was anything but that. Under the discriminatory Enemy Property Act, property and lands belonging to Hindus could be confiscated by the government at will. This law was passed by the previous Pakistani government but Mujibur did nothing to revoke it, primarily because the beneficiaries of the confiscations were members of the AL party.

During the tumultuous elections of 2001, 29-year old Shyamol Chowdhury worked as an election observer. Unlike the horrific developments in other parts of the country, he does not recall Hindus facing any problems in Sunamgonj during or after the elections. He also puts this down to the everyday cooperation that exists between the two communities. Interestingly, he says, this is a result of the region’s geography. More than half of Sunamgonj district is haor (wetland) which is under water between the months of April to October. This means that for seven months in the year there is very little communication and everything and everyone travels by boats. It is, not surprisingly, one of the poorest parts of the country (according to the 2001 Census, for over two million people, there is just one government hospital).

Shyamol knows the district well, travelling often to its most remote areas, working as he does for a non-governmental

organisation (NGO) that helps the rural poor. “There is such a pressure on land here that people have to live with each other regardless of whether they want to or not. This means they have to interact with people who are different to them.” Everyone, regardless of religion, faces the same kinds of problems. “During the floods, everyone’s land is underwater, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim. Bad transportation and lack of communication affect us all. We all suffer from an education system that cannot deal with the numbers who want to be educated, corrupt local administrations and politicians who ignore us. This means that people have learnt to collaborate with each other and find solutions to problems themseleves.” Forming committees is one of the ways in which people do this. Shyamol is all too aware of the fear and violence Hindus in Bangladesh have lived with. Originally from the neighbouring district of Mymensingh, he witnessed the exodus of hundreds of Hindu families to India as he was growing up. “This meant the disappearance of thousands of people. Entire villages would just up and leave,” he remembers. “They left because they could no longer accept the violence, theft and threats”. Using loudspeakers and megaphones, people from the mosque would make proclamations like those which said that children were forbidden to throw coloured powder on each other during the Hindu festival of Holi. The reason given was that the colour would pollute the men going to the mosque for their prayers. “No one knew where these restrictions came from but people went along with them without thinking of the motive behind them or their consequences”.

Rich and poor both left the country. The rich sold their lands and homes to the highest bidder. The poor anyway had nothing to lose. The few middle class families had no choice but to remain. Shyamol recalls “some of these people owned a shop – like my father who owned a pharmacy – or they were government employees. If they were to move to Kolkata they would lose too much. Their little money would not have lasted long and they would have had to start right from scratch.” During the Babri Masjid episode in 1992 Shyamol was in high school. “As people destroyed temples all over Bangladesh, I realised that whatever happens in India and Pakistan will affect us here in Bangladesh. Later I learnt that you will find people such as this – who will try and set fire to a temple or a mosque even in the most perfect country. Bangladesh is far from perfect.” Shyamol’s family eventually left Mymensingh when Muslim neighbours began stealing their crops. “There was no recourse. The police and the officials didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything.” He believes leaving Mymensingh for Sunamgonj, with many environmental and economic problems was one of the best decisions his family made. “I love my country” he says. “Unlike other young middle class people, I want to stay here and help the country get stronger. I don’t want to move to India or elsewhere.” It brings a smile to his face to watch Hindu and Muslim children with faces dripping red and blue colours during Holi – something he was not allowed to do while growing up.

Best Saraswati 2009

Lately, differences between the two communities have come about through an unusual schism. Sunamgonj has deep connections and links to London. The majority of the 3,00,000 British Bangladeshis are originally from Sylhet division, of which Sunamgonj is a part. Most inhabitants of Sunamgonj will have a relative in the UK or at the very least know of someone who has moved there. Hindus have traditionally been excluded from this rich pie. But not to be outdone, they have found an alternative destination – the US. This avenue has opened up through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV), an annual lottery whereby applicants are chosen at random and given a visa to the US (the US embassy in Dhaka says that between 1995 and 2006 nearly 28,000 people have been issued with DVs).

The differences that have emerged are over who is leaving. Muslims moving to the UK tend to be from rural areas and uneducated, relying on extended family members who have settled there previously or by marrying a first cousin. Hindus moving to the US belong to the educated, middle class. The DV application is on the internet and in English (one of its require

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fer depending upon religion, the jobs they do once they get there is similar. As a local college student jokingly says, both Hindus and Muslims will work as DC’s (dish cleaners) or OC’s (onion cutters) in restaurants.

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COMMENTARY

Thirty-five year old Bappa is part of the DV exodus. I met him during a brief trip he made to Sunamgonj, where he was born and brought up, as he prepares to marry a woman he met on an internet dating site. On completing his undergraduate degree Bappa found it difficult to find a job. His sole ambition in life was to join the Bangladesh army. He applied many times but was turned down. He believes the rejection was due to the fact that he was a H indu and not considered as loyal to the country as his Muslim brethren.

So like many of his unemployed friends, Bappa applied for the DV at the one place in town that has an internet connection. When he found he had won a place, he was overjoyed. He contacted a friend in New York who had previously won a visa himself. The friend found B appa a job in an Italian restaurant where he worked for a number of years. Today Bappa works for the US army and is currently stationed in Germany. He says his loyalty to them has never been questioned unlike in his motherland.

The recent elections were the most peaceful the country has ever seen, so the mantra goes in the Bangladeshi press. Primarily this was because the army was in charge and no political party was allowed to ferment any trouble in the lead up to it. Peace is the last thing on the minds however of the young revellers on day two of Saraswati puja in Sunamgonj. As the m usic and singing continued throughout the night into the second day, it is only time that will decide how relationships between the Hindus and Muslims of Sunamgonj will pan out. Much will depend upon what happens to Muslim minorities across the border in an India increasingly under the sway of Hindutva. Much more will depend on the way the new AL government deals with the minority communities in its own country. If they are further denied desirable government positions, promotions and access to seats of power and influence, as well as treated with suspicion and distrust, then the e xodus will continue.

Once Hindus left for India for safety, now they are leaving for the US for economic benefit. The net result is however the same – the dwindling numbers of a community integral to the country. This will be to the detriment of Bangladesh not only politically and economically, but also culturally and socially. Shyamol says it is only the rich Hindus who can afford to have any hopes and wishes for the new administration. “Most Hindus, like most Muslims, most Bangladeshis in fact, have few desires. They just want to live peacefully, be able to feed their families and send their kids to school. For them, religion is not something they use to attack people but something that gives them peace at the end of a working day.”

Notes

1 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, http://www.bbs. gov.bd/dataindex/census/bang_atg.pdf

2 http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA13/ 006/2001/en/dom-ASA130062001en.html

3 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/ 1645499.stm

PARLIAMENT OF INDIA RAJYA SABHA SECRETARIAT PARLIAMENT HOUSE NEW DELHI – 110001

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Chair and Rajya Sabha Fellowships on Parliamentary Studies

Applications are invited for the Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Chair and two Rajya Sabha Fellowships on Parliamentary Studies instituted by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat for promoting an indepth inquiry and research on different aspects of Parliamentary democracy in general and Indian Parliament and Rajya Sabha in particular.

The Chair and the Fellowships are open to academics/experts of proven scholarship and reputation in these areas with suitable qualifications.

The terms and conditions governing the Chair and Fellowships and the Application Form are available on the Rajya Sabha website: http://rajyasabha.nic.in under the head “Parliamentary Chair/ Fellowship”.

Applications may please be sent to Shri S.D. Nautiyal, Director, Rajya Sabha Secretariat, Room No. 147, Parliament House Annexe, New Delhi – 110001 on or before 15th June, 2009.

may 23, 2009 vol xliv no 21

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