The banality of Bengal
List of names of Hindu students and professors massacred at Jagannath Hall on night of 25th March, 1971 by the Pakistani Army. Click to enlarge.
Nirad C Chaudhuri and Jatin Sarker were both born in Hindu families in the Mymensingh district of eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh. Chaudhuri, about four decades older than Sarkar, wrote his autobiography before India held its first election, and ceased to be an unknown Indian. Sarker also wrote his life story. Unlike Chaudhuri, Sarker’s was in Bangla, published in Bangladesh, never translated in English, and not available in India or beyond. He remains unknown. Which is a pity, because if you want to know what has happened to the land where both these men were born, Sarker is a far, far better guide than Chaudhuri.
Sarker, of course, stopped being an Indian on 14 August 1947, when Mymensingh became part of East Pakistan — the eastern wing of Jinnah’s moth-nibbled land of the pure. His family didn’t move to India. They were not atypical. Many Hindu families remained in East Pakistan. Perhaps it was the presence of Gandhi. Perhaps it was the fantastical belief that Subhas Chandra Bose would return in 1957 — a century after the Great Uprising, two centuries after the Battle of Plassey — to reunite Mother Bengal.
There were no trains full of dead bodies to and from Calcutta. Not that there was no Hindu exodus from East Pakistan. Far from it. In 1941, 28% of the people of the districts that became East Pakistan were Hindus. A decade later, the share had dropped to 22%. By 1961, 18.5%. There were emigrations in dribs and drabs, with major outflows during the communal violence of 1946, 1950, and 1964.
There were riots in India, too. West Bengal was a peripheral state in the Indian Federation. Those Hindus who moved from East Pakistan to India — mainly but not wholly to Calcutta — became part of that troublesome city’s doomed citizenry. No one really cared much for them in Delhi or Bombay, where power and wealth resided.
What of those who stayed back?
Sarker describes the lives of middle class bhadralok (gentry) Hindus of mofussil East Pakistan in Pakistan-er Janma Mrittu Darshan (‘Witnessing the Life and Death of Pakistan’). While he stopped being an Indian on 14 August 1947, he didn’t become a Pakistani. That country was an Islamic Republic. Hindus were not equal citizens there. They were dhimmis, under the ‘sacred protection’ of the majority.
Sarker could never be a Pakistani, but his Bengali Muslim neighbours did not quite feel at home in Pakistan either. In 1971, when East Pakistan died and Bangladesh was born, Sarker thought he would become an equal citizen of a free country. A country that was created with the sacrifice of Hindus and Muslims alike (the image above lists Hindu staff and students of Dhaka University gunned down by the Pakistan army on 25 March 1971).
And on paper he is. Bangladesh is not an Islamic Republic. There is no formal discrimination with respect to religion. Hindus are not formally denied a job, a bank loan, or admission to an educational institution (except madrassahs of course). On paper, Sarker has no reason to write Bangladeshey Pakistan-er bhut darshan (‘Witnessing Pakistan’s Ghost in Bangladesh’). That is slated to be the sequel to his first book. Here he is expected to mark the return of ideas, including communalism, that one associates with Pakistan. He is likely to talk about things that one did not wish for in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
The exodus of Hindus, for one thing. That continued after 1971. Bangladesh’s first census in 1974 saw the proportion of Hindu population fall to 13.5%. In 1981, it became 12.2%. In 1991, 10.5%. In 2001, 9.5%. How do we know its exodus, and not lower fertility among the Hindus? Professor Abul Barakat of Dhaka University asked precisely that question. Using historical birth rate differentials, he estimated that the Hindu population of Bangladesh should have been 19.5 million in 2001, 8.1 million higher than the actual counted in that year’s census. This translates into over 200,000 missing Hindus a year over the previous three decades.
And there is no reason to think that this has changed in the past decade. How come this is not more broadly discussed (outside the Hindutva circles that is)? Because of the sheer banality of the misery faced by the Hindus of Bangladesh. There is no Gujrat moment for the Hindus of Bangladesh. Nothing like the anti-Sikh violence that engulfed India in 1984. Instead, Bangladesh’s Hindus face a myriad of biases and discrimination at school, university, jobs, banks and most facets of economic life.
Again, nothing on paper. But try getting a bank loan if your surname is Das or Dey.
Did I say nothing on paper? Make that mostly nothing on paper. There has been one law, Enemy Property Act 1965 and its Bangladeshi successors, that make things legally difficult for the Hindus. The Act allows the state to seize properties of those who leave the country. In practice, this has been used over the past four decades to grab Hindu properties. Barakat estimates that 43% of Hindu households have been affected by the Act, leading to a loss of about 45% of their property. Typically, local big-wigs — of all political parties, this is important — grab some prime land, and then use death or emigration of one of the family members as an excuse to enlist the entire property. If emigration is not voluntary, coercion or intimidation is commonplace.
Again, no mass killing or mob violence. Very boring, banal stuff that one sees in every town and every village in South Asia. But the effects are just as pernicious.
One might have thought that with two decades of electoral democracy, things would be changing. But if anything, democracy might have made things worse. Of 300 seats in Bangladesh’s parliament, Hindus are a non-trivial minority in about 70. In a tight election, their votes can make a huge difference. Not allowing them to vote is one way of reducing their influence. That is precisely what happened in 2001. In that election, the Awami League received 40% of the votes, against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s 41%. Unlike BNP, the League has a formal commitment to secularism, and thus has traditionally received most of the Hindu vote. Before the 2001 election, there was widespread violence and intimidation against Hindu voters. And those who did vote for the League became the victim of the worst communal violence in independent Bangladesh after the election. Democracy, sadly, had not helped Bangladesh’s Hindus.
The communal violence, however, did not go unnoticed. Progressives in Bangladesh organised relief efforts. The plight of the Hindus was not shrugged off in the manner of Pakistan days. But eventually things quietened down. The violence was not gruesome enough to sustain international attention. In fact, mention of the violence in the Indian media (particularly BJP-allied media), were dismissed as anti-Bangladesh propaganda. Meanwhile, for most Hindus in their daily lives, things continued to be difficult, in the banal manner of the past.
One might have thought things would have changed after 2008, when the League, with its commitment to secularism, returned to power in a landslide. Mamata Banerjee promised poriborton (change) in her landslide. Two and a half years earlier, Sheikh Hasina won hers promising din bodol (changing days). But the banality of misery, of silent discrimination, faced by Hindus seems to have continued. And there is a risk that their situation has been, and will be worsening. This risk comes from three factors.
First, the BNP remains allied with hardline Islamists, and eschews any commitment to secularism. This means, the League has an effective monopoly on the Hindu vote, and thus can simply ignore them. Worse, it can continue the discrimination and land grab, and frighten the Hindus about a ‘return of BNP’.
And Hindus may well have a lot to be fearful of. In early 2009, the League made a lot of noise about being inclusive. But instead of setting up a Sachar-like body to investigate the magnitude of discrimination and practical remedies, the League’s inclusiveness involved giving plum jobs to ill-qualified party hacks. Trouble is never far away when that kind of thing happens. Consider the case of Neem Bhowmick, the poster child of the inclusive approach, ambassador to Nepal, who has been accused of sexual harassment. Consider the case of Porimal Jayadhar, teacher in a top girls’ school, accused of raping a student. It’s not that only the Hindu partisan appointees have been guilty of terrible crimes of omissions and commissions. There are plenty of Muslim hacks too. But many Hindus fear that the sins of the handful of Hindus might lead to trouble for the whole community.
Lastly, and perhaps the most important reason why Hindus may be at risk of further misery is because of the hypocritical, partisan nature of much (though not all) of the country’s civil society. After the 2001 violence, there was a huge outcry. But much of that was motivated by a dislike of BNP. Now that the League is in power, many of these voices have fallen silent, even if the actual conditions have changed little. There are not many outlets like Kafila in Bangaldesh that would be as vocal under Congress as under BJP. Again, the partisanship in Bangladeshi political discourse is very banal.
Having said all that, six and a half decades after Jinnah’s Direct Action, a syncretic, secular future is still possible in Bangladesh. This is best articulated by Muhammad Shahidullah, a noted linguist from mid-20th century:
While it’s true that we are Hindus or Muslims, it is a greater truth that we are Bengalis. This is no ideological statement, rather it is a practical one. The nature has left our faces and language with a stamp of Bengaliness that is too strong to be concealed by beads-sacred marks or lungis-skull caps.
Plastered on a wall in Dhaka University, that quote is a reason to believe that the life of Hindus will be better in tomorrow’s Bangladesh.
First posted in Kafila. Cross-posted in UV. Relies on research by Naeem Mohaiemen. Photo credit: Udayan Chattopadhyay. This post was being written when the tragic news of Saturday arrived, and is dedicated to the memory of Tareque Masud, who worked tirelessly for a pluralist Bangladesh.