Within weeks of coming to power, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government in Dhaka finds itself mired in a crisis of its own making. The ham-handed manner in which the government has handled the post-election attacks on members of the Hindu community of Bangladesh suggests that it knows virtually nothing about managing social tensions that simmer just beneath the surface of Bangladeshi society. Indeed, the apparent insensitivity could light the flames of permanent communal strife.
It would appear that after five years of trying to dislodge the preceding Awami League (AL) government through means fair and foul – hartals and parliamentary boycotts included – the BNP and its allies seem to have got accustomed to the strong-arm tactics of muscle politics practised by all previous governments. This can only be to the detriment of responsible administration, given that the parties concerned are now in power. The largest-ever cabinet in Bangladesh’s history increasingly resembles a motley collection of political novices [?] lining to take decisions that invite public [?]dicule. Clearly, the BNP under Begum Khaleda Zia has forgotten the rudiments of governance it had garnered when it was in power between 1991 and 1996. This is what we learn from the Hindu exodus.
It is public knowledge that many Hindus of Bangladesh fled across the border into India as a consequence of the fear psychosis that gripped the community after there were incidents of assault and rape against them. While the refugees may number no more than a few hundred, the Dhaka government found itself completely unable to manage the fallout. Rather than identify the problem, accept that there had been an exodus, and assure a remedy, it immediately took recourse to denial. This added fuel to the fire, providing ample opportunity for ridicule among the Bangladeshi media and intelligentsia as well as raising hackles toss the border in India.
Hindu political groups in India staged demonstrations demanding that the New Delhi government act to stop the attacks in Bangladesh. In West Bengal, the Left Front government of Buddhadev Bhattacharya issued a strong statement condemning the targeting of Hindus. Other political parties in West Bengal were also not found lacking in capitalising on the events in Bangladesh; some of them have even opened gruel kitchens to feed the refugees.
In Bangladesh, the opposition Awami League is using the issue to salvage its political standing, denouncing the government’s handling of the episode at every opportunity. To add to the BNP’s discomfiture, the press has been united in its censure of the government, and the criticism has been sustained. Besides a “no Hindu bashing” position displayed by both the Bangla and English media, this uprightness may well have had to do with the official response to the incidents of Hindu bashing, which questioned the veracity of the press reports and the competence of the journalists involved.
The scathing criticism from all around eventually forced the government of Khaleda Zia to take some action. In mechanical fashion, it set up a committee of secretary level officials to investigate the matter, but the group’s report did little to improve the government’s position. The officials assigned to the case concluded that only two of the nine reported incidents were true, an assertion greeted with widespread scepticism. To compound matters, the committee went on to assert that Hindus had not fled across the border to India. To prove the point, M. Morshed Khan, the foreign minister, who is also a leading businessman, informed the press that he had received no official report on the matter from India.
Bangladesh already has a Hindu migration problem. Once nearly 30 percent of the population, the number of Hindus is down to about 10-12 percent, which is around 10-12 million. The middle class has mostly left in a never-ending trickle. While the number of incidents after the recent elections may have been few, if they serve to lead to yet another exodus of Hindus then it would do irreparable harm to Bangladesh’s self image as a tolerant society where the Hindus in an overwhelmingly homogeneous society are not in danger. The government’s ill-advised response to the reports of anti-Hindu action therefore not only lacks sensitivity but would serve to instill a fear psychosis in the dominant minority community which is not needed. The small band of Christians and Buddhists are much better off and are relatively more apolitical with a focus on economics, the professions, etc. But the Hindus are active and in general support the AL, the party which has spoken about their rights. It has been a traditionally anti-communal party but the AL is accused of using them as a vote bank. During this election, in places where minority candidates contested and the votes were split, Hindus had to face the AL’s wrath as well. But Hindus still certainly feel safer under the AL.
As if its lack of proper reaction to the anti-Hindu incidents were not enough, a related phenomenon guaranteed that the chapter was not over for the government. This involved Shariar Kabir, a pro-AL, personality with a long history in journalism, literature and film, and also president of the people’s committee formed to bring the 1971 collaborators with the Pakistan army to book. Kabir wrote extensively in the Bangla papers condemning the attacks on Hindus. Subsequently, he had gone to West Bengal to gather more information on the Bangladeshi Hindus who had crossed over, for a film that he was making. While in Calcutta, Kabir had addressed meetings vociferously condemning the Bangladesh attacks, and discussed the issue in the Indian and international media — enough to rile any ‘ultra-nationalist’ Bangladeshi. It was no surprise therefore that the police arrested Kabir when he deplaned at Dhaka airport on 24 November.
While Kabir was doubtlessly trying to make life uncomfortable for the BNP and to turn the anti-Hindu attacks to the AL’s advantage, there is no denying that in the process he also created an unprecedented level of public awareness on the issue. His arrest raised another furore, almost as great as the one which greeted the attacks on Hindus, and added the issue of freedom of expression and press. Many pro-BNP intellectuals are also unhappy and Enayetullah Khan, the highly influential editor of the pro-BNP Holiday, has argued against the arrest and in Bangladesh there will be few takers for the action against Kabir. The government is trying to justify his arrest but it is not selling like hot jalebi in Ramadan.
Shariar Kabir has been charged with involvement in anti-state activities, the usual catch-all phrase used against people when strong evidence against them is lacking. In a press note, the government claimed that Kabir had been trying to fuel hatred and contempt for it outside the country and also indulging in anti-state activities by holding meetings. At the time of writing, Kabir remains in detention by virtue of the Special Powers Act, but the government is in a no-win situation. If Kabir is freed, he wins. If he is convicted, he wins even more.
It is important, however, to bring the focus back on the original issue and not be dragged down by the BNP vs Shariar Kabir case. Fortunately, the larger issue has picked up a life of its own, and the level of introspection this brings about can only be to the benefit of the national body politic. How effective the media (and the press in particular) can be when it catches on to a good issue is clearly evident from this case.
To begin with, the media as a whole is relatively more free under the BNP today than it was under the earlier Awami League dispensation. And it (the media) is not pulling its punches. The BBC radio’s Bangla service is presently broadcasting a series on the recent Hindu migration out of Bangladesh and the programme has a multimillion listenership in Bangla-speaking South Asia, most significantly in Bangladesh. In the meantime, various Bangla newspapers in Dhaka have been publishing the transcript of the programme, sensitizing the mass public to the subject like never before. And while Shariar Kabir is a partisan, no such charge can be brought against the outstanding BBC journalist Moazem Hussain, who travelled to India then returned to Bangladesh, tracked the families to the homes they had fled, and then did the radio series. All in all, the reaction of the press has clearly been sobering to the BNP government, a splash of cold water as it begins to grapple with the reins of power. Hopefully, the Bangladeshi public is now better informed about the Hindu community that is also part of it, and this may prevent future attacks, or at least blunt their edge.
In the meantime, the big issue of the days to come in Bangladesh will, of course, be gas. Natural gas, which lies within the deltaic country in a massive volume, attracted Bill Clinton all the way to Dhaka a couple of years ago. While outside of power, the BNP was a steadfast opponent of all attempts to make Bangladesh cohabit with American multinationals keen to exploit the gas to sell to the only market there is — India. This time, the BNP has promised to come to a decision within a month, and the Americans have descended on Dhaka.
Will the Bangladesh media cover the gas story with as much transparency and commitment as it did the story of the Hindu exodus?