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Crescent over Bangladesh

Crescent over Bangladesh

Author: Balbir K Punj
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 20, 2005

To our eternal lajja, Taslima Nasreen recently left Kolkata for Europe after being refused the citizenship of India. The intrepid writer who, in 1993, shook the conscience of humanity with her novel, Lajja, earned the ire of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh. She had been "politically incorrect" in highlighting the plight of the Hindu minority in Islamic Bangladesh. Ms Nasreen had to flee Bangladesh for fear of Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to execute her publicly for her perceived apostasy.

In the process, Bangladesh, established in 1971 as a secular country, was shamed twice. However, it is also true that Bangladesh had in 1988 constitutionally disowned secularism as an article of faith. But what about India, whose statesmen swore by secularism at least five times a day in the PMO, Parliament, public meetings, television discussion and press briefings? Why did they fail to live up to their proclaimed commitment to the cause? Or does secularism lie in condemning Gujarat but recoiling from any mention of Bangladesh, where the minorities have been all but driven out?

The UPA Government is constituted of and supported by secularists who try to outdo each other in their zeal for secularism. However, it is strange that all agree with the Islamic fundamentalists of Bangladesh on one point. It is that Ms Nasreen should have no place in Bangladesh. There are prizes for guessing whom the Government wishes to placate with such a policy. Canvassing for elections with an Osama look-alike is secular; bargaining with the local Mufti for Muslim votes is secular; retaining Article 370 and the IMDT Act too is secular; however, allowing citizenship to Ms Nasreen is communal! Is it secularism of conviction or convenience?

One does not need to read out the Citizenship Act (1955) under whose Clause 6 (Citizenship of Naturalisation) a person who has rendered distinguished service to the cause of science, philosophy, art, literature, world peace or human progress can get Indian citizenship. But Ms Nasreen has been felicitated in many western countries that were beacons of constitutional secularism. Even now she is likely to attend conferences in Europe and receive honours, including one from Belgium's Parliament.

Duplicity has stained Indian secularism all along. Remember how India (when "Indira was India") sought to clarify its position in advance to Arab countries vis-a-vis Pakistan in midst of the Bangladesh crisis in the summer of 1971? Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then a Union Minister, was sent to Syria and Egypt, with personal letter from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Moinul Haq Chaudhuri, another Union Minister, was sent to Iran. Shah Nawaz Khan, yet another Union Minister, was sent to King Hussein of Jordan. After having exhausted the stock of Muslim ministers, Mrs Gandhi requisitioned Barkatullah Khan from the deserts of Rajasthan and despatched him to Morocco. Barkatullah Khan, on his return, was made the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. What was common to all these emissaries was that they were all Muslims.

One of the observers of these events was the illustrious journalist, NG Jog. He writes, "What is more ironic is that it was conducted for the sake of Bangladesh whose leader has, from the very beginning, taken his stand on its strictly secular character. Indeed, the real significance of Bangladesh to us in India-and its most heinous sin in the eyes of Pakistan-is that it represents the victory of secularism over religion. It was absurd and far-fetched to expect any Government, which can respond only to religious sentiment, to extend support to our stand on Bangladesh-let alone to Bangladesh itself (NG Jog's Commemoration Volume; Crusaders of the Fourth Estate in India; Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Bombay, 1989 p 21).

Today, Bangladesh is no longer secular, while India still claims to be. So what message are we sending, and to whom, by being mute onlookers to the banishment of a writer whose works are a triumph of humanity over religious bigotry?

The situation in Bangladesh has turned a full circle. Today, not only the ideals that inspired that Liberation War have been reversed but the gathering storm over Ms Nasreen has become a tornado. All through the 1980s President General HM Ershad, an apt contemporary of Pakistan's Zia ul Haq, accomplished the political Islamisation of Bangladesh. Islamic fundamentalists wanted only Muslims to live in Bangladesh while Hindus, Buddhists and Christians were expected to leave it. Now, under the BNP Government and its more hardlined allies namely Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh is heading towards a Talibanisation. The Islamic fundamentalists feel that only the BNP-coalition supporter (Muslim hardliners) should live in Bangladesh while moderates who support the Awami League must leave.

On February 27, 2004, eminent Bangladeshi litterateur, Dr Humayun Azad, was brutally attacked by Islamist fundamentalists for his outspoken views on the activities of Islamists in his then just released novel. On January 27 this year, Shah AMS Kibria, Finance Minister in the Awami League government, was killed along with five other activists of his party while 150 more were injured when Islamic fundamentalists attacked the party's rally in Habiganj. On August 21, 2004, Sheikh Hasina herself had a narrow escape-unlike 24 others who died and several thousand who received wounds in another Awami rally in Dhaka. The day is not far when far-right members of the BNP-led coalition like Jamaat-e-Islami would feel that only Jamaat supporters are fit enough to live in Bangladesh while supporters of BNP are too moderate to be allowed.

But the Jamaat will not stop at that. Its desire to create a greater Bangladesh (Banga-e-Islam) by incorporating Assam, Bengal, parts of north Bihar and Northeastern India through demographic invasion now seems within its reach. To the Pakistani ISI, which has Bangladesh under its thumb, this is also a way to avenge the defeat and dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971. I don't think we can get rid of these problems by turning a blind eye to Ms Nasreen.

The UPA Government wants to reduce communalism by reducing it to a law and order problem. By doing so, it is going against historic and contemporary experiences. The Prevention of Communalism Bill slated to be tabled towards the end of the year will reportedly treat convicts of communal riot as traitors to the country. But the problem is that the legislators live in New Delhi whereas the affected people live in districts bordering Bangladesh.

There was small but significant information in almost all newspapers recently. This could be considered the charge of the "light brigade". The Chirang Chapori Yuva Mancha, named after a Dibrugarh locality, launched its campaign by distributing leaflets calling for a socio-economic boycott of Bangladeshi migrants. An exodus of Bangladeshis under threat from the Assamese took place from Digbrugarh recently. Taking a cue from Dibrugarh, some young Assamese of Jorhat began a campaign to save future generations of Assam from the clutches of Bangladeshi rule. The UPA Government has asked intelligence agencies to probe and find out whether it was motivated by the BJP's and AGP's electrol concerns.

But what makes the Congress believe that there is threat to it from the BJP or AGP in the Assembly elections next year? Tarun Gogoi's Government has to live up to a deadline nearer at hand. On April 3, 2005, in a Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind rally, its president Maulana Asad Madani openly threatened to topple Mr Tarun Gogoi's Government unless its 18-point demand was fulfilled. The Chief Minister ended up with all sorts of conciliatory voices. Is this "secularism" or a sham? We have shamed the concept of secularism more than Bangladesh.

(The writer, a Rajya Sabha MP and Convenor of BJP's think-tank can be contacted at bpunj@email.com)
 


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