Clinging to creedA diverse country cannot live in peace and harmony by making one religion constitutionally superior to another
I just finished teaching Taslima Nasrin’s 1993 novel Lajja, a fictionalised account of a Hindu family’s plight in and flight from Bangladesh at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists aided and abetted by the Islamisation of the state in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition by the LK Advani-led karsevaks in India in December 1992. I also just finished listening to the Reith Lectures called “Mistaken Identities” on BBC Radio 4 delivered this year by the Afro-British (now American) philosopher Anthony Appiah who is also the president of the Modern Language Association, the largest professional organisation of language and literature professors and graduate students in North America. Appiah’s lectures are divided into three parts—creed, country and colour—delivered respectively in London, Glasgow and Accra.
Creed, country and colour have defined, shaped and defamed modernity even though we generally take capitalism, science, colonialism and democracy to be modernity’s hallmarks. In Nasrin’s novel, creed and country fiercely intersect with each other to the detriment of the Hindu minorities. And what is true of Bangladesh is true more or less for all South Asian countries—and many more. While creed and caste have come to assume predominance in India, creed and sub-creeds have wreaked havoc in Pakistan, where the Sunni jihadis have shed much blood of the Shias, other non-Suunis and non-Muslims. We have seen the struggle in Sri Lanka, where the majority Sinhalese (mostly Buddhists) disenfranchised and discriminated against the minority Tamils (mostly Hindus, some Muslims) causing a quarter-century-long civil war, almost destroying the country. Afghanistan has long been a cauldron of Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban over moderate Muslims of various ethnicities.
State and religion
Nepal’s 250-year-old Hindu monarchy privileged Hinduism as a state religion in such a way that its hierarchical pluralism suffused the state’s treatment of its diverse populace. And even after Nepal became a secular republic in 2008, its secularism remains a volatile issue for the diehard Hindu nationalists. By advocating the primacy of the Hindu majority over the state, they surely hope to bring back the monarchy, thus once again establishing their version of peace and harmony, if not progress.
Well, Bangladesh had never been a monarchy like Nepal nor did it have a 250-year-old history. In fact, when the inhabitants of East Pakistan became independent and sang amar sonar Bangla—my golden Bengal—it declared itself a secular republic. But that dream of a secular Bengali nation, established in the name of the Bengali language and culture after the genocide of almost a million Bengalis by the Pakistani army and its allies, was shattered by the creedal hardliners, who believed in what Appiah calls scriptural determinism—which assumes that you can pick a passage of scripture at random and predict what the religion will look like—after the assassination of its founder Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) in August 1975. Bengalis had fought to create a secular, liberal state of Bangladesh for every Bengali and even non-Bengali, different from the romantic, holy land of Pakistan created for the Muslims.
The two generals, Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who came after Mujib’s death, tampered with the secular constitution, eventually making it Islamic, and privileging Muslims over Hindus in the army, bureaucracy, politics and all other state organs even though Hindus and Muslims both spoke the same language.
Where a liberal state previously had won over a romantic one, now scriptural determinism displaced the historical necessity of liberation from Pakistan. Appiah argues that the romantic state ever since Johann Gottfried Herder has embraced some form of a homogenous identity of the folk. In Europe, it was language, race and religious denomination that determined the formation of the state even though democracy and capitalism remained the outer from. But we know that elsewhere, too, language, creed and notions of caste and colour have informed what constitutes a state, which has more or less been an imitation of the homogenous European model.
Trouble and strife
Nasrin saturates her realist novel with documentary evidence of the mayhem the Muslim fundamentalists wreak on the Hindus, ransacking their houses, demolishing their temples, capturing their lands, raping their women and driving them out of their ancestral abodes. Droves after droves of Bengladeshi Hindus flee their country. But Sudhomoy, the patriarch of the Datta family, refuses to leave his country despite the violence. Because of his secular belief and his son’s Marxist commitment to secular humanism, they stick to Bangladesh, despite getting driven out from their ancestral home and land in Mymensingh. But even in Dhaka, the Datta family finds little respite because the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India incites the Muslim fundamentalists to violence and arson against the Hindu minorities. Friends look friends with suspicion; neighbours become enemies because of creedal difference.
After Sudhamoy’s daughter Maya is abducted and her body is rumoured to be floating under a bridge, the Datta father gives in and agrees to leave Bangladesh for India. Nasrin offers exile as the only solution to the minorities in a romantic state.
While the novel paints a grim picture of inter-communal relations in Bangladesh of the early 1990s, we know that jihadi violence has not abated even now, as the killings of editors, bloggers and the July attack on a Dhaka restaurant attest. Nasrin’s novel shows that a diverse country cannot survive in peace and harmony by making one religion constitutionally superior to another and that scriptural determinism is a poison for democracy. While a romantic state has a powerful pull for the dominant population, it can create havoc if it is allowed to replace a liberal state. Constant vigilance on the part of the enlightened of all creeds and castes is the only guarantee that scriptural determinism and romantic dreams of the fundamentalists and nationalists do not defeat the logic of the liberal state and overpower the historical reality of diversity in conceiving and implementing a constitution.
The people must defend secularism and justice if democracy is to survive. And Nasrin’s novel offers powerful fictional and factual evidence of the dangers of a liberal state’s collapse. The newly minted liberal state of Nepal could learn some lessons from its neighbours, including Bangladesh.