The interplay of religious ideas and political narratives has been a source of both harmony and strife in the variegated tapestry of Bangladesh, a nation marked by cultural diversity and fraught political history. Nested between India and Myanmar, Bangladesh has seen a long history of intergroup religious and ethnic conflict. In recent years religious conflicts between Bangladesh’s Muslim majority and Hindu, Christian, and Sikh minorities have escalated. This has resulted in marginalizing and persecuting people with minoritized or dissenting viewpoints. My essay argues that communal violence partly results from differing interpretations of religious ideas. Religious majorities frequently use these differences as political weapons to police and persecute minorities. These differences generate distrust, discrimination, and resentment, often leading to violence against minorities. This essay seeks to study the complex interplay of factors contributing to communal violence in Bangladesh by thoroughly examining the historical backdrop, sociopolitical causes, people’s narratives about conflict, and its psycho-social underpinnings. The essay is based on in-depth discussions and interviews with members of Bangladesh’s majority and minority religious groups. These conversations have yielded insightful information about the real-life experiences of those directly impacted by communal violence. My interviewees shared their personal experiences and drew on these to make recommendations for more inclusive imagined futures for the country. This essay seeks to initiate a conversation enabling people to connect disparate stories and to think of new social resources to cultivate empathy, destroy prejudice, and advance a deeply ingrained sense of belonging that penetrates society.
Hindus and Muslims have maintained a complex and multidimensional relationship throughout South Asia’s rich history. While the historical record is replete with instances of conflict among these communities, it is also equally rich in numerous accounts of intercultural exchange and interaction. Hindus and Muslims frequently interacted, exchanged commodities, and developed economic ties through trade (Subrahmanyam,2005). Ancient and medieval India’s bustling markets and commercial hubs were a mingling zone for various cultures, religions, and traditions. Hindu and Muslim traders interacted, bargained, and collaborated in developing thriving trade networks, which in turn engendered new kinds of cultural relationships between the communities. (Subrahmanyam,2005) One of my interviewees, a professor of Anthropology, mentioned that in the pre-colonial period, many contexts, such as trade and agriculture, promoted cultural interaction and exchange between different communities in South Asia. He said,
“Hindus and Muslims had conflicts and harmony if we look back at the history of India. They had their own way of communication and thriving, but the violence after the partition created an invisible line and hatred between them.” (Faisal, 2022)
Social life fostered more contexts of interdependence and exchange between communities at the everyday level. Many of these shared cultural contexts were eroded with the establishment of a new system of colonial governance. Under the new regime of colonial governance, boundaries dividing communities in South Asia hardened and became more exclusive. These boundaries have further sharpened over the course of the history of independent Bangladesh.
Almost all of my interviewees reflected on the growing communal tensions in the country. One unsettling finding was that some interviewees expressed their discomfort with the hostility that certain members of the majority Muslim community showed toward the country’s Hindu minorities, frequently accompanied by doubts about their nationality.
One of my interviewees, who completed his undergraduate from law, said,
“Some people from the majority community make us feel like we don’t belong here by taunting us that we should go back to India with our own people. This feeling got me interested from my childhood.” (Anonymous, 2023)
Many doubt the citizenship of the country’s Hindu minority by equating Bangladeshi citizenship with Bengali Muslim identity. When I asked my interviewees about the sources of this prejudice, many traced it back to the history of the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, which created the two independent states of Pakistan and India and resulted in unprecedented levels of violence and mass migration. Due to the division of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, almost seven million Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus were forcibly displaced from their homes. This history of forced migration strengthened the idea that Muslims belonged in a Muslim country and Hindus in a Hindu country. This perspective and political narrative have been passed down through the generations, stoking social tensions over identity and belonging in Bangladesh and India. A history lecturer at BRAC University, Hafiz Sharear, brought up an intriguing issue regarding the impact of the religious divide and consequent migration in Bangladesh during our conversation during the interview. He said,
“Bangladesh adopted Islamic concepts from nations like Saudi Arabia, which are recognised as authorities on Islamic law, jurisprudence, and cultural values. After Bangladesh gained its independence, many of its citizens moved there in search of jobs, bringing back with them a self-portrayed version of Islam.”(Anonymous, 2023)
This borrowing from Saudi Arabia, according to Sharear, has facilitated the emergence of a rigid majoritarian conception of Islamic identity that has affected the multicultural fabric of Bangladesh. Other interviewees underlined the ability of religious leaders to influence people through powerful narratives about Islamic history and culture in Bangladesh. My interviewees pointed out these leaders propagate a narrative that no religion welcomes individuals from opposing communities. Hafiz Shahrear and some other interviewees suggested that religious priests must be well-versed in their religion’s teaching to preach them properly. The proliferation of several narratives from diverse speakers might result in misinterpreting spiritual teachings without suitable direction and qualifications (Faisal,2023). My interviewee traced this profusion of false, politically charged religious narratives as a cause for the increasing religious violence directed against minorities in the country. Recent examples include the tragedy in Rangpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh 2021, where the circulation of a fraudulent Facebook post wrongly implicated a Hindu community member and sparked violence against members of the community carried out by Muslim groups(Times of India,2021). This tragic incident highlights the need to check and counter the transmission of false information and politically motivated religious narratives in order to prevent violence and promote peace.
Impact of the education system
The Bangladeshi education system provides school-going children with religious instruction, which is segregated along religious lines; Muslim students are taught Islamic studies while Hindu students are taught Hindu studies and so on. In my own primary school and high school, religious instruction was divided into 2 main primary texts. The first is Islam and moral studies, and the second is Hindu Religion and moral studies. As one of my interviewees recalled, this system perpetuates a sense of religious divide and difference from an early age. One of my interviewees shared that being the only Hindu child in her school meant that no teacher was available at the school to teach her about her religion. When it came time for exams, the school had no question paper printed for her, and she was instead given a sheet of paper with questions written on it by hand. She felt hurt and excluded due to this differential treatment (Maddy,2023). The interviewee said,
“I was always separated from my class when there used to be a religion period, which gave me utter pain. One day I was sitting in a classroom while the Islam religion period, minding my own business. The teacher furiously looked at me and asked me to leave the class.” (Anonymous, 2023)
The early exposure to the idea of two distinct and exclusive religious identities fostered by different religious books and the differential treatment experienced by students in the same classroom create a hierarchy between students from majority and minority communities. Through the process of segregated religious instruction, minority students are visibly excluded from the student body. This distinction and divide produced by educational pedagogy foster the growth and spread of exclusive narratives about religious identity and culture among younger generations. During one of my interviews, I learned the story of a young Muslim child who was raised by a Hindu family. But eventually, he started to distance himself from the Hindu family, declaring, “We are not the same,” marking his separation from Hindu society. While narrating the story, the interviewee said,
“The boy was so well entangled with our family as we were neighbours from childhood, but his ideas about us changed when he started going to school. He didn’t want to be a part of us because he thought we were different.”(Anonymous, 2023)
This story highlights the importance of how popular narratives about religious identities construct psycho-social divides that can deepen across generations. As my interviewee’s example shows, a child being brought up with no notion of religious difference in their mind can change their mind later in life because of the social environment they are exposed to. When social institutions such as families and schools—, fail to explain the value of mutual respect and cultural diversity at an early age, divides between different communities can harden across generations.
Building Bridges and Overcoming Psychological Divisions
All of my interviewees, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, stressed the importance of interfaith dialogues devising potential solutions to solve communal violence issues in Bangladesh. The discussion participants underlined the need to be thoroughly aware of the various communities that make up their society. It was acknowledged by most of my interviewees that encouraging empathy, respect, and understanding across various religious groups is essential to creating a coexisting environment. One of my interviewees completing her bachelor’s in Biotechnology said,
“People must understand that empathy is necessary to co-exist in society. If one can understand another person’s feelings, it is easier to foster help toward people despite being in different communities.”(Anonymous, 2023)
The division of religion should not affect how a person should help another person in need. All of my interviewees pointed to the need to create contexts for interfaith discussions to develop a sense of unity amidst cultural diversity by facilitating meaningful contact and exchange that allows people to learn from one another’s viewpoints. While some felt that shared religious instruction might foster these changes, others reflected on how the limitations of existing institutions might make sure measures difficult to execute. In our conversations, lawyers and law students whom I spoke to worried about Bangladesh’s low legal consciousness level today. A law graduate working as a research associate said,
“Bangladesh has very few law enforcement employees, such as Police officers. Hence, it has become tough to maintain the state’s power structure, and the state failed to provide hope to people that law and order are present in this society, resulting in increased communal violence and incidents like the Rangpur fire tragedy.”(Anonymous, 2023)
As my interviewees suggested, combined with an absence of legislation prohibiting people from acting aggressively or disparagingly towards minority groups, the overall lack of legal consciousness compounded the problem of inter-communal violence. Moreover, the notion that the law can successfully address religious violence has been undermined by the state’s inability to act justly in a number of recent episodes of violence in the country.
In my opinion, two approaches are required to solve the problem. First and foremost, society should prioritise fostering empathy and compassion through education, neighbourhood projects, and inclusive conversations. Individuals can better understand and support one another, regardless of their religious or social affiliations. Second, legislative reforms are essential to raise public awareness of the law. A clear and effective legal system that guarantees justice for victims of communal violence should be established, as should comprehensive legislation prohibiting aggressive behaviour, hate speech, and discrimination. This will restore faith in the rule of law. People will be more conscious about law and order existence and how violence can be controlled.
University students who participated in the interviews emphasised that reforming religious teaching in schools is important to the answer. Instead of breaking religious texts apart, one of my interviewees suggested that the state introduce a single moral studies book. This would help students develop a discerning attitude needed to analyse the relative merits of different religious arguments and narratives. An interviewee from the Hindu religious community said,
“Schools should offer a single religious studies course where students choose to learn about any or all religions, thus learning to engage with religious ideas from traditions other than one’s own.” (Anonymous, 2023)
My interviewees felt that this open-minded approach to religious education could foster harmony, understanding, and tolerance among pupils, resulting in a more unified and respectful society. By fostering new contexts for empathy and intercultural dialogue, this new educational pedagogy to help overturn more exclusive visions of identity and belonging that inform popular histories and political narratives in Bangladesh.
In conclusion, the insights gained from in-depth conversations with diverse Bangladeshi citizens have illuminated the multifaceted nature of communal violence and the essential components required to promote lasting peace in the country. A comprehensive strategy addressing historical, sociocultural, and educational aspects is paramount to combat this complex issue. Fostering respectful and open interfaith dialogue, promoting empathy, and cultivating understanding amongst many religious communities are necessary for achieving a harmonious society. This can be supported via interfaith discussions, cultural exchange initiatives, and neighborhood gatherings that support shared values and objectives while dispelling myths and barriers that might otherwise feed conflicts within the neighbourhood. Simultaneously, tackling violence, hate speech, and discrimination requires legal reforms and establishment of a robust and impartial judicial system. Stricter laws against incitement to violence and hate crimes must be enacted, and enforcement should be swift and fair, sending a clear message that violence will not be tolerated in any form. The educational system has a significant influence on how the next generation thinks. Thus, developing empathy, respect, and tolerance early on is crucial. Students can better understand other belief systems by presenting a thorough and inclusive curriculum emphasising moral studies and ethical ideals shared by all major religions.
Additionally, allowing kids to study religious traditions other than their own helps promote understanding among people and lessen prejudice. In my opinion, implementing these strategies, a collaboration between government institutions, religious leaders, civil society organisations, and educational institutions is crucial. A collective effort that brings together various stakeholders will create a powerful momentum toward a peaceful and cohesive society. It is important to recognise that Bangladesh’s path to peace and harmony may be difficult and paved with difficulties. Still, the nation’s progress and prosperity depend on its dedication to overcoming all this violence. I hope we all can unite in pursuing a better and more inclusive future for all Bangladeshi citizens as we adopt a plan that includes dialogue, legal reforms, and educational transformation. It will take time, but it is not impossible to create a sense of lasting peace and a better Bangladesh for future generations by encouraging empathy, understanding, and respect.
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