Dhaka, Saturday, January 10, 2004
A community in fear
The decision by the authorities to ban all publications of the Ahmediya community arouses the grave concern of all sections of people in Bangladesh. The first impression arising from such a move centres around the belief that the government has caved in to pressure by a section of clerics, people who have in the past month been responsible for some rather unsavoury acts. The second impression, which emerges from the first one, is that by succumbing to the pressure of those who have been targeting the Ahmediya community lately the government has unwittingly sent out the message that religious tolerance in the country is now a tenuous affair. The government will, of course, deny such a charge. But the manner in which the move against Ahmediya publications was taken, a day before the expiry of an ultimatum by the more rabid sections among the anti-Ahmediya agitators, leaves little room for doubt here about the precipitate action of the authorities. The result, at this point, is that the country has been told in no uncertain terms that the practice of faith could or will henceforth be determined by the influence some self-proclaimed defenders of religious belief may bring to bear on the powers that be.
Let there be no mistake in an understanding of the sentiments of the conscious Bengali community on the issue. Those sentiments revolve around the freedom that has been accorded to the citizens of this land to practise their faith in their own distinctive ways without interference from others. It now appears that such a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom has been rudely cast aside only to accommodate the fury and unjustified passions of a few people. The constitutional point apart, there is the very valid question of whether it is within the power of government or a political administration to take upon itself the responsibility of determining the nature of religion for its people. There is hardly any question that the Ahmediya or Qadiani faith has for decades been the subject of controversy and debate among people. If there is one area in life where debate promises to be unending, it is politics and religion. And if questions of politics and religion are to be resolved, that is a job for history to deal with. Now, what has been happening around an Ahmediya mosque in the capitals Nakhalpara area is a clear case of a few people taking the law as well as the interpretation of religion in their hands and thereby creating a bad law and order situation in the area as also elsewhere in Bangladesh. It should have been for the government to come down hard on these people, for they were clearly inciting their followers to violence. The authorities, we might be told, did file a couple of cases against the agitators. But those cases, we know now, have been withdrawn. That is an ominous sign of things to come. We fervently hope that bad does not lead to worse.
Today there is the acute need on the part of the 130 million people of Bangladesh to remind their government that the job of the State is to guarantee the protection of the rights and liberties of all its citizens. By banning the publications of the Ahmediya community, by considering the further move of declaring the members of the community non-Muslim, the authorities have pushed a particular section of its people into grave danger. In a country founded on the very noble ideals of secular democracy, it is not right that even a single citizen should live in a state of fear. Our civil society has its work cut out here. It must reactivate itself in the defence of the rights, all rights, of all citizens of Bangladesh.