WE ARE NOT COMMUNAL...PERHAPS
A Hindu man I know got married recently. Speaking of the
occasion, one of the guests (a lecturer at a university)
expressed his dissatisfaction at the arrangements. The food
was not as expected, and apparently the guests were not
properly taken care of. Then the man said, "Maybe because
they were Hindu, you know, they weren't too well disposed
to us Muslims!" His words suddenly struck me forcibly. It
could very simply be that the family members were bad hosts;
But because this was a Hindu family, it had gathered some
We were waiting in front of Ecstasy, the store for men's
clothing, just before "Durga Pooja" when there was a power
failure. There were some young boys hanging out there, indulging
in harmless fun - sharing a cigarette or a joke, checking
out girls. Then someone said jokingly, "All the Malus are
spending like crazy for Pooja, let's go kick some Malu ass".
A girl I had attended Holy Cross College with, remarked
blithely when some of us invited a varsity classmate to
sit at the same table with us at TSC, "Why are you asking
him to join us, don't you know he's Hindu, they're dirty
you know, they smell bad."
The university lecturer remains close friends with the Hindu
groom, the boys outside Ecstasy did nothing more than join
in laughter at their friend's suggestion; a year later my
college classmate declared that the Hindu boy was her closest
male friend. These people I speak of are not bad people;
they do not hate people because of their color or their
creed, they do not resort to violence to resolve issues.
If you speak to them about the minority problem in Bangladesh,
about the increasingly violent face of religion that has
emerged in recent times, they will express their horror
and their anger at atrocities that occur in the name of
religion - any religion. Yet somewhere deep inside lies
a kernel of something dark, something that is communalism,
as surely as the massive terror of Gujarat and the 'isolated'
incidents of "Banshkhali" and across Bangladesh are communal.
Communalism does not just mean going out into the streets,
burning, and looting "their" houses, raping "their" women
or slitting "their" throats. Communalism is the little things
we do and say; the stereotyping of people. Communalism is
watching a little girl with a dirty dress and snot running
down her nose and thinking that Hindus are dirty and don't
take care of their children.
When violence related to the demolition of the Babri mosque
was raging across India, I was a teenager, growing up in
the enlightened and sheltered environment of a university
campus. I remember a boy a couple of years younger than
myself living nearby, his father also a teacher like mine.
He was the quiet type, the classic four-eyed geek in appearance.
He was also Hindu. One evening, when some of my friends
were passing by his apartment, they decided to throw stones
at his window. And they also shouted names at the apartment-
"Malaun!" they called out; and "Muslim Killers", "Babri
Bashers". It was harmless fun, I heard again and again later,
no different from the time when we all used to tease the
nerdy types at school. The harmless fun left three or four
windows broken in the apartment. The next morning there
were complaints from the neighbors at this kind of unruly
behavior. There were also several late night anonymous phone
calls, whispering obscenities at the boy's mother. The boy's
father never actually made a complaint.
Is that communalism? Yes or no? Perhaps, in the light of
Gujarat or the lesser happenings in Bangladesh you will
say "Of course not" in an affronted voice. But when one
day I will wake up and find that the Hindu family next door
is gone, suddenly left town with most of their belongings,
their land sold away quietly with even their closest Muslim
friends without a clue, I will remember the sound of windows
breaking. Whenever I will hear anyone announce with pride
that the terrible events surrounding the Babri Masjid, or
the Gujarat riots were not reflected in Bangladesh, or that
things like the Banshkhali tragedy are horrific but isolated
incidents, I can't help but think of the Hindu boy living
near our house. No, he was not beaten up, his sister was
not raped, and they were not uprooted from their house.
Of course these things did not happen to him, for ours is
a tolerant community and we think of them as one of our
own. But in this world there exists more than one kind of
violence. The harmless fun indulged in by some high-spirited
teenagers gave that Hindu family one message very clearly
- they were not part of us. The boys didn't mean any harm.
Some of them were even childhood friends of the Hindu boy
growing up side by side. They hung out together, talked
about girls, shared their first puff on a cigarette. They
didn't really have animosity in their hearts when they threw
those stones. But they did throw the stones-- at the one
apartment among thirty others that housed a Hindu family
during a time when religious tensions were high across the
But still we are not communal people. Incidents do happen
occasionally here and there, but these are isolated incidents,
and can happen in the best of nations, among the best of
people. There are always a couple of bad apples in any given
barrel. The kind and scale of the horror of Gujarat is almost
unthinkable here. Almost unthinkable. Almost.
I fear less the seeable violence- that is the violence and
hatred that bares its fangs and takes away your house, your
home, your family; the violence that says that you are Hindus/
Muslims/ Christians and you do not belong here among us.
I prefer that violence. That is something you can put your
finger on, point at and say "Look, look at what they have
done to us!" But in Bangladesh it is the violence of the
mind, violence that is implicit that we need to fear, the
violence that slowly eats away who you are; the violence
that is a voice calling out "Malaun" in the darkness, the
violence that laughingly throws stones at your windows,
the violence that is a strange voice on the phone at the
dead of night.
Those of us who come out and say "Kick those malauns back
to where they came from", are the easy ones. These you can
look at, and easily identify as evil people, hate mongers,
people who would like to sow discord in the fabric of our
But then there are the others, the people like you and me.
Liberals who think that they are fair minded and tolerant,
yet who retain a kernel of mistrust regarding the existence
of "them"; these are the ones we truly need to fear.
Bangladeshis proudly pronounce that this is not a communal
nation. I myself when talking of racism and communalism
have boasted that yes, compared to our neighboring nations
we are much more tolerant and non-communal. But the trap
of self-complacency is a dangerous and ever widening pit.
It is so easy to fall into it forever.
One thing about discrimination - be it for or against any
religion, race or gender - is that at one point the degree
or intensity of discrimination becomes less important; measuring
our own evil against the evil of other nations does not
absolve us of our own guilt. Expiation does not lie within
the words: there are people who are worse than we are. The
fact that the man next door cracked his wife's ribs does
not mean that my crime of a single slap on her cheek is
less of a sin. The fact that communal riots happen in India
or Pakistan but not in Bangladesh does not indicate that
we are better human beings. Or that the poison of religious
and/or racial hatred has not seeped into our minds.
So the question comes up again-- are we communal or aren't
we? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. Truth
has a disconcerting habit of being neither black nor white.
But what we need to do today is look deep within ourselves.
The question to ask is not simply whether we are or aren't
communal people; the question is, are we content with what
we are? If we are happy with who and what we are, then it
does not matter whether we are communal or whether we practice
unfair discrimination. For if we ourselves feel no discontent,
then there is no power in the world that can make us amenable
to change - any change. If, however, we feel that whatever
the reasons, we, the majority, have failed to provide minorities
of this country with an environment where they are able
to stand up straight and strong, to speak with courage and
dignity about the human condition as experienced by them,
then it is time for us to rethink the identity we have created
A few isolated experiences of one individual are what this
essay started off with. I have a number of non-Muslim friends,
but have never actually thought of the fact that they were
minority people, never considered what meaning that fact
held for them, how it shaped their selves and their lives.
I was content just knowing that they were around, they were
my friends. I have only recently realized that the experiences
narrated in the beginning of this piece were "experiences"
at all. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things they are unimportant.
However, with the rise of violence directed against a certain
kind of people, it has become necessary to reexamine all
our comfortable assumptions regarding a number of things
- not in the least, assumptions regarding our selves.
There are times in the lives of individuals as well as in
the lives of nations, when ignorance itself is a sin. If
we choose not to see, not to know who and what we are, then
it is easy for the oft cited "elements with vested interests"
to escalate a sense of "otherness". It appears that all
the potent ingredients needed to reach that final stage
are being aroused and assembled in Bangladesh. However,
it is for us to decide whether the truth is too grey to
be seen; it is for us to decide whether the escalation towards
a larger violence should continue unchecked. The angry young
poet Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah once asked, "Stop, question
yourself, which road will you take?" It is time, we ask
that question of ourselves.
-- Shabnam Nadiya NEXT>