The recent violence in Bangladesh was the result of rumour and suspicion. Both found wings in social media. There are no greys, no doubts in a mannequin world of white and dark, Hindu and Muslim.
There is something about death and violence today that is horribly repetitive. The body counts increase but the scenarios remain the same. There is no time to pause and mourn. There is little space for prayer. A man dies and we play idiot detectives wondering who he was. As long as he belongs to a sociological category, it suffices. People don’t die, it is categories that are snuffed out.
The recent violence in Bangladesh is an example. All it required in this information age was rumour and suspicion. Both found wings in social media whose genocidal count must be assessed one day. The story is stark, something concocted by an idiot Dostoevsky. There are no greys, no doubts in a mannequin world of white and dark, Hindu and Muslim.
The story goes that a rumour went viral. Someone photographed a picture of a Quran placed at Durga’s feet. The alleged blasphemy went viral. Violence followed to avenge what was seen as an act of blasphemy. The police later discovered that the men who placed the Quran and the man who made the incident viral were both Muslims. They have been arrested.
Three things are obvious from the story so far. There is a stark dualism in the society which is sustained by a semiotics of suspicion. Each side immediately suspects the other. As a result, instead of blasphemy we have a gross brutality, an obscenity of violence. Second, oral rumour needs the sanctity of social media to give it an epidemic power. Three, there is little attempt at reconciliation. The lives of confrontation remain stark. It is as if these acts of violence are rituals to sustain the bleakness of this impoverished opposition.
The additional irony comes from the fact that many of these events get charged by electoral democracy. Electoral politics with its demographic imperatives is tweaked into dynamism with acts of violence which reveal both power of the majority and the uncertainty of minorities. Stereotypes come into play.
The entire scenario is kneejerk, black, and stark. A mere economy of stereotypes is enough to create the scenario of violence. One realises violence does not need complex scripts. It works with behaviouristic signals which would shame even Pavlov’s dogs. In fact, one is forced to ask what happens to culture and memory of these moments. India’s role in the making of Bangladesh is forgotten. In fact, one must understand that electorally 30 per cent of the electorate were pro-Pakistani. Out of this emerges many of the fundamentalist elements at play today.
There is also an ambivalence about secularism. Bangladesh under Mujib was inaugurated as a secular State but Bangladesh under the generals was fundamentalist. Sheikh Hasina’s determined attempt to revive the vision of her father has met with mixed results. Fundamentalism is a readily exploitable vote-bank while secularism is a painful exercise in constitutional politics. Added to it is the stark incentive of appropriating Hindu property.
Real estate makes many of the inner wheels of violence creating an effective mix of greed and ideology. The knee jerk myth of fundamentalism also claims to feed on reports of violence on Muslims in India. It is as if attacking the Hindu in Bangladesh restores justice. The sheer demographic fact that the Hindu population is less than 10 percent shows the cultural impoverishment of Bangladesh as a multicultural society.
Yet in fairness, one must acknowledge Hasina’s sense of the secular imagination. She reinjected the secular imagination of Mujib into the constitution. It takes courage to handle an unholy combination of military and mullah. She realises also that the Jamaat punished for war crimes is still pining for retribution and revenge. Revenge-like ideology adds to the simplicity and starkness of violence and muddies politics in a society desperately seeking democracy.
The recent episode in Comilla is a reminder of difficult tasks confronting Hasina. The idea of an Islamic state after the current developments in Afghanistan must be an even more attractive aphrodisiac to the Opposition. Once again one faces the prospect of electoralism as representation intensifying communal politics. Democracy in Bangladesh is groping for an answer. Comilla reinforces the temptation of pogroms against minorities as a kneejerk answer to politics.
How should India react? India needs to see the recent events as a minor of its own politics. Electoral politics in India has triggered violence against minorities almost as a predictable ritual. We have to work for secularism in a more creative way, but it has to be a secularism based on multiculturalism, on a vision of a dialogic society. India has to see itself as an Islamic society and create a more imaginative idea of Islam to match a syncretic Hinduism. It can use the South Asian situation as a mirror to rectify itself.
It is only in this way that a new South Asian imagination can emerge challenging the parochialism of the nation State and its majoritarian primordiality. This situation has to be read along with civilisational and democratic crises. To reduce it to another foreign policy narrative of securitarian tactics will only compound the disaster.
The writer is a social science nomad. The views expressed are personal.