Reacting to a social media post on October 31, 2016, miscreants with alleged political connection attacked Hindu temples and homes in Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria, setting at least a hundred homes and five temples on fire. About a month later, on November 6, 2016, police opened fired and killed two people and injured many in a clash with Santals, an ethnic minority group. In both instances, the role of local administration, law enforcement agencies and mainstream political parties were not only questionable, but there were allegations that they were partly to blame for both the incidents.
Though the two incidents are apparently disconnected, there is a pattern common to both. The victims were not offered any immediate protection by either the state or political parties. Such violence against minorities is regrettable and every citizen believing in freedom and equality must condemn such heinous acts. There is no place of such organised violence against minorities in any society. The scars of minority wounds already run deep in Bangladeshi society. This is particularly sad given the glorious legacy of the country's founder fathers' fight for the rights of people irrespective of caste and creed.
The question of minority in a majoritarian democracy is both historical and a theoretical one. Early political theorists like Alex de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill were less enthusiastic and confident about the political and institutional arrangements that would adequately answer the question of minorities. However, over the last hundred years and with the rise of institutionalism, philosophers and political theorists placed high hope on institutions in order to secure the minorities their equal and respectable place in a democracy. However, contemporary global events suggest that the question of democratic pluralism has returned to square one and reemerges as a deep philosophical question.
In many majoritarian democracies now, minorities are living very much on the edge, and their voices are less heard even in the presence of robust institutional arrangements, contrary to the belief of the institutionalists. Moreover, with countries navigating through a rough patch due to crumbling socio-economic conditions, populist politics is taking over rational judgments. Many politicians are simply jumping on the bandwagon of name-calling and blame-game to score cheap political points.
The US presidential elections in 2016 and Britain's exit from European Union appear to have the same bearing when certain political groups choose an easy but toxic strategy to win over electoral hurdles by igniting primordial majoritarian-sentiments directed against minority groups. In such situations, according to institutionalists, impersonal public institutions are supposed to stand guard between majoritarian wrath and minority fear. However, it is evident from the experiences of the United States and Indian public institutions that such trusts are oversold and that institutions consistently underperform as independent and honest brokers. The inability of some key public institutions of the United States to address the structural forms of racism, and the inability of Indian public institutions to even address (let alone cure) the social and religious stratifications (caste system) are ideal examples of institutional failure. One may ask: is it simply a question of a random institutional failure in some democracies or is the problem pointing to a serious deficiency in democratic theories that needs reexamination? John Stuart Mill in his classic work On Liberty, once argued: "Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist." Given the dismal state of democracy on this issue, the political theorists who once dismissed J.S. Mill's pessimistic views trusting heavily on institutional remedies would surely rethink their rebuttal.
As regards Bangladesh, which is largely a homogenous country, we rather need some basic but profound reflections. Are we, as a nation, too intolerant to accommodate a few percentage of minority population? Do our religious and moral teachings have any foundation for such reprehensible actions?
This demands a deep soul-searching. All our socio-economic developments would be rendered meaningless if we cannot create a society where two people with different identities and views cannot coexist peacefully. The obvious question then follows: where do we start? I believe the complexity surrounding the issue deserves a multilayered response. The first place for scrutiny is the education system, the curriculum and teachers' training, which we must reexamine and do the needful. Second, we must seriously shed light on the state of our public institutions, the training and orientation of public officials, including of law enforcers. If we cannot sensitise our public officials on dealing with minorities, and do not properly orient them to the issue of democratic pluralism, their response to situations such as Nasirnagar or Rangpur would make little difference. Third, we must raise the legal bar for any violation of minority rights, hence, we should revisit the legal regime. Fourth, a more responsible media is a prerequisite. The social media has added to the complexity, and countries all over the world are trying to figure out how to encourage citizens to use social media more responsibility. The challenge is bigger for a country like Bangladesh with poor literacy and lack of proper grooming of youngsters. Another important area is training the media professionals. Many media outlets have questionable disciplines, and lack training facilities for their professionals. Regulating the media has always been a double-edged sword. Therefore, a fine balance has to be struck where the media will not be intimidated but feel obligated to carry forward certain ethical standards for collective good. Above all, without a strong political will at the top and without major political parties not only strongly condemning any violence against minorities but also abandoning sectarian politics, all other efforts would be in vain.
The writer is senior lecturer and research associate at BIGD, BRAC University, Bangladesh and visiting scholar at Boston University, USA.