As I See It
October 1, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
As a young Lecturer of Dhaka University, I went to Bhola when the island was struck by one of the worst natural disasters in history as a member of a relief team of DU teachers. The tidal wave and storm that struck the southern coast of then East Pakistan on November 11, 1970, killed nearly half a million people.
In one week we stayed in the island, we visited hundreds of households. Those days, every household in rural Bangladesh housed joint families and the average number of people in each household was in dozens. There was not one household that we visited that did not lose many lives to the disaster. Yet there was no wailing among those who lived to mourn. They accepted the deaths as a will of Allah with patience.
Those were also the days when many of our friends in Dhaka University and students in the other educational institutions were motivated by the lures of communism. They took pride in decrying religion and believed in Marx’s dictum that religion is the opium of the masses and an instrument of oppression of the ruling class.
My tryst with the disaster victims in Bhola left me convinced that it is religion that is our savior, then and now. Those that the disaster spared in Bhola in November, 1970, could stand up and face their personal tragedy because of their belief in the divine power. Their faith in religion helped them keep the tragedy aside and move ahead with their lives.
In later years, when I saw people in poverty and there have always been tens of millions of them, I understood the value of religion in a poor, impoverished country like ours. It is religion that keeps people from going crazy and accepting their fate as a will of Allah. It is religion that tells them that in the life hereafter, their sufferings will be compensated. In my younger days, I remember arguing with my friends about the importance of religion in our lives though I was then by no means religious.
I have not grown any more religious over the years but my faith in religion has grown stronger. I think often that if there is no divine power, how then is Bangladesh surviving? A look at our governance shows a Prime Minister ruling with a well acknowledged weak council of ministers; a weak and highly politicized bureaucracy; a non-functioning parliament and a politics where ruling party and the opposition are at each other’s throats. Without a diving power looking at us, there is no reason for our country to move forward. Yet it is and in economic indicators of growth, doing very well!
Our population has doubled since we became independent and growing. The density is so high that it is incredible how so many people are living in so little space. It is perhaps the only country in the world where rivers are being filled to make space for habitation and business! In filling up rivers, it is not just a section of greedy people in the game; even government’s civil and military establishments have been exposed in the act.
With such being the state of affairs, a section amongst us are pushing hard to make Bangladesh secular. A few are asking Jamat be banned. Those pushing for secular Bangladesh are not taking into consideration the fact that it made little difference when we had secularism as a state principle in our constitution from 1972-1975 and it was deleted from the constitution from 1975 till being restored again recently . It did not matter either way to the people who behaved as Bangladeshis always have; with the minimum of communal bias. In fact, in history of South Asia, where all parts have suffered communal tensions and continue to do so, we in what constitutes Bangladesh have seen the minimum of communal violence.
As for those seeking to ban Jamat, they are making a major mistake. If we believe that democracy is consensus politics, then one issue upon which we have a consensus is rejecting Jamat because it uses religion as a political weapon. One should see Jamat’s electoral performance for proof of our rejection of Jamat. This notwithstanding, banning Jamat will hurt many people, most of whom are not literate. They may feel that Jamat has been banned because it projects Islam on which majority of the Muslims of this country has unflinching faith. Of course, for Jamat, banning it will give it the cause to do the type of politics that those trying to ban Jamat are suggesting; spread religious fundamentalism and extremism in the country.
All these bring me to the point I want to make. Faith in the Almighty in our lives is not a bad thing. For one, it is what keeps the mental balance in those who otherwise may not be able to keep that balance because of poverty; vicissitudes of life and other injustices. The number of such people in Bangladesh is huge. The other point is except the truly agnostics, everyone else in Bangladesh believes in divinity in one form or another.
Many of us who are not atheist or agnostic were given another chance to have a hard look at divinity. The two minutes that shook Dhaka and rest of the country has reminded us that if Allah or God or call Him by any other name had not been there, Dhaka would have been history had the earthquake of a few days ago hit a few hundred km south from its epicenter.
More importantly, now that we know that Dhaka could be that epicenter any day, we have no chance to save Dhaka. The greed and lack of vision of our elites have placed Dhaka on an irreversible course to an impending disaster. Either we have to bring down 40% of our high rises and build them again, which is not possible, or just pray to the Almighty and hope He is there to save us from the disaster.
Thus there are many reasons that should encourage us not to take chance with the divine power. Most important of all is a fact that goes by unacknowledged. It is religion that has served us well and it is politics that has not. Except at the hands of the Pakistanis in 1971, religion has complemented politics and never threatened it in our history. Its potential has not been fully exploited; in fact misrepresented by a section. It is time we use the force of religion to build a better society that can help us build a better country.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.