In a darker December

by Audity Falguni

December is the month of blood-drenched victory for us. To earn this victory, we paid a price in the form of millions of skulls and skeletons, hundreds of mass graves and bunkers with torn hair strands and cloths of raped women, abortions and war babies. Many lives sacrificed and sufferings endured during the war of independence not only meant to liberate the land from the occupying forces but also to establish a society based on the four basic principle of our constitution of 1972. I am talking about the article 8(1) of our constitution that acknowledges Bengali nationalism, secularism, democracy and socialism as the four ‘fundamental principles of state policy.’ If we, the post-independence generation, decide to embark upon this journey through time to reach this particular month of victory in 1971, we will definitely encounter a time vibrating with hope and courage — an indomitable spirit of the people that no invader army can suppress. A phoenix of faith and assertion that reincarnates again and again amidst the ashes of a war ravaged nation.

darker-december

A vandalized temple near Datta Bari, Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria. — New Age

But today when our sky downpours the blood of the Santals in Gaibandha or Harijans (the untouchables in Hindu caste system) in Dinajpur or ashes of gutted houses of Karail slum and demolished temples in Nasirnagar, we find our last tree of hope getting miserably shrunk. With the crushed dream of Hindus, Santals, Harijans and people living in Karail, the new foliage in the tree of hope also struggle to grow!

As I am writing this piece in this hour of early December dusk, I feel gloomy. I try to look at the sky in search of the residues of hope from 1971. But, I worry. My liberated land is stained with the blood of ethno-linguistic-religious minorities. The colour of my land is darkened with the ashes of the burnt down houses of slums. Is this my/our month of ‘victory?’ Can this be the story of our forever glorious month of ‘December?’ As if my pen has a mind of its own, it wants to overwrite the story of glory, and victory adding dark to describe the month of December in 2016.

I

INDEED, I have witnessed October 2001 when supporters of BNP led four party alliance committed mass crimes and other cleansing activities against the religious minorities. A judicial probe commission investigating the post-election violence against Hindu minority has found more than 18,000 incidents of major crimes, including murder, rape, arson and looting by cadres of the then ruling BNP-Jamaat alliance in the 15 months following October. Why have I not labelled the ‘December’ of that year as ‘darker?’ Why now?

The post-election communal violence of 2001 was a time bound affair. Today, minority women are not being raped at mass scale but many temples are getting demolished, tens and hundreds of Hindus are getting evicted from their homestead, land and property. Tangible properties belonging to minority groups are stolen systematically on a regular basis. A strategy of slow violence is forged against the minority constituency of our democracy.

For the past few years, we have been witnessing continuous attack on minorities in Bangladesh. What is more frustrating that we, the minorities in particular, had always known BNP-Jamat coalition to be our ‘persecutors’ while Awami League is our ‘protector.’ The dominant response to each instance of Hindu or Chakma house being burnt or a temple or pagoda razed to the ground is reflective of this common understanding — Oh, obviously BNP-Jamat miscreants are trying to ‘destabilise’ the country. Or, extremists don’t want a ‘secular’ government on this land! While we believed that the party with a secular constitution cannot commit communal violence, national newspapers were getting flooded with news about local AL leaders’ involvement in Gaibandha or Nasirnagar carnage. I still didn’t want to believe. So, I chose to visit both Gainbandha and Nasirnagar. God, what I find there?

The bare truth was hurting. Some of the leaders of the Awami League too are involved. I didn’t want to believe it. I still want to have faith in the ‘largest secular party’ of Bangladesh. I kept reminding myself; at least minority women are not getting raped on mass scale. Then, I paused. Is this all the current government has to offer? Does that alone suffice? Do I want to label a regime ‘better’ than the other simply because ‘minority’ women are not getting raped rampantly? Can this alone be a parameter to make me ‘happy’ as a ‘citizen’ of an ‘independent’ and ‘sovereign’ state that women from my communities are not at least being raped under this regime?

This is not the freedom that my family envisioned when we lost my elder brother at a refugee camp in India. In 1971, my mother walked miles for life just a month after giving birth to my elder brother. My mother reached safety at a refugee camp, but my brother died of malnutrition. When I think of my family’s loss and sacrifice and the insecurity we have endured during the months and years after the independence, this December does appear as darker to me, it does not seem any more hopeful when the ‘epicentre’ of our ‘faith’ is in charge of the state.

II

ALL through my life I have been a ‘soft’ supporter of Awami League with regular criticism of the party’s flaw. I became an ‘ardent’ supporter of the party for the last three years. One may be curious to know why I have become an ‘ardent’ supporter of the government in the last three years.  No, I don’t know any leader of the ruling party at personal level. I live in a rented flat with the family of my elder sister and I don’t belong to the ‘elite’ class of this state. I have been and I am a humble, middle class woman all throughout my life. Still I became an ‘ardent’ supporter of the present government since the siege and rally by Hefazat-e-Islam at Dhaka on May 5 of 2013. Being an everyday middle class Bengali woman from a religious minority background and having a mixed education in Bengali (at school and college level) and English (at university) medium which basically follows a western model of ‘secularism,’ I could not simply take the fact that so many ‘mullahs’ will vandalise and torch vehicles and several buildings during their rally at Motijheel or set fire to book stores. Is Dhaka going to be Kabul overnight? I was worried. We cannot let it happen. I began spending a good portion of my daily time and energy against the slightest to harshest critiques of the government in Facebook. Soon I had debates and bitter argument with so many left friends. They too attacked me violently on Facebook. In no time, I began losing all my old friends mostly from the left leaning organisations. And, now after I come back from Nasirnagar and Gaibandha, emptiness deafens me. I find the entire situation surreal — the longest nightmare we are going through! An unending nightmare. No waking up from the horrid slumber.

III

IT’S difficult to forget Dwijen Tudu (36). During the November 6 eviction drive at Rangpur Sugar Mills in Gobindaganj of Gaibandha, he was among the injured. He received numerous pallet injuries in the upper part of his body and one of the pallets went through his left eye. He had already lost sight in one of his eyes. His vision is blurred in the other eye. When I met him in the National Eye Institute, his wife showed me wounds of stray pallets on her husband’s back.

‘He is a day labourer and we have three sons. I am a mere housewife. Now as he becomes impaired in his vision, how can we survive?’ his wife asked me.

‘My father Iliam Tudu had 26 acres of land. We still have that land record. When the Rangpur Sugar Mills authority took our land by acquisition, a total amount of 1842 acres of ours (the Santals) went to the Mill authority’s possession. It was mentioned in the land deed that if any day the Mill fails in its functioning, we will get the land back,’ said Dwijen Tudu.

‘Since 2004, the sugar mill has stopped production. Then, why the land won’t be returned to us?’ he added.

I was shocked to the bone, when I met an old Santali woman, Murali Soren (59). We met in front of the Madarpur Church of Madarpur village. She showed me her thighs wounded with stray pallet. She can’t move or walk now. I saw a number of Santal men and women living under open sky at Madarpur and Jaipur village.

‘Police and hired thugs of local politicians are taking our harvest. With a tractor they are stealing our paddy and vegetables that we have cultivated for the past 5/6 months. All have gone in vain. How can we feed our children?’ they lamented.

‘Our brother Charan will have to undergo a leg surgery and Dwijen needs an optical surgery in Dhaka. Who will bear the costs? We will not forget the bloodshed of Shyamal Hembrom or Mangal Mardi. Never Ever!’ they conveyed me their resolve.

IV

IT IS equally hard for me to forget Manada Sutradhar, a 60 years old Hindu widow from Nasinagar, Brahmanbaria. She lived through the communal attack on October 30 to tell her story. I went there with a citizen’s group on November 5. She lives in the smallest hut of Sutradhar Para in Nasirnagar. Her son is a fisherman. He was at work to catch fish in the River Titas. Her daughter-in-law and grandson were, however, at home when we visited. On the fateful day, when at least 15 Hindu temples were vandalised and more than 100 Hindu houses were looted and burnt to ashes, Manada’s daughter-in-law too lost all her prized possession including her gold chain and earrings. The carnage lasted for hours.

Apparently, the attack on Hindu houses began following an ‘anti-Islamic’ post on Facebook. Rasraj Das (30), a Hindu fisherman of the area, was accused of posting a photoshopped image of Hindu deity Lord Shiva on top of the Kaaba Sharif. He was soon taken to remand in police custody. Many Muslims rallied for his execution in Nasirnagar.

We witnessed the temple of Goddess Kali in Sutradharpara razed to the ground. Kali was beheaded, idols desecrated. A hearing and speech impaired girl, neighbour to Manada, was also roaming around with a dull look in her eyes. She too was robbed of her gold earrings on the October 31 carnage.

According to local sources, Hindus of Nasirnagar had been facing severe pressure since the union council election as the two contesting groups within local Awami League have successively warned them ‘to vote’ and ‘not to vote.’

It is now proven that Rasraj does not have the technical knowhow to either photoshop or post an image in Facebook. However, it is certain that one of the contending groups of local Awami League had committed the act to ‘corner’ the other group. Once the Facebook post became viral, all the local party offices of Nasirnagar including Bangladesh Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Ahle Sunnat Jamat, Hefazat-e-Islam, Bangladesh Islami Front, Gausia Youth launched an attack on the Hindus. We have been told that local administration played a dubious role at the time of the violence. Many assume that their inaction may have something to do with the internal conflict of local AL bodies. Both factions of Awami League wanted to politically gain from the continued communal violence in the area. Smriti Sutradhar, BA honours student of the area recalled the night with much despair and disbelief, ‘It was the day after the Shyama (Kali) puja. They announced in microphone, chanted communal slurs. Tires were set ablaze on roads. Finally, when they attacked us, we, all women kept ourselves locked.’ Another woman from Sutradhar para added to Smriti’s account, ‘Actually we could not identify many of the attackers who came to taunt us. They came in large number. They shouted at us saying, Malaun re mar, Malaun re mar (Hit the Hindus)!’

A devotional singer, Purnima Dasi (55) showed us in teary eyes how the attackers not only took her prized possessions but also destroyed her musical instruments.  From the Sutradhar para we went to Nasirnagar Gauda Temple, a large statue of Lord Shiva in white stone is partially damaged. A sebayet (devotee) of the temple is injured. Same was the ravaged scenario of Kashipara where the bell metal idol of Radha Krishna and Gopal were desecrated. The worshippers and devotees of the temple in much dismay tell us, ‘It is the month of Damodar or Kartik in Bengali calendar. Generally we hold Kirtan (devotional songs) sessions round the month. But the attackers destroyed even our musical instruments.’

V

THIS December as I write this piece to commemorate the courage, loss, sacrifice and sufferings of the people in this land to liberate Bangladesh from Pakistani occupying forces, my heart cries for the immediate losses we have witnessed in Nasirnagar, Gobindganj or Karail Basti. How do we celebrate when devotional singer Purnima Dasi cannot sing for her god, because some communal thugs destroyed her musical instruments? The worshippers of Kashipara won’t be singing kirtan this season. Their musical instruments too are destroyed.  Santals of Gobindaganj living under open sky, starved and suffering. Loot and plunder, eviction and arson, murder and injury, land grabbing and persecution — this December is not my month of ‘victory,’ it cannot be our month of ‘victory.’  I kept thinking, if Purnima Dasi picks up the broken pieces of her musical instrument, what song of victory will she be playing?

Audity Falguni is a literary scholar and social activist.

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