Bangladesh is a killing field

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Rezaul Karim Siddiguee was hacked to death by Islamists yesterday in Bangladesh. He was not an atheist blogger. He was a professor of English at Rajshahi University. He was involved in cultural activities. He played sitar and puboished literary magazines. He was of course a progressive man.

It is not easy to find atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. Because atheists left the country out of fear. Some are hiding. Stop writing. So, islamists killed a progressive student in Dhaka a few days ago, now they killed a progressive teacher in Rajshahi.

Muhammad killed poets. Asma Bint Marwan was killed for criticizing Muhammad in her poetry in 624. Rezaul Karim Siddiquee was killed by followers of Muhammad for writing poems or publishing literary magaizines, or playing sitar or for being a freethinker in 2016.

I am not surprised. Killers are Muslims. They have the right to practice Islam or follow the orders or advices of Allah and Muhammad in a country where state religion is Islam and where almost everybody believes that Islam means peace and nobody has the right to do any unislamic things. Rezaul Karim opened a music school in his village, that was a non Islamic act. Writing poetry,playing sitar are also non Islamic.

Islamists killed some other progressive professors of Rajshahi University. Islamists will continue killing all the secular progressive people in Bangladesh. Government will say nothing against the killers. No action will be taken against them. Bangladesh is Becoming a killing field.

Delhi made a brave start to clean up

Delhi appeared almost unrecognisable during the days of the odd-ev­en rule, when evenings appe­ared livable, devoid of traffic snarls and as if, in the midst of a holiday season or a citywide general strike. Delhi is the wo­rld’s second largest densely populated city after Tokyo. The populations of some of the European towns do not even add up to a couple of la­khs, though Delhi boasts more than 2.5 crore residents. No wonder, the first fortnight of the New Year transformed De­lhi into a dream city.

I often cover my routine ev­ening drives through Delhi in an hour-and-half, though now I did it in barely 20 minutes, which is why I find the odd-even scheme almost magical. This was tried and tested in Beijing a few years ago with overwhelming success, and appeared to work in Delhi on Day 1, though, to start with, so many of us remained sceptical. I remember crossing path with a journalist friend at the state-run Doordarshan Ken­dra, who informed me that he’d taken the metro to reach office, a first in years. It is go­od to see that a constructive move has been made to make Delhi pollution free and most Delhiites endorse the plan.

Global studies earlier sho­wed Beijing and now Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. It’s high time that city government draws up a sustained and viable campaign to clean up the mess, for which, several foolproof measures can be initiated. For starters, it sho­uld ban old diesel cars, as th­ese are among the biggest sou­rces of pollution. Cigarettes are no longer the prime cause of lung cancer; carcinogens concentrated in the atmosph­ere are far more lethal. I don’t remember a day when I wal­ked Delhi’s forever busy str­eets breathing freely, or without coughing. A large number of citizens have taken to wearing masks sold at neighbourhood chemists, even as the city stays shrouded by permanently looming smog. Haunted by the poisonous air, we no longer get to enjoy the city’s fabulous winter.

Let there be longer queues at the metro. Let there be mo­re public buses. Let the upper class and upper middle class keep aside their vanity and take to public transport. Let separate cycle tracks run parallel to the main carriageways and the citizens pedal to office. Delhi’s face will change for the better.

Citizens across Europe are looked up to for cycling to wo­rk. Berlin’s streets have been redesigned with cycling tracks that are not encroached upon by rush hour cars. Even ministers in Stockholm ride to wo­rk. Public representatives ha­ve the moral conviction to le­ad by way of example. Delhi needs to catch up with the world’s foremost modern civi­lisations. And the governme­nt’s top echelons must set the example to make this happen, instead of spending billions to treat bronchial ailments, as catastrophic death stares citizens in their faces.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who masterminded the move, set a precedent, dr­iving on alternate cars to wo­rk, as his own car sported an odd number; the tourism mi­nister bicycled to office. Kejriwal was strict about not exte­nding privileges based on citizens’ social standing, considering that Delhi is home to thousands of VIPs. I too chose to stay indoors every alternate day of the odd-even fortnight, as my car sports an even number plate. Though I have a security detail to escort me all over the city, I never felt it ne­cessary to drag my VIP mooring by driving out on days wh­en my car was meant to idle. I live in this city under a constant threat from fundamentalists without whom I would love to bicycle around the ci­ty’s lovely roads every day, irrespective of whether the odd-even rule was in force or not.

Yet, Delhi being Delhi, I was overwhelmed to note the scale of corruption in Delhi to help citizens bend the rules, despite the Herculean effort to clean up the city. In this co­untry, the corrupt always have the last word. Fuel stations were busy selling illegal CNG stickers for cars that don’t run on natural gas. And desperate citizens, who don’t think twice about burning up lakhs on the latest fuel guzzlers, got busy buying those stickers. I also noticed certain citizens driving around with the wrong nu­mber plate, despite the concession made only to self-driving women, CNG cars and for medical emergency. Who knows if these citizens were content at breaking the rule by paying a hefty Rs 2,000 fine? It’s sad that such scoundrels don’t understand how big the problem of pollution is.

It’s also unfortunate that well-known global brands selling diesel cars have been nagging about the Supreme Co­urt-imposed ban on sale of higher capacity diesel vehicles in the national capital, when everybody knows that such cars are a menace. It’s time that the carmakers adopt social and ecological consciousness instead of racing to capture market and chase profit.

All this when, a majority of Delhi’s residents actually fo­und it wise to wholeheartedly stick with the odd-even plan making the experiment a gra­nd success.

When freedom remains in bondage

It’s been 44 years now that Bangladesh has beco­me an independent nati­on, but it still feels like yesterday. Freedom from Pakistan was won after a long war of nine months and Banglad­esh was born with the promise of being a peaceful, tolerant, democratic and secular nati­on. Though if you talk to Indians, most will say that the 1971 war was fought between India and Pakistan and Bangladesh’s gu­errilla forces had no part in it. It was as a result of India’s victory that Banglad­esh was born, they aver.

However, the fact is that independence was achieved by the sacrifices and bloodshed of Bangladeshi freedom-fighters. The second partition was the result of the uprising of Bengali muslims of East Pakistan aga­inst the constant att­acks on them by non-Bengali muslims. The idea of all muslims living happily ever after in one country after separating from India, obviously wasn’t working out.

The nationalists who fou­ght for Bangladesh envisioned a country that would differ fr­om Pakistan in its goals and principles. A nation where ev­eryone, irrespective of religi­ous inclination, would coexist in mutual harmony. However, within a few years of indepe­ndence, the country’s ugly si­de emerged. Though Bangla­desh is not divided geographically, there is a major division on the basis of principles: at one end there are dogmatic religious fascists and on the other is the liberal secular minority. Religious extremists attack unarmed liberals with impunity, and rising frequency, while the judicial system remains in disarray. So, far from being different from Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh is actually no different from it.

The powers that be in Ba­ngladesh have long fed the masses with catchy words like freedom, democracy and secularism, however, the country is not mature enough to understand and implement these id­eals. The day Bangladesh comprehends the value of these words and start to practise them, that would be the day when the national flag fluttering over the memorial of the martyrs in Dhaka would derive its true honour.

I don’t celebrate the indep­endence day of Bangladesh because I am hardly able to see any difference between Ban­gladesh and Pakistan. Fre­ethinking is prohibited in both countries, so how does that make us free? I strongly feel that Bangladesh does not ha­ve the right to celebrate independence day till freethinkers stop getting killed and exiled ones are brought back home. The celebration on February 21 will, therefore, be nothing but a superficial pomp and show as long as Bang­ladesh does not fix its issues of injustice against the liberals.

I don’t have faith in religion, but in human beings. I place my faith in good work, constructive ideas, dedicati­on, eq­uality and freedom of speech. Do I not have the right to live in Bangladesh? It’s been 21 years now that I have been banished from my motherland. It wasn’t my choice; the government forced me out and the doors of return are closed till date. Why did I have to face this fate? Did I kill or loot anyone? I was a doctor and a writer. All I have done is to write for the people so that the light of knowledge could reach the common masses and they could live a better life.

In 21 years of exile, the definition of a country has changed for me. It’s not a territorial entity anymore, it’s all about people; who are liberal, love each ot­her, believe in freedom of self expression and are not shackled by the inhibitions of religion and superstitions. That is wh­ere my motherland is, that is where I belong.

Politicians make the bou­ndaries of the world. If non-political entities had the po­wer, the world would have be­en a different place altogether. The map wouldn’t have been altered on grounds of partitioning in the name of religion and faith. The world is becoming smaller and people are learning foreign languages as well as adopting food habits, lifestyles and cultures of far aw­ay countries. Dividing people on the basis of language and so­cio-cultural structure does not make sense any more. It’s time that divisions mad­e by politicians for their own benefit be removed. Let there no longer be barbed wires or walls segregating people.

Animalistic tendencies are inherent in humans; we try to rein them in to be social. If we could get rid of these instincts totally, the world would be one; without divisions, borders or countries. The geographical distance between America and Eurasia would always be present but the cultural distance has diminished. The economical gap between the rich and the poor too will get bridged in time. Even if there are socio-political differences, that is no justification to sow seeds of hatred, intolerance, religious dogma, superstition and terrorism. These horrible aspects shouldn’t be a part of the culture of any nation. This is the era of science and technology, let us utilise this for something co­nstructive, and let’s unite with the purpose of being one country, one nation and one world.

In the war of 1971, muslims fought against muslims. It wasn’t a battle between two sects of muslims; sunni muslims took up weapons against another group of sunni muslims. This conflict was one of a kind. A group of bravehearts stood up against their own sect in order to save their mother tongue. This is a great instance of secularism. This is the kind of secular politics that I have tried to propagate through my writings. And this is what other freethinkers of Bangladesh have done as well, yet all those who believe in the idea of a secular country are being exiled, one after another.

I don’t refer to Bangladesh as a country anymore. For me, a country is a sense of shelter, an envelope of protection. A piece of land where people don’t feel protected, where writers and intellectuals don’t have the liberty of self-expression is anything but a country. It is easy to be an independent national in the logbook of the world; but being a country is­n’t easy. It requires a sense of responsibility. Just like having the appearance of a human being is inherent, but being human is not.

Intolerance must give place to humanity

Intolerance is discrimination and lack of faith between people of different gender roles, political parties, social status, religions and so on. A debate has stirred up recently around growing intolerance in India. Intolerance does not necessarily refer to the act of harming someone physically. The mob, which killed an innocent person on suspicion th­at he was consuming beef, was not only intolerant, but also h­einous and barbaric.

Writers and artists have be­en returning their awards to t­he government and governm­ent-aided institutions to pro­test growing intolerance in th­is country. This is their form of self-expression. Some people have questioned this act, asking where were these intellectuals when Rushdie’s book w­as banned and he was barred from participating in the Kolkata and Jaipur litfests? Why did they not return their aw­ards when Taslima was atta­cked in Hyderabad or forced to leave India? Do these intellectuals only stand up against hindu extremists? But even if they do, what’s wrong with th­at? I am against any kind of religious terrorism and intolerance, therefore, if someone prefers to speak out against the barbarism of a particular religion, that’s more than welco­me to me. Intellectuals in islamic countries protest agai­nst islamic extremism, they don’t speak about the hindus or christians. Every country has minority sympathisers. H­owever, not all minorities are equally helpless. It is solely dependent on their social st­ratification. Pakistan’s hindu and christian minorities don’t enjoy the same social status as India’s muslims and christi­ans, nor do they enjoy similar freedom. The extent and nature of intolerance of minorities in these two countries are also vastly different. Add to th­at the number of orthodox pr­eachers among India’s minority religions who are ruining their own communities more than the intolerant among the majority hindus.

Having said that, intolerance has reached a new low in India. Aamir Khan’s concern about his wife thinking of lea­ving this country has made hi­m the talk of an entire nation. The Shiv Sena has even ann­ounced cash reward of Rs 1 lakh for whoever is able to slap Aamir. That reminds me of th­e imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan mosque who, way back in 1994, announced a Rs 50,000 reward for whoever was able to smear my face with dirt. However, I still don’t place hi­ndu and muslim extremists in the same quadrant. The RSS or the Shiv Sena’s ranting are no match for the mass mass­acre of innoncents across the globe by the likes ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Laskar-e-Taiba and Al Qaida, though s­omeone did mention that the hindus have still not killed th­ousands in the name of religion because they have not found the scope to do so; had they got similar opportunity, they too would have been equal threat to civil society.

Intolerant people exist everywhere, be it Europe, America, Africa or Asia. Instead of calling an entire nation intolerant, it is wiser to point out the intolerant bunch in every nation. The constitution of In­dia does not provide for intolerance, neither has the prime minister clapped for the extremist acts of hindu fanatics. Hence, calling the country intolerant makes no sense. Certain citizens have suggested that our prime minister must take note of the Dadri incide­nt and make an attempt to ensure justice to those denied protection. It is not only that the muslims have been singl­ed out in the current hate wa­ve across India. Hindu fanatics have assassinated noted r­ationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. Intolerance has been evident at all times and under th­e governance of every ruling dispensation, so, why the buzz now?

Hindu extremists live in fe­ar that the muslims would destroy their religion and cu­lture, which will eventually become extinct. Therefore, t­hey are following the same p­ath of the muslim terrorists; killing those who do not subscribe to their religious beli­efs. Can religion be preser­ved this way? Hundreds of p­owerful religions have beco­me history today, as with the Greeks and the Romans. Th­ey don’t exist anymore. Similarly, religions like hinduism, buddhism, judai­sm, christianity and islam would bec­ome extinct some day. Humanity would replace the­se with new religions that are more tolerant, or people would become more rational and logical.

The only confession that h­as arisen out of the ongoing debate on intolerance is that a former home minister has accepted that banning Rush­die’s book, back in the 1980s, wasn’t an appropriate decision. Religious intolerance is not only limited to the religious extremists, even the po­liticians are highly influenced by the same. While West Bengal’s Left Front government originally banned my book, the Trinamool government to­o recently banned the inauguration of my yet another book at Kolkata Book Fair and a television series based on my script was not allowed to be telecast. I did question the fo­rmer chief minister Buddh­adev Bhattacharya and the present chief minister Mamata Banerjee if they would accept their mistake, just as P Chidambaram of the Congre­ss party has done regarding Rushdie. However, the politicians from Bengal are firm on their stand. This is all about vote bank politics. Nobody wa­nts to take a stand against the sentiments of a fair section of the voters because of election arithmetic.

Intolerance and superstitions walk hand in hand with human consciousness and education. This is how India survives. And this is how the wo­rld too survives. Politicians and religious warmongers only look after their own benefits, while pushing the country into the valley of darkness. Only a handful of educated liberals can dare to change the society. It has always been like that.

Human beings are intolerant by nature. Love and hate occupy very strong positions in human psychology. A debate is always welcome, be it in favour of intolerance or against it. A debate makes you think. However, that debate must never give rise to violence. The instinct of violence is deep rooted in our nature. If we succeed in overcoming our thirst for blood, humanity will shine forever.

Saudi Arabia will never be shamed

Saudi Arabia will never be shamed.

The health minister of Saudi Arabia Khalid Al-Falih has purportedly said that deaths due to the deadly stampede at Mina have happened because of ‘Allah’s will’. Such events cannot be avoided, he has opined. Al-Falih blames the Hajj pilgrims for the deaths. Apparently, the victims have paid the price for failing to follow instructions.

Information about the real incident, however, is quite shocking. The stampede, whi­ch resulted in loss of numerous lives, occurred because two roads, used by lakhs of pilgrims, were closed so that a Saudi prince’s route to the palace could be made more comfortable. If the roads wer­en’t closed, this incident would not have occurred. Many have suggested that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street.

Some have even gone on record by saying that the main reason behind this tragic incident was the King, his high ranking officials and Gulf Cooperation Council members welcoming certain distinguished personalities, which necessitated the blocking of the two roads in question that usually lead the pilgrims to an area where they symbolically stone the devil. Confusion and commotion resulted from the closure of the roads, which, in turn, resulted in the devastating stampede. Such news reports lead me to believe that the Hajj pilgrims lost their lives because of the whims and fancies of the Saudi royal family, their lackadaisical attitude towards Hajj and their indifference to the lives of ordinary pilgrims.

Saudi Arabia earns $8.5 billion every year from Hajj alone. However, they seem least bothered about the safety and security of the pilgrims who are reduced to being mere customers of the religion that the Saudis have turned into a business. Their oil business, on the other hand, is a bigger money-spinner and that explains why the safety and security of oil customers is top priority for the Saudis.

That brings me to my countryman and Facebook friend Mohan Kumar Mandal. He was recently arrested because the Bangladesh government did not like the comments he posted on the social networking website. After Saudi Arabia closed the roads that killed thousands of muslims, even non-muslims like Mandal were shocked into expressing their anguish against the horrific mass slaughter. It is well known that symbolic stoning of the devil is done to vanquish evil. This can be done in any country and should not require anybody to travel to Saudi Arabia, which is thousands of miles away. This is what Mohan Kumar reasoned. But his comments apparently hurt the religious sentiment of somebody from Awami League. Religious sentiment has become a dangerous tool in the hands of certain people. Good people are not being allowed to express their views, let alone live.

Unfortunately, even governments appear to be joining the ranks of those who are a bad influence on the society, as with the Saudi royals. The entire world has been criticising Saudi Arabia for the Hajj deaths, but not Bangladesh. The dead bodies of hundreds of pilgrims were picked by bulldozers and dumped in a garbage heap. Such images rattle everybody. Can a civilised country show such utter disregard to the departed?

Saudi Arabia is not a civilised country. Neither is Bangladesh, or else, why would it not criticise Saudi Arabia? If muslims were killed by jews in Gaza and their dead bodies dumped by bulldozers, such an act would have evoked the strongest of reactions in Bangladesh. But when ISIS, Boko Haram and their likes slaughter muslims, muslims do not feel any pain. Saudi Arabia’s mismanagement of the Hajj lead to the deaths of countless muslims. But those muslims haven’t even raised a murmur of protest.

The stampede killed 1,300 pilgrims and many in Ban­gladesh protest in anger and protest. Why then did the Bangladeshi government cho­ose to punish Mohan Kumar Mandal alone? Was he punished because he is hindu? Was he punished because a crime against a hindu does not strike a chord with muslims? Soon, Saudi Arabia is going to head the UN human rights panel. How is it possible for a country where women, non-muslims, homosexuals and transsexuals have no human rights to head the UN human rights panel?

Will nobody protest against this travesty? Those of us who protest are punished. As long as we keep our mouths shut, things would be fine. The moment we open our mouths, all hell breaks loose. Even when Saudi Arabia commits a cr­ime, we cannot blame the country or its government. We can’t say that the country has violated human rights even when there is strong evidence of that. When China violates human rights, processions are taken out on the streets. But since Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Prophet Muha­mmad, even the most heinous crimes by the present custodian of the faith in that country are overlooked by other nations. Even when 1,300 innocent pilgrims lose their lives because of the reckless attitude of a few Saudis, we are supposed to keep mum and believe that those lives were taken because Allah willed so, and those who died could not have found a holier place to depart.

Saudi Arabia will never be ashamed of its transgressions. This is because their rulers are a shameless bunch. I humbly pray that Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to head the UN human rights panel. When a nation does not care about human rights, what is the point in giving it a leadership role. Saudi Arabia will destroy whatever semblance there is left of human rights in this world.