By A.B.P. Jayawardena –
As Bangladesh celebrates more than half a century of independence after a cruel war in 1971 lasting 9 months in which an approximate 3 million died, due to bitter ethnic confrontation between the Urdu speaking Punjabis of West Pakistan and the Bengali people of East Pakistan, both whom are of the Islamic faith, Sri Lankans can learn from their history.
This is a country that has undergone far more cruel conflict than Sri Lanka. The flashpoint occurred when Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman won the majority of seats in the national parliamentary election and put forward several demands including that Bengali language should be the national language of East Pakistan. This was not agreeable to the Punjabis who started a campaign of terror. A campaign termed as Operation Searchlight hunted down the Bengali intelligentsia. Then army units were stationed all over East Pakistan. Even at my Alumini – the Agricultural University; The University Officers Training Volunteer Co. was in charge of a Punjabi.
I was told that the hegemonic grip that West Pakistan maintained on East Pakistan was very humiliating to the Bengalis. e.g. Bamboos when grew freely were shipped all the way to the West via Colombo for manufacturing of newsprint and newspapers sent back to East without providing the technology and inputs to do so on the spot. The Bengalis have been historically, a proud people and are specially proud of their language which is renowned throughout the world, having as their spiritual guru, the famous Bengali Poet Rabindranath Tagore who was awarded the Nobel Prize. They did not relish humiliation being practiced on their people. The resultant liberation struggle established the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh.
Although the major religion in Bangladesh is Islam, the national policy is secularism. Bangladesh was founded as a secular state but this ideal had many challenges, including when Islam was made the state religion in the 1980s. In 2010, the judiciary upheld the secular principles of the 1972 Constitution. Due to these developments, minorities in that country (Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others) are treated with little trace of the discrimination found elsewhere in the region. This results in unity which has enabled Bangladesh to march forward economically with visibly good development indicators despite once being one of the poorest countries in the world.
Can we in Sri Lanka say and feel that Sri Lanka belongs to people of all classes irrespective of religion and race, when one section strives to be dominant over the others?
What can Sri Lanka learn from Bangladesh? What is clear to me is that their policy of secularism has paid dividends. It is the duty of our leaders to act bravely and not bow down to extremists or they will get caught between the jaws of a “giraya”. We are heavily debt burdened but are still quarreling over who will rob the nation next. Chauvinism, extremism and racism are being used as propaganda tactics to divert the attention of citizens from the main issue which is the underperforming economy. The Sri Lankan passport is one of the worst in the world. Where is our national pride? It is swallowed up in a whirlpool of hate speech, with each one shouting more loudly than the other. One election comes after another election but what we see is the same set of rogues exchanging parliamentary seats, using ethnic and religious hatred to win votes and then behaving just the same.
If we are not going to have secularism in Sri Lanka what other option do we have to bring about unity so that we can progress? It is a simple question. But seventy years after independence, we are still hopelessly grappling with the answer to that question.
*The writer is a retired public servant whose years of public service in Sri Lanka were spent in the specialised policy areas of agriculture and veterinary science.