“One man with courage is a majority.”
– Thomas Jefferson
Perhaps the time has come for us, the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh, to take a clear and unequivocal position on certain basic principles: A position advocating religious tolerance and respect for freedom of expression. Recently, these basic rights have come under fierce attack due to the removal of the Lady Justice statue from the Supreme Court premises. The situation exacerbated with the subsequent threats to human rights lawyer and activist Sultana Kamal. When during a recent TV appearance, she asserted that in the eyes of the state one religious symbol carries the same weight as another, Islamists threatened her with dire consequences, including bodily harm. The tirade against Sultana Kamal is nothing short of a frontal assault on the freedom to express an opinion and, more seriously, the secular rights embodied in the country's Constitution.
Unfortunately, the Lady Justice statue case has become emotionally supercharged, and spilled over into a raging religious debate. In my view, the issue highlights two important points that encapsulate the founding principles of our secular democracy. The first is the freedom of artistic expression, which is an integral part of Bangladesh's cultural tradition. After all, the war of independence was as much a cultural war as it was economic and political. The second pertains to the country's secular laws allowing religious freedom and protection for all citizens. On both counts there is no rationale for removing the sculpture, which is not an idol, but merely a symbol of “artistic expression”.
In the first years of Bangladesh's independence, citizens were immersed in reconstructing the war-ravaged nation founded on the ideologies of secularism, democracy and equity. But, regrettably, we failed to ensure that these principles were strongly entrenched in the country's institutions. We moved away, not from our beliefs, but from hardcore actions to honour our commitment to the overarching goals of the independence movement. In the process, we imperceptibly allowed the perpetrators of intolerance and extremists to impinge on our freedoms. We can argue that it may have been necessary to take a pragmatic, softer approach to defuse social tensions. But pragmatists cannot operate in a vacuum and need idealists to constantly remind them of the basic human values. Religious liberty is one such value, even if it leads to disagreements. For, certain fundamental truths are inalienable and discrimination of any form must always be resisted and condemned.
Sultana Kamal and the other participants on the TV show were involved in a dialogue where diverse views were aired. How could this discussion result in threats of bodily harm? It's relevant to ask, why speaking freely and expressing a contrary opinion should lead to recriminations and persecution. Is “free expression” to be circumscribed by the limits imposed by self-appointed religious police? Is this the “tolerant society” we envisaged as the outcome of our independence struggle? In a civilised discourse, when people with different points of view disagree, they seek creative accommodation through intelligent arguments and do not resort to absolutism and physical force!
Unfortunately, over time certain concessions were made to the religious right by the authorities as well as the civil society. Many of us who believe in Bangladesh's secular traditions abdicated our fight and made compromises along the way without realising that in the process, we isolated people like Sultana Kamal who were left to carry the burden on their fragile shoulders. We believed that by adopting a path of least resistance and using rational arguments, we could influence the opinions of the dissenters. However, appeasement of extremists is a short-term palliative, with grave consequences for a secular society. Obviously, we did not see the tsunami that loomed on the horizon until it hit us too close to home. We now realise that we are on the verge of a much larger struggle – not about one statue or two statues, but one threatening our basic rights of free expression.
Perhaps it's not too late to make amends and stand united in support of the brave men and women who are resisting extremism and intolerance. Let us salute Sultana Kamal and her fellow activists (many have sacrificed their lives) in humble recognition of the fact that we have given them so little in return – we have not even ensured that their lives are protected.
Will we, the ordinary citizens, rise up to the challenge and pass the litmus test once again as we did in the past?
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.