Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Question of Minorities - 1

Being a minority is never a pleasant experience for most people in our globe unless one is part of a dominant or domineering group. But even in the latter case when a minority is dominating a majority – as it has happened throughout history with colonial enterprises, to protect its privileged status – it formulates laws that are highly dehumanizing and discriminatory, which can create serious unpleasant psychological problems.

In its website, OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) states that minorities in all regions of the world continue to face serious threats, discrimination and racism, and are frequently excluded from taking part fully in the economic, political and social life of their countries. Today, minority communities face new challenges, including legislation, policies and practices that may unjustly impede or even violate minority rights. Even the so-called liberal democracies in the West are not immune from criticism. For instance, a western government can be very open to the sexual orientation of its people but very repressive or hostile to deny the rights of a religious minority to practice its religion and vice-versa. That is why there is almost an anarchy and lack of will to uphold minority rights and fight those maladies.

In 2005 in the World Summit of Heads of State and Government published a document, approved by the U.N. General Assembly, which noted that “the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities contributes to political and social stability and peace and enriches the cultural diversity and heritage of society”. But as we have often seen, when it comes to upholding such minority rights towards their integration and promotion of social inclusion and cohesion, hardly any improvement has materialized in the last eight years since the adoption of this document, or before that of the Durban Declaration of 2001. As a matter of fact, in some states, esp. in Myanmar, China, and Central African Republic, the situation has become unlivable for the minority communities who are facing genocide.

Discussing minority issues is a very dicey matter for anyone, and even the most objective researcher and analyst can be accused of being biased for or against a group. Nevertheless, the dynamics of majority/minority relationships lead to the emergence of a range of minority issues which provide challenges and opportunities for states and societies as a whole to tackle. It is with this awareness and goal that I want to discuss the matter of minorities in the Indian sub-continent or South Asia. My hope is that this discussion will lead to better understanding between the two major religious groups - the Hindus and Muslims and promote integration and coexistence so that all are able to live peacefully together, practice their religions, speak their own languages and communicate effectively, recognizing value in their differences and in their society’s cultural diversity.

As a Muslim growing up in a very enlightened family in Bangladesh I was simply unaware of the great divide that existed between the religious communities in South Asia until I went to Canada for my studies. After all, some of the managers in my father’s businesses had been Hindus, some of my tutors were also Hindus – one in particular by the name of Hari Sadhan Das lived with his wife in our house ‘Prantik’ in Chittagong during the entire Liberation War period.  Some of my Hindu class mates from the P.T.I. and Chittagong Collegiate School were my good friends who visited our home quite often and even ate food with me on many occasions.

In my childhood days Malay Kumar Chakrabarty – a Brahmin - was very close to me. He would call my mother ‘mashima’ (auntie) and say that when he grows up he would marry my cute sister (who was only two years old then). That, of course, never happened. When he was only ten years old, Malay’s family moved to Calcutta (Kolkata) in West Bengal state of India where his maternal uncle was living. I have also visited his home in North Nalapara a few times and  remember that his mom won’t let me in anywhere near the kitchen, which is considered sacred by many puritanical Hindus. Later another senior friend, Nandy, also moved to India in the mid-1960s. In Collegiate School, Nilanjan Sen (now a practicing doctor in Dhaka) and Pradeep became very close to me, before I moved to Cadet College. At BUET I had a few Hindu classmates of whom Arun Debnath (now in Singapore of Naval Architecture) and Alok Deb (now in northern California) remain close to this very date.

In Canada, I met students from many parts of our world, esp. South Asia. There were Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Christians and Muslims. Some of my classmates were Hindus. And for the first time, I started noticing jealousy from a couple of those students. For instance, a professor told them to relay to other students about the change in exam date for a particular test, but they deliberately kept it hidden from me and a Chinese student – Vincent (Shu Ming) Chan who were better students. I was simply shocked to see such a behavior, especially given the fact that one of them (who came from BUDCT) had received much help from me in doing his homework assignments.

There were a couple of Indian postdocs – Drs. Promod Kumar Bajpai and K.D.P. Nigam working for Professors Narendra Nath Bakshi and Muhammad Nabil Esmail, respectively. They were very friendly and nice gentlemen. However, Prof. Bakshi was considered hostile towards Muslims. When I requested him to write a letter of recommendation, he did not do that for whatever reason (one of which could be that I never took his course).

In my second year, three more Indian students joined our department. One of them – Bhandari – one day told me that he knew the meaning of ‘Assalamu alaykum’ with which Muslims greet one another. When I asked him the meaning, he said that it meant ‘victory to Islam.’ I tried to correct him saying that the phrase meant – “peace be upon you” and that it had nothing to do with victory of Islam. But he persisted on his wrong understanding and won’t change his mind. His mind was poisoned! Another new Hindu student – Ravindran – from South India – on the other hand, was very friendly. He would often say that I looked like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Among the Bangladeshi foreign students back then, there were two Hindu graduate students. Mr. Saha – who was much older than rest of us (and married) came on a two-year scholarship, and returned to Bangladesh with an M.Sc. degree in soil science to continue his job with the Atomic Energy Center. He was a caring individual and his apartment was a frequent get-together place for Bangladeshi students. Ayyub Hossain bhai (now a professor in statistics in University of Wisconsin) shared that apartment; he was a good cook, and we all enjoyed his cooked meat.  Jiben-da (now professor in a university in Bangladesh) who came a year later was also a very friendly person. He was junior to (late) Humayun Ahmed (later a famous author who died of cancer in New York two years ago), and visited the latter when he was in Fargo, North Dakota. Once he told me that he would love to teach in Visva Bharati University, Shanti Niketan, Kolkata in India. After earning his Ph.D., he, however, decided to return to Dhaka and has been there with a university ever since.

There was a Bangladeshi-origin professor in the Business Administration department. He was much detached from the Bangladeshi student community, and appeared more Indian than most Indians there. He was originally from Chittagong.

After spending two winters in Canada I moved to southern California for pursuing my doctoral studies. The Director of the International Students Office was Mr. Matthews; he was from south India. He was kind enough to receive me at the airport and temporarily put me up with a Hindu student from Assam, India. This Assamese student was the leader of the Indian student community; he did not follow Hindu dietary rules though, and would eat everything but beef. He was living with a Turkish student. The worse thing with him was that he would take pleasure in feeding Muslims pork without telling them that it was not beef. After staying with him a couple of days, I was able to rent an apartment close to the campus. I shared the apartment with Sam Dixit - an Indian engineer who was working for an electronic company. He was friendly and liked to eat Muslim food so much so that instead of eating lunch in office cafeteria he would return to the apartment during his lunch break and devour everything I had cooked the day before. While we were splitting our expenses equally, I was obviously losing financially. In one summer he went to India and did not pay the rent. After he returned, I moved to another apartment and took up a south Indian as my roommate. He was a very pious Hindu who performed puja every morning. He was an excellent human being. I also befriended another West Bengali – Debashis Rakshit (Rakkhit) student. We two shared an apartment during one summer. I am still in good terms with him. He is happily married to a Japanese lady, and visited me last year.

My closest Hindu friend, however, was another south Indian, Raj Ravindran (now with USC). He is from Madras, and we still maintain a very cordial relationship.

I briefly worked for an Indian professor who, like me, also moved from Canada. He was a Brahmin from Kolkata; however, he ate all kinds of meat, esp. pork, which he claimed to like most. He was miserly and his moral character was wanting. He was very hostile to Muslim students deliberately giving them hard times. He was visibly upset when his Muslim research students fasted during the month of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting) and did not join him for the ‘happy hour’ in the university pub. He behaved as if he owned them. He told a Muslim student that the latter looked too healthy for a doctoral student and that his students should be working so hard that there should not be any flesh left in between the skin and the bones. He also told that if he had conferred a Ph.D. degree in Nuclear Engineering to a Muslim student then the latter would make an ‘Islamic’ bomb! In his Heat Transfer class, he would be heard saying anti-Muslim stories in which he deliberately changed the evil Brahmin character in those stories (against the Sudras) to Arab villains. He virtually abused his professorial position to mischaracterize and victimize anything Muslim. His mantra appeared similar to those now preached by Hindu nationalist fanatics like Tapan Kumar Ghosh and Bimal Pramanik of West Bengal - falsehood oft repeated would achieve the veneer of truth and some are sure to swallow it.

There were two other West Bengali professors in the campus, who like the aforesaid professor, were known to be very hostile to Muslim students. If an unsuspecting Muslim student had chosen them as their supervisors for their doctoral work, no matter how brilliant and hard-working the student was, it was almost impossible to satisfy those Indian Hindu professors. They treated their students as slaves. Their behavior reminds me of the statement of a British officer who famously said about Bengali Hindu employees working under the British Raj: “They are the best as the servants and worst as the masters.”

I had also the pleasure of knowing a Hindu Tamil mathematician from Sri Lanka, who was a faculty in Aerospace Engineering department. He was an excellent teacher and a guide, and served as an external examiner in my doctoral dissertation. I have fond memories about him.

So, while my personal experience cannot be generalized, I found Indians from the south to be, in general, friendlier than those from other parts of India. (As a matter of fact, most of the South Indians are quite warm hearted and decent human beings.) I wish I could say the same for Bengali and Assamese speaking Hindus from West Bengal and Assam in India. I believe the Partition of British India to Pakistan whose eastern part later became Bangladesh has much to do with this hostile mentality.

>>>> To be continued.


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