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In a climate of exploitation, marginalised groups are easy pickings


Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), speaks to Eresh Omar Jamal of The Daily Star about the discrimination faced by marginalised communities and the rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh.

What were the findings of TIB's recent study titled "Access of Marginalised Communities to Public Services: An Assessment of Accountability Mechanisms"?

The study found that when people from marginalised communities tried to access public services, they faced discriminatory attitudes and practices from their mainstream peers, as well as a section of the people who were part of the relevant authority. For instance, in educational institutions, quite often when students from marginalised communities were exposed to inequitable behaviour and treatment, and their parents complained about it, they were told by the teachers that they could not do much about it, and the parents would have to accept it as a reality. Sometimes, such students, especially the Dalits, were forced to clean their schools' toilets. And if they complained, they were exposed to further intimidation and harassment.

When it comes to the government's social safety net programmes, from the inclusion of their names into the list of potential recipients to actually receiving the benefits, they are facing discrimination at every step. A major cause for this is the prejudiced attitude of a section of relevant public officials and political leaders.

Another big problem that they face concerns land ownership. Land-grabbing is a big problem in Bangladesh. Powerful quarters are frequently colluding with government officials and the people connected to power in order to grab land. They have made a habit of grabbing land belonging to marginalised communities—because it is easier. We have seen plenty of examples of powerful forces grabbing their land and getting away with it, so it gives the grabbers enough reason to feel emboldened and protected. This problem has become institutionalised. We have seen examples of the Forest Department ousting scores of marginalised families from their ancestral land and homesteads where they had been living for ages, in the name of protecting reserve forests, whereas, in reality, when genuine reserve forests were being grabbed by the mainstream vested groups, effective punitive action was hardly taken, if ever there was any attempt to do so.

What are some of the biggest barriers preventing the members of marginalised communities from receiving these basic services?

One of the biggest barriers is that the general people, as well as individuals from within the administration and political space, do not see the members of marginalised communities as equal citizens. Our constitution is very clear about recognising the equal rights of all citizens—regardless of their race, religion or identity. It also acknowledges that people are entitled to government benefits and services on an equal footing, regardless of their diverse identities. Constitutionally and legally, there is no scope for discrimination. But there is very little compliance with the constitution and law at the institutional and political levels. Not many effective actions are taken against the violators of the provisions; that is the problem.

What, in your opinion, are the underlying causes of this? When did this problem start?

It is impossible to give a definitive timeline for when this problem started. In some sense, it has been a perennial problem. But the political transitions and transformations after 1975 have been particularly more impactful when it comes to fuelling and nourishing it. The religion-based politics that has been promoted since then—especially in regards to the amendments that have been made to the constitution to introduce state religion, undermining the secular value that was at the core of the spirit of our independence—has certainly contributed to the creation and expansion of the socio-political space for increased discrimination against minorities.

Discrimination against marginalised groups is a global phenomenon. But because Bangladesh is a more resource-constrained country, where the benefits of development have not reached the majority of people, people are more drawn towards illegally grabbing the wealth and land of marginalised groups, because that can be done relatively easily and remains unaccountable.

Lack of awareness and respect among people with vested interests towards the constitutional rights and obligations of all the citizens of the country is what's at the root of it. Unfortunately, very little has been done over the years in terms of justice and accountability.

What about the presence of the minority community within the bureaucracy? Can't they prevent such behaviour?

Within the bureaucracy and political space, there are minority people, but they are relatively few in number; more importantly, their leverage on the treatment of marginalised groups is very limited. They often accept the mistreatment of minority groups as an unchangeable reality, tolerate it, and remain inactive. Peer pressure and a lack of self-confidence also work to keep them silent. Sometimes they may feel like there is a conflict of interest when it comes to them speaking out or taking actions against injustices perpetrated against their own minority communities. Some even give in to discriminatory behaviour for fear of reappraisals, and to protect themselves from the risk of negative career impact. There are people who are trying to change things within their limited capacity, but their number and influence are too limited.

The country recently witnessed a series of attacks against the Hindu community. Does the denial of such services somehow contribute to the marginalisation of different minority groups in an invisible, yet broader sense?

First, I must say that this study of ours did not focus specifically on Hindu minorities. But I definitely agree with your point. The horrors that we have witnessed during the recent attacks on Hindu communities, as well as many previous attacks, prove that they are not isolated incidents.

One of the worst negative outcomes of the changes that we have seen in our political sphere post-1975, which have been nourished over the years, is an ominous transition to collusion, protection and promotion of fundamentalist forces at the expense of our secular aspirations drawn from the Liberation War. This has given space to forces that are engaged in inciteful rhetoric and discriminatory actions. Such forces have unfortunately become beneficiaries of this regressive political culture. It is in this context that discriminating against minorities has, at times, been seen as politically expedient. Politicians have used it to win mileage, while minorities have been taken for granted as vote banks.

Colluding with fundamentalist forces or, at times, protecting and promoting them, has become a common practice across the political spectrum, and at times a key tool for our zero-sum political game. This in turn has led to situations like the one where fundamentalist forces dictated what changes should be made to our national curriculum, and the government, accepting those changes, designed to promote fundamentalist values at the expense of secular values. What signal did that send?

Fundamentalist groups have been allowed into the mainstream by the major political parties. Having come into the mainstream, these groups have been targeting young people and getting them to buy into their radical ideologies. This whole situation should be extremely concerning for us all, particularly because a big part of what they promote is hatred against minority groups, including the Hindus. Those who are participating in their programmes and listening to what they promote are becoming increasingly radicalised and intolerant.

The most obvious sign that this is happening can be seen on social media, which is being used by fundamentalist forces to get people agitated towards marginalised groups. But the people or groups that are doing this are hardly ever held accountable.

Have government policies and general politics in any way contributed to the increased communal violence that we have seen?

They may not be linked directly, but during the most recent attacks on the Hindus, some of the people who have been identified have been found to be connected to different political parties or their affiliated groups in some capacity. That does show that there is a connection. But I think the main issue here is that our overall political space has seen an anti-minority bias seep into it, which has created a pro-fundamentalist environment. And these biases have, over time, trickled down across society.

Interestingly, those who use social media to promote freedom of speech and liberal and secular ideas and values are often harassed and chastised by the authorities. Yet, we see fundamentalist forces openly using social media platforms to promote hate, without the government so much as lifting a finger to stop them. What does that indicate? That these people are protected in a way that people who are trying to uphold liberal ideas are not?

So, would you say that the measures being implemented, using the justification that they are there to discourage fundamentalist forces, are actually being used to silence moderate voices?

Absolutely; just look at how the Digital Security Act (DSA) is being used. It is the people who are promoting freedom of speech and expression and other democratic and secular values who are being harassed by the authorities through the use of the DSA and other such tools. Compared to that, people who are spreading fundamentalist ideologies are barely being noticed by the authorities or held accountable for spreading hateful and inciteful messages. That itself should give us a good idea of where the government's priorities lie—not stopping hateful and racist messages and ideas from spreading, but harassing people for using their right to freedom of expression to promote democratic values.

Dr Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.

The Daily Star,

November 01, 2021