A Discussion with Jarlath D’Souza, Secretary of Bangladesh Inter-religious Center for Peace and Justice
August 24, 2014
Background: Brother Jarlath D’Souza is one of the founders and current secretary of the Bangladesh Inter-religious Council for Peace and Justice (BICPAJ). In this interview with Nathaniel Adams, D'Souza discusses his role in the formation of BICPAJ and its vision of interfaith harmony in Bangladesh. He explains his decision to join the Holy Cross brothers, an event which coincided with the partition of India in 1947. He discusses the experiences that contributed to his interest in inter-faith work, including his attendance at a Sufi urs ceremony of the Maizbhandaris. He later spent time living in Buddhist temple in Thailand and in Gandhi’s ashram in India. He details his interest in the indigenous cultures of Bangladesh and discusses the many challenges facing Bangladesh today, including notably political deadlock, growing religious fundamentalism, and prostitution.
Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing, where you were born, etc?
I was born and grew up mostly in Chittagong, Bangladesh. My parents were not from Dhaka. They were a Portuguese Catholic family from Goa in India; D’Souza is a Portuguese surname. My father came to Chittagong working on the railway as a junior officer. I had a very big family; lots of children. We all grew up together. All of us except for one were born in Chittagong. I grew up there and I studied there. After I finished school I decided to enter the religious life. I became a Holy Cross brother. I was inspired by a lot of things that happened; semi-miraculous things. I don’t hesitate to tell people that it was something miraculous. One day we went to play football in Chittagong. I was senior student and captain of the football team. We were playing football on the other side of the river at a new mission that just started. We lost the game really badly and we had to walk a long distance back home. As I was heading home I was walking along the top of a hill looking across the river and suddenly I saw a flash. Suddenly my mind changed and I knew what I should do with my life. I had never thought about a life like this previously, but suddenly my perspective changed. I used to be an all-rounder. I excelled in academics and sports. I also used to sing very well. I was even selected to sing on the All India radio in Delhi. They were coming down, scouting for talent and I was selected straight away. I was just a teenager (this was 1945 or 1946). When I was getting ready to go to Delhi my father urged me to stay and finish my studies. I agreed to stay. When we finished, I had very bad results because that was the year of partition. There was nothing here at that time, not even an educational authority; nothing. We were still under Calcutta. We had to do our exams in Calcutta. The Calcutta Board of Education conducted our exams and because we were from another country, a new country, we all had bad results, all of us. This was part of the political backlash.
What was the experience like as a Catholic during the partition period when there was such a sharp focus on religion?
In fact it was the day of partition that I joined the Holy Cross brothers. I entered on the fifteenth of August 1947. Strictly speaking, when partition took place, in this part of the world, we were not ready. The whole of East Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh, was not prepared for it. The whole movement was Lahore-based. I would say we were dragged into this whole movement by accident. I am a student of history, and when you look at history, it is clear that there really was no such movement here. Though, they still like to say in Pakistan, that the whole idea of Pakistan, of a Muslim state, was born in Dhaka. They say the idea came from here. But if we look at the actual history, for example the word “Pakistan” was coined by a Muslim student from Lahore who came up with the name when he was studying in London. “Pakistan” means holy land. In “Pakistan” the P is for Punjab, A is for Afghanistan, K is for Kashmir and I is for the Indus River. Stan means land, of course. He wanted a holy land, a separate land for Muslims. He coined the name and started a movement when he was in London. But Bengal was nowhere in the picture. However, when the Muslim League accepted it, that meeting was held in Dhaka. It was in Dhaka that they decided to have Pakistan.
You have dedicated your life to interreligious dialogue. When did you start becoming interested in different faith traditions?
When I was a Holy Cross brother, I was posted in different places around Chittagong. The Chittagong region is very diverse. As moved around, I began to meet people of different faiths, especially Muslims, and talk to them. Then I had the fortunate experience of going and visiting a Sufi Muslim shrine in Chittagong. It was a shrine of Maizbhandar. The Maizbhandaris dance while they pray, something like whirling dervishes. The man who started the group was an ordinary person who was working for the government court in Chittagong. But he received divine inspiration that you should dance when you pray. So he went back to his village and started dancing and praying and people took to it. He became a holy man, and it became a movement. It was an accidental but life changing experience. I was principal of a school in Chittagong at the time and the holy man was going around preaching and saying, “Come to the feast, come to the feast.” That’s what they do. They came to me and I said, “I don’t go to shrines, I am Christian.” They said no please come, you will like it.” So I went to the feast. They have their own songs, their own spirituality, but that is not what struck me so much. I was amazed that many of the people who were there were not Muslim. They were from all faiths; there were many tribal people from the Chittagong Hill Tracks. The whole night they were singing and dancing and praying. This is unbelievable, you don’t see that. Singing, okay, but dancing is strictly forbidden in Islam. It is not part of the orthodox worship. They were singing and dancing—men and women together. There was no hanky panky. The men and women were singing and dancing and were praying the whole night. As far as I could see, no one was touching anybody. It struck me very much. It really opened my eyes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that they were all eating from a common dish. It was being cooked in a huge cauldron. It was a wild boar from the Chittagong Hill Tracks. They call it a “goyal.” There were maybe 50,000 people there and all of them ate from the same dish. That one dish was enough. The dish seemed to be never ending. It was unbelievable, but I saw it with my own eyes. The food was given to everyone but the dish was not getting empty. Everybody was eating from it. I met the leader. He was an educated fellow. I talked to him, and he was very kind to me. He said that if I was tired I could sleep here. I said I’d just prefer to watch. He told me that if I was tired I could come and sleep in a room there. I didn’t need to because I spent the whole night awake. The next day I came back and got taken up by the idea—studying their songs and whatever they did. It is very deeply spiritual. In my view there is spirituality in other religions, plenty of it.
Do you consider yourself a Maizbhandari?
I do consider myself a disciple of Maizbhandar. I went there a number of times and read their books. I researched a whole lot about them. I attended many festivals. Usually there are annual gatherings called urs that happen in the winter months, in December or January. There are maybe four or five gatherings that take place at this time. I used to go many times, though I haven’t been for the past few years. I would always pray in my own faith, I don’t really consider myself a Muslim. There are many people there that follow their own religion.
Now it can be a money making thing. There is a lot of money involved and we should be mindful of this. As it happens in many Muslim communities, especially in Bangladesh, there is a concept of dynasty and there can be a break in dynasty. Somebody’s cousin comes up and says that he is Maizbhandar and someone else will come up and say he is Maizbhandar. Actually Maizbhandar is the name of the village given by the group; it didn’t used to be Maizbhandar, but it was changed. Maiz means middle and bhandar means granary, the middle granary. The middle granary of God is there. That is the name of the village. Now there are four or five different shrines there, run by different dynastic claimants. People come to pray and they offer money. In India recently there was some scandal with a Hindu shrine, but as far as I recall, we have never had that kind here of people fighting over the money. People come to pray.
You had also told me that you were ordained as a Buddhist monk for a time. Is that right?
I lived with Buddhist monks, I didn’t go for full ordination. You don’t have to go through full ordination to live as a monk temporarily. It is a different religious technique all together. It’s one of the few religions where you have very temporary ordination; even just for a month or a week you can go there. So for about six weeks I lived at a forest monastery called Suan Mokkh in southern Thailand. There was an American monk who was in the Peace Corps. He ordained and eventually became a head monk and a meditation master. I went and attended a meditation course with him, which was a heavy meditation course. There were a few of us there. One of those who joined with me came back to Bangladesh later on. He is back here right now. He is a very learned man. He has a master’s degree and all that. He was a bank manager. But he left all that to become a monk. He runs a temple organization in the south of Bangladesh near Cox’s Bazaar. His name is Bodhiyana, or vehicle of wisdom. He is about 50 years old now, and he has been a monk for 20 years. He gives lectures in Bangla and in English and conducts meditation sessions. He conducted one meditation session for me here in Dhaka a couple of years ago.
When did you decide to form the Bangladesh Inter-religious Center for Peace and Justice (BICPAJ)?
The group was founded by an English man, whose picture is right over there. His name is John Hastings, an Anglican missionary. When he first had the idea, I was still in Chittagong. Somebody mentioned to him that I would be helpful to the organization. So I came to Dhaka. We were just four Muslims and three Christians at the start. It was mostly a discussion group. He managed to pull together a little funding, but we ran with very little money. Later on we became more organized; we received government registration and that kind of thing. He was a remarkable man who did all kinds of things for Bangladesh. He has passed away now. What is most amazing is that this was not his line of work really; he was a preacher. He started by working with tribal people, who were being treated very poorly at the time. But in 1970-71 during the Liberation war when we had all the killings going on, he got very taken up by that. He went to the refugee camps and gave aid and support to the refugees. He went all the way to Pakistan to protest the killings here. He is the only man I know who had the courage to do that. You couldn’t fly directly from Bangladesh to Pakistan during the war. He had to go back to England and from England he flew to Pakistan. He went all the way to Yahya Khan, the president at the time. They allowed him to go. Yahya Khan was drunk at the time; you see he was always drinking. He went up to him and said “You need to stop this killing immediately!” Yahya Khan said “Who are you to come and tell me what to do.” He said “My name is John Hastings and I’m working with refugees.” He came all the way back to Bangladesh. He started to organize a group of Muslims who opposed the killings and said we have to do something about this. He called for me and together we formed BICPAJ.
So what was the original goal of the organization, or the vision?
It was begun to promote interfaith harmony. Bangladesh, for your information, has always been interfaith minded. Unlike other parts of the subcontinent, in Pakistan and in Punjab, it was always overwhelmingly Muslim. In the northern part of India, it is overwhelmingly Hindu and in the south, a little bit. It is only the center and northeastern part that is dominated by tribal people and you see diversity. We came up with the idea that they should promote an interfaith outlook. We have met every month since our founding without fail. We are the only organization that can claim that they have met every month from the time of our founding until today. We have met more than 350 times.
These days our meetings normally involve 20 to 30 people. We have about 100 people who are nominally members. They help us here and there. Occasionally we have seminars on a particular religion—Islam for instance. We have programs and outreach to help underprivileged children. We explain to them how to live together. You actually see children live together with no problems. We need to continue that. So really we explain to them how not to create divisions based on religion.
You have lived through many changes in this country and indeed before it was even a country. What do you think has changed in terms of relationships between people of different faiths?
We are very worried about recent changes. Bangladesh is quickly becoming a radical fundamentalist society. The change has occurred faster than we could have imagined. There are those here that want to make another Pakistan. But this is not a Muslim country. There are Hindus here—10 percent of the population and it used to be much higher. Then you have Buddhists, 1 to 2 percent of the population. And Christians are an important minority though they are a nominal size. We have these different faith communities and you cannot cast them aside.
In Bangladesh, traditionally the whole area is tolerant, unbelievably tolerant. But what has happened is in the last five to 10 years. All the trouble we are having now, it is unbelievable. I would say it began some 20 years ago when they started invading the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Hill Tracts are a tribal area, but it is becoming Islamized very quickly. They have Islamic fundamentalist groups building mosques with money from the Middle East in every village in the Hill Tracts. The indigenous people don’t go to mosques. They probably bring a man to sit in the mosque and run it. There are many people from the plains grabbing land. The tribal women are being attacked and raped.
One recent event shocked me and made me realize just how much things have changed in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This was about six weeks ago, after I had just gotten back from India. They were having an interfaith seminar in Bandarban. The BICPAJ vice chair, who is a Hindu by religion, was invited to go and speak there. He told me that he couldn’t attend and asked me if I could go in his place. So I went there. I was met by a small Muslim group, largely government-affiliated. They took me to a nice hotel. Bandarban has nice hotels now, AC rooms and everything. When I finally got to the meeting, I realized that it was a gathering of Muslims—madrassas leaders—whole madrassas were sitting among us. They brought all their students. They covered the whole place and they brought me to talk to them on interfaith. They obviously didn’t come for that because they were already chanting from the Holy Qur’an. What shocked me is that here in this famous Buddhist center, this tribal center, this interfaith meeting was essentially an Islamic gathering. The change in this region over the past few years has been unbelievable. Especially in Bandarban, but even Rangamati is a changed city altogether. If you go to the town now, if you go to the market, you will see almost no tribal people.
I know you have done a lot of work with tribal people. Why do you have such passion for these communities?
When I began there really were not many people writing on the topic. I did a lot of research on the tribal people, their history, their culture, and their religion. I have written many books on the tribal peoples of Bangladesh.
The king of the Chackma, the Chackma Raj, was a student of mine. He is a very learned man. He has a Ph.D. But now he’s powerless. He tells me “I can’t do anything, my hands are tied.”
There has been a lot of interfaith work in the Catholic community but have people been critical of your work, of reaching out across religious lines?
Of course, in the beginning especially. People in the Catholic community even accused me of becoming a Muslim. I told them that you can be open and not lose your faith. I’m very strong on this point. You can be a good citizen, it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian of a Muslim, but you have to be open. Going back 400 years to St. Francis of Assisi, he was an interfaith pioneer and I take a lot of inspiration from him. He was only dealing was with Islam, he didn’t have other religions to deal with at the time. In modern times there are many great figures working on interfaith. For example you have this great man from Thailand, a good friend of mine, by the name of Sulak Sivaraksa. We were recently together for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation which was in Italy, in Assisi. He was one of the guest speakers and I was also a guest speaker. He is another man like that, strong in his faith, but open-minded. I have always been open. I used to be very active in Boy Scouts and there was a Boy Scout meeting in Lahore Pakistan. Our accommodations were in the mosque. A mosque is not exactly like a church. A mosque can be used for anything the community needs. You can live there, eat there, and sleep there.
So we stayed in a mosque. I talked to them. Everywhere I go I talk to the people, I eat with them, I pray with them. It is very important to me to have that experience. I have done this with Buddhists in Thailand, with Maizbhandaris in Chittagong, at Gandhi’s ashram. Religion is all-embracing. It’s wonderful to experience. In modern times we have made a separation. Strictly speaking religion should not be separated from life. Religion and life are one and the same thing. That is what Jesus himself taught and how he lived. He didn’t live in a temple, he lived with the ordinary people.
What do you think is the most important focus or step to promoting interreligious harmony here?
There should be more meetings, more dialogue. People of different faiths need to interact more. But, even with this, I doubt very much that we can touch the political structure. This is my personal view, I foresee serious political problems. Very serious. There might be killings. It might happen this winter. In some ways I think without political change I see progress coming through interfaith relations. People are not happy. You ask anybody if they are happy and very few people are happy. The politics have reached such a low point now. It’s all about money making; nobody is helping anyone else. There is development, but it is very nominal. The political change is nearly impossible. There are people like Dr. Muhammad Yunus who have tried to change the power structure. It was very difficult for people like this to come out and change anything. Even Dr. Kamal Hossain, the man who framed the Constitution is powerless. He wrote the constitution, and he wrote it in such a way that it is one of the best constitutions in the whole world, but over the years though it has been altered for political gain.
We don’t have any leaders that are calling for a peaceful revolution, a Gandhi-type figure; we don’t have anyone like this. It may be pessimistic, but things may not change until there is some blood flowing. It’s a terrible thing. People will die. Perhaps something like what happened in Indonesia. I’ve been to Indonesia after the killings. There are many estimates that a million people were killed. I’ve been to the very spot where the killings took place. If there is political change in Bangladesh, there will be killings. It’s quite possible that top leaders will be killed. Sheik Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and other members of the parliament may be killed. Some are already fleeing. Some are in hiding. It’s very unfortunate.
You’ve been socially active for many decades here in Bangladesh. Do you have something that you are the proudest to have been involved in?
One of the things which I have done among many things I have done is that I have helped women in difficult circumstances, when women have gotten pregnant out of wedlock for example. When they don’t have anyone else to confide in, they know they can come to me and I will help. Whether they are Muslim of Christian, I help everybody. These women don’t easily confide, but I’m respected for that. I say that if Jesus Christ were around he would be doing the same thing. It is basically the story of Mary Magdalene who was a prostitute. He worked with her and helped her. She was one of the few people at the cross when he died. These are people who are in difficulty. Bangladesh is not generally known as a country where these kinds of things happen, but that is because it’s a kind of a secret. But there are houses of prostitution all over Bangladesh. We have one of the biggest centers of prostitution in all of Asia in Naranganj, where around 10,000 girls work.
Pataya near Bangkok is, I believe, the biggest center of prostitution in the world. It is a huge source of income in the country. In Pataya they have 20,000 girls, including Bangladeshi girls. There are boys being prostituted as well of course. I attended a seminar on prostitution in Bangkok and we visited some brothels and spoke with some of the women working there. So we went to the place, and we sat in the shop having tea just off the main brothel area there. There giving us tea was a girl, and they were talking Bangla among themselves. I spoke to them, and they were surprised, I don’t look like a Bangladeshi.
The Buddhists in Thailand have compassion for these women. I visited Chiang Mai, which is a beautiful place. At the main temple in Chiang Mai, they have a blessing ceremony for a girl who is going into that profession. I have seen with my own eyes. She offers herself to the priest and she is blessed. It’s a religious act, for those going into prostitution.
Looking around your office here you have pictures of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and many others. Is there someone that has really inspired you, or someone you really respect?
I have many heroes. I am very much Gandhi-minded. I lived in the very room he lived in, in his ashram in Wardha. It is a very open place; they have seminars all the time there. I’ve been there a number of times. Once I stayed there for two or three weeks. I lived in his room, they allowed me. I sat under the fig tree where he used to sit and pray. I had been inspired by the work he did, but there are a lot of question marks. I still have questions about Gandhi’s approach to problems. If you go to Wardha you will find the same dirty slum area that was there when Gandhi lived there; nothing has changed. Why? Can spirituality and spiritual forces not change all that? If you go to Assisi in Italy, it used to be a horrible place, but that has changed. The spiritual influence has changed it. Did Gandhi not have the same kind of spiritual influence? Why did it not happen? Why did it not change? Is it because of the whole Indian ethos, the Indian way of thinking. Why? Gandhi’s philosophy is something very amazing, his life was so inspiring. How could this not change the society? I ask these questions.