A Discussion with Sultana Kamal, Executive Director of Ain o Salish Kendra, Bangladesh

With: Sultana Kamal

April 7, 2015

Background: Sultana Kamal is a well-known social activist in Bangladesh, and her family history ties her to many leading issues in the nation. This interview between Nat Adams and Sultana Kamal took place on April 7, 2015 in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the offices of Ain o Salish Kendra, where Sultana Kamal is executive director. She discusses the tradition of social activism in her family and the critical role her family played in the Liberation War of 1971. She reflects on the role of religion in that conflict and the nature of dispute centering Bangladeshi identity. She comments on the persecution of religious minorities and the effects of Islamization in Bangladesh, particularly on women.

How did you first become interested in human rights?

My mother, Sufia Kamal, was the pioneer of the women’s movement in Bangladesh and a poet. She was basically a social activist with a focus on women. My father was also by nature an activist; he was engaged in the movement for intellectual freedom in pre-partition India. So I was born into an atmosphere where activism was a part of our life, that’s why, even though I studied literature and law, a strain of activism was always there.

I was always engaged in many different social activities. I was a member of Kachi Kanchar Mela, which was a children’s organization that started in our own house, when I was only 6! That organizational spirit and being involved in collective activities was a part of our being. My mother, my younger sister, myself, my brothers, we were all actively engaged in those kinds of activities all the time. Therefore, taking part in the Liberation War was only natural. It wasn’t anything that was at all unusual for us. There would be no way that the Liberation War could happen and we would not be a part of it.

How was your family involved in the Liberation War?


My mother was a central figure throughout the war. Most of the freedom fighters of sector two would come to my mother’s place to leave messages for others. They would bring aspirants to join the muktibahini (resistance forces) and people wanting to cross the border to my mother’s house and we would hide them.
She was also raising money and collecting rations. Back then we had a system of collecting rice and other essentials from the ration shops run by the government; my mother used to collect the ration cards from the willing neighboring families, collect the food, and keep it in our house and then arrange for distribution to the freedom fighters coming to the occupied territories for operations.

Family members including, my sister and I played more active roles as well, carrying messages, looking after the people who wanted to join the Liberation War, helping them to cross borders. Eventually we were advised to leave the country for fear we would be identified. My sister and I left on June 16, 1971.

How, in your view, was religion involved in the Liberation War?


Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan, of course. Pakistan was designated for Muslims and India for Hindus, so it was a communal division of the sub-continent. This imposed a struggle on the people to define an identity in terms of the religion they were born into. India got over it theoretically, that is constitutionally, but on the ground no one can confidently say that India has dealt with communalism effectively.

If you look at the way the leaders behave in India. A person like Modi, a believer in Hindutva (a Hindu nationalist) while making a public speech will never say that India is for Hindus. But many of our political leaders feel obliged to declare that Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country to get more votes. This difference in political culture has to be borne in mind.


Even though the population of the then eastern part of India supported division of India along religious lines, from the very beginning of Pakistan they decided that they didn’t want to identify themselves by a religion-based nationality. In 1952 we clearly said that we wanted to be known as Bengalis first; we are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, but we are all Bengalis. Conflict between Bengali nationalism and Islam-based identity was a reality in every aspect of our life, social, cultural, political even economic. This has been the basic contention in this country between the people of the then East Pakistan and its West Pakistani rulers, particularly the military junta.


When Bangladesh was liberated in 1971, secularism was enshrined as one of the four fundamental principles of the constitution along with democracy, nationalism and socialism. I was involved in many different discussions on the topic. My mother led many of the social movements, especially for women’s rights and therefore I know that none of the mainstream political parties, except the communist forces at that time had secularism as their principle in an explicit way. That included the Awami League too. This is important to note. It was basically the aspiration of the people themselves to have a secular society. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib as the unquestionable leader of the Liberation War, kind of internalized that; he felt that that were the dream and demand of the people. That was his wisdom, to really take forward the demand of the people into the constitution.

Throughout the Pakistani period, when we were East Pakistan, we had to prove that we were loyal Muslims to be accepted as loyal Pakistanis. They mixed the idea of being Muslim and being Pakistani together. You could not be anything but a loyal Muslim to be considered a loyal Pakistani, which inevitably created an atmosphere of discrimination and division. The people here resented that as we had a long history of living peacefully together with all of the other communities irrespective of their religious beliefs.

The people of Bangladesh always looked at themselves as emanating from and being one with the nature of Bangladesh, a part of this soil which touched peoples’ souls beyond their religious identities. We also kept proudly reminding ourselves that we believe in ‘humanity is above everything, and nothing is above humanity.’ Those are the words that we always very fondly recited, and during the Liberation War our songs resonated with only that. The people of Bangladesh wanted to have a country where people irrespective of whatever identity they bear, would be treated with respect, dignity, and will have equal rights. That was our basic aspiration, and that was very clearly written in our constitution.

What was the role of local Islamists in the war?


From the Pakistani time the Islamists were against anything that had to do with Bengali culture. They were the main forces used by the Pakistanis to suppress Bengalis. The Jamaat-i-Islami was at the forefront of this in politics, but other Islamic parties joined hands with them. Those who thought this land to belong only to the Muslims allied and sided with the Pakistani military under the leadership of Jamaat. Since I was very closely involved in the movements leading to the Liberation War, I clearly remember that these were the people who at the outset of the Liberation War, on their own initiative, went to the leaders of Pakistan and said “don’t worry, we are here to save this country from ‘the miscreants’ and save the country from the Indian-designed destruction of Pakistan.”

They did not wait to be drawn into the process, rather they, on their own initiative, went to the Pakistanis to offer their services. Ghulam Azam who was the head of Jamaat at that time, had the guts and the spirit to go to Pakistan in November—Bangladesh became independent on the sixteenth of December—and by then it was almost clear that Bangladesh was going to become independent and when any Bengali was considered an enemy by the Pakistanis. He traveled around different provinces in Pakistan and held public meetings saying “don’t worry, we are there and it is a matter of time before we really crush these miscreants.” They, no doubt, had a different design altogether. But, when Bangladesh became independent and secularism was established as one of the basic principles that were the end of their life here in Bangladesh because they had no other politics.


Why were religious minorities persecuted so intensely during the Liberation War?


This occurred during the Pakistani period also. In the statements of all these religious people, they always tried to create a division between the Hindus and the Muslims, saying that Hindus can never be loyal to Pakistan, and that they should go back to India which is their place. It is important to note that we never had communal riots here in Bangladesh but we always had communal attacks. There is a difference between riots and one sided attacks. There were one-sided attacks on the Hindus and it was often the Biharis who took the lead. These were the migrants from Bihar who wanted to have Pakistan as their homeland. I have full sympathy for them because they wanted to have a land of their own as Muslims, and they left Bihar and came to the then East Pakistan. But then they sided with the Pakistani army and they are also the ones who took the lead in attacking the Hindu minorities during the Pakistani days. This may be because they were particularly sensitive to the Pakistani suggestion that the Hindus were still dominating them culturally and socially.

The other historical factor is that Hindus were actually the richer class in East Bengal under the feudal zamindar system. So there has been a class factor, which these people used as a divisive issue. There has been quite a lot of resentment against the Hindu zamindars (landlords) in the minds of Muslims, and also the lower caste Hindus. That was already there. But then very deliberately, the Pakistani rulers continued to convince the Bengali Muslims that “the Hindus are not to be taken as your friends. They are your enemies, they are for India, and India is your enemy; they can never be loyal to Pakistan.” Pakistanis wanted to vitiate the minds of ordinary Bengalis against the Hindus so much that they even imposed a ban on celebrating Rabindanath Tagore’s centenary in Bangladesh [Nobel Prize winning author and painter], because Tagore was a Hindu. But Bengalis love him and consider him to be a part of their entity. He lived a huge part of his life in Bangladesh.


Do you believe that the ongoing war crimes trials have been handled well?


I think the court is trying to do the best that they can. They have many limitations, which ironically has the potential to mostly affect the prosecution in favor of the accused. If we should have any complaints, it should be to say that the prosecution has to be strengthened.

What do you think about some of the conservative and religious backlash to the verdicts? How can this be mitigated?


It would be better if they refrained from such behavior, but this kind of response from them was not unexpected. We had feared worse, because these Islamist groups have become so powerful in our society now that it has become a big challenge for us to resist them. It’s amazing that this trial is even taking place in the face of such organized opposition. Probably it should be made clear at the beginning. When you are talking about religion and development in the context of Bangladesh, you have to look at the use of religion in development and politics. One of the very distinctive episodes of the use of religion in Bangladesh has to be seen in the context of the Liberation War, which we’ve discussed.

What is driving the violence against religious minorities currently?


It’s political, but it is also about land; land grabbing and property grabbing. They have little left, but people are still grabbing whatever little area of land they own or whatever property they have, these people know now that the Hindu community has become so weak and timid that they will not be able to protect themselves. They were roughly 30 percent of the population prior to partition, now they’re less than 10 percent, obviously as a community, they don’t have the collective strength to really resist. It’s also by and large the lower caste that stayed back in Bangladesh, those without viable connections and resources to move to India.

How have motivations been similar or different in attacks on Buddhist communities such as the one in Ramu?

In Ramu it was not the property question. But again, these people are actually pursuing a policy of fear, because they don’t have any convincing arguments to make. They don’t have any logic to convince people, so all that they can do is use fear to make people submit to their will. If they can ransack a town, if they can show their power in any way, then they know that people will be afraid and leave the country silently not saying anything against them; that is what it is you are seeing happening.

Some monks are also going out to investigate claims about land grabbing and other human rights violations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). How has the Buddhist community been involved in activism and advocacy in the CHT?


Well it will not be entirely clear if we try to look at them as the ‘Buddhist Community’ involving themselves in activism. Rather they may be mentioned as the indigenous groups. They have organized their activism through the Kapaeeng Foundation. But it is basically the indigenous people living outside of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, who are most active. There is very little activism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts itself. They are terribly suppressed by the overwhelming influence of the settlers there, and any overt activism is strangled by the army, the police, and the administration. Moreover, wherever there is a divide between the indigenous people and the Bengalis, the Bengalis, irrespective of their political beliefs, become one as Bengalis. Settlers are still coming every day, and now probably CHT has the third generation Bengalis, so the population is almost at par now between the Bengalis and the indigenous people.


Interestingly, Sheikh Hasina is the one who signed the Peace Accord in 1997, and in their election manifesto and public declarations, she always claims that they are committed to looking after the interests of the indigenous people by fully implementing the accord. But the Awami League has not been able to get this message to their local level activists: that they should stand by the indigenous people to see that the Accord is implemented. The situation in the CHT is very complicated now.

Could there be another conflict in the Hill Tracts similar to the one from 1977-1997?


Everyone is tired of conflict. But then again, they are getting desperate. The indigenous people are getting more and more frustrated and they don’t really know how to deal with this situation which to them is definitely betrayal of the promise made. And so now if the government continues to act as it’s done, who knows what will happen. However, in one of their recent statements they said that the army is there to help everybody, so I don’t know what kind of negotiation is going on between the parties now.

What has been the progress of the women’s rights movement in Bangladesh and where have religious beliefs and institutions played a role?


In many countries the women’s movement and mainstream political movements at some point diverge, because women feel that the mainstream politics are not taking women’s issues seriously or not doing enough for women. In Bangladesh, the women’s movement, the social movement, the cultural movements followed their independent routes differing on many different issues, but were somehow united during the Liberation War. And in the constitution, remarkably, women’s issues were given a lot of importance; women rights were recognized in many different clauses in the constitution. It is interesting to note that while the constitution clearly states and spells out that women will have equal rights and equal dignity in all public places, it is silent about what will happen in their private life. Under these circumstances, where there is no written directive anywhere that people will be governed by religious laws in their private life, that has been the practice.

In 1972, we realized that so much has happened for women in public life, but nothing has been done about women’s private life. Women started demanding a uniform civil code for everybody, where there would be no discrimination between women and men of different religions, but now practically the private or personal laws do discriminate according to religion and gender. The state never wanted to change the legal principles, though from time to time the laws were amended. Generally we have to abide by the principle that in public life there will be no discrimination against women anywhere—in jobs, in leisure, in public activities. No one can prevent women from entering any place—but in private life, in marriage, in divorce, in guardianship and custody of children, in inheritance, there is discrimination against women, and that is legal.

Do family law disputes go before religious authorities?


No, they go to the civil court, but that is governed by religious principles. Religious authorities are not recognized by law in Bangladesh to settle disputes; they can only give opinions as to what is right or wrong according to religious tradition. We don’t have sharia law—that is also very important to note—but we have personal laws based on religion that are different for different religions, e.g., Hindu personal law, Muslim personal law, Christian personal law. Buddhists are governed by Hindu personal law.


How should the civil code be reformed?


We have been pressing for a uniform civil court and family court for everyone, and some of our recommendations have been incorporated into the national women’s policy. This fell short on inheritance, because inheritance for Muslims is considered to be a Quranic directive, that women will get half of what the men get. For Hindus, the fundamentalist leaders of the Hindu community will not allow the Bangladesh government to touch their personal law. According to them, this is interfering with their religious beliefs. Christians in Bangladesh are governed by the Canonical Laws, so the Christians are also very protective about their own personal law. In their mind, they really don’t want to allow the majoritarian hegemonic Muslim lawmakers to touch their personal laws. But it is almost exclusively only in cases of women’s rights that the religious conservatives object to changes.

How do you see changes in gender norms more broadly, in terms of the increasing emphasis on purdah (women’s seclusion) and related issues?

That is social, not at all legal. Bangladesh reached this particular situation after 1975 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed and the country transitioned to authoritarian rule. General Ziaur Rahman and General Ershad were trained in Pakistan. Neither is famous for their religious devotion, but there has been an alliance between the Army and the fundamentalists in the post 1975 period. Their basic orientation was the same—that Hindus are not to be trusted, India is our enemy, and that secularism is for the communists and atheists and is against the principles of Islam.

It is true that it was the Army that led the armed campaign during the Liberation War because they knew how to handle weapons. But most of them had no conception of the political, social and cultural movements that started in 1948 leading to the war of liberation. They were not aware of the women’s movement and other social movements that really created the dream of Bangladesh. These people had no connection with that because they belonged to the Pakistani Army. Let me tell you why I draw this conclusion. I studied at Holy Cross College where most of the children of the army officers and the high-ranking bureaucrats came. They used to comment that this Sheikh Mujibur fellow is a trouble maker and an enemy of Pakistan working in line with India’s plan to break Pakistan. That was the mentality, the opinion that circulated among that class, in the Army and among the bureaucrats. These people were compelled to take up arms against the Pakistani Army, because the Pakistanis did not trust them.

My belief is that had the Pakistani Army trusted them, many of them would not have joined the Liberation War.
So they took up arms against Pakistan and for that nine-month period between March and December, it was the Army officers who assumed the leadership. They also felt, why should the political leaders be considered heroes and not them? However, all of the titles and credits were taken by them after the war. But as soon as Sheikh Mujibur landed in Bangladesh on the tenth of January, he was the hero. It was the political figures who were given their place in the government, and the Army officers had to go back to their barracks. Many army personnel close to us expressed resentment at the situation.

So the advent of authoritarianism allowed Islamization to take hold in Bangladesh?


The two generals, Rahman and Ershad, actually created a situation where Islamization was sponsored by the state. They brought Jamaat back in politics as allies. Jamaat was fully reinstated in politics, society, business, education, medical services, in all sectors of the society. I’ll give you an example. When as kids or even at early time of liberation we went see an eye specialist, the piece of paper that we were given to read to test our vision, would always have quotes from the famous poets and writers of Bangladesh. It eventually changed to scriptures from the Qur’an and the hadiths. That was the level to which these people actually intruded.

Medical colleges were captured by them, so were the businesses. Even now if you make a survey of all the institutions and business concerns you will see that many of the top brass are invariably either from Jamaat or their supporters. The total social fabric, the culture now suffers from their dominance. That is why you see increasingly this influence on the ordinary people, mainly because of fear. Persecution of women in the name of fatwas (religious edicts) increased beyond limits. During the 1990s we documented at least 35 to 40 fatwas pronounced and executed against women per year. Now it has decreased because there has been a legal fight against it. You do see more and more women now wearing Islamic dress. Also one can thank 9/11 and Mr. Bush’s policies for that. This is part of an international drive now, with ISIS and other similar militant organizations working in many societies.

There’s not enough political strength to resist this invasion. I’ll give you a simple example, The Awami League came to power in 2008 as a big alliance; by itself it got a two-thirds majority in the Parliament and as an alliance a three fourths majority. Their manifesto clearly made commitment to bring back the 1972 constitution. They brought back secularism as one of the fundamental principles, but they have still retained ‘bismillah al-rahman al-raheem’ (In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate) as well as Islam as the state religion for fear of serious consequence threatened by the fundamentalist forces.

When you think about the negative impacts of these trends on women, what is the solution? Is there a need to engage with religious actors in a more effective way?


I have no optimism to believe that anything will improve if you just engage with Jamaat, because they have their political interests and motivations which go clearly against all we have wanted and aspired for since we began preparations for the liberation of Bangladesh. It’s not possible to have any logical discussion with them, because they do not believe in that culture. Basically, I still have confidence in the ordinary people of Bangladesh. If you look at the election results, they hardly vote for Jamaat. Jamaat is not a pro-people party, they only rule by fear. It’s not only Jamaat; other religious groups also follow the same rule. This is why we witness oppression, harassment and gruesome killings of free thinkers; that’s the way they want to bring people under their control. My house was bombed twice, once in 1995 and another time in 2001. That is the way they want to scare people and say, ‘don't speak up, don't go against us.’ They know that they will not win in Bangladesh by logic, that’s why they resort to strategies that scare people to turn to them for protection.

Women are their first targets, because they know that when women refuse to be controlled by them that is the end of their power. One of their tricks is to use the mosques for their platforms. In the mosques they talk to the men, and they say ‘if you cannot control your wife, we will not go to your house for any ritual.’ They provoke men by posing the question, ‘What kind of man are you who cannot control your wife? Your wife goes out without a burqa, people are able to see your wife’s body?’ So the man comes home and tells his wife that she has to go out in a burqa. This is how, one by one, they impose their ideas in people’s personal lives and behavior.

When you ask about my perception, I don’t think that it’s possible to do development through religious activities if your idea of development embraces equality, independence, autonomy, self-control and above all democracy and belief in universality of human rights as essential elements of development. The basis of my statement made above is quite obvious. If someone believes it is possible to achieve development through religion I have no problem with that even though I don’t agree with that perception. But I would like to make one point absolutely clear here that in the context of Bangladesh, one has to remember religion has been used in politics to gain control against and challenge the secular, pro-independence democratic forces, to retain the communal character of Pakistan in Bangladesh.

The political groups using religion have a lot of money, unaccountable money, coming in from many different sources which they invest to make people shift their allegiance to them. The madrasas, religious schools they open basically attract the poor children who are kept in the dark about the outside world motivated to dedicate their life for religion in order to be rewarded in the life after death. It is easy to drive them towards resorting to violence once they feel their religious sentiment has been hurt.

They are used and manipulated, like when Hefazat-i-Islam planned to siege Dhaka, they brought the madrasa students who didn’t even know where they were going and what for. All that they were told is that they have to sacrifice their life to protect ‘Islam,’ ironically in a Muslim majority country! So if you ask for my opinion, based on my personal experience and whatever research and activities I have carried out in my society so far, my conclusion is that these people have nothing to do with real development. They use the slogan of development as a tool to gain power over people hiding their real motive, and that’s it.

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