MOST of us uncompromisingly show a conscious disgust against bigotry when it comes to foreigners — be it some racist acts of foreign cricketers or Barack Obama facing a negative campaign during the US election. When our expatriate friends and families tell us their experience of racial intimidation, we listen to them with utter shock and question: How can people be so bigoted? And then we have a content, self-serving feeling — at least we Bangalees are not bigots!
But, aren’t we? Is bigotry only about skin colour? What about religious, ethnic, gendered, class or regional discriminations? Our bigoted face probably gets the ugliest when the election comes. As more than one third of the parliamentary seats (126 seats in 2001) are decided by less than 10 percent voting margin, voting rights of minority voters become the target of troublemakers even where the number of minority voters are thin. The discrimination is at its highest where there is a significant concentration of Hindu voters.
The pre-election intimidation and post-election terrorising of minority groups during the previous elections are well known. There were efforts to keep the religious minority voters away from the polling centres while fake votes were cast. Such organised effort successfully deprived the minority voters without apparently reducing the overall voting turnout figure.
But even the most careful criminal sometimes leaves a clue behind. This piece will examine some of those evidence to show how a chain of communal intimidation is present in our system. First, the minority voters are pressurised to stay away from the polling centre. If they somehow come to the polling centre, the polling centre itself is terrorised. After the poll, there are also credible allegations of post?ballot count result manipulation even at the returning officer level. Finally, a post?election horror awaits the minority community.
Intimidation starts even before the campaign, and includes open and public threatening of minority voters, denying access to polling centres by creating barricades, and keeping minority families under almost home-arrest during the election time. In many areas, the parents send their children, especially daughters, away before the election out of fear. In 2001, there were at least 59 constituencies where there is clear evidence of such pre-election rampage.
The intimidation then moves on to the Election Day. Let’s consider a couple of cases.
Religious minorities accounted for 12 per cent of total registered voters in Bagerhat-4 constituency. In 2001, the result of this constituency was determined by a close margin of 1.13 per cent. Could the voters of this constituency cast their votes fearlessly? Let’s just take one example. Parkumarkhali HS polling centre of Ramchandrapur Union was witnessing a high voter turnout on Election Day. Suddenly a number of miscreants went on the rampage and soon the polling centre was closed. As a result of this unrest, only 55.77 per cent voters came to the polling centre during the re-poll, whereas other polling centres in that area witnessed 80 to 90 per cent turnout. It clearly shows the impact of terror on voting turnout.
In the same election, Jamaat as part of four party alliance won the then Khulna-5 seat by 2.13 per cent. In this constituency about 40 percent of the total voters are religious minority, with the Dumuria upazila having a higher concentration of Hindu voters, about 43 percent. According to the National Election Commission data, the Maguraghona HS polling centre of this upazila registered a ridiculous 110.21 per cent voter turnout during the 2001 election. Surprisingly, when one looks at the data supplied by the UNO office in Dumuria, the polling centre only showed 1,612 votes cast — a 92 percent turnout. But when reported by the DC office, the number of votes cast jumped to 1,912 — an extra 300 votes which were awarded to a single candidate. It only means, even if a minority can vote, it is possible to change the ballot count at the final stage.
Now how is the religious discrimination different from other types of bigotry? How can we condemn racism around the world when we practice the same thing with more cruelty? Ironically, a person who discriminates against another for religion or ethnicity may very well be a minority on political grounds. Isn’t Jamaat a political minority given the fact that it gets only one per cent seats in the national election when they contest individually? Or can’t a Muslim supporter of BNP or AL become minority based on his/her regional background?
Most of us may thank our fate that we are not part of the religious minority, and keep our eyes shut to these discriminations. But the concept of minority is just a construction of convenience to divide people and gain strategic power. We can make a long list of instances when we are discriminated in government offices and in politics for belonging to a particular district, how we struggle to find a suitable groom for our darker skinned daughter or sister, or how we become a victim of constant teasing for having a particular political belief. If we do not stand against the discrimination of religious minority, one day there will be no one to stand beside us when we will be the victim of bigotry.