Minority rights, globally and locally

A file photo shows a house destroyed in communal attacks at Nasirnagar in Brahmanbaria; November 2016. — New Age/Focusbangla

THE oppression of minority communities is a pandemic that is as bad as COVID-19. The exception being that oppression has managed to plague the world for a lot longer. Much like the virus, it takes on different forms among different populations, but in all cases, it hinders humanity. In America, it is the plight of the black community. In Bangladesh, it is the plight of the Hindu and other religious minorities. In India, it is the plight of the Muslim community and those who are disenfranchised due to their Hindu caste. In all cases, the acknowledgment of the problem and our responses have been grossly inadequate.

In particular, the black community has suffered disproportionately. Displaced from their homes and forcefully brought in for hard labour without compensation or remuneration of any form, they started their time in most first world nations as ‘property’. Dehumanised and degraded, these communities were for the longest time denied any dignity. The end of slavery in America signalled the possibility for change. Yet, for decades after the official legislation, the black community have been structurally and systematically disenfranchised. From Jim Crow laws preventing black minorities voting to banning black individuals from buying property — they have been denied access to meaningful justice, education, property or means of production. Tormented by mass incarceration, harassment and abjectly ignored by leaders placed in power to help them break the shackles that once bound them. They have been subjected to disproportionate policing mechanisms and brutality for the longest time. The wounds from their history have left scars that has crippled them for generations and continue to do so. At every turn in history, the community fought for their rights and paid with blood. The weaponisaion of ‘American Dream’ has been inflicting nightmares on people who contributed to the making of American dream possible.

In contrast, most other minorities in America were introduced under relatively different circumstances and treated very differently over the years. Chinese and Japanese immigrants were denied voting rights for the longest time, but they were given access to education and property earlier than the black community.  Immigration policies to ensure the supply of skill labour created scope for them to come here. Similarly, in 1965, the South Asian immigrated to fill the high skilled labour. This skewed the perception through the creation of the ‘model minority’. Naturally, individuals brought in as ‘property’ would be seen differently to those brought in to fill important societal roles. A classic example of divide and rule.

However, we make the mistake of believing that this only happens in America. It is true that the black community in America has faced the brunt of this form of blatant discrimination. However, the spectres of oppressive colonial history still haunt nations all over the world. All nations under colonial rule at some point or the other were subjected to discrimination across race or religious line. In almost every nation, one minority community has always been demonised and disenfranchised.

The systematic oppression of minority communities is just as rampant in Bangladesh as it is in other nations. Following our history of oppression under the Pakistani rule, Bangladesh’s continued enforcement of the Enemy Property Act, now the Vested Property Act displaced the minority Hindu communities from their own property. Years of effort to reform has at best resulted in a rhetorical change with only the smallest number of cases being legally resolved. Yet, there is no real means of formal restitution. Setting aside our concern about the impact of having state religion, it is no secret that Bangladeshi society has been less than kind to its religious minorities. Evidence of violent actions and targeted attacks lay in abundance, accompanied by the brutal assaults on the indigenous communities. The impacts here are less evident, arguably because the size of our minority is only about ten percent. That is to say, that they are unable to raise their voice when it is most needed. What is worse, is that this demography is sometimes terribly reflective of the majority’s willingness (or lack thereof) to support or protect the minority communities in any meaningful way.

Attention therefore, must turn to the question of why this has been allowed to perpetuate. Democracy is an odd monster. It was meant as a process to ensure that everyone had a voice. However, where everyone speaks, often the cries of a few are drowned by the overwhelming roars of the many. This is predominantly due to the forms of oppression mentioned above. The impacts of being systematically denied property and access to means of production create a vicious cycle. Firstly, it disproportionately disempowers individuals by taking away their access to wealth which they could use to fund housing, education or a search for a job. Because these individuals are too busy looking for their basic needs, they are willing to overlook their need for civil and political rights, making them almost unwilling to engage politically. Not by choice, but because they are put in the difficult position of having to choose between political engagement and meeting basic necessities. Secondly, the lack of education makes them leaves them unprepared to seek better access to wealth or fight for their rights, civil or political aside. Eventually, this structural condition prevents them from collectively organise and fight for their rights. Too occupied trying to survive, these individuals are hence unable to form critical mass effective enough to meaningfully engage with the systems that govern them. Not to mention their inability to hire lawyers to defend their rights. Furthermore, all of this has multi-generational impacts. If the minority community cannot improve their position or access to wealth, the following generations are subject to the same dehumanising process where they are continually denied access to education or jobs. The problem perpetuates unless policy makers actively make effort to change the discriminatory system.

Such changes are naturally harder to bring about. What is worse is that the system of political engagement today thrives capitalising this divide between the majority and minority. Democracy is a system where leaders are born from the support of the many. Naturally, there is an intuitive desire to support the majority population. Unless the minority communities can form enough political clout as a voting bloc, the incentive for political parties to care for them significantly declines. Not only does their lack of access to wealth or property make it difficult for them to politically engage, but also, they fear retribution. It is not unfounded that those who are made to feel powerless by the system, fear those who are perpetually empowered by the system. From over-policing to something as common as communal violence, minority communities all over the world have been subjected to violence.

The Black Lives Matter movement in America is emblematic of the struggles against systems of discrimination. For generations, the black community have been treated as lesser beings by their fellow citizens. It is abhorrent to say the least. Minority communities all over the world deserve redress for all the horrors they have suffered. Policy needs to address the multi-generational impacts of the system. Even if it means aggressive redistribution. They deserve access to means needed for meaningful political engagement. It is unforgivable that when one of us suffers, the rest of us stay silent. To bring about the changes we crave to see, it is imperative that all communities must come together. Across nations and across racial lines, it is our duty to fight oppression where we see it. Whether one is a part of the concerned minority or otherwise, where unjust power structures exist, no one is safe from its crippling impacts. It is all of our responsibility to ensure that each member of the society, each citizen of our nations, every human being, is afforded the opportunity to live meaningful lives.

Ahmed Shafquat Hassan is a barrister.

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