Reducing violence against minority
The September 29 incidents of Ramu and Ukhia are a clear reminder that the minority citizens of Bangladesh remain quite vulnerable to deplorable acts of violence even under a ruling party strongly committed to fighting religious or ethnic extremism. This commentary explores how best to reduce the future incidence of such heinous acts.
Violence in general is preponderant against citizen groups (for example, women) that are vulnerable to such crimes. The minority status of the religious and ethnic minorities makes them especially vulnerable, meaning that they are relatively more vulnerable than their majority counterparts. To illustrate this minority bias in violence let us use some hypothetical numerical figures, but the analysis and the conclusions below do not depend on the exact figures chosen. Suppose that the population of Bangladesh is normalised to 100, and say 80 are Bangali Muslims (B) and 20 are minorities (D). And say, in a year, a total of 40 citizens are victimised by violence. If there is no minority bias in violence, then we would expect 32 B victims and 8 D victims, in proportion to the population mix of 80% B and 20% D. Given the ugly reality of minority bias in violence, we would, however, expect more of the 40 victims to be D victims. A mild minority bias may lead to 12 D victims, indicating that 30% of the victims are minority citizens although they are only 20% of the population. With a severe minority bias, D victims may rise to 16 or 40% of all victims, twice their proportion in the population.
Now consider the situation where violence in general has risen so that a total of 60 citizens are now victims of violence in a year. If there is no change in minority bias due to a higher level of violence in general, we would now expect 18 (30%) D victims under mild minority bias and 24 (40%) D victims under severe minority bias. In either case, regrettably, there are more minority victims than before. But this increase in violence against minority is completely driven by the rise in violence in general and not because the minority citizens are relatively targeted more.
Aided by the above, some important observations can be made. First, with no change in attitude toward the minority (minority bias), violence against minority can be reduced significantly by vigorously arresting violence in general in the country, that is, by greatly improving the countrywide law and order situation and day to day security for ordinary citizens. In the above illustration, even with severe minority bias, reducing the incidence of violence in general from 60% to 40% cuts the number of D victims from 24 to 16. Here it is worth noting that the rise in violence against minority in Bangladesh since liberation may in part be due to an increase in the incidence of violence in general.
Second, significant improvements in security for minority citizens can be obtained by combining steps to reduce violence in general and special measures offering relatively greater protection for the minority. Thus, for example, with the lower incidence (40%) of violence in general, if the minority bias is reduced from severe to a mild level, the number of D victims will drop by 50% from 24 to 12.
Third, special motivational measures can reduce minority bias. These measures should include ceaseless public education and campaign to promote greater tolerance of competing views of religion and culture. However, a pre- or co-requisite for such measures is the assurance of freedom of expression, political or otherwise, and a culture of peaceful and legal, instead of violent and extra-judicial, resolution of conflicts of interests and opinions. Unfortunately, hopes are far fetched in these regards. Having said that, there is greater hope in an alternative motivational campaign, namely, to proclaim and promote a strong and pervasive sense of nationalistic feeling. In any political state, the greatest common denominator of citizens is their shared citizenship, and religious, ethnic and other identifications lead to increasing compartmentalisation and potential frictions. Thus, the best motivational healer of minority bias in violence seems to be an overwhelming sense of pride in and love for the land that both the majority and the minority share.
Fourth, motivational measures should preferably be supplemented by suitable legal deterrents to reduce minority bias in violence. One such legal measure could involve making the discriminatory (religious/ethnic) intent a count of criminal charge additional to the violence charge and having equal punishments for both charges. This way, a violent act with discriminatory bias would carry twice the punishment of one without such bias. Note carefully that the discriminatory intent/bias should be punishable both ways, majority crime against minority or minority crime against majority. As such, it should also help contain the risks of counter- violence and escalation in inter-group violence.
Fifth, special or targeted legal protection measures could include declaring the places of minority worship or cultural activities as national heritage sites and making the trespassing/vandalising of national heritage sites an additional (to general trespassing/vandalising) and equally punishable count of crime. It will of course be quite challenging politically for a democratically elected government to institute/legislate special protection for the minority citizens in this manner as the majority Bangali Muslims may feel reversely discriminated against. This is especially so if the special protection for minority is not accompanied or preceded by a significant improvement in security for ordinary citizens.
To conclude, it seems the best way to reduce violence against minority citizens is to improve security for ordinary citizens, promote freedom of expression and tolerance of competing views in all spheres, pass laws that make discriminatory intent behind a crime heavily punishable, and above all cultivate strong nationalistic pride and love for the country that once was earned by the promise of sanctity of life and liberty for all.
The writer is Professor of Practice in Finance, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.