Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of Daily Star, the largest circulated English daily in Bangladesh, in conversation with The Indian Express journalists:
Shubhajit Roy: We have been watching the progress towards secularism in Bangladesh in the last two years. Is this making lasting changes in society?
Mahfuz Anam: Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country. So there is an overwhelming presence of the majority Muslim culture. But in our social interaction, religious tolerance among communities living together have been a historic phenomenon. The birth of Bangladesh has been based on the principles of democracy, secularism, nationalism. In Bangladesh, the entry of religion into politics, in my view, can be directly linked to the involvement of army in politics. This is the phenomenon in Pakistan too. When you have a coterie that has no base amongst people, they look for possible pockets of support and in Muslim-majority countries, unfortunately, Islam becomes a very easy tool for them to play with. We are practising Muslims as we were before and as tolerant of other religions as before. Form the 70s onwards, you had a global rise of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and other countries. This has had an impact in all Muslim-majority countries, from Indonesia to Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. But throughout it all, whenever the people of Bangladesh have had a chance for free expression through elections, they have overwhelmingly voted for secular parties. So the religious party, the Jamafat-e-Islami, never got more than 3 to 8 per cent of the votes. This is not to say that religion hasnft had a rise or a growing impact on politics, but it was not a determining impact. Bangladesh today is veering closer to secular roots through the election of this government led by Sheikh Hasina. Mainstream politics is once again based on nationalism. .
Shekhar Gupta: This dramatic turnaround in Bangladesh is a story that has largely been ignored and unappreciated.
Mahfuz Anam: That provokes me to say what is really a very strong emotion in my heart. I wish the Indian media would give Bangladesh a little more attention. I strongly appeal to the Indian media to take more interest in Bangladesh. We are your neighbour, a very important neighbour and we can also become a troublesome neighbour. You encompass us, except for a little bit of Myanmar. We are almost in your belly; if we are an unstable society, it tells on your security. If the Bangladesh state is unable to respond to the peoplefs needs, the burden will be on this side of the border too. On the positive side, Bangladesh is roughly a six-billion-dollar market for India–formal or informal. Now if with a per capita income of close to four hundred dollars, Bangladesh can be a market to you of close to six billion dollars, then if our per capita income goes up to six hundred dollars, whose market is it going to be? So look at Bangladesh as your prospective market and give us the respect of a market that buys six billion worth of your goods. You are not even looking at it as an issue of self interest. Then there is the issue of security in the North East, and other insurgency issues. With a prosperous Bangladesh, with a secure Bangladesh, your whole security situation changes. India-Bangladesh becomes a model bilateral relationship which you can then flaunt with Nepal, even all over the world. More: