By K.N. Pandita
In its editorial of November 16, 2016, The Washington Post carried the story of brutal attacks in Bangladesh killing scores of bloggers, foreigners and members of Hindu religious minorities. A Hindu tailor was killed in April, and a Hindu priest was hacked to death in July last. Over almost two years, radical Islamists have carried out a string of brutal attacks on Hindu minority. July attack in Dhaka left 22 Hindus dead. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her governing Awami League accused Islamist opposition of fomenting terrorism. However, involvement of some leaders of the ruling party is not ruled out.
Pretending some “desecration” Muslim youth went on a spree of attacking, ransacking and destroying 15 temples and the homes of more than 100 families in a Hindu neighbourhood in Nasirnagar. A Bangladeshi Supreme Court lawyer and civil rights activist, Jyotirmoy Barua, laments that social media is used to foment violence against minorities. While the Awami League has suspended three local leaders for their involvement in the attack, the credibility of Ms. Hasina’s government is on the line.
In 1941 Hindu population of East Bengal was 28 per cent. The ratio dropped to 22% after the mass migration in 1947. Under Pakistan Hindus faced discrimination and intimidation from the regime. The ratio fell down to 18.5% in 1961. During the liberation war, they faced mass genocide and millions of them took refuge in India. Though some of the refugees returned after liberation yet their ratio fell to 13.5%. In 1981 they were reduced to 12.1%, and only a decade later, the ratio fell to 10%. It is deemed that the recent ratio has fallen below 8%. If the trend continues where will they be in 2050?
On 30th of October, at least 15 Hindu temples and hundreds of Hindu houses in Brahmanbaria’s Nasirnagar were looted and destroyed by a group of 150 to 200 Islamists. According to reports, groups of Touhidi Janata and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat staged two separate demonstrations at the Upazila headquarters protesting a Face book post a few days ago. Administration failed to take any security measure to protect the local temples. Some believe that Hefazat-e-Islam and even the ruling Awami League were behind the attacks
A report in Time magazine suggested that in Bangladesh, a deeply impoverished and overcrowded nation, scarcity of land is at the heart of the matter behind communal violence. Jyotrimoy Barua, a Supreme Court lawyer in Dhaka told Time. “Most of the people’s houses they are burning are those of the poor. If you burn their house, they will leave the country, and you get their land.”
The Modern Tokyo Times reported that the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Bangladesh mirrors a similar emergence of militant groups in Pakistan and threatens hopes for stability in Bangladesh. “Jamaat-e-Islami is a continuing cancer that threatens society directly along with sinister political forces that manipulate Islamists for personal gains,” MTT wrote. “Islamist violence directed towards the Hindu community is all too familiar.”
Writing in The Diplomat, Sanjay Kumar said Bangladesh’s minorities are subject to acts of arson and even rape by J-e-I thugs. After enduring violent attacks and the loss of homes and businesses, many Hindus across Bangladesh live in a state of trauma and fear returning to their native villages. “Jamaat-Shibir (Youth wing of JI) has created a situation of panic in and around the village,” a Hindu grocer in Ramganj named Jaynto Mondol told The Diplomat. “They destroyed around 50 shops in my area and we had to flee to another village to take shelter.” Mondol said he thinks that J-e-I and its allies want to turn Bangladesh into a “purely Islamic country by throwing the Hindus out. We can’t live in peace.”
Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, reported that the latest round of violence represented the second such wave of anti-Hindu attacks in less than a year. A few months ago Islamists wrecked hundreds of Hindu homes and shops, apparently in retaliation for the country’s International Crimes Tribunal sentencing of several aging senior members of J-e-I to death for their part in war crimes committed during the War of Independence against Pakistan in 1971.
In 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal had indicted several Jamaat members for war crimes against Hindus during the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities. In retaliation, violence against Hindu minorities in Bangladesh was instigated by the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. The violence included looting Hindu properties and businesses, burning Hindu shops and homes, rape and abductions of Hindu women and vandalising and desecrating the Hindu temples.
After the election of 2001, when a right-wing coalition including two Islamist parties (Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and Islami Oikya Jote) led by the pro-Islamic right wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power, many minority Hindus and liberal secularist Muslims were attacked by a section of the governing regime. Thousands of Bangladeshi Hindus were believed to have fled to neighbouring India to escape the violence unleashed by activists sympathetic to the new government. Many Bangladeshi Muslims played an active role in documenting atrocities against Hindus during this period.
The new government also clamped down on attempts by the media to document alleged atrocities against non-Muslim minorities following the election. Severe pressure was put on newspapers and other media outside of government control through threats of violence and other intimidation. Most prominently, the Muslim journalist and human rights activist Shahriyar Kabir was arrested on charges of treason on his return from India where he had been interviewing Hindu refugees from Bangladesh; this was by the Bangladesh High Court and he was subsequently freed.
The fundamentalists and right-wing parties such as the BNP and Jatiya Party often portray Hindus as being sympathetic to India. As widely documented in international media, Bangladesh authorities have had to increase security to enable Bangladeshi Hindus to worship freely following widespread attacks on places of worship and devotees.
On October 2006, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom published a report titled ‘Policy Focus on Bangladesh’, which said that since its last election, ‘Bangladesh has experienced growing violence by religious extremists, intensifying concerns expressed by the country’s religious minorities’. The report further stated that Hindus are particularly vulnerable in a period of rising violence and extremism, whether motivated by religious, political or criminal factors, or some combination. The report noted that Hindus had multiple disadvantages against them in Bangladesh, such as perceptions of dual loyalty with respect to India and religious beliefs that are not tolerated by the politically dominant Islamic Fundamentalists of the BNP. Violence against Hindus has taken place “in order to encourage them to flee in order to seize their property”. The previous reports of the Hindu American Foundation were acknowledged and confirmed by this non-partisan report.
On 2 November 2006, USCIRF criticized Bangladesh for continuing persecution of minority Hindus. It also urged the Bush administration to get Dhaka to ensure protection of religious freedom and minority rights before Bangladesh’s next national elections in January 2007.
Even after the decline of Hindu population in Bangladesh from 13.5% in 1974, just after the independence, Hindus were at around 9.2% of the population in 2001 according to government estimates following the census. However, Hindus accounted for only four members of the 300 member parliament following the 2001 elections through direct election; this went up to five following a by-election victory in 2004. Significantly, of the 50 seats reserved for women that are directly nominated by the Prime Minister, not a single one was allotted to a Hindu. The political representation is not at all satisfactory and several Hindu advocacy groups in Bangladesh have demanded a return to a communal electorate system as existed during the Pakistan period, to enable a more equitable and proportionate representation in parliament or a reserved quota since persecution of Hindus has continued since 1946.
In a recent discussion forum in New Delhi, on ‘Bangla Desh-Shahbagh Rising, Jamaat-e-Islami’s violence and the Indian response’ Tarun Vijay MP made some horrendous assertions. He said that one crore Bangladeshi Hindus lived in a state of fear and agony. We say Bangladesh is a friendly country, and Sheikh Hasina (prime minister) is a friend (of India). But it is horrendous and unacceptable that thousands of Hindu homes are being burnt, looted and police are unable to provide protection.
As a result, over 1600 Hindu families from Noakhali and Chattagram have arrived in India with or without passport seeking refuge from carnage. Many of these refugee families are staying in different hospices (dharmashalas), various branches of Hindu ashrams or with relatives or in rented houses. The poorer Hindu refugees in this phase are also seeking means of survival.
Most of these Hindu uprooted families from Bangladesh are mainly halting in Kakdwip, Basanti areas in South 24 Parganas. Barasat, Banga in North 24 Parganas and Ranaghat, Tehatta areas in Nadia and Cooch Behar and Dakshin Dinaj Pur and Jalpaiguri in North Bengal. Some of these people disguise themselves as patient or pilgrims. Some are preparing to move to states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra to seek a living.
The Islamists in Bangladesh are trying to wipe out entire Hindu population and its cultural symbols from Bangladesh. Hindu minority is compelled to flee their native land. What an irony that the Government of India still says there is no exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University, India: firstname.lastname@example.org).