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Mainstream, VOL LI No 52, December 14, 2013 | Focus on Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

Why Minorities are under Attack in Bangladesh

Thursday 19 December 2013, by Manas Ghosh

Ever since the partition of India, the minorities in Pakistan, especially in East Pakistan, had never been allowed to freely exercise their franchise during elections. Things did not change much after emergence of Bangladesh. Except in the 1973 and 2008 parlaimentary elections when they could cast their votes without fear or favour, minorities in Bangladesh have always been attacked by the Islamic parties so that they could not vote for secular parties like the Awami League or parties of the Left like the Communist Party of Bangladesh and pro-Moscow NAP or pro-China NAP parties.

But after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975 the targeted attacks became fiercer and more wide than in the past and they reached their climax during and after the 2001 parlimentary poll when Hindu voters were warned either not to go to the polling station on the polling day or were physically prevented from voting. And those who managed to vote , defying the Islamic fatwa, were subjected to unprece-dented persecution The extent of persecution could be understood from the fact that in Bhola’s Tamijuddin Union alone more than 1500 Hindu women were raped. And none of the rapists, all belonging to the local BNP and Jamaat, was ever booked or tried under the laws of the land. The level of persecution forced over 10 lakh Hindus from Bhola, Barisal, Khulna and Jessore to migrate to India, mostly to West Bengal.

Although Hindus are only 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population of 160 mllion, they determine the fate of 169 parlimentary seats where their concentration varies between 20 per cent and 60 per cent. At the time of partition Hindus were more than 31 per cent of East Pakistan’s population and at the time of Bangladesh’s liberation they were 21.4 per cent of the country’s 75 million people.

Since Hindus have always served as a solid vote-bank for the Awami League, Begum Zia’s BNP-led Islamic alliance of 18 Islamic parties are trying to destroy it by renewing attacks on Hindu and Buddhist settlements so that they are made to flee to India. So far more than 30 Hindu and Buddhist settlements have come under the attack of the Islamists in the course of last year. But those who lived in Ramu in Chittagong Hill Tracts, in Saithia in Pabna, in Chririr Bandar in Dinajpur and in Raujan in Chittagong suffered the most. In Ramu some of the Buddhist viharas were 300 years old and together with statues of Lord Buddha these were first razed to the ground and then set on fire with gun powder. Ramu’s Buddhist residents were forced to flee to Myanmar and the neighbouring distrcts of Bangladesh. In Saithia in Pabna, Hindu properties were totally devastated. The Hindu residents were told: ”Go to your loving and caring shelters in India. There is no place for Hindus in Bangladesh.”

What has made Begum Zia’s Islamists nervous is that the Hindus are firming up their resolve to do block voting for the Awami League in the coming parliamtary election which will certainly bring Sheikh Hasina’s party back into the election fight. What has endeared the Hindus to Sheikh Hasina is her government’s decision to revoke an important section of the Enemy Property Act which will not allow Muslims to forcibly acquire the Hindus’ properties. The BNP and Jamaat leaders have been the biggest beneficiaries of the Enemy Property Act as their leaders have amassed huge properties by taking advantage of the Act. Even the renowned Bengali actress, Suchitra Sen’s huge house in Pabna is under occupation of the Jamaat leaders. The fear of losing control of illegally acquired Hindu properties has raised the hackles of the Islamists who with vengenace are targeting Hindu households. But the real purpose is to terrorise the minorities so that they on the election day do not come out to vote for the Awami League.

There are elements in Khaleda Zia’s alliance who openly say since only 10 per cent of the country’s 160 million people are Hindus, they should not be allowed to have a decisive say in elections and government formation. They say that if the Bangladeshi minorities were more than 20 per cent of the country’s population, like the Muslims in India, they could be allowed to play an important role in government formation. But the Bangledeshi minorities are such an insignificant lot that they should not be allowed to play any key role in elections or government formation. In fact they are strongly pleading for a separate electorate for minorities and are against minorities taking part in direct elections.

During her 2001-2006 rule, Begum Zia had almost agreed to have a separate electorate for the Hindus but could not implement the idea because the timing of this vicious political move was not right. It is ironic that these Islamic elements say that while India should be secular, because it has such a huge Muslim population, Bangladesh should be Islamic because 90 per cent of its people are Muslims and Hindus and other minorities are such an insigificant number. It is pertinent to point out that when Begum Zia came to power in 2001 there were seven Hindu Secretaries to the governemt, two High Court judges, two Vice-Chancellors of universities and one Hindu Major General—all of whom were eased out from their jobs.

It is to divide the Awami League’s Hindu vote-bank that Begum Zia recently floated a Minority Party of Bangladesh with the help of pliable Hindu razakars. But the country’s Hindu community dismissed the move with contempt.

The author was a foreign correspondent representing The Statesman in Dhaka soon after the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. He closely follows the developments in that country, and is currently the Editor of Dainik Statesman (brought out from Kolkata in Bengali).

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