Dialogue July-September, 2006, Volume 8 No. 1
Status of Minorities in Bangladesh
Bangladesh has a population of 140 million Of the 140 million, 87 per cent are Muslims, 10 million people are Hindus, about one million are Buddhists,1 less than one million are Christians2 and about two million people belong to various ethnic denominations. 71 per cent of Bangladesh’s total population lives below the poverty line. A bird’s eye view of the religion wise population (in percentage) of Bangladesh (as has been censused) is:
1951 77.9 22 0.7 0.3 0.1
1961 80.4 18.5 0.7 0.3 0.1
1974 85.4 13.5 0.6 0.3 0.2
1981* 86.7 12.1 0.6 0.3 0.3
* A complete break-up of other minorities has not yet been done.
Islam is the state religion of Bangladesh and the country is run by a four party alliance,3 an important constituent of which is the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had opposed the independence of Bangladesh. Two of the basic principles that had goaded the freedom loving people of the erstwhile East Pakistan to declare independence from West Pakistan, were the two pillars of civilisation, namely secularism and democracy. The ideal of secularism that had been enshrined in the Constitution4 was dropped and Islam was made the state religion. Consequently the minorities have become second–grade citizens. Of the thirty-four years of its history, Bangladesh has been under military rule for a long period. The major partner of the present government, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was also born under the initiative and design of the first military ruler of Bangladesh, Gen. Ziaur Rahman. The Bangladesh Awami League,5 the political party that had led the war of liberation, ruled the country for five years (1996-2001) after democracy was restored on 4 December 1990.6 During its five-year rule, the Awami League was partially successful in developing democratic institutions, efforts of which have totally been nullified when the Awami League relinquished power in October 2001.
The Awami League had instilled a sense of security and belonging among the minorities of Bangladesh. It champions Bengali nationalism and is committed to the doctrines of secularism and democracy. During the five year period in which Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League ruled Bangladesh, there were more than half a dozen secretaries to the government of Bangladesh, University Vice Chancellors,7 Ambassadors8 from among the minorities, an occurrence that was unprecedented in independent Bangladesh history. Awami League also took initiative to repeal the law on Enemy Property.9 Promulgated in the sixties, this law was primarily trained against the Hindus. As a result, the Hindu community of Bangladesh has remained grateful to the Awami League and has been a staunch supporter of the party.
The Eighth Parliamentary Election of Bangladesh was held on 1 October 2001. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and people of other faiths participated in the elections. Out of about 14 crore registered voters in the country, the number of Muslim voters is the highest. The religious minority voting population constitutes just over 82 lakh. of the 82 lakh, about 72 lakh are Hindus. In order to garner the support of the Hindus, the BNP took several initiatives during the pre-election days. The BNP president, Begum Khaleda Zia even visited the Dhakeswari temple, the principal temple of the Hindus. This was her first visit to the Dhakeswari temple after becoming the president of the BNP. However, even this act of Khaleda could not establish the confidence of the Hindus on the BNP. The reason for this lay in the distortion of the founding principles, i.e., secularism by the founder of the BNP. General Ziaur Rahman had removed the basic principle of Bangladesh, the basis of which was the country’s war of liberation.
Moreover, the atrocities that were inflicted upon the Hindus in 1992, in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Maszid in Ayodhya, had greatly hurt the Hindus. The ravaging hordes damaged twenty-eight thousand dwelling houses, two thousand seven hundred commercial enterprises and three thousand six hundred temples during the pogrom. Twelve Hindus were killed; two thousand of them were injured and two thousand Hindu women and young girls were inhumanly tortured. The year 1992, when the anti-Hindu pogroms took place, was also the year when the BNP was in power and Khaleda Zia was the prime minister. Naturally, the memories of 1992 played an important role in the 2001, when the Hindus refused to forgive Khaleda Zia.
It is alleged that the 2001 General Elections, which was jointly conducted by the president, the caretaker government, the election commission, the civil and military administration prevented the entry of Hindu voters into the voting centres. It is also alleged that Hindus were not allowed to cast their votes. Those who were able to cast their votes were accused of voting in favour of the Awami League and were tortured by members of the BNP and the four-party alliance. The number of Hindu voters were comparatively more in districts like Barisal, Bhola, Patkhira, Natore, Gizipur, Kishoreganj, Feni, Jhenadah, Lalmonirhat, Gopalganj, Satkhira and Meherpur. Atrocities committed on Hindus were also more acute in these areas. These areas have 20 to 25 per cent Hindu voters.
The pogroms against the Hindus began immediately after the day of elections. Initially people were not aware of these atrocities but the humanitarian role of certain conscious newspapers brought these incidents to light, and there was surprise among the people when they learnt about the tortures. Within forty-five days after the elections were conducted, four million Hindus were tortured in a variety of ways. Over a thousand Hindu women were molested—the predatory process of which continues to this very day. In utter helplessness, the Hindus, finding no other means to defend themselves, crossed the borders to take shelters in neighbouring countries.
The exact number of Hindus who migrated could not be ascertained—those who left the country kept their identities secret for fear of “pushback”. But sources have opined that millions of Hindus left Bangladesh in the aftermath of the 2001 general elections. The government of India, several political parties of India and many social and human rights organisations have expressed their concerns over the atrocities. Protests were organised in Canada, USA, Australia and many parts of Europe as well. The Asia Amnesty International published a report on the post-election atrocities on the Hindus of Bangladesh,10 and many human rights organisations expressed their concern about the road that is being taken in the land of Banga Bandhu.
But the four-party alliance government denied the charges. It was only on the face of several protests and pressure that an inquiry committee was constituted, but the report submitted by the committee has given rise to the question of neutrality on the part of the government and the committee.
On the other hand, Ain o Shalish Kendra, a human rights organisation has submitted a writ petition to the Bangladesh High court requesting security for Hindus citing 357 case studies on the atrocities. Even as the verdict is still being considered, the leaders and workers of the four-party alliance with the active support of the administration has begun muscling into the houses of the victims to “ensure” that no torture or rape charges are made against them.
This is the first time after the war of independence in 1971 that pogrom against Hindus has been so widespread. The Jamaat-e-Islami and its student front, the Islami Chhatra Shibir, who were the collaborators and associates of the Pakistanis during the war of liberation, are now in alliance with the BNP. The traditional vote-bank of the Awami League that constitutes the Hindus had to be ousted from Bangladesh, and what better way to do so by committing atrocities on them so that they simply leave Bangladesh, out of agony and fear.
The pogroms have, however, not been confined to the Hindus alone. Christians were killed by bombs in the church of Baniachong and a minor daughter of a Christian priest was gang raped at Manikganj. A Buddhist religious priest named Gyanjoti Bhikku at Raujan under Chittagong District was killed. Analysing the modus operandi of the marauders, it has been seen that the rape of Hindu women has been the most preferred method. On defilement of the womenfolk, the men simply leave, leaving behind their homes and hearths. Analysing the reasons for the anti-Hindu drive, two scholars have written:
The sole reason (for the pogroms: Author) is not, however, political or economic. But a clear fomentation by the religious fundamentalists, according to a well chalked out blueprint. It is evident from the pattern of atrocities that religious cleansing of the Hindus is the primary goal. The underlying policy is jane maaris na, ijjat maar (don’t kill them, rape their women) so that they are compelled to leave Bangladesh gradually and slowly out of mental agony.11
At any rate, the nature and extent of the atrocities committed on the minorities this time around have crossed all limits. Killing, rape, forcible annexation of properties12 etc have resulted in a daily migration of 475 minorities. In the present circumstances, the minorities of Bangladesh have only three options:
1. To change their faith and become Muslims,
2. To leave the country, leaving behind all their possessions in Bangladesh, and
3. Get external support to combat the situation.
To make matters worse for the minorities of Bangladesh, there have been incidences of “pushback” from India, hanging thereby the fate of many a migrating family. It is as if they do not belong to this earth. To add to the growing woe, the civil society in Bangladesh has not been very effective in solving the crisis. Authors and opinion makers who have taken up the cause of the minorities have already been taken to task by the government of Bangladesh, and many have been forced to leave Bangladesh as a result.
1. The Buddhist population in Bangladesh is primarily concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Chakmas are the predominant Buddhist population of Bangladesh.
2. The largest concentration of Christians in Bangladesh is in Mymensingh, Dhaka and Khulna regions. The Christians in Mymensingh are principally members of tribal groups, such as the Garos. In the metropolitan areas of Dhaka, the Christians belong primarily to two groups: Bengali converts and Eurasians (often described as “Anglo-Indians”). In the latter group, Roman Catholicism is predominant.
3. The BNP led four-party alliance includes the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islami Oikyo Jote and the Jatiyo Party (Manju).
4. The Bangladesh constitution had adopted a parliamentary system of government with a ceremonial president and a governing prime minister and cabinet, quite on the lines of the constitution of India. The constitution of 1972 also enshrined the four pillars of Mujibbad: nationalism, secularism, democracy and socialism. After the assassination of Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975, Gen. Ziaur Rahman amended the constitution and replaced “socialism,” “secularism,” and “Bengali nationalism” with “social justice,” “absolute faith in God almighty,” and “Bangladeshi nationalism.” He also had “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” inserted in Arabic in the preamble of the constitution by the Proclamation [Amendment] Order, 1977. Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad, who took over on 24 March 1982, went a step further. He amended the constitution in June 1988 and introduced Islam as the state religion.
5. Founded in June 1949 by Husain Shahid Suhrawardy.
6. When Lt Gen Hussain Muhammad Ershad who had overthrown Abdus Sattar resigned and handed over the reins of the government to the chief justice of Bangladesh, Shahabuddin Ahmed.
7. Dr. Durgadas Bhattacharjee, Vice Chancellor, National University.
8. S. S. Chakma (Bhutan), Cyril Sikdar (Nepal) and Subir Bhattacharjee [Kenya] to name a few.
9. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, a law called the “The Defence of Pakistan Ordinance” was promulgated to “ensure the security, the public safety, interest and the defence of the state.” This was succeeded by a regulation, which was called “The Enemy (Custody and Registration) Order II of 1965.” Under the regulation, India was declared an enemy, and the regulation allowed “enemy” lands (which for all practical purposes were those of the Hindus) to be appropriated by the State. Approximately a million Hindu households (40 per cent) have been deprived of over 1.64 million acres of landed property, which is 53 per cent of the land owned by Hindu households. This included 81.7 per cent agricultural land, 10 per cent homestead land, 1.74 per cent garden land, 2.4 per cent ponds, 0.68 per cent fallow land and the rest was 3.4 per cent.
10. In its December 2001 report titled, “Bangladesh: Attacks on Members of the Hindu Minority,” the Amnesty International provided the following information:
The current wave of attacks against the Hindu community in Bangladesh began before the general elections of 1 October 2001 when Hindus were reportedly threatened by members of the BNP-led alliance not to vote, since their vote would be cast for the Awami League. The backlash after the elections was systematic and severe....
Human rights organisations in Bangladesh believe over 100 women may have been subjected to rape. Reports persistently allege that the perpetrators have been mainly members of the BNP or its coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami....
A college student was reportedly raped in front of her mother at her home in Azimnagar, Bhanga, Faridpur. The attackers reportedly entered her home on 6 October at about 9 p.m., ransacked the house, looted valuables and raped the student before leaving the house....
A schoolgirl was reportedly gang-raped in Delua, Ullapara, Sirajganj on 8 October. Attackers entered her home, ill-treated members of her family, took her outside and raped her....
Two Hindu women were reportedly raped in front of their husbands on 11 October in Khanzapur Upazila in Gournadi, Barisal. The attackers reportedly came at night, knocked on the door and told the family that they should leave the area because they had voted for the Awami League. Then they reportedly tied up the husbands and raped the women....
The killing of prominent members of the Hindu community appears to be connected to the current wave of attacks on Hindus. On 16 November, Gopal Krishna Muhuri, Principal of Nazirhat College in Chittagong, was shot dead at his home … police reportedly arrested at least two teachers and colleagues of Gopal Krishna Muhuri on 17 November in connection with his murder. They were allegedly linked to Jamaat-e-Islami, a party in the coalition.
The BNP government also arrested many secular and progressive people including Shahriar Kabir, a journalist who has sought to publicise abuses against Hindus, on 22 November 2001 after it came to power. Amnesty International called for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoner of conscience Shahriar Kabir. See Amnesty International, “Bangladesh: Attacks on Members of the Hindu Minority,” 1 December 2001. AI Index: ASA 13/006/2001).
<http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGASA130062001? Open&of=ENG-BGD> (accessed on 26 March 2004).
11. Bimal Pramanik and Mihir Sinha Roy, “The Recent Plight of Minorities in Bangladesh: A Post-Election Scenario” (paper presented in the international seminar “The Recent Plight of Minorities in Bangladesh: A Post-Election Scenario,” organised by the Centre for Research in Indo-Bangladesh Relations, Calcutta, 28 January 2002).
12. Mr. Abul Barkat, a Professor of Economics in the University of Dhaka has stated in his research survey, “ the average amount of dispossession shown in the official record would be 20 per cent less than the actual amount ascertained in the survey. This implies that the total amount of Hindu land disposed of under Enemy Property/Vested Property Act would be 2.1 million acres. The estimated value of these 2.1 million acres of dispossessed land at current market price would be about Taka 12,09,600 million (equivalent to 70% of the Gross Domestic Product in the Year 2000). On the other hand, according to 1991 population census the total size of the Hindu population was 11.2 million. Assuming the 1961 population share of the Hindu population (18.4 per cent) the absolute size of the Hindu population in 1991 would have been 18.4 million instead of 11.2 million as reported in the census. These estimates substantiate the earlier findings regarding the missing Hindu population, “The estimated total missing Hindu population during 1964 to 1991 was 5.3 million, i.e. 1,96,296 Hindus are missing every year since 1964. In other words, if out-migration of Hindu population is caused mainly by communal disharmony resulting from the Enemy/Vested Property Acts, the approximate size of the missing Hindu population would be 538 persons each day, since 1964.” See An Inquiry into Causes and Consequences of Deprivation of Hindu Minorities in Bangladesh through Vested Property Act, Abul Barkat (Ed) (Dhaka: Prip Trust, 2000) 63.
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