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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The abandoned minorities of Bangladesh

Islam being the state religion is not the only thing common between Pakistan and Bangladesh but endangered future of religious minorities, violent hate crimes and everyday discrimination against them is another commonality which makes them part of the idea called ‘Pakistan’.

A recent incident of Muslim mob vandalising a temple and several houses belonging to members of Hindu community in the Sahapara area of Lohagara, Narail over a Facebook post after the Jumma Namaz on Friday (July 15) summarises the constant fear under which Hindus are forced to live in Bangladesh. This article makes an attempt to show the many ways in which religious minorities, particularly Hindus and ethnic tribes of Bangladesh are being discriminated against and their human rights are violated with impunity.

Rampant violations of rights of religious and other minorities are reported from some Islamic countries on a daily basis. In this context, Bangladesh along with Pakistan and Afghanistan is a living hell for the religious minorities in the Indian subcontinent. Civilizational tragedy in the form of extinction of Hindu minorities is unfolding in front of our eyes. Population of religious minorities has shrunk to an abysmal state. Hindus, for example are at their all-time low at around 8.5% of the total population from 22% in 1951. 

A Muslim majority state with Islam as its official religion hardly treats non-Muslims as equal citizens and this fact is even boasted by the constitutional heads of some countries. For example, Khawaja Nazimuddin, the 2nd Prime Minister of Pakistan, had said, “I do not agree that religion is a private affair of the individual nor do I agree that in an Islamic state every citizen has identical rights, no matter what his caste, creed or faith be”.

The first-hand experience of this bitter truth was borne by then Scheduled Caste leader of Bengal, Jogendranath Mondal (1904-68), who made a so called common cause with Muslim League, had to come back to Bharat just after few years. His resignation letter is a historic document indicating the abysmal status of minorities in the then just born Pakistan. Also, it is a lesson for today’s so called Ambedkarites who are seeking a common goal with such Islamic fundamentalist forces in Bharat.

Hindus fought along with their Bengali brethren for the cause of independent Bangladesh. They suffered most at the hands of the Pakistan military due to their religious identity. Even the UN Counsel in Dhaka wrote about Hindus being specifically targeted. With their countless sacrifices, the war for Bangladesh liberation was over but unfortunately not for the religious minorities of Bangladesh. The secular thought with which the new country was carved out eroded too fast.

Today, recurrent cases of kidnapping, rapes, forced conversions to Islam, land grabbing by majority, vandalisation of temples and false blasphemy charges along with legal and institutionalised discrimination had rendered the lives of religious minorities upside down. Further, rise in Islamist radicalisation has led to a situation where mere existence of Hindus automatically hurts the sentiments of majority community. a worst nightmare.

This radicalization via foreign funding from the Middle East and even Britain for fundamentalist activities like mushrooming of madrasas, mosques etc. has thus hardened the anti-minority feelings. The concoction of money power, political Islamist strength and indoctrination of youth through madrasa education are tragic signs of a dark future for religious and ethnic minorities of Bangladesh.

After its independence, Bangladesh promised to be a ‘sovereign Peoples’ Republic’. However, soon, Islamists started having greater influence on the polity of Bangladesh and in 1977 ‘secularism’ was replaced with “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”. Though the Apex Court of the country revoked the change in 2010 but still Sharia laws have huge bearings on court rulings. Countries with large Muslim populations rarely remain secular in the long run. Same happened with Bangladesh when in 1988 as Islam was made the state religion. A secular state with a state religion? How ironic!  It further emboldened the Islamists and put the lives of Hindus under a constant threat of Islamic vigilantism.

Legally also, Bangladesh discriminates against religious minorities in many ways. Take the example of the Enemy Property Act of Pakistan (Now Vested Property Act). In addition to Islam being made the state religion, this legislation contributed immensely in fostering marginalization of Hindu minorities. The Enemy Property Act was enacted in 1965 in Pakistan under which the properties of Hindus were seized by the government after the Bharat-Pakistan war of 1965. What is more astonishing is that it continued in the sovereign State of Bangladesh for decades even after its independence.

In fact, this act became a social and political tool of land grabbing of minority Hindus of the country. The voluminous data of land grabbing highlights the disastrous impact of it. In this context, Prof. Abul Barkat, a Professor from Dhaka University has termed it as a ‘national disaster’ and has concluded that around one million Hindu households have been affected. Around five million Hindu populations have been severely affected and two million land properties have been lost.

As per the 2001 census, it comes out 10 that around 44% Hindu population has been affected due to this. After consistent efforts from civil society and international human rights agencies, this act was repealed in 2001. However, till yet, no efforts were made in the following years to return the properties to the rightful owners and their successors.

In a country infested with Sunni Islamic radicalization, there is no security and freedom for religious and ethnic minorities as well. Besides Hindus, the indigenous people of Bangladesh, Jummas have been fighting a war against religious and ethnic persecution and for their bare survival for the past half a century in the ethnically unique Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) area.

Tools of Militarisation and Islamisation were deployed to change the demography of this area first under the Pakistani Government and afterwards the successive Bangladeshi governments. This area had 90% Buddhist population in 1951 but today the ratio between tribaland Muslims, as per 2011 census stands at around 55% to 45% respectively. The CHT Peace Accord signed between the indigenous people and the government of Bangladesh provided a ray of hope but even after 23 years of signing the Accord, its major sections remain unimplemented.

Women belonging to religious and ethnic minorities face double marginalization. Though Bangladesh is a signatory to Convention on the elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) yet crime against women continues abated. Hatred is being fomented in society through an inappropriate representation of minorities and particularly women folks in society. Also, Abductions, rapes, forced conversions and marriages are routine things and also form a large part of the history of this land.

Beginning from the pre-partition Noakhali violence unleashed on Hindu minorities, to the Barisal riots of 1950, the Rajshahi massacres of 1962, the 1964 East Pakistan riots and the big genocide of 1971, Hindu women have been the biggest victims of Islamic fanatics. The post-election 2001 violence led to rapes of 200 Hindu women in one night at Bhola, as admitted by a Judicial Commission. An eight-year-old girl to a 70-year-old woman to a crippled woman included, no Hindu woman was spared in the village as 12 Muslim men took turns in violating their bodies.

As Bangladesh celebrates the golden jubilee of liberation, an overview of its journey provides too grim a picture on the human rights front. Orthodox Islam has gripped the socio-political fabric of Bangladesh. Also, fast decrease in the population of Hindu minorities and increased spate of violent hate crimes is a disastrous sign from the human rights perspective. Some demographic analytical studies have indicated that Hindu minorities will be wiped out completely from the country in a matter of a few decades. Yet the gravity of the situation is not reflected in the efforts of the UN, international humanitarian organizations and Bangladesh government. They continue to show criminal apathy towards the sufferings of Bengali Hindus.

Thus, every basic norm of human rights is being grossly violated in Bangladesh by legal institutions, society and non-state actors. Hence, it’s a mandate on the international community concerned with the protection of human rights to take necessary measures. This is high time that International agencies, like Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) must intervene effectively before it is too late and minorities are completely wiped off from the country. Bangladesh is signatory to many humanitarian covenants however gross violations of rights of religious minorities goes unnoticed internationally. Lastly, it is the civilizational duty of the Indian government to avert this civilizational tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes.

(This article is an aggregation of the facts that are already in the public domain. Inputs have also been taken from the various reports of a Delhi based Centre for Democracy, Pluralism and Human Rights headed by Dr Prerna Malhotra. Full report on Bangladesh can be accessed on CDPHR ( https://www.cdphr.org/index) website).

-by Narendra Sharma, Research Scholar, JNU

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