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The truth about Bangladesh's Hindus

By Ramananda Sengupta, lately in Dhaka
March 22, 2006 13:32 IST
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Bangladesh: Citizens generally were free to practice the religion of their choice; however, police often were ineffective in upholding law and order and slow to assist members of religious minorities who were victims of crimes. Religiously motivated discrimination and violence -- including killings, rapes, attacks on places of worship, and forced evictions -- remained a problem.

-- From the International Religious Freedom Report for 2005, released by the United States State Department November 8, 2005.

Sanjay Chatterjee was barely 20 years old when he left Kolkata in 1988 in search of greener pastures. Family connections with Leftist politicians -- who in turn were linked to a minister in Bangladesh -- took him to Dhaka, where he set up a small garment business.

As his business grew, he acquired Bangladeshi citizenship and married a local Hindu girl. His parents and siblings live in Kolkata. That same year, military strongman and then Bangladesh president Hossain Mohammed Ershad amended the constitution of Bangladesh to make Islam the State religion. He also changed the State's weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday.

Eighteen years later, Chatterjee -- who now has a nine-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter, and routinely travels to China, Thailand and other East Asian nations on business -- wants to return to India.

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"Things have become very difficult here after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its fundamentalist allies came to power in 2001," he says. "It has become increasingly difficult for a Hindu to walk the streets of Dhaka with his head held high."

The ruling coalition -- it includes the Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Oikya Jote, and the Naziur faction of the Jatiya Party -- led by the BNP's Khaleda Zia won 209 of the 300 seats in the nation's single-House parliament. All three coalition partners advocate the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Bangladesh. The Jamaat reportedly endorses the activities of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and is know for its strident anti-Indian stand.

Immediately after the elections, there were massive, concerted attacks on Hindus -- known to be supporters of the Opposition Awami League led by Hasina Wajed -- by ruling party activists. Hundreds died, many were raped, forcibly converted or deprived of their property. Thousands fled to India, mostly the border states of West Bengal and Assam.

"Since then, Hindus who stayed on in Bangladesh even after the anti-Hindu -- and by extension, anti-India -- riots which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (in India) in 1992, have been facing a hard time," says Chatterjee. "Our women avoid wearing vermilion on their foreheads and clothes which identify them as Hindu."

As for the men, "we are routinely referred to as malaun (infidels) and kafirs by local Muslims, particularly the younger people," he says. "If we dare protest, we are harassed further."

Dhaka's Bengali intellectuals, however, assert that the violence against Hindus is mostly political, not religious, in nature. They also point out that almost all Muslim nations faced violent anti-Hindu demonstrations following the Ayodhya demolition.

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"We are devout Muslims. But it is essentially a cultural, not a religious, identity," says former minister and member of parliament Shawfikul Ghaani. "Of course, such attacks have occurred, but perhaps not on the scale that the Hindus claim, and it would be wrong to classify all of them as religiously motivated. After all, Muslim supporters of the Awami league were also attacked by ruling party goons and leaders after the 2001 elections," he adds.

On November 14, a day after the The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit concluded amid very high security in Dhaka, two lower court judges died after their minibus was bombed by fundamentalists.

A youngster arrested for the bombing belonged to the outlawed Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, said to be behind the August 17 serial blasts across the country and the recent threats and attacks on judges and other government officials. The JMB wants the imposition of Sharia rule in Bangladesh.

Among the thousands rounded up nationwide by the security agencies after the bomb attack were members of the students wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote, members of the ruling coalition. Some media reports said many were subsequently released following 'government intervention.'

The fact that one of the judges killed in the bombing was a Hindu is cited by BNP supporters as evidence that Hindus can aspire to senior government positions in Bangladesh. The fact that the other judge was a Muslim proves that the attackers were not specifically targeting Hindus, they say.

S Ganguly is an Indian working for a Japanese company in Dhaka for the past two years. His interactions with the Hindu community in Dhaka has left him somewhat disillusioned.

Agreeing with Ghaani that reports of religious discrimination were usually exaggerated by the Hindus, he says it is an attempt by the community to garner support in India, where many still have old ties and sympathies.

Look at these people," he says. "They earn in Bangladesh, but send their money to relatives in India. Many of them openly support India, for instance, during cricket matches. They teach their children to refer to India as 'my country.' As an Indian, how would you feel if Muslims in your neighbourhood openly supported Pakistan?" he asks.

"Of course, there have been cases of religious atrocities. No one can deny that. But sometimes I wonder whether they are asking for it," he says.

"Frankly, the anti-Hindu feeling has been there long before independence,' says Mushirul Haq, a history teacher at a primary school in Dhaka. "The hatred against them was fuelled by the leaders in West Pakistan, who branded anyone here who preached secularism as pro-Hindu and hence anti-Islam."

According to him, "Pakistan's military rulers like Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan promoted the radical Islamic parties in order to retain their power base, just like Zia and Ershad did here post independence."

"And we must remember that the Jaamat-e-Islami was originally a Pakistani theological party which preached jihad against the kafirs, or in other words, the non-believing Hindus. And these people, who opposed independence from Pakistan fearing a loss of their power here, and were at one time banned from entering politics, are now actually in power," he sighs.

"After the BNP came to power, the Jaamat revived its anti-Hindu programme, not officially, but by patronising and indirectly praising those who fuelled such hatred," he said. "Today, the police and even sections of the military have become party to this, because their civilian masters obviously encourage such feelings. And what's worse, many others support them for fear of being branded as Hindu lovers."

Moinuddin, a BNP student leader at Dhaka University who refuses to expand his name, says, "The BNP as a party is more secular and liberal than the Awami League. But this cannot be at the expense of nationalism. Hindus in Bangladesh are our brothers and sisters. But those who would rather live in India, let them leave now, or be identified as traitors and face the consequences."

"BNP or Awami League, they are the same," says Atiqur, a fruit seller at Dhaka's Kawran Bazaar, next to the plush Sonargaon hotel. "Our country has gone to the dogs ever since these two women (Khaleda Zia of the BNP and Hasina Wajed of the Awami League) decided that they were ordained to rule over this country. Until they go, things cannot improve. I think things are going to get a lot worse before it starts getting better. Today, you cannot cross the street without having to bribe someone. At least Ershad, despite all his flaws, did improve some of the infrastructure in the country."

"These two leaders and their slaves, who have no other agenda except to fight each other for the right to loot the nation, will drag this nation to hell. How will we explain that to our children?" he sighs.

Abdur Rahman, an activist of the Opposition Awami League, cites poverty and illiteracy as the prime causes for the growing anti-Hindu sentiments in Bangladesh. The BNP has compounded the mess by funding more madrasas than regular primary schools, he says.

"The people who graduate from these madrassas where they only learn the Koran and Islamic tenets by rote cannot get regular jobs. The only job they can get is that as head of a mosque, which perhaps explains the mushrooming number of mosques across the nation," he says. "Some small villages have as many as five."

"When people are poor, unemployed and frustrated, particularly the youngsters, it is easy to convince them that someone else -- in this case India and the Hindus -- is responsible for their problems," says Rahman, who was a supporter of Ershad's Jatiya Party before switching loyalties to the Awami League. "India's condescending attitude and its bullying tactics over river waters and trade does not help matters," he adds.

According to him, some 1,800 Bangladeshis who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan returned home after the rout of the extremist outfit in 2001. "These youngsters, who trained in military camps in Pakistan, are now actively drumming up religious fervour and hatred for India across Bangladesh. And they have the protection of the Jamaat, a party which fought against our independence in 1971, and still maintains cordial ties with the Pakistani establishment," he says.

"However," he adds hopefully, "we Bengalis are essentially non-violent and secular. So, while these people are getting a few recruits, it is not the kind of overwhelming support they were hoping for. Very soon, they will be exposed and ostracised."

But for Sanjay Chatterjee, soon is not good enough.

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

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Ramananda Sengupta, lately in Dhaka