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Minority cleansing in Bangladesh

Minority cleansing in Bangladesh

Author: Hiranmay Karlekar
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 30, 2001

Begum Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, must be grateful to the war in Afghanistan which continues to hog media attention the world over. Otherwise the large-scale atrocities on the minorities (Hindus, Buddhists and Christians) and the Fascist repression on political opponents and dissenters, continuing in that country since the general elections of October 1 which returned her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to power with a massive majority, would have attracted worldwide condemnation. The situation is grim for the minorities. Terrorised by murders, rapes, looting of property, burning of houses, and assaults on a large scale, over 15,000 Hindus have already crossed over to the border areas of West Bengal. About 100,000 more are reportedly trying to follow suit but are being hindered by police and para-military personnel ordered to stop them.

The Bangladesh Government has, of course, sought to play down the scale of the atrocities. In a recent statement in the country's Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament), the country's Home Minister, Mr Altaf Hussain Choudhury, put the number of those killed and raped over a period of 25 days at 266 and 213 respectively. While these figures are high enough, the actual incidence of the crimes appears to have been much higher. Governments invariably seek to understate the extent of violence and atrocities on all such occasions. On the other hand, the virtually token observance of the Durga Puja this year, which is normally celebrated with great fanfare, mirrored the terrorisation of the Hindus. Also telling is the Bangladesh High Court's notice to the Government on November 24 asking it why it should not be told to take proper steps to protect the minorities "from terrorist attacks and harassment." According to the 25 November issue of The Daily Star, a Division Bench of the High Court, comprising Justice MA Matin and Justice Mazharul Huq, which heard a petition filed by the NGO, Ain-o-Salish (Law and Arbitration) gave the government four weeks' time to explain.

According to a report in the highly-respected and widely-circulated Bangla daily Janakantha (The Voice of the People), the atrocities on Hindus this time exceeded in places even those inflicted on them during the liberation war in 1971. In a piece in the same daily of October 16, Bangladesh's greatest living poet, Mr Samsur Rahman, wrote, "It is a matter of regret that atrocities by terrorists on the minorities have been continuously increasing in many parts of Bangladesh, particularly in the muffosils, over several days. There have been repeated attacks; the homes of the minorities have become deserted. Women have been victims of rape. To save their lives and honour, many have been compelled to leave their homes and hearths with heavy hearts and embrace endless agonies with tear-laden eyes in the hope of finding refuge in India." (Translated from Bengali by this writer).

Mr Rahman clearly hints at the identity of the killers, rapists and looters when, later in the passage, he attributes the violence to "a few people, mad with the heady feeling of victory." They are supporters of the BNP and its allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ-Islamic Unity Alliance), which swept the hustings in the last general election. Several factors account for their violence. The JeI and IOJ are both fundamentalist Islamic organisations that seek to Talibanise Bangladesh and expel all Hindus from the country. The recent attacks, moreover, have to be seen in the context of the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist strikes against the Untied States which has created feeling of both pride and anger among a large section of Muslims in Bangladesh whose constituents were not followers of these parties until now. They are now trying to win them over permanently by creating a fundamentalist Islamic surge. Mobilisation to achieve such an end always requires an enemy, which helps to define distinct identities in black-and-white "us-them" lines and fan hatred along these. Hitler used Jews for that; JeI and IOJ are using Hindus. Hitler identified Jews with Germany's defeat in World War I and labelled them as agents of capitalists and Germany's enemies. JeI and IOJ blame Hindus for the break-up of Pakistan and accuse them of being Indian agents.

The Bangladesh Government has no doubt formed a high-level committee to inquire into the incidents of violence and report. Both Begum Zia and the Home Minister had exhorted Hindus to hold the Durga Puja in the same way as in the preceding years. In a victory rally, Begum Zia had promised to rebuild the famous Kali temple at Ramna, Dhaka, which was destroyed during the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Recently, she, for the first time ever, visited the Dhakeswari Durga temple and allowed the priest to put a tika on her forehead.

The explanation for the continuing violence and the consequent fear among Hindus lies partly in the inefficiency of the country's administration that was manifest during the Awami League regime as well, and that accounts for the high crime rate in many parts of the country. Partly, the BNP itself was initially not too enthusiastic about acting firmly because Hindus generally vote for the Awami League and strong measures to quell the violence might have created political problems for it. Though not a fundamentalist Party, it has a strong Islamic tilt. It was President Zia-ur Rahman, the party's founder and Begum Khaleda Zia's late husband and a brave freedom fighter himself, who, ironically, began the Islamisation of Bangladesh in 1978 through changes introduced in Bangladesh's Constitution. Besides, since Bangladesh's sizeable secular population, which had participated in the liberation struggle and were associated with the Awami League, were generally not inclined to support him, he sought to build a political base for himself by courting pro-Pakistan and anti-liberation fundamentalist Islamic elements.

Strong measures to protect the minorities would have alienated such people, particularly since the JeI and IOJ would have led a shrill campaign against it. The BNP, which has a sizeable presence of pro-liberation elements-including freedom fighters of 1971-which were disillusioned by the authoritarian tendencies Sheikh Mujibur Rahman began displaying after a couple of years in power, has, however, to take a stand sometime. The JeI and IOJ may have limited support at present, but help from Pakistan and the spread of fundamentalist sentiments in the wake of the Afghanistan war, may help them grow rapidly and pose a threat to the BNP itself-just as Hitler, dismissed as a political force in the 1920s, came to power in 1933.

To survive as a moderate Islamic party, the BNP must put the JeI and IOJ in their places and cultivate the secular and democratic elements in Bangladesh, many of whom, unhappy with the Awami League's performance in government, had voted for it in the last elections. Unfortunately, it seems to be doing precisely the opposite. This is most clearly underlined by the arrest on November 22 and the subsequent detention of the internationally respected writer, journalist and film maker, Mr Shahriar Kabir, on charges of anti-state activities. Mr Kabir, who had been active in the liberation war, is the Acting President of the Muktijuddher Chetana Bastabayan O Ekattorer Ghatak of Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee for the Actualisation of the Consciousness of the Liberation War and the Eradication of the Killers and Agents of Seventy-one) which has been tirelessly seeking to keep the legacy of the liberation war alive and fight communalism and Islamic fundamentalism. His incarceration, which many feel will encourage Islamic fundamentalists in the IeJ and IOJ, will alienate liberal opinion not only in Bangladesh but also in the West and many countries of Asia and Africa which are swept by strong feelings against Islamic fundamentalism following the terrorist attacks of September 11 against the United Sates. This will not help Bangladesh.

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