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'Talibanization' of Bangladesh allegedly under way

'Talibanization' of Bangladesh allegedly under way

Author: Sarbari Majumdar
Publication: Asia Times
Date: November 15, 2001
URL: http://www.atimes.com/ind-pak/CK15Dh02.html

It started as a trickle, developed into a steady stream and is now threatening to turn into a tide spilling over the borders of Bangladesh into India's northeastern states. Thousands of Hindus and hundreds of Muslims who support the defeated Awami League party have crossed over the border to India, carrying endless tales of rape, torture and murder as well extortion and destruction of property.

It all started with the end of the Awami League government's electoral rout in October 2000, in which it managed to secure only 63 seats in the country's 300-member parliament. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led ruling coalition won 202 seats. As former prime minister Sheikh Hasina handed over power to a caretaker administration last July, the first of the attacks against Hindus, who form 10 percent of Bangaldesh's population, began. The caretaker chief, former Justice Latifur Rehman, who has been accused of favoring the Muslim fundamentalist anti-Awami League coalition, overlooked reports of the attacks by alleged supporters of the now ruling coalition.

"They raped me and my nine-year-old daughter. How can I stay in that country?" says Shefali Das, 40, of Bhola in southern Bangladesh. Now a refugee in Bongaon, West Bengal, Shefali lives in fear of being deported. "We have been threatened with death if we go back. We have already lost our honor, now we will lose our lives," she says.

Leaders of Bangladesh's anti-fundamentalist groups say the Hindus were targeted because they were seen as a huge Awami League vote-bank. "But now they are attacked because our own bin Ladens want to turn Bangladesh into a monolithic Islamic nation like Pakistan or Afghanistan, in which Hindus have no place," declared Shahriyar Kabir, acting chairman of a group called Committee Against the Killers of 1971, in reference to the 1971 war with then West Pakistan.

Kabir said that the fundamentalists were upset with the large number of Hindu voters in the October 1 parliamentary election. "During previous military regimes, Hindus have been discouraged from enrolling as voters. But the Awami League went about enrolling them with great fairness," says Kabir. Consequently, the size of the Hindu electorate jumped to a whopping 8.2 million this time around, almost one-sixth of the total voters.

"If they had all voted, there was no way the Awami League would have lost. But not more than 10 percent of the Hindus could vote," says Kabir Choudhury of the South Asian Coalition against Fundamentalism.

Recalls Jahar Saha of Bagerhat: "Before the elections, we were taken to the local temple, made to prostrate before the idol and to promise we will not vote. Those Hindus who went to vote were told their votes had been cast and those who insisted were beaten up."

Rubel Das of Barisal, now a refugee, adds: "In my locality, we were told not to vote. When we went at the prodding of the Awami League, we were forcibly thrown out. Men, women, everybody. But we found some burqa-clad Muslim women going into the booth again and again, casting their votes under the watchful eyes of armed Jamait-e-Islami cadres."

More than 15,000 Hindus and another 2,000 Muslims who are supporters of the Awami League have entered West Bengal in the past month, bringing stories of an orgy of attacks, rapes, extortion and murders by supporters of the ruling coalition. More than 300 Awami League supporters and Hindus have been killed, according to a compilation done by the South Asian Coalition against Fundamentalism. More than 50 Hindu women and girls, some of them minors, have been gang-raped. Hundreds of houses have been set on fire, it said.

"The opposition parties are exaggerating these reports," Bangladesh's home minister, former Air Vice Marshal Altaf Hussein Choudhury, said earlier. But this week, Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia moved to set up a high-power inquiry and promised to protect the Hindus.

Meanwhile, Hindus claim they have turned beggars overnight. Bidhu Das, 45, owned a merchandise store in Bhola that employed 15 people until he fled. Now he cuts and sells grass in Swarupnagar, north of Kolkata, to make only a few pennies a day. "We have been ruined and destroyed," says Das.

Shamim Osman, the Awami League's former member of parliament from Narayanganj, is also a refugee. The fundamentalists bombed his office before the elections, killing 26 people. The army, which was deployed to conduct elections, arrested his polling agents and did not allow him to campaign. He lost the polls and immediately faced attacks.

Now sheltered with a Hindu friend in Kolkata with more than 20 family members and as many political workers, Osman says he is thinking of applying for asylum. "I will be killed if I go back. The fundamentalist coalition is determined to break the political support base of the Awami League and they will go to any extent to achieve their aims. We have two options: launch an armed struggle against them like we did against the Pakistanis in 1971 or escape with dear life," Osman said.

Several former Awami League members of parliament of and even district and village level leaders have been forced to flee. Reporters Sans Frontieres says that many journalists are being threatened for reporting the atrocities against the Hindus and opposition party supporters.

The Awami League's Sheikh Hasina has pleaded with the Hindus to "stay back and fight and not flee. This is your land. Bangladesh belongs to Bengalis of all religions. We fought the Pakistanis in 1971 to establish a liberal Bengali, and not an Islamic, order in our beloved country. Hindus, please don't leave this land, your departure will further weaken the secular forces here," Hasina told a mass rally in Faridpur.

But the Bengali secular forces are in a disarray and the Awami League says the attack is part of a diabolical plan to "Talibanize" Bangladesh.

Former minister and freedom fighter Abdur Razzaq says fundamentalist leaders such as the Jamait's Gholam Azam have been saying that Bangladesh has to be taken back to the politics of 1947, to the two- nation principle that led to the partition of India. "They want to undo the values of the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. They want to create a homogenous Muslim nation by driving out the Hindus. But we will fight them with all we have. We will not allow Bangladesh to become another Pakistan."

(Inter Press Service)

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