In the wake of chaotic and disputed parliamentary elections in early January, the Hindu minority in Bangladesh finds itself in an increasingly perilous position in a country where they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by Muslims. Before the Jan. 5 parliamentary election, police arrested dozens of activists affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami (J-e-I) Muslim fundamentalist party as well as the right-wing opposition Bangladesh National Party, allegedly for attacking Hindus and destroying their homes and property. According to reports, the Islamists damaged more than 100 homes belonging to Hindus and wounded scores of people in what may have been a coordinated series of violent acts across the country. At least two dozen people were killed.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based activist group, said of the recent turmoil: "Members of the [J-e-I] and its youth wing, [Jamaat] Shibir, alongside supporters of the [BNP] have engaged in countless attacks on security forces and others.” HRW added that the attacks included “throwing homemade grenades and petrol bombs at police, arson attacks to enforce a road blockade, derailing passenger trains, setting fire to the homes and businesses of the Hindus and the Awami League officials, and throwing grenades into crowded streets."
The Awami League is the governing party.
Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, reported that the latest round of violence represented the second such wave of anti-Hindu attacks in less than a year. A few months ago Islamists wrecked hundreds of Hindu-owned homes and shops, apparently in retaliation for the country’s International Crimes Tribunal sentencing of several aging senior members of J-e-I to death for their part in war crimes committed during the War of Independence against Pakistan in 1971.
Dr. Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the J-e-I views the war crimes trials as a politically motivated campaign by the Awami League to discredit the Islamists and nationalists, while appeasing Hindu-dominated India, which has quietly pressed for prosecution of suspected war criminals from the devastating 1971 civil war that created Bangladesh. “The Awami League appreciates Delhi's support, given that India was one of the few countries to accept Bangladesh's recent flawed election won by the Awami League,” Kugelman stated. “The [Awami League] has done much already to crack down on extremism, though it's hard to argue this was done simply to appease India -- it was also done to reduce the possibility of a more destabilized Bangladesh.”
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi Islamists periodically target scapegoated Hindus as an expression of their frustrations and because Hindus tend to support Awami. DW reported that human rights lawyer and activist Sultana Kamal condemned the attacks on Hindus. "I strongly feel that what is happening to the Hindu community in Bangladesh definitely falls under the definition of crimes against humanity," she said. A similar wave of violence against minorities in 2001, when the BNP was in power, prompted an exodus of Hindus out of the country; followed by yet another campaign during the 2008 election.
Hindus once were plentiful in Bangladesh and its predecessor state, East Pakistan. Prior to the 1971 war, Hindus comprised almost one-third (30 percent) of the population. They now account for only about 9 percent of Bangladesh's citizens, partly due to the rapid growth of the Muslim population, but also due to the mass migration of Bangladeshi Hindus to India, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and elsewhere over the decades.
Some observers fret that the Hindu community in Bangladesh may continue to dwindle in size and proportion. "I fear Bangladesh will become 'Banglastan' if things don't change," Rana Dasgupta, a human rights lawyer, told DW.
Another aspect to these assaults on Hindus involve the illegal seizures of their homes and properties. This practice dates back to at least 1965 when, after a brief war between India and Pakistan (which then included what is now Bangladesh), officials in Dhaka passed a law called the Enemy Property Act, which essentially allowed authorities to confiscate properties of people labeled as “enemies of the state.” That piece of legislation has been exploited by Islamists and others to take properties away from religious minorities, particularly Hindus. Even after the formation of the new allegedly secular, democratic state of Bangladesh, the law remained in effect, but was renamed the Vested Property Act in 1974. Not until 2001 did the government repeal this law and begin the process of returning seized properties to their rightful owners (or their descendants). DW noted, however, that Islamists continue to invoke this old law as a justification of taking assets from Hindus and other minorities.
Dhiraj Kumar Nath, a former secretary and adviser to Bangladesh’s caretaker government, lamented how social ills and divisions have been exacerbated by laws on the books. "The legacy of discriminatory laws has continued for the past 48 years, causing communal hatred and discontent between Hindus and Muslims," Nath told DW. Indeed, the largely secular Awami League government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly condemned the J-e-I for its violence, while the country’s Supreme Court has ordered police to probe anti-Hindu attacks. But these measures have failed to stem the tide of communal violence against Hindus. "It is the responsibility of the state to give them protection, to restore their trust as well as the belief that Bangladesh is a safe place for them," Kamal said.
The Modern Tokyo Times reported that the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Bangladesh mirrors a similar emergence of militant groups in Pakistan and threatens hopes for stability in Bangladesh. “Jamaat-e-Islami is a continuing cancer that threatens society directly along with sinister political forces that manipulate Islamists for personal gains,” MTT wrote. “Islamist violence directed towards the Hindu community is all too familiar.”
Writing in The Diplomat, Sanjay Kumar said Bangladesh’s minorities are also subject to acts of arson and even rape by J-e-I thugs. After enduring violent attacks and the loss of homes and businesses, many Hindus across Bangladesh live in a state of trauma and fear returning to their native villages. “Jamaat-Shibir has created a situation of panic in and around the village,” a Hindu grocer in Ramganj named Jaynto Mondol told The Diplomat. "They destroyed around 50 shops in my area and we had to flee to another village to take shelter.” Mondol said he thinks that J-e-I and its allies want to turn Bangladesh into a “purely Islamic country by throwing the Hindus out. We can’t live in peace.”
Another Hindu, Joy Debnath, who lives in the district of Bogra, put the blame on squarely on fundamentalists, not ordinary Muslims. “The problem is not the Muslims of Bangladesh; the problem is with Jamaat and their thought. Violence by the Islamic fundamentalist group makes me feel unsafe. The administration should protect us from such danger,” Debnath said.
Some civil groups want the government to prosecute members of J-e-I who have repeatedly perpetrated such violence. They also believe that the trials of suspected war criminals from 1971 will continue to exacerbate the current wave of criminality against minorities. “The rise in recent attacks is the sign of a reassertion of the communal forces led by the Jamaat-Shibir,” said Professor Nim Chandta Bhowmik of Dhaka University, who is also a senior member of the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Forum. “We have seen increased attacks on minorities by them. It is an attempt to use these minorities as pawns to bargain for the release of [1971 war] criminals facing trial under the tribunal. Such attacks are an attack on the character of the constitution and the spirit of Bengali nationalism.”
Many Hindus live in northern Bangladesh, near the Indian border, an area where tense relations with Muslims have worsened due to the infiltration of J-e-I elements. “I was sitting in the [Hindu] temple when some [Islamists] came and destroyed the idols and tried burning the place of worship. I just managed to escape by the grace of God,” Suresh Mondol, a Hindu resident of a Binakudi village in Nilphamari district, told The Diplomat. “We are now vigilant these days and have formed a group of people who keep watch on the village. Jamaat threatens our existence and wants to grab our property.”
Even some Muslims fear the rise of extremism. Mondol’s Muslim neighbor Naim Hossain lamented: “If Hindus are scared of a Jamaat-BNP alliance so are we. I might be Muslim but that does not mean I cannot exist with Hindus. They are as much a part of this soil as we are. The fundamentalists want chaos and want to destroy peace in the region.”
A report in Time magazine suggested that in Bangladesh, a deeply impoverished and overcrowded nation, scarcity of land is at the heart of the matter behind the communal violence. ”When we say it’s just political, it legitimizes the violence,” Jyotrimoy Barua, a Supreme Court lawyer in Dhaka told Time. “Most of the people’s houses they are burning are [those of the] poor. If you burn their house, they will leave the country, and you get their land.”
But Kugelman assures that J-e-I has no hope of ever gaining power in Bangladesh and achieving its aims of establishing a pure Islamic society based on Shariah law. ”The idea of the J-e-I seizing power in Bangladesh is a non-starter,” he said. “It's not going to happen. That said, its links to the BNP, the chief political opposition party in Bangladesh, have strengthened in recent years. If the BNP were to return to power, the question of a J-e-I role in a new governing coalition would certainly come up. But the J-e-I will not be seizing power on its own.”