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Diminishing Hindu population in Bangladesh: Is ethnic cleansing the real reason?

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By Anirban Choudhury Arup and Priyanka Bose Kanta

A bitter fact in today’s Bangladesh is that the Hindu population is dying out. The narrative that describes the vanishing Hindu minority, which once comprised 31% of the population in 1947 and dwindled to a meager 9% by 2002, reflects this sad reality.

Discrimination towards the Hindu community in Bangladesh is both visible and hidden. The state’s bias in the Constitution and its reluctance to address human rights violations against minorities makes this discrimination evident. Moreover, there has been a long history of violence and repression against Hindus in Bangladesh, which has led to the community’s dramatic decline. This infamous history consists of many barbaric episodes of violence against Hindus over the years, including attacks in the aftermath of the Babri Mosque incident in India in the 1990s, and the 2001 post election violence.

After initially embracing secularism in the post-independence era, Bangladesh is now known primarily a moderate Muslim country. The atmosphere is certainly a changed one. The secularist era implied an equal existence for all, while the current period implies that other people exist because Muslims are moderate in Bangladesh. As a result of systematic human rights violations and discrimination, the Hindu population is now rapidly leaving Bangladesh at an alarming rate, more than that of any other time. This reinforces the allegation that Bangladeshi society is hostile toward the Hindu community.

 Atrocities on minorities: Tragedy or terror?

Soon after independence in 1971, the government violated the religious freedom of Hindus when it demolished the remnants of Ramna Kalibari, a sacred and historic Hindu temple situated in Dhaka. The destroyed relics were the last symbol of this historical temple after it previously endured a massive attack by Pakistani invaders in 1971.  After the demolition, the land owned by the temple was transferred over to Dhaka Club, a recreation center for the elites.

Furthermore, many Hindu temples and properties were looted and demolished during communal riots in the early 1990s. In December 1992, following the infamous Babri Mosque incident in India, hundreds of temples in Bangladesh were demolished, properties were looted, and Hindu women were raped and killed. The anti-Hindu violence in December 1992 was the worst in terms of damage and destruction.

Several months after the riots, in mid-1993, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led-government issued two orders, which were interpreted as sanctioning the persecution of religious minorities. Specifically, these orders from the Bangladesh Home Ministry asked commercial banks to: (1) control withdrawal of substantial cash money by account holders from the Hindu community, and (2) stop disbursement of business loans to the Hindu community in the districts adjoining the India-Bangladesh border.

Militant attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh escalated dramatically following the October 2001 general election that brought the BNP to power in coalition with hard-line Islamist parties. Following the elections, the BNP coalition and its supporters unleashed a large-scale campaign of violence targeting the Hindu community that lasted more than 150 days. During that period, there were reportedly more than 10,000 cases of human rights abuses committed against minorities. Hindu homes were looted, vandalized, and burned and Hindu temples and sacred sites were destroyed.  Scores of Hindu women and girls were raped.  In some cases, they were gang raped in front of their male relatives. Hindus were also assaulted on the streets, in their homes, and at their workplaces. “Systematic attacks resulted in a mass migration of Hindus to India and in particular to the bordering state of Tripura. The government did little to prosecute or investigate the violence.”

More than a decade later, on February 28 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) sentenced Delwar Hossain Sayeedi (Vice President of Jamaat-e- Islami) to death for committing crimes against humanity during the 1971 War of Independence. Following the sentence, activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, attacked Hindus in different parts of the country. Hindu properties were looted, Hindu houses were burnt to ashes, and Hindu temples were desecrated and set on fire. And in early 2014, during elections and post-poll violence, armed gangs attacked minority communities, mostly in the southwestern and northern districts, including Jessore, Satkhira, Thakurgaon, Panchagarh, Chittagong, Nilphamari, Kurgram, Lalmonirhat, Satkhira, Gaibandha and Dinajpur. International aid agencies estimated that as many as 5,000 families were affected.  This wave of violence against the Hindu community was unprecedented and weighed heavily on conscientious and civilized citizens of Bangladesh of all religions.

Islamic State

Despite being home to profuse cultural diversity, Bangladesh has also witnessed the most brutal religious confrontations. Perhaps the inheritance of this history was sufficient to instill communal feelings among the mass population. That is why secularism was never a popular concept for the majority of the majorities, though Bangladeshi secularism was never a godless atheism. In order to claim support and recognition from the so-called Muslim world, an effort to be portrayed as an “Islamic State” was initiated soon after Bangladesh’s independence.

Though it arose out of a contextual necessity, this iconic compromise provided a huge opportunity for subsequent rulers to divert people’s attention away from secularism. With a view to claiming support from the majority, these regimes continuously tried to shape the country in an Islamic mould. Eventually, the Maududian theory of “political Islam” and an “Islamic State” found a strong base in Bangladesh.

The idea of an “Islamic State” was in direct conflict with a democratic ideology and was unacceptable to the nation’s minorities as well as it’s liberal population. Yet, the concept of an “Islamic State” garnered support from the general populace and helped in the rise of religious fundamentalism. Bangladeshi Hindus have been the helpless victims of this prevailing atmosphere for much of the post-independence period and the State has been surprisingly reluctant to protect them and in fact acted in an inexplicable manner on several occasions.

Systematic human rights violations against minorities started immediately after the independence of Bangladesh, even though it emerged as a secular state. The unlawful continuance of the vesting of Hindu properties was perhaps the first crucial symbol of this persecution. This was followed by the subsequent land confiscation and demolition of Ramna Kali Mandir ruins. Moreover, the 1989 attack by Muslims on the Hindu community in Daudkandi and Comilla, and the 1990’s communal riots resulting in the demolition of a number of Hindu temples were additional glaring examples of human rights abuses against Hindus.

Furthermore, the post-election violence in 2001; the attacks following the pronouncement of the verdict in the trial of war criminal Delwar Hussain Sayeedi in 2013; and the post-poll violence, particularly targeting Hindus, in January of 2014, collectively demonstrate a pattern of systematic persecution. The violence is perhaps the most flagrant example of the “systematic” element required for ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. Similarly, attacks on a Hindu locality for any trivial issue, ransacking properties and ordering them to leave the country and go to India, and conditions forcing them to escape are all commonplace and systematic in nature.

Calling Hindus ‘infidels’

Hindus in Bangladesh also regularly complain about routine humiliation by being addressed as ‘infidels.’ Additionally, there is blatant discrimination in access to higher education, employment and business opportunities, political disenfranchisement, and incarceration by implication in fictitious cases. At the same time, vandalism and the destruction of deities and temples, forced conversions, abductions, rape and forced marriages to the rapist, and gang rape are regularly reported in the media.

All of these above mentioned atrocities and types of discrimination have resulted in lower levels of participation of minorities in educational institutions, parliament, the cabinet, the secretariat, reputable work sectors, military forces, civil service positions and other spheres of public life. These incidents have further forced Hindus to seek refuge in neighboring countries and those who have the financial ability to do so are immigrating to developed countries.

The reluctance of successive governments to send law enforcement to areas that have witnessed atrocities against minorities or not sending them at all, and the failure to promote and uphold the rights of minorities is all too apparent. Finally, state indifference in prosecuting perpetrators of crimes against minorities is a common phenomena.

The silent process of ethnic cleansing serves its purpose, as the intent need not necessarily be to physically annihilate an entire victim group. A group can be practically destroyed by killing its political elite, intellectuals and people in general. The vacuum created by these killings leaves little or no chance for Hindus to thrive in Bangladesh as a distinct entity with self-respect and high ambitions. And that is how the quiet case of ethnic cleansing is taking place in Bangladesh – by killing the souls of Hindus.

Source: Hindu American Foundation

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The Errant Son: Mir Murtaza And Al-Zulfiqar

Would the Bhutto charm, have worked on India? And had it been so, would the map of the Indian sub-continent today, have resembled the idea of a free market zone in South Asia, with porous borders?

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Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Tania Bhattacharya
Tania Bhattacharya

By: Tania Bhattacharya

India-Pakistan relations have hit a record low following the dastardly Pulwama Attack on a CRPF convoy in Indian administered Kashmir, on the 14th of February this year. Curiously, the Pakistan PM Imran Khan, made a statement a few days ago, endorsing the Indian PM Modi, and suggesting, that in case there was a re-election of the latter, the Kashmir issue may be finally resolved. This scenario is significant, given that both Imran and Modi, are perceived hardliners in their respective nations. As some South Asian policy watchers have noted, it is hawks like the two aforementioned heads of state, and not peaceniks, who are more likely to take large risks over bilateral issues involving the two neighbours, since if any of them is required to acquiesce, they cannot be labelled as anti-nationals. Peaceniks, their good intentions aside, are looked upon with suspicion in their countries, which accuse them of selling out.

 

These are the heady days of jingoist patriotism in South Asia, where Right Wing organizations seem to be faring much better than the other political alternatives; but there was a time not very long ago, when Southern Asia was in a sweet spot between Dictatorship and Democracy, where conducive factors facilitated the spectre of Left-Wing radicalism, in both India and Pakistan. Between the imprisonment of Pakistan’s democratically elected PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the mysterious plane crash that killed President Zia ul Haq in 1988, a shadowy entity by the name of Al-Zulfiqar had emerged out of the pale, and rocked the Zia dictatorship, with its nuisance value. What were the origins of Al Zulfiqar, and who, was its chief executive officer?

The PIA Hijack drama
The PIA Hijack drama

We must retrace our steps to the early 1970s, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the Pakistan president. His eldest son, and second-born, Mir Murtaza, would build a lavish tent on the sprawling lawns of 70 Clifton, the Bhutto residence at Karachi. Inside the private sanctuary he had made for himself, the young lad would read the influential works of prominent Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara. The walls of his tent would be adorned with posters of world-famous figures, who had adopted Marxist techniques and applied them to their personal agendas. Murtaza had become deeply involved with the guerrilla warfare ethos of Socialist insurgents and quickly became a role model for his younger male sibling, Shahnawaz, junior to him by four years.

 

Sensing that the wayward, and obstinate nature of the older Bhutto was getting him into trouble with his high school officials and law enforcement, Zulfiqar had insisted, that Murtaza abandon his tent, and his Leftist reactionary literature, to concentrate on his school syllabus, so that the straight and the narrow could produce results for the latter. As soon as it became possible, and after consulting his wife Nusrat Bhutto, the President had packed off his enfant terrible to study in the United States, and then to England, where he hoped, that a new environment would change him. It was here, that Murtaza shone. A thorough academic, he researched upon and produced a dissertation, concerning the consequences of India’s nuclear program, on Pakistan. He developed the reputation of being a cad, and somewhat of a lady’s man as well, during his student years in London, where he was a regular sighting at nightclubs, with one or the other pretty girl, on his arm.

 

His father, had made the issue of the ‘Muslim Bomb’ an international one, arguing, that since the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Marxist political spheres had their own, ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it was only fair that the Islamic world follow suit. Israel though not openly belligerent with the bomb, was suspected of being in possession of the technology to construct one, in 1966 itself. Moreover, it had refused to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). Pakistan, under his leadership, he had sworn, would ‘gift’ the Muslim world with its first nuclear weapon. The president’s (and later, Prime Minister’s) son, would broach the topic on an academic level, and make its knowledge, widespread.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh.

Murtaza was yet abroad, when his father, by the time, the democratically elected Prime Minister of his country, was toppled in mid-1977, in a military coup, headed by General Zia ul Haq, who until the event, had been Zulfiqar’s handpicked Chief of the Pakistan Armed Forces; and a man, that the confident, and arrogant premier, termed his ‘monkey general’. In a letter, handwritten to her brother, Benazir had advised him to travel to the United States, to meet with American leadership, that were friendly with the Pakistan Peoples Party, to plead for assistance in toppling the dictatorship of Zia. Interestingly, she had told him to steer clear of a top Bhutto aide, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. This is testified by Lt. General Khalid Mahmud Arif in his book Working With Zia. Khar, an uncle of PPP ex-Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2008 – 2013), had been a confidante of Prime Minister Bhutto, who he faithfully plied to the home of Bhutto’s first, secret mistress, and then, legally married third wife, Husna Sheikh, on a daily basis.

 

From the United States, Mir Murtaza had decided that it was not judicious to return to a strife-ridden homeland, which was experiencing its umpteenth military rule. Instead, he had flown to Syria and then Libya, to garner support from Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi respectively. The Assads and Gaddafi were supportive of the Bhuttos. Zia to them, was an American puppet that had been installed as a means to an end, that too, through an undemocratic and unpopular regime change. It was in Syria occupied Lebanon, that Murtaza had begun building up a guerrilla outfit, which he named, the PLA (Pakistan Liberation Army). Members from the PPP back in Pakistan, were herded off to the Middle East, for rigorous guerrilla training, that was imparted by the Leftist PFLP (Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine). When Mir Murtaza deemed that the time was ripe for ambushing Zia’s men in positions of power; the trained militia of PLA flew to Afghanistan, where they continued further arms training, awaiting an opportune moment, to cross into their homeland, using the mountainous, and lawless tribal routes of northern Pakistan, which flanked the Durand Line.

 

While in Kabul, Murtaza Bhutto decided to rename his outfit Al-Zulfiqar Organization, or AZO. Shahnawaz, the younger son of the jailed premier, joined his older brother and was imparted training in guerrilla warfare, and violent Marxist insurrection. When not wielding guns in army fatigues, the young volunteers and the Bhutto brothers, would watch Bollywood flicks to kill time.

 

Initially, all Shahnawaz wished to do, was to open a tourist agency in Pakistan, and live quietly with the Afghan object of his affections. But the restless circumstances that engulfed the young man, forced him to join Al-Zulfiqar, all the more so, as it had his older brother at its helm; a man he had much admired from the days of his youth.

 

One of the first acts of the AZO, was to try to blow up Zia-ul-Haq’s plane with a missile, from an Islamabad rooftop. It did not produce the desired result. Next, was the hijack of a PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) flight. It was flown to Kabul, where the hijackers stated that the plane and its passengers would only be released if ninety-one political prisoners from the PPP, were set free from incarceration in Pakistan. Zia’s response initially, was a “No”. But once it became eminent, that there were no international mediators to take on the case on behalf of Pakistan; especially once Assad and Gaddafi explained the dilemma to General Zia, the latter was forced to rethink his stand. By then, AZO had reduced the demand from ninety-one prisoners, to some fifty-four of them. The Pakistan general was forced to comply with Murtaza’s bargain, as it released the PPP detainees from various gaols in the country, who were then swapped for the PIA plane and its passengers.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir.

The mastermind of the hijack, was a seamlessly trained Salamullah Tipu, who was seen waving his gun in the air triumphantly from the door of the airplane, after throwing down the bloodied and dead corpse, of one Major Tariq Rahim on the tarmac. Rahim was a close aide of the Zia administration. While Tipu took the blame upon himself, and the PPP back in Karachi, led by Benazir and her mother Nusrat, denied any knowledge or existence of the AZO, Mir Murtaza Bhutto continued to avoid Pakistani authorities, was never caught on camera during the hijack episode, and was declared a wanted criminal by the Pak judiciary, in absentia.

 

In his biography of the older Bhutto scion, The Terrorist Prince: Life And Death Of Murtaza Bhutto, author, student activist, and political henchman Raja Anwar, notes, that a paranoid Murtaza had ordered for the assassination of anyone who he feared would challenge his methods as head of AZO. A sizeable number of its members were apprehended from their homes, murdered, and dumped in shallow ditches. The same author states, how he himself, Shahnawaz, Mir Murtaza, and some other workers of Al-Zulfiqar, had received lodging, food, money, and military training, in New Delhi. The government of Indira Gandhi, a Centre-Left political organization in India that is recognized as the Indian National Congress, had housed and funded the Bhutto revolutionaries and their fighters, with an eye on ending the rule of the hated Zia. In the late 1980s, when Murtaza had made a stopover at Delhi, during one of his journeys abroad, he had personally met Rajiv, son of Indira, and her successor as the next premier of India, with a large, and impressive bouquet of flowers.

The AZO leaders and members resided in the outskirts of India’s capital, and led well-oiled, luxurious lives, while simultaneously receiving training to destabilize the regime of Zia ul Haq. In this duration, the Bhutto brothers had come close to the Nehru-Gandhi clan of India, and according to a number of verified reports, may have worked as R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing, India’s topmost espionage and intelligence agency) informants for a period of time. A common agenda; that of toppling the American-installed, Islamist, and regressive regime of Zia, being the binding force.

Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi
Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi

Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988. The ensuing elections found the PPP, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s political outfit, sweep the polls in Pakistan. Benazir went on to become the Islamic world’s very first woman head of state. Eventually she and Murtaza would have a falling out, with the latter going on to form his own faction of the PPP; the PPP(SB), where SB stood for ‘Shaheed Bhutto’. Unlike his sister’s rule, which can be described as opportunistic and inept, Mir Murtaza Bhutto remained a ‘Peoples Man’. He shunned unnecessary displays of wealth, and was always accessible to the blue-collar cadre base of the PPP(SB). The tussle between him and his sister may have continued on its logical course with a positive outcome for whoever was Destiny’s Chosen One; but for the tragedy that shook the Bhutto dynasty on the evening on the 20th of September 1996. The founder of Al-Zulfiqar was returning home from a political meeting, with his bodyguards and workers, when police opened fire on his cavalcade, right outside his home in Karachi. In the