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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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Pakistan Fears Economic Turmoil, Re-thinks ‘Silk Road’ Project With China

In 2017, Pakistan turned down Chinese funding for a $14 billion mega-dam project in the Himalayas because of cost concerns.

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Pakistan
A man passes through a railing while others board a train as they make their way home at the Cantonment railway station in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

After lengthy delays, an $8.2 billion revamp of a colonial-era rail line snaking from the Arabian Sea to the foothills of the Hindu Kush has become a test of Pakistan ’s ability to rethink signature Chinese “Silk Road” projects because of debt concerns.

The rail megaproject linking the coastal metropolis of Karachi to the northwestern city of Peshawar is China’s biggest Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in Pakistan, but Islamabad has balked at the cost and financing terms.

Resistance has stiffened under the new government of populist Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has voiced alarm about rising debt levels and says the country must wean itself off foreign loans.

“We are seeing how to develop a model so the government of Pakistan wouldn’t have all the risk,” Khusro Bakhtyar, minister in Pakistan’s planning ministry, told reporters recently.

Pakistan
Visitors read instruction material about land that was reclaimed from the Indian Ocean for the Colombo Port City project, on the Galle Face sea promenade in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 2, 2018. The Port City project was initiated as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. VOA

Unease elsewhere

The cooling of enthusiasm for China’s investments mirrors the unease of incoming governments in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Maldives, where new administrations have come to power wary of Chinese deals struck by their predecessors.

Pakistan’s new government had wanted to review all BRI contracts. Officials say there are concerns the deals were badly negotiated, too expensive or overly favored China.

But to Islamabad’s frustration, Beijing is only willing to review projects that have not yet begun, three senior government officials have told Reuters.

China’s Foreign Ministry said, in a statement in response to questions faxed by Reuters, that both sides were committed to pressing forward with BRI projects, “to ensure those projects that are already built operate as normal, and those which are being built proceed smoothly.”

Pakistani officials say they remain committed to Chinese investment but want to push harder on price and affordability, while re-orientating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for which Beijing has pledged about $60 billion in infrastructure funds, to focus on projects that deliver social development in line with Khan’s election platform.

Pakistan
China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, Islamabad. VOA

‘Mutual consultation’

China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, told Reuters that Beijing was open to changes proposed by the new government and “we will definitely follow their agenda” to work out a roadmap for BRI projects based on “mutual consultation.”

“It constitutes a process of discussion with each other about this kind of model, about this kind of roadmap for the future,” Yao said.

Beijing would only proceed with projects that Pakistan wanted, he added.

“This is Pakistan’s economy, this is their society,” Yao said.

IMF bailout likely

Islamabad’s efforts to recalibrate CPEC are made trickier by its dependence on Chinese loans to prop up its vulnerable economy.

Growing fissures in relations with the United States, Pakistan’s historic ally, have also weakened the country’s negotiating hand, as has a current account crisis likely to lead to a bailout by the International Monetary Fund, which may demand spending cuts.

“We have reservations, but no other country is investing in Pakistan. What can we do?” one Pakistani minister told Reuters.

Pakistan
Laborers dig the ground before replacing concrete sleepers along railway tracks in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

Crumbling railways

The ML-1 rail line is the spine of country’s dilapidated rail network, which has in recent years been edging toward collapse as passenger numbers plunge, train lines close and the vital freight business nosedives.

Khan’s government has vowed to make the 1,872 km (1,163 mile) line a priority CPEC project, saying it will help the poor travel across the vast South Asian nation.

But Islamabad is exploring funding options for CPEC projects that depart from the traditional BRI lending model, whereby host nations take on Chinese debt to finance construction of infrastructure, and has invited Saudi Arabia and other countries to invest.

One option for ML-1, according to Pakistani officials, is the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model, which would see investors or companies finance and build the project and recoup their investment from cash flows generated mainly by the rail freight business, before returning it to Pakistan in a few decades time.

Yao, the Chinese envoy, said Beijing was open to BOT and would “encourage” its companies to invest.

Pakistan
A man waits to cross a portion of track once shared with the Karachi Circular Railway line in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

Large rail projects, problems

Rail mega-projects under China’s BRI umbrella have run into problems elsewhere in Asia. A line linking Thailand and Laos has been beset by delays over financing, while Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad outright canceled the Chinese-funded $20 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL).

Beijing is happy to offer loans, but reticent to invest in the Pakistan venture as such projects are seldom profitable, according to Andrew Small, author of a book on China-Pakistan relations.

“The problem is that the Chinese don’t think they can make money on this project and are not keen on BOT,” Small said.

Off-books debt

During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in 2015, the ML-1 line was placed among a list of “early harvest” CPEC projects that would be prioritized, along with power plants urgently needed to end crippling electricity shortages.

But while many other projects from that list have now been completed, the rail scheme has been stuck.

Pakistan
. The difference between the two validate the investments made on the road, and give a hopeful image for the future.

Pakistani officials say they became wary of how early BRI contracts were awarded to Chinese firms, and are pushing for a public tender for ML-1.

Partly to help with price discovery, Pakistan asked the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to finance a chunk of the rail project through tendering. The ADB began discussions on a $1.5-$2 billion loan, but China insisted the project was “too strategic,” and Islamabad kicked out the ADB under pressure from Beijing in early 2017, according to Pakistani and ADB officials.

“If it’s such a strategic project then it should be a viable project for them to finance on very concessional terms or invest in?” said one senior Pakistani official familiar with the project, referring to the BOT model.

China’s foreign ministry said Beijing was engaged in “friendly consultations” with Pakistan on the rail project.

Chinese companies participated in BRI projects in an open and transparent way, “pooling benefits and sharing risks,” it said.

Pakistan
In this file photo taken Oct. 10, 2015, a bus moves past by solar power and wind power farms in northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui region.

Chinese debt or no project

Analysts say Pakistan will struggle to attract non-Chinese investors into the project, which may force it to choose between piling on Chinese debt or walking away from the project.

In 2017, Pakistan turned down Chinese funding for a $14 billion mega-dam project in the Himalayas because of cost concerns and worries Beijing could end up owning a vital national asset if Pakistan could not repay loans, as occurred with a Sri Lankan port.

Khan’s government chafes at several Chinese intercity mass transport projects in Punjab, the voter heartland of the previous government, which now need hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies every year.

Also Read: Creating a New Silk Road: China’s Billion Dollar Investments to Expand Its Transportation Network

They also fume about the risk of accumulating off-books sovereign debt through power contracts, where annual profits of above 20 percent, in dollar terms, were guaranteed by the previous administration.

With the ML-1 line, there are also those who harbor doubts closer to home, including the previous government’s finance minister, Miftah Ismail, who said his ministry had always had concerns about its viability.

“When people say it’s a project of national importance, that usually means it makes no sense financially,” he said. (VOA)