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Bangladesh minorities seek protection ahead of polls

A US pre-election observation team is touring the South Asian nation with history of minority repression during elections
Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists demand the general elections be held under a neutral caretaker government at a rally in capital Dhaka on July 28

Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists demand the general elections be held under a neutral caretaker government at a rally in capital Dhaka on July 28. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 12, 2023 11:52 AM GMT

Religious minorities in Bangladesh have sought police protection ahead of the January polls while a US government election mission is touring the South Asian nation that has a history of minority repression during elections.

The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) submitted a nine-point demand, including an assurance on safety, ahead of the polls before the nation’s election commission on Oct. 11. 

At the polls, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking a third term after one decade of uninterrupted rule. 

The stakes are high for the ruling Awami League in the  171.3 million country, which saw a spate of attacks on minorities during the polls in 2018 and in 2014.

The BHBCUC wanted regular patrolling by the Rapid Action Battalion, an anti-crime unit, and the Border Guard Bangladesh in minority areas during the 12th national election in the country.

“‘Some steps need” to be put in place to ensure security for “religious and ethnic minorities before, during and after the elections,” Rana Dasgupta, the council general secretary, told UCA News.

The council also asked the election commission to ensure that minority voters can go to polling centers without any trouble and become a candidate without any obstacles.

With claims that the Awami League rigged the nation’s first contested election in a decade in 2018, 17 people were killed and a spate of attacks on minorities across the country took place.

The 2014 elections, boycotted by all major opposition parties, were blighted by violence which saw many Hindu temples burnt, vandalized and looted.

The council has been holding a series of protests to attract the Hasina government’s attention to the plight of minorities during elections.

"We want to keep faith in the EC [election commission] though it frustrated us in the past,” the council said.

Among its nine demands include a ban on the use of religion during campaigns at mosques, temples, pagodas, and churches.

The council wanted to introduce a ‘no’ vote option in the ballot.

Kazi Habibul Awal, the chief election commissioner, has found merit in the demands, claimed Rana.

Covering an area just over half the size of the United Kingdom, Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world with the eighth position in population. 

A US pre-election observation team is touring the nation from Oct. 8 to 12, meeting with a diverse group of stakeholders.

A joint International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) mission met Home Minister Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal on Oct. 11. 

During a meeting on Oct. 10, minority leaders stressed to the commission the need to have violence-free poll this time.

The NDI and IRI are nonpartisan, nongovernmental organizations and have collectively observed more than 200 polls in 50 countries over the last 30 years.

The mission stresses the necessity for holding “a free, fair, participatory and peaceful election.”

The ruling Awami League considers the push from the US for a “participatory election” a ploy to deny it power.

About 90 percent of Bangladesh's population are Muslim and nearly 8 percent are Hindus. Buddhism and Christianity make up for the rest.

Religious minorities have steadily declined since Bangladesh won independence in 1971.

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