Bangladeshi minorities demand election security

Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and ethnic groups call on government to stamp out politically motivated attacks
Bangladeshi minorities demand election security

Bangladeshi Christians take part in a rally at a major national gathering of minorities in Dhaka on Sept. 28. (Photo by Raphael Palma)

Leaders of minority communities and liberal activists have called for an assurance of safety and security for religious and ethnic minorities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh before and after the national election due in late December or early January.

The concerns were expressed at a national gathering in capital Dhaka on Sept. 28. About 50,000 people, mostly Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and members of ethnic groups, attended the event at Suhrawardy Udayan Park.

The event was organized by Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, the largest interfaith minority rights forum in Bangladesh, in collaboration with 22 affiliated minority rights organizations.

Citing bitter experiences of politically motivated attacks on minority communities before and after previous national polls, speakers presented demands which they say are vital for "the existence and security of minorities."

They called on the government to ensure full security of minorities before and after the poll, to prevent political parties from fielding candidates who directly or indirectly have been a cause of torture of minorities, and to ensure representation of minority groups in parliament proportionate to their numbers. They also want parties to pledge to establish a ministry for minorities in their election manifestos.

Minorities' concerns and demands are legitimate given that torture of minorities is very common in Bangladesh, said Anisuzzaman, a prominent academic, writer and emeritus professor of the University of Dhaka.

"We won independence from Pakistan in 1971 to build a country where people of all ethnic and religious groups can live freely and peacefully. However, we see minorities are frequently tortured by the majority community, and it's extremely sad and must be stopped," said Anisuzzaman, a Muslim. "We must use all our strength to prevent communalism and fanaticism in Bangladesh."

Advocate Sultana Kamal, a prominent human rights activist, echoed those sentiments.

"After 47 years of independence, why is this happening? The state has failed to ensure that our country is a land where people of all faiths can live together with dignity, equal rights and an environment for growth and prosperity without disparity," said Kamal, who is also a Muslim. 

Shahriar Kabir, a prominent journalist, writer, filmmaker and secularist, said minorities had suffered about 10,000 cases of human rights violations since 2005, and most cases were politically motivated or hate crimes.

"If Bangladesh can have a separate ministry for hill districts, we can surely have a ministry for minorities in the country to address their problems at national level," Kabir said.

Nirmol Rozario, a Catholic and president of Bangladesh Christian Association, alleged that the demands have been in place for years but no government has paid heed.

"In the forthcoming elections, we want candidates who would support minority interests and rights. We do not want to vote for ones who have tortured minorities in the past in many ways," Rozario said.

Muslims make up about 90 percent of Bangladesh's 160 million-plus population. Hindus make up about 8 percent and the rest belong to various faiths including Buddhism and Christianity. There are about three million ethnic indigenous people.

Bangladesh holds parliamentary elections after every five years. There are 350 seats in parliament including 50 reserved for women, but there is no reserved seat for minorities.

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Minorities tend to vote overwhelmingly for the ruling Awami League, a semi-secular party, making them a perpetual enemy of right-wing and radical Islamists.

Before and after the 2001 and 2014 national elections, hundreds of minorities, mostly Hindus, came under attack from Islamic radicals and their allies for voting for the Awami League.

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