UCA News

No relief for minorities in Bangladesh as crisis looms

Election violence lurking round the corner for groups still excluded from nation's decision-making process
No relief for minorities in Bangladesh as crisis looms

Members of a Bangladeshi minority group shout anti-terror slogans during a protest rally in Dhaka in this Dec. 10, 2005 file photo. (Photo by Farjana K. Godhuly/AFP)


Published: May 02, 2018 05:49 AM GMT
Updated: May 02, 2018 05:51 AM GMT

In some senses the term "minority" is disparaging as it denotes the weakness or powerlessness of a group. It also indicates that a group is inferior to another party and instills in that group a perpetual inferiority complex while implying it can expect to be further neglected and marginalized.

Yet being in a minority for many people and groups is an everyday reality, be it in a religious, ethnic, socio-economic or political sense.

Bangladesh has two major groups of minorities — religious and ethnic — who are visibly more weak and powerless, inferior and disenfranchised than the economically, politically and numerically dominant Muslim majority.

Some 90 percent of Bangladesh's 160 million plus population is composed of Sunni Muslims, most of whom follow a moderate form of Islam that promotes pluralism and harmony.

However a small but strong nexus of politically, administratively and financially influential Muslims still consider other faiths inferior to their own and believe they must be submissive and rely on the mercy of Muslims.

This mindset leads to sporadic abuses and violence against minorities, especially Hindus, the largest religious minority, who account for about 9 percent of the population.

Often, these abuses are evident in property disputes and politically motivated clashes, and they are sometimes laced with religious zealotry.

In most cases, episodes of violence against minorities derive from property disputes and politics.

In 1965, when Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan, the government formulated an abusive law called the Enemy Property Act. This allowed the government to confiscate the properties of people deemed "enemies of the state."

It was a retaliatory act following the 17-day India-Pakistan war, and the prime targets of this dark law were those Hindus who fled to India during the conflict. They were quickly branded agents of India.

Millions of Hindus lost their property as a result of this and faced immense abuse at the hands of both the state and opportunistic Muslims.

After Bangladesh gained its independence in 1972 the law was renamed the Vested Property Act but its basic nature remained unchanged.

Many pundits believe the shrinking of the Hindu population from 22 percent in 1971 to nine percent today is a result of the violence and abuses related to this repressive law.

Minority groups and human rights groups called for change for decades, finally leading the Awami League government to repeal the law and enact initiatives to ensure the properties were returned to their rightful owners.

However, the nation's complex laws and justice system have hindered their return in many cases, leaving the victims feeling forlorn as they wonder whether justice will indeed prevail.

What is worrying is that the government does not seem interested in making this issue a priority.

Hindus and other religious minorities continue to face sporadic outbursts of political violence, often from hard-line Islamist parties.

This is largely due to their broad support for the ruling Awami League during local and national elections. This is the country's oldest and largest political party, which is nominally secular.

Before and after the 2001 and 2014 national elections, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists were attacked for lining up to vote for the party.

However, even though the party appears consider religious minorities a useful "vote bank" it has done little to empower them and bring about justice for those on the receiving end of violent attacks meted out by various groups including political parties and Islamists.

Moreover, Awami League activists were also found to have been complicit in the forcible seizing of properties from minorities and carrying out attacks against them in recent times.

In 2012, Islamic radicals went on an anti-Buddhist rampage that saw 19 temples and about 100 houses destroyed in Cox's Bazar, which is now home to refugee camps for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

An allegedly blasphemous post on Facebook is believed to have ignited the violence, and attackers hailed from local units of all the parties including the Awami League.

In 2016, similar mob violence saw several Hindu temples and dozens of houses torched and destroyed by Islamic radicals with the support of local Awami League activists in Brahmanbaria district.

That same year, three indigenous Christian Santal men were shot dead, dozens of houses were set on fire and thousands were evicted by a local sugar mill authority in Gaibandha district over a longstanding land dispute. The attackers drew support from local Awami League parliamentarians, administrative figures and the police, according to reports.

Since 2013, Hindus have fallen victim to a series of Islamist attacks after the nation's war crimes court started handing down life sentences and even the death penalty to Islamist politicians for their crimes against humanity during the 1971 war that ultimately led to the liberation of Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Islamic radicals destroyed several Churches and Christian properties in old Dhaka back in 1997 over land dispute.

And in 2001, militants bombed a Catholic Church in Gopalganj district and killed 10 Churchgoers.

All of these incidents took place when the Awami League was in power. Cases were filed but none of them have yet been resolved or justice dispensed.

In all of the cases, investigations have been carried out but the reports have not yet been made public.

The Awami League and its archrival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have minority representatives in top leadership posts. But they are merely "poster boys" who can hardly be expected to fully sympathize with those they claim to represent given their standing and wealth.

To all intents and purposes they seem more interested in keeping minority groups loyal to the party and retaining their own positions; any genuine concern about protecting the rights of their brethren is doubtful.

Bangladesh has about three million indigenous people belonging to some 45 ethnic groups. They are mostly Buddhists, with some Christians and Hindus.

In 1972, a year after Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan, the founding leaders penned the new nation's first constitution.

This recognized religious pluralism but those minorities who had also shed blood in the fight for freedom from oppression were largely forgotten.

This negligence led to their disempowerment. Many lost their forests, properties, local language, culture and traditions amid an onslaught of hegemony by the Bengali Muslim-led society.

In 2011, during an amendment to the charter, a number of leaders appealed to the Awami League-run government for recognition as "indigenous peoples" but their demands were refused.

Instead, they were branded "tribals" and "small ethnic groups," which many consider to be derogatory terms.

Abuse and violence against ethnic minorities remains rampant in both the plains and the hills of Bangladesh. In both areas, the disputes usually boil down to property and politics.

And now with a national election looming in December or January, minorities have reason to be fearful.

Elections and violence go hand-in-hand in Bangladesh and minorities often face the brunt of this amid a tug-of-war between political parties jockeying for power.

These minorities live in a constant state of crisis as they have few options to deal with the abuse and violence meted out by the majority.

Their hands are effectively tied as they can do little to influence the policies or decision-making process in this Muslim-majority country.

Unfortunately, things will probably get worse for them before they get better, with no significant improvement to their situation yet appearing on the horizon and a daunting election to get through.


Rock Ronald Rozario is a Dhaka-based journalist, writer and Bureau Chief for ucanews.com in Bangladesh

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