A Catholic family share a meal outdoors after influential locals, backed by the police, launched an eviction drive in November 2016 in Gaibandha district of northern Bangladesh. (Photo: UCA News)
Jogendranath Sarker and his five-member family, who belong to the Protestant Church of Bangladesh, left Kushtia district town of northwestern Bangladesh and moved to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state in neighboring India, in February last year.
Sarker, 43, had sold his ancestral homestead on 1,200 square meters of land after failing to protect about 1.66 acres of his farmland from locally influential Muslims during more than five years of struggle.
This group of Muslims, using forged land documents to claim ownership, occupied the farmland Sarker had inherited from his father.
Amid the dispute, his home was burned in arson attacks three times and he received numerous threats of eviction from Muslims.
“I’m a victim of oppression as ours was the only Christian family within 20 kilometers. Despite many problems, I wanted to stay in Bangladesh, but at the end I could not stay,” Sarker told UCA News.
He lamented that he sought help from local police many times but didn’t get any support from them. He didn’t file any case in court as he didn’t have enough money to run a lengthy, expensive legal battle.
A police officer admitted that Sarker sought help and they had promised to investigate.
“We told him that police would look into his problems. When we visited his house last year, we came to know he had sold the property and left for India,” sub-inspector Mohammad Sanowar from Kushtia Sadar police station told UCA News.
In Kolkata, Sarker’s family have been living with their relatives despite difficulties without a job and an income.
“In Bangladesh I faced an existential crisis, but here there is no fear for life. I am with my relatives and they promised to get me a job. Hopefully, I can have a better life and can educate my two children. I can also go to church regularly here,” he said.
The case of Sarker might be tragic, but it is a common reality in Muslim-majority Bangladesh where land disputes are a major cause of discrimination against minorities that can also lead to victims fleeing their homes and some settling in other countries.
Minority rights groups say that despite Bangladesh being a moderate Muslim country with a long-held tradition of harmony and pluralism, violence and oppression against minorities, often stemming from land disputes, have increased in recent times.
A report from Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, published in December, recorded 60 cases of eviction of minority families from March to September last year. There were incidents of attacks, vandalism and arson on minorities including Hindu temples. Some 18 minority member were killed, 11 received death threats and 23 were victims of abduction and torture. The report alleged that 30 girls and women from minority communities were victims of rape.
A Hindu forum, Bangladesh National Hindu Grand Alliance, claims that violence against minorities more than doubled in 2020 from the previous year despite the country reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic.
It says 62 members of minorities were killed in the first six months of 2020, some 512 people were injured in attacks and 1,460 minority families, mostly Hindus, were evicted from their houses.
Govind Chandra Pramanik, president of the group, said that Bangladesh’s first constitution of 1972 was secular and non-communal but it was amended and distorted to give a communal character that encouraged radical elements to dominate and oppress minorities in various parts of the country.
“Harmony is vital for the prosperity of any nation, but it is under threat as minorities are abused. For a long time, we have demanded reserve seats for minorities and a separate ministry for minority affairs. I think that without such efforts minorities won’t have proper representation and abuses of minorities won’t stop,” Pramanik, a Supreme Court lawyer, told UCA News.
There are regular reports of pressure on minorities to convert to Islam by radicals.
Modhu Das (not his real name), a 29-year-old Hindu from north-central Mymensingh district, alleged that he had received threats from local Islamic radicals to denounce his religion recently.
“I run a grocery shop that feeds my four-member family. Some radical Muslims told me to convert or they would force [us] to leave the country. I filed a complaint with the police and the police issued a warning. There [have been] no more threats, but I am still living in fear,” Das told UCA News.
For decades, Christians have prioritized interfaith dialogue as an effective way of dispelling communal tensions and harmony, but now and then oppression of minorities due to issues like land disputes and politics pose grave threats, says Father Patrick Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Commission for Christian Unity and Inter-Religious Dialogue.
The reports of increasing violence against minorities are true, the priest said.
“At the grassroots level, people of all religions have mostly good relations. But the rhythm of this brotherhood was disturbed due to some reasons like disputes over land and politics. In the top levels of the state, there is no fundamentalism but at the rural level Islamic radicals have considerable influence. Sometimes radicals spread propaganda against minorities on social media that triggers violence,” Father Gomes told UCA News.
The priest said the Church has been carrying out interfaith dialogue programs at national and locals levels, which have positive impacts and foster harmony.
“I think interreligious fraternity can help strengthen harmony and eradicate oppression of minorities,” the priest added.
Islamic cleric Maolana Mohammad Iqbal Eusuf, secretary of Dhaka-based Sufism Research Center, also admitted the sad reality of oppression of minorities in Bangladesh.
“There is no denying that in a country where people of various faiths live side by side, majority group tries to dominate minorities. Islam as a religion never endorses it and those who exploit Islam to abuse minorities are greedy and misguided,” he told UCA News.
The state needs to firmly apply the law to end any form of violence against minorities, while the state and other groups must make efforts to promote interfaith dialogue to strengthen harmony, he said
“Christians have been prioritizing interfaith dialogue, which is highly praiseworthy. All religious groups as well as the state must do the same to remove all forms of religious bigotry and communalism from society,” the cleric added.
About 90 percent of more than 160 million people in Bangladesh are Muslims, about 8 percent are Hindu and the rest belong to other faiths including Buddhism and Christianity.