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Pre-poll violence rattles Bangladeshi minorities

They say they fear for their lives and property following five days of clashes that have killed at least 12
Starting Oct. 28, Bangladesh witnessed large-scale violence for five days during clashes between Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists and the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Starting Oct. 28, Bangladesh witnessed large-scale violence for five days during clashes between Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists and the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 02, 2023 07:28 AM GMT
Updated: November 02, 2023 10:13 AM GMT

Minorities have expressed fears for life and property following five-days of pre-poll violence that have claimed at least 12 lives in Bangladesh.

Large-scale violence and arson in the South Asian nation were reported for five days after Oct. 28 ahead of polls in January 2024 after the ruling Awami League and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) gathered their supporters on the streets with strikes and blockades.

Clashes between the Awami League and the opposition are likely to linger in the Muslim-majority nation as the BNP is against the polls to be held under the watch of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has ruled the eighth most populous nation since 2009.

Protests organised by the BNP have called on Hasina to resign.   

Bangladesh saw attacks on minorities during the last two polls in 2014 and 2018 when minority residential plots were grabbed and properties looted. 

Anti-social elements can “take advantage of the political unrest” to take away our land and properties,” said Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of the Bangladesh Adivasi (tribal) Forum.

Minorities are the first to feel the impact of instability, noted Drong, a Christian.

Religious minorities are “more frightened than anybody else,” because of past incidents during polls, he added.

Minorities are very concerned by the prevailing political situation, said Rana Dasgupta, secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC), the country's largest minority forum.

Addressing the media on Nov. 1, Dasgupta urged all political parties to remain vigilant to keep anti-social elements at bay.

In October, the BHBCUC sought police protection for minority-dominated areas ahead of the January polls.

The opposition BNP called for a four-day nationwide strike and blockade to force Hasina to step down so that the polls could be held under a neutral government.

Hasina’s party, with the help of security forces, began targeting BNP activists, bringing normal life and business activities to a grinding halt in the country of 171.3 million. 

At least 12 people, including two police officers, were killed and hundreds hurt in the violence.

There are many farmers among minorities and their production and sales are affected by the strikes and blockades, Drong said.

“If continued, the violent political events might bring minorities even closer to a food crisis,” he warned, while talking about skyrocketing inflation and the post-Covid-19 economy.

The BHBCUC has urged the Awami League to postpone a Nov. 4 rally because of the volatile situation.

The government is ignoring international calls for restraint as its pledges to hold a fair election, said Human Rights Watch in a statement on Nov. 1.

In September, the European Union notified the Bangladesh government that it would not send a poll mission to monitor the elections in January, citing mass arrests targeting the opposition.

On Oct. 30, the government arrested thousands of opposition members, including Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary-general of the BNP and sealed many party offices.

The onging political instability has affected the religious life of minorities, obstructing festivals and the cancellation of religious programs.

“I canceled my trip to the historic Kotbari temple because of the ongoing blockade,” to celebrate KathinChibar Dan, said Sunandapriya Bhikkhu, a monk at the Dhaka International Buddhist Temple.

At KathinChibar Dan, monks are given new robes to wear in recognition of their spiritual achievements.

The festival follows the celebration of Pravarana Purnima — the day Buddha told his disciples to propagate his teachings — which fell on Oct. 28, the day the latest spell of violence began.

“The turnout of devotees was poor this year,” said Bhikkhu. 

Buddhists had called on political parties to postpone their political programs on Oct. 28. But their plea fell on deaf ears.

The Hindu festival of Kojagara Puja to propitiate Goddess Laxmi was slated for Oct. 28, the day the capital Dhaka was turned into a battlefield by armed rival political groups.

Buddhists are the second largest religious minority group after Hindus, accounting for 0.61 percent of Bangladesh’s population. There are about 600,000 Christians, including about 350,000 Catholics, in the country. 

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