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The quest for minority rights in Islamic Bangladesh

Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council has stood for issues affecting religious minorities for the past 33 years

The quest for minority rights in Islamic Bangladesh

Activists gather at the national conference of the Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council in Dhaka on Jan. 7 to demand rights for minority groups. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

The Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) has been working for the rights of minority communities in Bangladesh since 1988.

With 12 percent of the South Asian nation’s 160 million people belonging to minority groups, it’s a daunting task to ensure the protection of their rights.

For Nirmol Rozario, a Catholic and one of three presidents of the BHBCUC, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country poses a big challenge to minority rights.

“The non-communal Bangladesh after independence ceased to exist after the assassination of the father [Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] of our nation [in 1975]. Now the country is torn apart by religious strife,” he told UCA News.

Bangladesh was born a secular nation after the Liberation War of 1971 but the word "secularism" was removed from its constitution by a martial law directive during the military dictatorship of Ziaur Rahman.

In 1988, Bangladesh's parliament adopted Islam as the state religion and overnight religious minorities become second-class citizens.

Bangladesh’s declaration of independence clearly states that equality and social dignity will be ensured for every citizen

The major political parties at that time did not protest against it and thus was born the BHBCUC.

Secretary Rana Dasgupta recalled the Liberation War’s slogan proclaiming that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians were all Bengalis. The founding father declared that people of all religions were free to practice their faith in the newborn nation, adding that “we will only object to the political use of religion.”

“Bangladesh’s declaration of independence clearly states that equality and social dignity will be ensured for every citizen. However, after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it turned to Islam and our organization was born as a protest against the establishment of an Islamic state,” he said.

In the decades to come, even as majority religion was used as a political tool by successive regimes, the BHBCUC stood for secularism and minority rights.

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It has earned the organization a considerable following as was evident at its 10th Triennial National Conference held in Dhaka on Jan. 7-8 and attended by some 10,000 delegates, which included activists from across the country.

The BHBCUC has so far successfully fought archaic laws such as the Enemy Property Act, which empowered governments to confiscate properties of people they deemed as “enemies of the state.”

The prime target of this law, formulated when Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan, were those Hindus who fled to India during conflicts with India. Millions of Hindus were branded as foreign agents and their properties seized by both the state and opportunistic Muslims

After Bangladesh gained its independence, the law was renamed the Vested Property Act to continue the persecution of Hindus.

Consistent opposition and lobbying finally led the Awami League government to repeal the law and enact initiatives to ensure the seized properties were returned to their rightful owners.

“Some 162,000 cases were filed under the dark law. Of these, about 35 percent cases were settled but so far land was returned to only about 10 percent of the original owners,” Dasgupta told UCA News.

The BHBCUC took up other demands like allocating 60 seats out of the 350 seats in parliament for minorities, the establishment of a ministry for minorities, enacting a Minority Protection Act and formation of a minorities commission besides implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.

This is not the Bangladesh we dreamed of during the Liberation War. We dreamed of a secular country

While little success has been achieved, these issues make it to the agendas of political parties during every election season. “One of our demands is to remove the state religion from the constitution,” said Dasgupta.

It’s a tough challenge for an organization representing religious minorities to uphold secularism.

Even liberals like Dr. Syed Anwar Hossain, a former professor of history at Dhaka University, felt the talk about forming a non-communal state by someone representing religious groups was “inappropriate.”

Speaking at the inauguration of the BHBCUC conference on Jan. 7, Hossain said: “This is not the Bangladesh we dreamed of during the Liberation War. We dreamed of a secular country. But our constitution is clearly communal where the state religion Islam and other religions are being allowed to be observed with compassion.”

Father Anthony Sen, secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Dinajpur Diocese, told UCA News that he felt the BHBCUC should work with different churches.

“I myself do not know what this organization does but it seems to be more Dhaka-centric and needs to venture out into remote areas and involve all minorities,” he said while adding that the Catholic Church “always [stood] on the side of justice believing that we must be united in defending our rights.”

Rupali Rani Das, a 34-year-old Hindu woman who came from northern Rangpur district to attend the conference, said she wasn’t even aware of the organization.

“Some leaders from our area told us that they are working for our rights. I think sharing details about the organization’s work will help us,” she told UCA News.

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