Bangladesh minorities in a predicament

Ashis Biswas
In Bangladesh, a section of beleaguered Hindus in Comilla, Chattogram and other districts, where widespread communal violence had erupted during the Durga Puja, is reconsidering their future citizenship options, according to recent reports; many want to relocate/migrate to other countries in the long run.
There is general satisfaction, however, over the strong response of the Bangladesh administration against the communal forces involved, not to mention the arrest of over 600 people and the initiation of some 90 cases against the culprits. Interestingly, Dhaka-based media accounts suggest that among those held are not just local leaders, activists and members of parties and Islamist groups like the Jamat-e-Islami (JI),Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hefazat-e-Islami (HI). A sizable number of activists and supporters of the ruling, secular-by-definition Awami League (AL) and the Chhatra League were also arrested for active involvement in the desecration of Hindu temples, puja pandals, images, Hindu-owned homes and shops.
There can be no denying that the ruling AL government has gone out of its way to assuage Hindu sentiments. Damaged temples, houses and shops are being repaired as quickly as possible, with financial assistance and other help on offer. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lost no time to condemn the anti-Hindu attacks and declare, ‘Those involved will be hunted down. ‘Besides the destruction of property, altogether 7 people including both Hindus and Muslims, were killed.
Meanwhile the police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and intelligence authorities are probing how the communal attacks were so quickly organised in six different districts, involving large numbers of people who outnumbered local policemen in some areas. Kolkata-based security analysts feel that the technique known as ‘swarming’ might have been employed by the mob leaders.
Briefly, the term refers to the sudden formation of sizable crowds as quickly as possible, by texting selected group/cell leaders and a large number of followers over the internet or mobile phones. The ring leaders and their followers maintain a close, guarded network that keeps in close touch unknown to the local law enforcing agencies. Their ability to mobilize fairly big crowds at short notice often takes the police and other forces by surprise.
This technique of quick crowd formation, prior to a planned manipulation of its subsequent behaviour, say experts, has been used successfully in Ukraine since 2014, Hong Kong, West Asia and elsewhere. Often groups and NGOs championing civil liberties or other causes have also used such methods to drum up support for their agitations.
As for Iqbal Hossain, the person charged with placing the holy Quran inside a temple by the police, following his identification by CCTV, it is now believed that initial reports about his suspected mental imbalance might not have been correct. Officials arrested other persons even as his interrogation continued.
Most Hindus, if those interviewed by the Bangladeshi media can be taken as representative of their community, feared that such mob attacks targeting them, their holy places and religious ceremonies might happen again. It was not a question of ‘if’, but of ‘when’, where communal riots in Bangladesh were involved, some people reportedly said. People also spoke of several other big anti-Hindu riots during the last decade, the intensity of which, they alleged, had exceeded even the communal frenzy witnessed during the days when Bangladesh was ‘East Pakistan’! There were serious allegations against several ruling Awami League leaders as stated before, in many areas.
Leaders of minority organisations alleged that a major reason the Hindus, whose population was currently down to only around 8% of the aggregate population of 165 million people (as against over 25% in 1947), were being repeatedly attacked was the time-tested refusal of authorities like the police or political leaders to punish the culprits. Ever dwindling in numbers, Hindus and Buddhists (in the context of tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the displacement of Rohingyas) were easy pickings for not only communalists but of common anti-socials as well. The latter were more interested in forcibly taking over Hindu-owned assets and property especially in upmarket urban areas. Complaints to the police or the ruling party leaders made little difference as incidents of arson, physical assaults, rape of women and killings continued over the years.
Communalists openly urged upon Hindus to go to India at the earliest, if they wanted to live.
The role of major political parties in Bangladesh was confusing for the minorities. Minority communities’ spokesmen told Dhaka-based mediapersons, according to recent reports, that they no longer trusted any political party, let alone have faith in their usual promises on safety and security for everyone during pre-election campaigns. BNP hardliners, according to observers, did not feel concerned about the declining Hindu population, well aware that the community broadly supported the Awami league. A Hindu exodus over the years would only reduce the mass base for the League, not affect the BNP.
For the Awami League, in case of Bangladeshi Hindus –now that Government of India has promised immediate shelter and eventual citizenship for Hindus crossing over from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan– decide to shift gradually to India, it would be a major political embarrassment. Further even with their declining numbers, Hindu voters still influence the voting patterns in around 60 out of 300 Parliamentary seats, which would be easier for its opponents to win. Also, such a trend would render the official Bangladeshi stand to remain a secular, politically inclusive democracy meaningless. No wonder, Sheikh Hasina while assuring Hindus, observed. ‘You are as much Bangladeshis as the rest of us, with full equal rights my Government is sworn to protect.’
Bangladesh will also lose its international credibility as a confident country seeking a bright, progressive, inclusive future for its teeming millions of people. Despite its numerous problems and occasional communal outbreaks of violence, the country has earned widespread respect for its record of pluralism and general communal harmony, not to mention its impressive economic progress over the years.
Especially in the USA and some EU countries, let alone hardline Islamist countries like Turkey and Pakistan, influential sections of opinion somehow have never been appreciative of Bangladesh’s achievements. The strong secular, nationalist spirit that has been a feature of functioning of late leaders like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and currently his daughter Hasina — both of whom have been largely supportive of India’s policies in South Asia and abroad — continues to rankle with powerful pro-Pakistan lobbies in some Western capitals. These also maintain close links with ‘Jamatis’ and fundamentalists in Bangladesh, through NGOs and various charity organisations.
Authorities in Bangladesh have noted a marked new ebullience in the recent activities of religious fundamental organisations especially after Turkey and Pakistan have upgraded their diplomatic presence in Dhaka. In view of this and other trends, hundreds of prominent Bengali citizens, opinion makers and intellectuals have appealed publicly to the Prime Minister and the Awami League to preserve at all costs the secular character of the country. A shift towards radical Islam, they claimed, would mean the end of Bangladesh as it now stands and signify its return to the dark days of its once Pakistani past. (IPA)