State of Minorities in Bangladesh:
From Secular to Islamic Hegemony
by Saleem Samad*
Bangladesh or East Bengal is a historical reality. In 1971 it has been curved out of political boundaries of what was East Pakistan after a bloody civil war by the nationalists, and of course the secular forces. The reign of terror unleashed in 1971, and the consequent persecution of the Bangalee masses in the name of defending Islam and the Islamic bond between the two provinces of Pakistan had already made the future of Islam as a basis of state-policy uncertain in the new state brought into being by the secular forces in the teeth of the fiercest opposition by the obscurantist elements. (Husain, 1997, pp. 83)
The first partition of Bengal took place in 1905 under British rule and resulted in the amalgamation of East Bengal and Assam into a separate Muslim-dominated province. It was justified by the imperial powers on grounds of both administrative convenience and the separate interests of Bengal’s Muslim from those of its Hindus, but it has also been interpreted as another example of British divide-and-rule tactics in India. The British scholars and historians, and those trained by them divided the ancient history of Indian sub-continent into Buddhist era, Hindu era and Muslim era. It was opposed by a combination of high-caste Bengali Hindus whose landed interests in East Bengal were directly undermined by the partition as well as of a common Bangla language. literature, history, tradition and way of life (Kabeer, 1997, pp. 59).
Historically Bengal spearheaded racial politics, which ultimately led to birth of Pakistan. Muslim League was born in early 20th century at Dhaka, leaders from Bengal proposed the controversial two nations theory, separate homeland for Indian Muslims. All India Muslim League adopted the Lahore Resolution, 1940 that the Muslims are majority in the “North-Western and Eastern Zones of India should be grouped to constitute independent states” shall be “autonomous and sovereign” (Hashim, 1974, pp. 169). Instead only one Muslim nation was born as a conspiracy of the British imperialist. Pakistan, born in 1947 from the concept of the leaders from Bengal tore the Bangalee communities apart.
Throughout their rule, the British consciously exploited Hindu-Muslim antagonisms in a divide-and-rule strategy. At first the British favoured the Hindus, distrusting the Muslim from whom they had seized the power (Hartmann & Boyce, 1983, pp. 15). But the nationalism took hold among the Hindu middle classes in the late 19th Century, the British tried to win the support of well-to-do Muslims by offering them more government jobs and educational opportunities. This strategy culminated in the 1905 Partition of Bengal, creating the new predominantly Muslim province of East Bengal with Dhaka as its Capital. The partition exacerbated Hindu – Muslim tension, and, although revoked six years later, it foreshadowed events to come (Hartmann & Boyce, 1983, pp. 15).
Racial conflicts beginning in the twentieth century have become a reality in the region for the last fifty years of British colonialist. Since politics came to be increasingly dominated by communal issues, there was hostility and ultimately violence. Since the countries were to be dominated on the basis of demographic supremacy of one nation or another, the people fearing hostility started to migrate (Chowdhury, 1998, pp. 213).
The mass racial-migration by the Urdu and Bangla speaking Indians to a promised land were never socially integrated into Pakistan. Neither did the migrants accepted the customs and rituals of what was West and East Pakistan. The political recourse of the people of East Bengal has been tormented from the birth pangs of once Pakistan and then Bangladesh. Similarly, large population of Hindus abandoned their hearts and homes left for neighbouring states of India due to lack of insecurity in East Pakistan.
Between 1946 (East Bengal) and 1992 (Bangladesh), there was a number of incidence of racial violence which resulted in deaths and encouraged migration. Racial riots wrecked the traditional secular image of Bengal, on the eve of the second partition of Bengal in 1947. The racial violence is often blamed to the British colonialists, which tore the silence in otherwise quite Bengal. Hindus and Muslim were killed in Calcutta, Noakhali and Comilla. Peace-loving Hindus and Muslims had little or nothing to do with the riot (Hashim, 1974. pp. 117). Trauma of racialism till bears in the mind of many, mostly political activists and thousands of families who fled into East Pakistan. Similar is the case of the Hindus migrating into India.
The two-nation theory, which created Pakistan, the homeland of the Muslim communities was born with strings of religion and racism. The inter migration was productive for some but for the poor who were the overwhelming majority on both sides, it turned out to be a disaster. Bangalee’s was discriminated despite being the majority in Pakistan, doubly discriminate were the minorities in East Pakistan (Shaha, 1998, pp. 5). The political elites described Bangla, as a language of the Hindus. Therefore, the state language of Pakistan was made Urdu, which was violently protested in 1952 by the nationalists who favoured the state language of East Pakistan should be Bangla. The then government of Pakistan soon after the Indo-Pakistan 1965 war banned Rabindranath Tagore songs in state Radio and official functions, which was later revoked.
Muslim leaders of Bengal who later dominated and dictated politics in East Pakistan persuaded their anti-secular believes. This phenomenon spilled over into post-liberation Bangladesh. Another school of progressive intellectuals, radicals and young political activists rejected the politics of racism. Alas, they were mostly unsung heroes of Bengal. Thus the minorities who ever was the majority by caste, religion, ethnic and language dominated the minorities as privilege.
The Urdu-speaking linguistic community known as the Bihari’s or Mohajirs (refugees) are presently stateless in Bangladesh as they opted to be repatriated to Pakistan. They came in thousands to Bangladesh after the 1947 partition were later stranded in Bangladesh. Thousands of them were repatriated but suddenly it stopped accusing them for creating racial tensions in Pakistan. They Bihari’s in Bangladesh are languishing in make-shift camps in several town in Bangladesh flying Pakistan flags.
Dr. Amena Mohsin in “The Politics of Nationalism: The Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh” argues that the Bangladesh liberation movement was an intensely nationalist one. This nationalist zeal continued even after the country’s attainment of independence. At the political level the cause of Bangalee’s, in the form of their language, culture or religion has been promoted by the state. The rule of majority reflects in the constitution as tampered by reactive elites who politicised “Islam” for their own gain.
The new state of Bangladesh emerged as a secular polity with a constitutional embargo on religion in politics. The first Constitution passed on November 4, 1972, abolished: (a) all kinds of communalism; (b) political recognition of religion by the state; (c) exploitation of religion for political purpose; and (d) discrimination on religious ground (Article 2 of the Bangladesh Constitution). The preamble of the Constitution emphasised secularism as one of the fundamental principles of state policy. It is obvious that Islam, or for that matter, any other religion, as an individual belief system was not interfered with, but its political use and or abuse was barred (Husain, 1997, pp. 82).
Article 1 Part 1 declared Bangladesh to be a unitary state. Through Article 3 Part 1 Bangla was adopted as the state language and Article 6 Part 1 declared that the citizens of Bangladesh were to be known as Bangalee (Mohsin, 1997, pp. 61). Bangladesh Constitution (1972) in Article 9 defined Bangalee nationalism as:
The unity and solidarity of the Bengali nation, which deriving its identity from its language and culture, attained sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bengali nationalism.
The insertion of the above clauses ensured the political and cultural dominance of Bangaleeís within the state. The imposition of Bangalee nationality over all the citizens of Bangladesh marginalised the ethnic communities of Bangladesh for Bangalee, above all is a cultural category. It was a denial of the cultural distinctiveness of the other group (Mohsin, 1997, pp. 92).
Article 12, through which communal political parties were banned in Bangladesh, was also dropped. Article 9 which stressed the lingual and cultural unity of Bangalee nationalism was omitted. In place of “Bengalis” the citizens of Bangladesh through Article 6 Clause 2 were now to be known as “Bangladeshi”. These changes were given effect through Fifth amendment to the Constitution.
Other religions are, however, recognised under Article 41 of the Constitution, which gives citizens the right to practise and promote religious beliefs. Further provisions of Article 41 guarantee in individual’s right to refuse to practise a religion, or to be compelled to be educated in a religion other than their own. Sections 295, 296, 297 and 298 of the Penal Code deal with offences against religious places or practices (Timm, 1991, pp. 9).
Raja Devashish Roy, a Barrister and Chief of Chakma Circle in CHT maintain that the Advasis of Bangladesh have been denied their identity in the Constitution of the country. The grievances of the Advasis have deepened all the more as the Constitution has undergone repeated amendments and thus gone far away.
The Raja firmly protested the much articulated idea that if the Advasis were given constitutional recognition it will weaken the solidity of the state. “Rather, the recognition will shield against the secessionist tendency” (Earth Touch, 1998, pp. 41).
The only protective provision for the ethnic minorities that the policy makers often refer to in the context is Article 28 (4), which states that:
Nothing…..shall prevent the state from making special provision in favour of women and children or for the advancement of any backward section of the citizens.
The above provision indeed is an ambiguous one. It does not define who or what constitutes “backward”, question’s Dr. Amena Mohsin. The Bangladesh Constitution does not mention the existence of the cultural and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh. It seems that the Constitution is for a homogenous cultural nation, the Bangalee population governed by the majority Muslim as the provision speaks.
SECULAR TO ISLAMIC TREND
In Bangladesh the nationalist movement began to exert itself very strongly from the sixty and the language based identity overcame religious identities which meant that Hindu-Muslim hostility, weak among the Bangla speaking people almost died. Instead, hostility against the non-Bengali population who were opposed to the nationalist movement increased (Chowdhury, 1998, pp. 214).
In 1971, the communal conflict took a new turn as the entire population was considered seditious by the Pakistanis and the hostility went beyond communities and became a national issue. Thus disaster engulfed the entire people. Hindus, however, particularly targeted by the Pakistan army. After the nationalist forces won the war they took revenge on the non-Bengali migrants for the support to the Pakistan army and their participation in eliminating nationalists.
To assert that the Islamic content in Bangladesh politics has been on the increase for some time past should sound normal to many because this happens in a country where the majority of inhabitants are Muslims. But to say that religion of a majority community determines politics of a country may not always be historically true (Husain, 1997, pp. 80).
The first government that took power in the new state of Bangladesh contained a dichotomy. On the other hand, Bangladesh appeared on the map of the Muslim world as the second largest state with a preponderant Muslim population. Rather paradoxically for other members of the Muslim ‘Ummah’, it was a secular polity. Such a secular orientation was as much a matter of ideological mooring of the ruling elite in 1972, as it was of historical inevitability (Husain, 1997, pp. 83).
In fact the will of the majority continued to dominate the political scene both democratic and authoritarian regimes. The will of the majority in Bangladesh began to be characterised in racial or religious terms, namely, by giving attention to the Muslim identity of the people. (Ahmed, 1997, pp. 318).
Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, first President of Bangladesh who was popularly recognised as Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal) and father of the nation revived Islamic Academy (which was banned in 1972) and upgraded to Foundation (in March 1975) and increasingly attended Islamic gatherings. He also banned sale and consumption of liquor, though production of liquor continued and ban on betting with specific reference to horse-race. The recognition of OIC membership (February 1974), sudden decision to participate at OIC conference in Lahore, Pakistan (1974), diplomatic ties with Pakistan, unconditional pardon of the occupational forces of Pakistan involved in war crimes on innocent people, especially women and their subsequent safe repatriation, securing the founder membership of Islamic Development Bank (1975), were interpreted by political critics that Mujib stood at a confused crossroads.
Two social scientists and political analyst Dr. Talukder Maniruzzaman and Dr. Syed Anwar Husain have a similar view in separate articles explain that Mujib had significantly shifted from secular attitude towards sentiment of the majority. Dr. Maniruzzaman made an observation in “Bangladesh Politics: Secular and Islamic Trends” (New Delhi: 1990), pp.’s 73-74:
Towards the end of his rule, Mujib made frequent references to Islam in his speeches and public utterances by using terms and idioms which were peculiar mainly to the Islam-oriented Bangladeshi – like Allah (the Almighty God), Insha Allah (God willing), Bismillah (in the name of God), Tawaba (Penitence) and Imam (religious leader). As days passed on Shiekh Mujib even dropped his symbolic valedictory expression Joy Bangla (Glory to Bengal) and ended his speeches with Khuda Hafez (May God protect you), the traditional Indo-Islamic phrase for bidding farewell. In his later day speeches, he also highlighted his efforts to establish cordial relations with the Muslim countries in the Middle East.
Thus Bangladesh polity during 1972-1975 was a peculiar dichotomy. It was certainly secular as the constitutional provision making Bangladesh untampered. At the same it was turning towards a pseudo-religious stewardship of Mujib himself. However, whatever religious ebullience could be seen, these were rhetoric, and not reality (Husain, 1997, pp. 86).
The process of using Islam for leadership legitimation purposes gathered momentum during the military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and General H.M. Ershad (1982-1990). During the regime of Zia, the Constitution was doctored, scraped secularism from the four state principles and insertion of “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” (in the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful). The principle of secularism was replaced by the words, “Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all action.”
In a subtler approach Ziaur Rahman regime, the school curricula by state-owned Textbook Board came under increasing pressure from different quarters to Islamise the books. “Islamiyat” was introduced as compulsory from classes I to VIII with option for minority students to take similar religious courses of their own.
Between 1982 and 1990, Ershad made systematic efforts to continue the policy of Zia, rehabilitating anti-liberation elements and the parallel Islamisation culminating in the disputable Eighth amendment to the Constitution declaring “Islam” as a state religion. Earlier short-lived government of Mustaque Ahmed (August 1975 – November 1975) brought to power at a behest of young military officers, declared Peoples Republic of Bangladesh as “Islamic Republic of Bangladesh” over the state radio, which however fetched recognition of Saudi Arabia, Libya and China.
POLITICS OF HEGEMONY:
Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, a social and political scientist maintains that the divisive nature in the organisation of linguistic unity need hardly be stressed, except for the fact that language, if politicised, could produce racism as well (Ahmed, 1996, pp. 86). Despite a sentimental issue of the majority of people of Bangladesh, he further elaborates that once language is used to organise unity for political purpose, as in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in South Asia, and that again, in the light of the experience of the West, it ceases to be secular category, instead becomes a powerful tool in the organisation and reproduction of linguistic racism favourable to the power of the dominant linguistic community vis-?-vis other linguistic communities of the country.
With the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, politicians found it convenient to counter it with their own brand of religious politics which has made the Hindus very insecure (Chowdhury, 1998, pp. 214). This has been observed from the trend in the pseudo-Islamic political culture introduced by all mainstream political parties. Some radical and left politicians shifted from their traditional progressive doctrine and turned champion of Islamic politics. In fact they understood that they were not heard while in progressive politics. The catch-phrase “Islamic nationalism” in politicking works likes a miracle.
Bangladesh had not observed the 1994, a year of the Indigenous Peoples as was declared by the United Nations. On the other hand it has categorically maintained that there were no Adivasis or indigenous people in Bangladesh (Mohsin, 1997, pp. 93). The debate continues whether the ethnic minorities are Adivasis or migrants. Most Bangladeshi believes that the ethnic minorities are migrants and not “Bhumiputra” (son of the soil). Reactive intellectuals and politicians promote these views.
Different regimes introduced political dichotomy, which never accommodated the minorities of Bangladesh. Shiekh Mujib (1972-1975) era by constitutional guarantee introduced “Bangalee nationalism” as the spirit of the nation. After assassination of Mujib in a military putsch in 1975, General Ziaur Rahman (1976-81) by a military degree introduced “Bangladeshi nationalism” with a bias to Islam. General Ershad forcibly changed the Constitution and introduced “Islam” as state religion and took the nation towards “Islamic nationalism”.
The Islamic fanatics “Jamaat-e-Islami” an ally of BNP attempted to move “Blasphemy” law in the parliament in 1994 to victimise minority communities and secular sections for alleged trading of insults against Prophet Mohammed and Holy Koran. The Blasphemy law was a copy of the law in Pakistan.
Dr. Amena Mohsin argues that there was no room for accommodating the minorities within this new state discourse. After an amendment to the Constitution declaring Islam as state religion. The ethnic minorities found themselves to be minorities both in the ethnic and religious sense.
Subsequent regimes of Khaleda Zia and Shiekh Hasina came to power through popular mandate through free and fair election process under two consecutive neutral governments (in 1991 and 1996), too continued the policy and dichotomy of previous government which they rejected. Dr. Amena Mohsin writes in The Journal of Social Studies (October 1997, pp. 98), that though General Ershad was looked as usurper, and his regime was termed as undemocratic and autocratic by both Khaleda Zia led Bangladesh Nationalists Party (BNP) and Shiekh Hasina led Awami League, yet none of these parties even after assuming power had been, or it is posited here would be able to retrench the Islamisation measures taken by Ershad. The Constitution of Bangladesh, despite Awami League in power today, remains an Islamic one, comments Dr. A. Mohsin. It is then logical here to assume that democracy is a prerogative of the dominant majority only.
So-called politicking of nationalism and politics for the elites’ classes failed to provide sense of security, dignity, welfare for the stakeholder groups bracketed as minorities in Bangladesh. The political parties despite electoral promises written in election manifestos, failed to stand shoulder to shoulder with the minorities. Not a single political party has come forward for a cause of the minorities (Shaha, 1998, pp.5).
Several months after the riot (1990-1992), in mid -1993, the popularly elected government of BNP issued two orders, which were interpreted as government policy of persecution of the religious minorities. The Home Ministry asked the commercial banks to control withdrawal of substantial cash money against account holders of Hindu community. The commercial banks were asked to stop disbursement of business loans to Hindu community in the districts adjoining the India-Bangladesh border.
The government in 1993 initiated to conduct survey vested properties, human rights organisations treat these as alibi to persecute religious minorities, especially the Hindu community (State of Human Rights, 1993). Corrupt government officials at district level were listing properties whose owners are alive and still living in Bangladesh.
One of the factors resulting in loss of traditional lands has been the Vested Property Act, which has been applied unjustly against both Hindus and ethnic communities. Local officials and law enforcement agencies usually side with the majority against the minorities in land cases, and they are gradually becoming disposed (State of Human Rights, 1992, pp. 21).
Research shows that the Vested Property Act, a continuation of the Enemy Property Order which makes Hindu held property insecure because ownership has to be proven at various sorts and levels, is used extensively to appropriate property (Chowdhury, 1998, pp. 214).
The Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order under dreaded “Defence of Pakistan Rules Ordinance” was promulgated soon after the seventeen days war with Pakistan and India in 1965. All the large establishments including industries, trading centres, landed properties belonged to the Hindu community who were bracketed as abandoned were nationalised. The law says that the properties of Indian nationals residing in Pakistan or Pakistan citizens residing in India will be identified as “enemies of Pakistan”.
In political terms the properties were confiscated by the state because they were Hindus. However the government did not seize properties of Christians and Buddhists. Properties belonged to Indian Muslims residing in Pakistan or exchanged properties illegally with fleeing Hindus to India were not listed as abandoned or enemies of Pakistan. The discrimination was deliberate and obvious to deprive the Hindus who have made an exodus to India or elsewhere. There were hundreds of India Muslims who migrated to East Pakistan and never bothered to take domicile certificate, therefore they were not registered as Pakistani citizen where not declared as enemies.
Those so-called enemy properties seized were later gifted to “tabedars” (stooges) of the government. The autocratic government and beneficiaries were locked in “client and patron relationship” for decades. Though most of them formerly belonged to Muslim League, and later the turn-coats joined Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party, according to two in-depth studies titled “Impact of Vested Property Act on Rural Bangladesh: An Exploratory Study” – 1995 and “Vested Property Act: Towards a Feasible Solution” – 1997 by Dr. Abul Barkat et al.
Anti-autocratic, autonomy seeking Awami League and other opposition political groups strongly demanded to repeal the discriminatory law and return the properties to just owners. After the war of liberation, the Hindu and of course the freedom loving people thought that the law will be scrapped in matter of time in the war-torn Bangladesh. Surprisingly two new laws were adopted in the parliament which was tabled by a senior politicians and Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs who was a Hindu.
Despite a popular mandate, Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the first President of Bangladesh to advocate of a secular nation and a true homeland of the Muslim, Hindu and Christian Bangaleeís, he surprised many by keeping the hated law with an amendment. In 1974 two laws were adopted, “The Enemy Property (Continuance and Emergency Provisions) [Repeal] Act” and the other one was “The Vested and Non-Resident Property (Administration) Act”. Since 23 March 1974 the controversial Enemy Property Order seized to exercise.
There was no strong protest, criticism, or disagreement against new wine in old bottle formula to deliberately discriminate the Hindus. The new law enacted in 1974 also holds rights to properties, either abandoned and left behind by Pakistani and Indian owners. Nevertheless, most of the properties the Pakistani’s appeal to the court for redress, got back their properties. There are several instances, that the Pakistan citizens obtaining false citizenship documents, bought a section of government officials and won the litigation. Later all the properties were sold at a fetching price to influential persons who would able to retain the ownership legally. Such case of a Hindu property is rare in the history of Bangladesh.
General Ziaur Rahman in 1976 amended the Vested Property law and rested the ownership right to the government as administrator and controller of the abandoned properties. The same year, the second law has been scrapped. The government issues notices in favour of the vested properties by a judgement of the Appellate Division, Supreme Court of Bangladesh. The law is itself illegal as it does have a locus standi and it is contradictory, describes Dr. Abul Barkat.
The Bangladesh parliament was told that on 4 July 1991 that there were a total of 827,705.28 acres of land listed as vested property (State of Human Rights, 1992, pp. 22). A Bangla daily “Bhorer Kagoj” reported on 4 April 1993 that there are 17 shops under the Ministry of Commerce, 757,704 acres of land under Ministry of Land and 28,768 houses listed as vested property. Besides these, few jute mills, textile mills, and other industries and factories under Ministry of Jute, Textile and Industries separately.
It is evident from practices and customs evoked by the state machinery and the government which has turned into unwritten laws, that the religious minorities could not be given sensitive positions, like head of state, chief of armed forces, governor of Bangladesh Bank, Ambassador in a Bangladesh Mission, secretary in the ministry of Defence, Home, Foreign Affairs and Finance. Minorities are deliberately discriminated in recruitment in civil and military jobs, business and trade, bank loans and credit (Shaha, 1998, pp. 5). The mainstream political parties equally failed to demonstrate that their leader could be from among the minority community. It is rare to find a religious minority at the helms of affairs in Bangladesh.
As Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed describes, it is rule of the majority, which evolved from Bangalee nationalism, Bangladeshi nationalism and Islamic nationalism by enigmatic national leaders. It is obvious that the dominate factor is enshrined in the state Constitution.
Nation, for them thus constituted a culturally homogenous population. In this formulation the political elites chose the dominant/majority community as a model of nation, while the minority/weaker communities were expected to assimilate themselves with the ‘mainstream’ i.e. the dominant majority community. (Mohsin, 1997, pp. 2)
According to Bangladesh government 1991 census, the religious and ethnic minorities stood at 12.6 per cent. The Hindus are 10.5% (12.5 million), Christian (0.3%), Buddhist (0.6%) and other religious minorities (0.3%) in Bangladesh. Hindus, mostly Bangla speaking is the biggest religious minority community and they are scattered all over the country. Similarly Christians are also scattered all over the country, except for the Buddhist population which largely concentrate in Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Patuakhali.
Hindus are most likely to live in Barisal, Khulna, Faridpur and Jessore (and similarly in West Bengal Muslims are most likely to live in areas towards the Bangladesh border). The highest proportions of Hindus to Muslims in Bangladesh live in the city of Comilla, close to the border of Tripura. A large proportion of the Zamindar class (large, semi-feudal landlords) and moneylenders were Hindus. The scenario has, however changed in the last few decades. Today the socio-economic differences between the Muslim and Hindu communities are much less marked than previously (Timm, 1991, pp. 9).
The vanishing minority population is understood from researching the census documents published the government. Fifty years ago in 1941, 28.3 per cent of the total population was minorities. The population of Hindu was 11.88 millions, while 588 thousand was other religious and ethnic minorities (Buddhist, Christian and animist). Evaluation of government statistics of 50 years, from 1941 to 1991, indicates a large drop in the figure for minorities. A comparative picture shows that the number of the Muslim majority increased 219.5 per cent while the Hindu community increased by 4.5 per cent.
If normal increase rate prevailed, the number of the Hindu community in this country would have been 32.5 million, but the Hindu population in Bangladesh stood at 12.5 million in 1991 Census (State of Human Rights, 1994). Therefore the missing population is 20 million.
LOW INTENSITY VIOLENCE:
Afsan Chowdhury, a historian and social activists describe low intensity violence against religious and ethnic minorities as silent disaster. He writes that the independence of Bangladesh has not bought much peace for Hindus who numbered about 10 million in Bangladesh. The sense of a common cause has is now gone and in the absence of a new one, a section of the people have reverted to traditional practices of ousting a minority to enrich themselves in using communalism as a weapon.
While economic literature does not clearly distinguish between ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factors in explaining migration, the term has been in common usage and refers to socio-economic factors that effects singly the migrants’ home country conditions (Chakrobarty, et.al, 1997, pp. 274) Lack of socio-economic opportunities, low intensity hostility at all socio-economic levels including the state and greater opportunities across the border are the push-pull factors which have led to more than 500 Hindus crossing over the border every day (Chowdhury, 1998, pp. 214). Thus the Hindus are passing through a disaster situation as their life, property and peace have all been made to feel insecure by the lack of security and existing state policies and public action which are forcing them to exit to another land.
Hindus here, were the victims of violence as an echo of the Babri mosque demolition incident but the incidents were sporadic despite political patronage of the violence. The declaration of Islam as the state religion may not have much institutional or formal ramifications but it has made the minorities in Bangladesh distant from the core of the state. This illustrates how low intensity violence against the minorities can push millions into a state of silent disaster (Chowdhury, 1998, pp. 214). The Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council in their yearly council meeting in 1992 claimed that about 500,000 (Fifty Lakh) took refuge in India in the last 20 years (State of Human Rights, 1992, pp. 96).
The Anglo-Indian population in Bangladesh has literally vanished in the last 25 years. Most of them came to work in state-run establishments and British trading companies during the colonial era. However, among the minorities, the tendency of leaving the country is among the Hindus. The second groups are Santals from the Barind area of Rajshahi region for oppression and uprooting them from their ancestral lands.
Apart from the persecution of Hindus at a low intensity, the Christian community came under attack several times. In 1991-1992 during the Gulf War, supporters of Saddam Hossain, the authoritarian leader of Iraq, Muslim fanatics in Bangladesh attacked foreigners and Christian community, as if responsible for attacking Iraq during the Gulf War. Several churches were attacked, they demonstrated in sensitive places in Dhaka and elsewhere. Panicked and bewildered Christian community petitioned General Ershad and later met Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to express their grievances. However, the racial tension defused after Bangladesh troops joined the United Nations for peace-keeping in the Gulf.
An exclusive monthly magazine “Shorgomarta” in Bangla for the Christian community regularly carries incidence of attacks, looting, property grabbing and prejudicial writings. Also couple of books have been published in both English and Bangla on the atrocities, persecution and hegemony upon the Christian communities, especially among the converts in the ethnic minorities.
The “ethnic” problem of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is another example of the minorities being marginalised and forced to take up position of confrontation. The Kaptai Hydro Electric Project which benefited the plain land majority but it swamped the lands of the ethnic communities destroying their very foundation of living and livelihood. It showed how callous state power could be when it handled problems of the indigenous people (Chowdhury, 1998, pp. 215).
Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), the political body of Shanti Bahini engaged in two decades of bush war demanding autonomy for the ethnic communities in Chittagong Hill Tracts in their publications often refers to the rule of the “Bangalee Muslim” state in CHT as “internal colonialism”.
Built in early 1960’s, the Kaptai Dam submerged 40% of the rice bowl of the Hill Tracts and displaced one-sixth of the indigenous population. Thousands of hill people migrated into sparsely populated regions of Mizoram, Tripura, Assam and Arunachal. Perhaps 40,000 “environmental refugees” migrated to India and another 20,000 migrated to Burma. Where today, they live in the Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. Citizens neither of India, nor of Bangladesh, and without citizenship rights in either country (Samad, 1994, Holiday, pp. 2).
Military operations, insurgency and forced settlement of 400,000 (Four Lakh) Bangalee peasants from the plain lands into the hill forest of CHT, the region, very important environmentally, have ethnically and culturally suffered and in addition tremendous deforestation of resources has occurred. With the peace treaty signed in December 1997 between Bangladesh government and autonomy seeking insurgents which reduced hostility and social tensions, things are expected to improve (Chowdhury, 1998. pp. 215). Though the parliament has endorsed the peace accord in midst of opposition political action against the “shady treaty “, the constitution does not extends guarantee clause for the peace accord nor has the ethnic and cultural minorities have been recognised as citizens of Bangladesh.
The racial violence in December, 1992 was the worst in terms of damage and destruction (State of Human Rights, 1992, pp. 95). Incidences of loot, arson, rape, demolition of “Mandirs” (temples) by the majority community was not condemned by the government. Neither the opposition political parties agitated for justice and rational approach towards communal harmony. The parliament failed to adopt resolution condemning such acts. The criminals were not brought to justice. This has encouraged the Islamist forces throughout 1993-1995 to harbour racial tensions, vilifying progressive forces, intellectuals and social activists for maligning Islam and Prophet Mohammed.
Government administrative and law enforcing agencies remain mysteriously silent in rural Bangladesh and district towns, when complaints were lodged by religious minorities or killings, extortion, rape, arson, forceful eviction from properties, raiding places of worship such as “Mandirs”, destruction of idols and other statues, disrupting, religious festivals, “Pujas” or “Melas” (State of Human Rights, 1993, pp. 78). The sustained racial tensions were accompanied by death threats, pressure to sell or abandon properties of mostly Hindu community. In most case the victims remained silent in fear of further persecution.
The year 1993 can also be termed as the first year of organised protest from the Hindu community against unabated repression and oppression. During the biggest religious festival of “Durga Puja”, the Hindu community demonstrated in anger and protest by hoisting black flags in all religious temples and places of worships. No deity or idols were set up, no decoration was made. The call was given by Hindus performed the Puja without any religious fervour. Bangladesh Puja Uddjapan Parishad (Puja Festival Observance Council).
The Parishad also urged the government to accept their charter of demands. They demanded to revoke the Vested Property Act, repeal of the Eight amendment of the Constitution, and provision for reserve seats for the minorities in the parliament (State of Human Rights, 1995, pp. 128).
On the other hand, the Religious Minister in a statement in the Parliament in November 1993 stated that a sum of Taka 20.77 million has been allocated for the fiscal year of 1993-1994 for reconstruction of damaged “Mandirs” and other places of worships. This in fact reflects the official confirmation that damages of temples and other places of worships were damaged during racial tensions.
About 27 minority ethnic communities live mainly in four regions of Bangladesh. One is the Chittagong Hill Tracts, north-west, mid-north and in the districts of north Bangladesh. According to latest population census the total population of the ethnic communities is 1.2 million in the country, which constitutes 1.13 per cent. From a couple of isolated and limited surveys it is anticipated that the actual population of the minority ethnic communities are considerably higher that it is accounted in the government census (Gain, 1998, pp. 39). It has been observed that the ethnic people who are converted into Christianity are often listed in the government official documents under the category “Christian,” while those who use Sanskrit/Bangla names similar to the typical Hindu names are often grouped under the category “Hindu” (Khaleque, 1995, pp. 12). One can easily make such mistakes if one does not have adequate knowledge about the ethnic people and their ethnic, religious, and linguistic background.
Philip Gain, social researcher and environmentalist in his key note paper “Adivasi Question in Bangladesh”, 20-21 March 1997 argue, “The principal cause of the political and economic disturbances in the Adivasi areas are its soil, forest and the local resources.” The foreign aid dependent development programmes failed to bring substantial benefit to the Adivasi communities. Instead, these development programmes caused them to lose their possession over their own land, forest and resources.
Raja Devashish Roy in a seminar “Adivasi Question in Bangladesh” explained that the nation state system, the expansion of the market economy into the Adivasis or limited the scope to practice their rights. (Earth Touch, 1998, pp. 41).
There were great hopes among the ethnic minorities when the new government of Shiekh Hasina took power in June 1996. The principle of secularism embraced by the ruling Awami League meant that the ethnic communities could expect not to be discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnic origin. Thus far, the optimism of the ethnic communities has not been justified (State of Human Rights, 1996, pp. 98).
RELIGION OF ETHNIC COMMUNITIES:
The Marma, Chakma, Rakhaing and Tanchangya are Buddhist and there are few Buddhists among the other small ethnic groups of the CHT. Most people in the smaller ethnic communities of the interior parts of the CHT were animists. Some of these animists have been converted to Christianity by the missionaries working in this area. Thus many of the Bawms, Lushai, and Pankho are now Christians. A process of Christianisation is presently going on among these as well as other ethnic communities like the Murongs and Mros.
The Garos have their traditional religion, which is a form of animism. But the majority of them have been converted to Christianity. The Koch, Hajong, Pathor, and Manipuri are Hinduised ethnic communities. The Santals retained their traditional religion, which is based on belief in spirit (animism). However, they have been influenced by Hinduism and some of them are converted to Christianity (Khaleque, 1995, pp. 16).
Ever since the British withdrawal from the subcontinent in the 1947 there has been ethnic explosions in the hills. Evidences would show that the imperial government created the so called “excluded” or ” partially excluded” zones in these hills to allow unhindered propagation of Christianity amongst the backward tribes mostly animist far away from modern religion (Quarishi, 1987, pp. vii). It is interesting to note that the floodgate of conversion into Christianity opened up only after the British withdrawal!
On the other hand it has also been urgued that sudden withdrawal of the British rule created a power vacuum in this region as a whole and the tribals (ethnic communities), suspicious and indignant of their plain land neighbours for generations, got simply alarmed. (Quarishi, 1987, pp. viii)
A process of Christianisation has been going in the ethnic areas since the British period (Khaleque, 1995, pp. 16). Before Christianisation, however, most of the ethnic groups of the northern and north-eastern borders had been influenced by Hinduism, while those in the borders had been influenced by Hinduism, while those in the CHT by Buddhism. The rate of if Islamisation is very significant compared to that of Christianisation. There are a few converted Muslims among the Rajbansis and also among the Garo, but their number is very insignificant in both cases.
The Copenhagen based Chittagong Hill Tracts recorded evidences of Islamisation conversion in places of CHT among ethnic groups (Life is Not Ours, 1991. IWGIA). Challenging the statement, Life: In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, 1994 (pp. 46) argues that it is surprising that the CHT Commission deems conversion to Islam as religious persecution. “As for conversion to Christianity, as the statistics show, this far outnumbers the conversion to Islam. Economic reasons and benefits attached to the association with the missionaries often lead to the conversion to Christianity”. It further maintain that several Christian-based NGOs and missionaries are actively working in CHT.
The situation of minorities in Bangladesh is a human rights issue. Status of minorities all over the world has demonstrated a pattern of discrimination and insecurity. Bangladesh is no exception. However, the example of minorities in Bangladesh has a typical trend (Shaha, 1998, pp. 5). Overall situation of the minorities in Bangladesh will not improve unless total fundamental rights laid down in the state constitution as well as by United Nations Human Rights Declaration are not implemented. With out the political will of the government, it would be difficult to see a society of racial harmony.
It is evident that the true spirit and essence of democracy remains an illusion for the minorities in Bangladesh. In the name of majoritarian rule or democracy they have been marginalised politically, economically as well as culturally (Mohsin, 1997, pp. 103). The state constitution extends guarantee for the majority, the Bangla Muslims. The Bangladesh Constitution does not reflect the existence of the cultural and ethnic minorities.
Religion has been used as a tool by the political parties and politicians in Bangladesh to consolidate their power base. It is time that our elected representatives take cognisance of the fact that Bangladesh is not homogenous state rather it is a multi-national state, this reality ought to be incorporated into the Constitution.
Dr. Amena Mohsin urges the society that we must practice a culture of tolerance and respect towards each other. Bangladesh is not a land of the Bangla speaking people alone. The Hill people, the Garos, the Malos, the Santals and all the other communities have contributed and participated in their own ways towards building up this society. Their contribution and sacrifices during the war of liberation also need to be recorded and acknowledge in our national history (Mohsin, 1997, pp. 104).
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Country Paper presented at “Regional Consultation on Minority Rights in South Asia”, 20-22 August 1998, Kathmandu, Nepal. Organised by South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR), Kathmandu.
* SALEEM Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA) is a media activist specialising on freedom of press and writes on the political crisis of the ethnic minorities in Chittagong Hill Tracts since 1980.
Published at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mukto-mona/message/11898