It is often assumed by most in India that the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) is the best bet for Hindus and other religious minorities in Bangladesh.
The presumption is that the AL is a secular party that protects religious minorities in the country while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is an Islamist party because of its close ties with the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami.
But that assumption is not correct.
The persecution of Hindus continues under the AL government just as it did under the BNP’s rule. The only difference is that while earlier (under the BNP), the oppression of Hindus was blatant and quite widespread, it is carried out in a much more subtle manner under the AL regime and mostly confined to rural and semi-rural areas.
Leaders of the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad told Swarajya that Hindus and other religious minorities in that country are still subjected to many forms of persecution and oppression.
Dispossession Of Land And Properties
“The most common and widespread form of persecution is dispossession of properties. Lands, especially agricultural and commercial lands, of Hindus are encroached upon very often. Powerful, politically influential Muslims in the mofussil areas lay claim over Hindu properties and, with the help of the local administration, forcibly take over those properties. Even the lower-level judiciary is complicit in such land-grabs,” a senior leader of the Parishad told Swarajya over phone from Dhaka.
This Parishad functionary, who did not want to be identified fearing persecution by a vengeful AL government, said that thousands of acres of agricultural land and prime commercial plots belonging to Hindus have been grabbed by Muslims owing allegiance to the AL all over the country over the last 15 years.
“There is nothing that the Hindus can do. Land records are falsified in favour of the landgrabbers by local revenue officials. Complaining to the police doesn’t help and can even invite more harassment. The lower-level judiciary is also biased against Hindus and so going to the courts is also pointless. Thousands of Hindu families have been dispossessed of their lands, and even their houses, in this manner over the past 16 years since the AL has been in power,” he said.
In fact, the law has become more weighted against Hindus in recent years. The AL government, in the garb of simplifying resolution of land disputes, had tweaked the law in favour of those who hold the dolil (land deed) of a particular plot of land.
“The principle now is dolil jar, jomi tar (the land belongs to the person in whose name the land deed stands). Influential Muslims have often, in collusion with local revenue officials as well as the police, been making fake deeds of lands belonging to Hindus in their own names. Armed with these fake land deeds, they have been evicting Hindus from their lands. Unfortunately, Hindus have never been particular about keeping records and documents properly and updating them whenever required. Muslims take advantage of this,” another senior functionary of the Parishad, who is also a practising lawyer, told Swarajya from Sylhet.
He said that even if a Hindu landowner has proper documents in his possession to prove his ownership over a plot of land, local courts routinely rule in favour of the Muslim claimants whose documents are fake. The lower judiciary is biased against Hindus.
What’s worse is that the land-grabbers are, in most cases, AL functionaries or people with close links with ruling party leaders. As such, the dispossessed Hindus do not get justice from the ruling party as well.
Attacks On Mandirs
Attacks on and desecration of mandirs, as well as Buddhist monasteries and places of worship and churches, has continued during the AL regime.
“During the BNP regime, big mobs used to attack, desecrate and loot our mandirs, especially the smaller ones in rural areas or small towns. Now, such attacks are carried out surreptitiously at night. While police used to take a blatantly biased stand in the past and even refuse to accept our complaints, now the police accept our complaints but only pretend they are carrying out investigations. The culprits are never brought to book and, in case one such incident gets a lot of publicity and the police are under pressure to act, they find a scapegoat or arrest a few people under weak charges so that the arrested get bail easily,” said the Hindu lawyer.
Also, with the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad deeply divided on political lines — a big faction sides with the AL while a smaller faction is inclined towards the BNP, and one section remains neutral — the persecuted Hindus, Buddhists and Christians of Bangladesh no longer have a strong organisation to protect their interests.
Atrocities On Women And Forcible Conversions
“During the BNP rule, Muslims used to abduct, rape and forcibly convert Hindus girls and women very blatantly. Islamists used to commit such crimes and even boast about it openly. Now, such crimes are committed silently. The police and lower level judiciary are as biased against Hindus now as they were earlier under BNP rule,” said a Praishad leader who belongs to the ‘neutral faction’ of the organisation.
He said that, in fact, matters have gotten only worse under the AL rule.
“Since crimes against Hindu women or other crimes against Hindus used to be carried out in a very unabashed manner during the BNP rule, they used to get a lot of publicity across the country and even abroad. But now, since the persecution and crimes against Hindus are carried out silently, they stay under the radar. And this only emboldens Muslims to intensify attacks on and persecution of Hindus,” the Parishad functionary told Swarajya.
Over and above all this, Hindus and other religious minorities continue to face discrimination in admission to universities, medical and engineering colleges and in the matter of jobs, both in the government and private sectors.
Many Hindus say that the persecution has only gotten worse during the AL rule. That’s because whenever Hindus were attacked, oppressed and persecuted during the BNP rule, the AL used to protest and stand beside the Hindus.
“Those protests and shows of solidarity with Hindus may have been only for the AL’s political gains and may even have lacked sincerity, but they did serve the purpose of providing at least emotional succour to Hindus. And thanks to the AL’s protests and demonstrations protesting crimes against Hindus, those crimes used to garner publicity.
“Such publicity did, at times, lead to persecuted Hindus getting some justice. But now, when crimes against Hindus take place, no political party stands beside the Hindus. The BNP refuses to support Hindus because it holds that Hindus vote for the AL and are against the BNP,” said the Parishad functionary, who is a social entrepreneur.
That is why, he argued, Hindus are worse off under the AL than they were under the BNP regime.
This contention is supported by many other Bangladeshi Hindus Swarajya spoke to.
With the persecution against the minority communities continuing unabated during Sheikh Hasina’s rule, the Hindus of Bangladesh say that the country needs a strong and secular opposition.
“Such a strong and secular opposition that can stand up to the AL is necessary for the protection of Hindus. The AL has taken us for granted and knows that the BNP will not protect us or stand beside us. But if there is a strong opposition party which can do that, the AL will no longer take us for granted and will be more sensitive to our concerns,” said Manish Ranjan Sen, a businessman dealing in jute at Narayanganj, an industrial hub near Dhaka.
The Solution To This
Political observers and analysts say that the crackdown on the BNP — most of its leaders are behind bars or on the run — has left a yawning void in the opposition space. Islamists are fast filling this void.
In order to prevent Islamists, and Islamist parties, from emerging as the primary opposition force, India should encourage secular and democratic elements from both the AL and the BNP to come together and form a new opposition party.
“This is a long-drawn process and will take time. For now, it is good that New Delhi is backing the AL to the hilt. But once the elections are over and the AL returns to power, India should initiate the project of encouraging leaders with strong secular credentials to get together and form a strong political party that can become a strong opposition to Sheikh Hasina,” said a prominent Hindu lawyer who did not want to be identified for obvious reasons.
Also, he added, India should extract guarantees (read this) from Sheikh Hasina on protection of Hindus in return for India’s support to her during this crucial phase (of elections).
Dhaka, agrees all observers and analysts, has always been amenable to pressure from New Delhi. India should leverage its position to ensure protection of Hindus and other religious minorities in Bangladesh.
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