Global Silence, Local Strife: The Continuous Struggle Of Bangladesh's Hindu Minority

Pratim Ranjan Bose

Nov 17, 2023, 06:08 PM | Updated 06:14 PM IST

Representative Picture - Bangladeshi Hindus (Shazia Rahman/Getty Images) 
Representative Picture - Bangladeshi Hindus (Shazia Rahman/Getty Images) 

Compared to the tensions on the western and northern borders, India has had a peaceful co-existence with the Muslim-majority Bangladesh in the east. That does not mean Dhaka has been an abode of peace, but only that Delhi has found it manageable.

Naturally, Bangladesh was always considered ‘friendly’. And no one made a bigger sacrifice for this ‘friendship’ than Hindus and other Indic religious minorities, who were under constant attack in this part of the world since the Partition in 1947.

The creation of Bangladesh, marked by India’s military intervention, in 1971 failed to shift the course. The famed Indira-Mujib agreement of 1972 didn’t have a provision for the return of Hindus, who fled East Pakistan until 1970, to survive persecution.

Independent Bangladesh took four decades to repeal the Enemy Property Act (later renamed as Vested Properties Act), which was an official tool to chase away Hindus and rob their property, since Pakistani rule. 

In 2011, the incumbent Shiekh Hasina-led Awami League government enacted the Vested Properties Return (Amendment) Act to return the vested properties. But that was too little, too late. There have not been many instances of actual return of properties since.

In 2018, Professor Abdul Barakat of Dhaka University famously projected that at the current rate of migration, there will be no Hindus left in Bangladesh in 30 years. Barakat arrived at his estimates from years of research in agricultural land holding. 

According to Barakat, from 1964 to 2013, around 11.3 million Hindus fled Bangladesh. The daily rate of migration was 512 persons during 1971-1981, 438 during 1981-1991, 767 during 1991-2001, and 774 during 2001-2012.

Bangladesh now has 13 million Hindus, constituting 7.95 per cent of the population, down from 13.5 per cent in 1974.

No one knows about the current outflow of Hindus from Bangladesh. But anyone in West Bengal can see them coming. And, considering the recent economic prosperity of Bangladesh, such migrations are solely as a result of religious persecution, which has become all-pervasive.

Turning A Blind Eye

Delhi blames the army rulers, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Islamists led by Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami for religious persecution. This narrative does not hold water anymore. The ruling Awami League is equally responsible, if not in policy, then in practice at the grassroots.

It is true that the Hasina government (2008–present) has given space to Hindus in administration. The BNP-Jamaat, which ruled the country for two five-year terms, was not ready to give an inch. A headcount in Bangladesh’s home and foreign affairs ministries will prove the point.

However, such beneficiaries form a minuscule portion of the minority community. On the ground, the League is at the forefront of persecution and land grabs. That Hindus have no other political force to rely on, their vote share is declining, and the League’s long stay in power virtually without election has added to the woes of the minorities.

Hindus in Bangladesh have no takers today. And the situation will deteriorate whoever comes to power in 2024.

The rise of the Islamic group Hefazat-e-Islam in the last decade coincided with a series of targeted killings of Hindu priests in 2016. The next year, Hasina cosied up with Hefazat and gave precedence to their staunch Islamic demands and aspirations in public policy.

In 2021, Hefazat led the violent protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Dhaka visit. Among the public properties damaged were libraries, long held as unIslamic. Some of those, who held Hefazat for communalism, were arrested.

However, Hefazat is less of a problem in the daily life of a common Hindu. They grew up knowing what and who is to be avoided. Unfortunately for them, the distinctions are getting increasingly blurred.

Accusing minorities of blasphemy was not new. The Digital Security Act 2020 institutionalised it. A fake social media post in the name of a Hindu and he is ruined; police will arrest him first.

In some cases, the police investigation ended up with Awami League activists. But that was long after the damage was done.

In the past, the League blamed such incidents on unwarranted elements making their way to the party. Nowadays, veteran leaders of the League openly participate in Hindu bashing even within the party.

At a public meeting in October, the Mayor of Munsigunj, Haji Mohammad Faisal, referred to party Member of Parliament (MP) Mrinal Kanti Das as “Malaun” (accursed). This is the most common abuse hurled at Hindus in Bangladesh. But its use in the top ranks of the League was shocking.

In the same month, A K M Bahauddin Bahar, a veteran League MP from Cumilla, bordering India’s Tripura, equated the oncoming biggest Hindu festival of Durga Puja as a festival of alcohol.

As aggrieved Hindus came out with a protest march, League student and youth wing attacked and injured protestors.

Atrocities during Durga Puja are common in Bangladesh. Vandalising idols and temples is an annual affair. Every year newspapers report scores of such incidences. Many more go unreported. This year, too, there were at least 10 such incidents.

Unfortunately, India has allowed such atrocities to be normalised. An Indian mission official in Bangladesh graced the ‘Bijaya Sammilani’, organised by Bahar this year.

Bijaya marks the end of the four-day Durga Puja.

India’s Inaction

The 170-million-strong Bangladesh has barely 700,000 Christians. According to unofficial information, there are nearly 5,600 churches, or one church for every 125 Christians. However, there are fewer reports of vandalising churches and/or attacks on Christians.

The media fraternity in Bangladesh attributes it to the alacrity of the West. Any incidence involving Christianity invites sharp criticism from Western missions, led by the United States (US).

Spot visits by envoys and media attention forced the administration to come down heavily on the miscreants.

The deterrence factor is so high that Bangladeshi journalists jocularly equate churches to the US mission, in terms of their power quotient. In contrast, the Indian mission is selective in highlighting the plight of Hindus.

The mission was visibly active on this front during 2012 and 2017. The momentum was lost since the rigged 2018 election when Hasina returned to power for the third term. Hindus were once again left to fend for themselves.

And that takes us to a crucial question: Can India afford to have a strong presence in Bangladesh by dumping its natural ally?

We made a similar mistake in Nepal by allowing Kathmandu to dump the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ tag.

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