BANGLADESH: Nothing Secular about it

Successive regimes in Bangladesh, including the Awami League, have betrayed secular promises to usher in a hardline Islamic State which has given a handle to fanatics to persecute and brutalise the religious minorities

Nurul Kabir Dhaka 

September 30, 2012. The people across Bangladesh came to know from media reports in the morning that a Muslim mob resorted to heinous attacks on Bengali Buddhist pagodas at Ramu and Hindu temples in Ukhia, both the areas under Cox’s Bazar district, with the pious Buddhists and Hindus of the localities haplessly witnessing the barbaric scenes at midnight. Media reports showed that certain members, belonging to all the major political parties of the ruling bourgeoisie—the ruling Awami League and its coalition partner the Jatiya Party, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and its partner in the opposition alliance, the Jamaat-e-Islami—were united in vandalising the pagodas and temples of the religious minority communities.

In a few hours, leaders of the Awami League and BNP blamed each other for the communal attacks. But, as media reports revealed, victims knew fully well that the political leaders and activists of both the political parties, one claiming to be the champion of ‘secular democratic’ Bengali nationalism and the other representing ‘Muslim nationalist’ Bangladeshi nationalism, were unanimously in the forefront of the inhuman attacks. The victims also knew, as did the print and electronic media, that the civil administration, including law enforcement agencies, did not contain, let alone prevent, the sectarian violence against the religious minority communities.

That the BNP is not a secular democratic force is well known. That the Awami League is a pseudo secular political force has been proved once again. However, in the face of genuine secular democratic protests by the media and marginalised Left forces, the government arrested more than 100 persons allegedly involved in the attacks launched at midnight on September 29; but none of the leading figures of the local Awami League, whose pictures in action have been printed in the newspapers the next day, have been arrested as yet.

This is not the first time that minority religious communities have come under attack by chauvinist sections of Muslims in Bangladesh. It was just past midnight on November 19, 2003, at Sadhanpur, a small village in Banshkhali upazila, about 25 km south of the port city of Chittagong. An armed band of about 25 men stormed into the two-storey earthen house of Tejendra Lal Shil.

Twelve members of the landed family, who had retired to different rooms on the upper floor a few hours earlier, woke up with a start. They locked the doors from inside as the intruders tried to break in. Denied entry, the criminals locked the doors from outside, doused the ground floor with a petroleum product and set the house on fire. All but one of the residents, including seven women and a newborn, were burnt alive. As the screams of the dying shattered the silence and the flames dispelled the darkness and people came out of the adjacent houses, the criminals fired several gunshots and left the place. 

Only Bimal Shil, son of Tejendra, survived the carnage. He jumped out through a window and broke a leg in the process. The victims of the horrific incident belonged to the minority Hindu community, and the alleged perpetrators were fanatic sections of the majority Muslim community. “The mortal remains of the charred bodies of an entire family reminded many of the vicious killer episodes of Mississippi Burning, the celebrated Hollywood film on the Ku Klux Klan carnage,” wrote the New Age, the Dhaka-based English-language daily ,the next day. Notably, the heinous incident took place when the BNP was in power.

Predictably, the erstwhile BNP government did not bring the criminals to justice. Those involved in the massacre were reported to have been known supporters of the BNP. Similarly, the criminals belonging to the Awami League involved in the Ramu and Ukhia destruction have not been arrested as yet.

Despite political rhetoric pronounced by the ruling class political parties, the Awami League and BNP, on the safety and security of religious minority communities, empirical studies show that they are equally responsible for the plight of the minority communities in general and the Hindus in particular. The findings of a methodical ‘inquiry into causes and consequences of deprivation of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested Property Act’, published in 2000, point to the repression of religious minority communities by all the major political parties, especially when in power.

The study, conducted by a group of professional researchers led by Professor Abul Barakat of Dhaka University, has shown that 925,050 or 40 per cent of the total Hindu households of the country have been affected by the unjust ‘enemy property’ law of the Pakistan era, which continues to exist in independent Bangladesh under a different nomenclature—‘vested property law’. Out of the 925,050, 748,850 were dispossessed of agricultural land, 251,085 of homesteads, 48,455 of garden land, 79,290 of ponds, 4,405 of commercial land and 114,530 of other categories of land. The total amount of the dispossessed land was estimated at 1.64 million acres, which is 53 per cent of the total land owned by the Hindu community and 5.3 per cent of the total land area in Bangladesh.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012