Hindus of Bangladesh must learn to fend for themselves without looking to India, as the political climate in India is rapidly turning hostile and insensitive towards Hindus seeking refuge in India. The anti-CAA protests were clear evidence of this.
Unrestrained bigotry, orchestrated charges of blasphemy meant to implicate the Hindus and the blatant, ruthless violence that follows are the despicable elements of an oft repeated strategy utilized to target the Hindu minority of Bangladesh. Compounding their precarious existence is their status as belonging to a secondary religion as per the Constitution; a definition that makes them easy prey for radical fundamentalists who continue to harass them with impunity taking the Constitutional classification as an indirect sanction.
The current round of atrocities erupted on 13 October following a fraudulent social media post that depicted the Holy Quran at the feet of a Hindu idol during the Durga Puja festivities in Comilla; a 35-year-old Muslim, Iqbal Hossain has been identified as the man behind the deception. Nevertheless, without any confirmation Muslim mobs took to the streets in different parts of the country killing and injuring Hindus, damaging Hindu property and desecrating Hindu temples and Durga Puja pandals.
In Noakhali, a 500-strong mob vandalized the ISKCON temple and killed one devotee. And in a village in Rangapur district 66 Hindu homes were damaged and 20 residences were burnt down.
Anti-Hindu violence is not new phenomenon to Bangladesh and occurs at regular intervals. In fact, Noakhali was the scene of the worst massacre of Hindus during Partition: over 5,000 Hindus were killed, hundreds of Hindu women were raped and thousands forcibly converted to Islam. Devastated by the scale of evil, an exasperated Mahatma Gandhi exhorted Hindus to “Quit Noakhali or Die” as indicated in the book CAA-NRC. The Truth Explained (Vivek Gumaste, Notion Press, 2021).
This increasingly vicious climate in Bangladesh has facilitated the steady attrition of the Hindu community. In 1940, Hindus constituted 28% of the population. Today they barely make up 8.5%, accounting for 12.73 million out of a total population of 149.7 million as per the 2011 Bangladesh census. Even after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the population of Hindus has shown a decline: it was 13.4% in 1974.
Abul Barakat, a Dhaka University Professor in his book, Political economy of reforming agriculture-land-water bodies in Bangladesh states that around 11.3 million Hindus fled Bangladesh from 1964 to 2013 due to religious discrimination. In other words, on an average, each day 632 Hindus leave the country for an annual exodus rate of 230,612.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears to have acted (whether promptly enough or not is open to question) to stem the current violence. Security personnel have moved into the affected areas and Border Guard Bangladesh troopers have been posted in 22 districts. The government has filed 71 FIRs and rounded up 450 suspects.
Additionally, PM Sheikh Hasina has reached out to the Hindu community and assured them: “The incidents in Comilla are being thoroughly investigated. Nobody will be spared. It doesn’t matter which religion they belong to. They will be hunted down and punished.”
Despite these promises the Hindu community remains concerned as the government’s actions have been a little less and a little too late. Moreover, there are indications that some members of the ruling Awami League also have been involved in the attacks on Hindus.
Iskcon Bangladesh general secretary, Charu Chandra Das Brahmachari, speaking to the Dhaka Tribune remarked: “We also know some activists of the ruling party are affiliated with such heinous crimes at some locations.”
However, there is a silver lining in this ghastly sequence of events. For the first time, the Hindus have shed their ingrained traditional timidity, demonstrated firm courage and become more vocal about their rights as citizens of Bangladesh
Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, was unequivocal and forthright in his condemnation of the government, bluntly reminding all Bangladeshis of the sacrifices made by the Community in the war of liberation.
Speaking at the press conference, Rana Dasgupta averred: “But I want to say it clearly, we did not fight the war of liberation to survive as a minority. Our first and most important identity is that we are citizens of Bangladesh. Then there is the identity of our religion. We fought the war of liberation as a freedom fighter with this awareness…The religious and ethnic minorities of Bangladesh no longer have faith in any political leadership and assurance.”
Keeping up the pressure on the government the Hindus also organized a mass hunger strike and mass sit-in protest on 23 October.
But the Hindus need to take more concrete and sustainable measures to safeguard their interests. The Hindus of Bangladesh must explore the possibility of a forming a Hindu party to leverage their numbers which is by no means insignificant. Of the eight administrative divisions, Hindus constitute more than 10% of the population in at least three—Sylhet (14.5), Rangpur (13.21) and Khulna (12.94) and account for more than 20% of the total populations in districts like Gopalganj, Khulna, Maulvi Bazar and Thakurgaon. In 60 of 300 Parliamentary seats the Hindu vote can be crucial to the outcome. With some negotiation, the Hindus can exert considerable influence in national governance to their advantage.
It is also important that the Hindus of Bangladesh learn to fend for themselves without looking to India, as the political climate in India is rapidly turning hostile and insensitive towards Hindus seeking refuge in India. The anti-CAA protests were clear evidence of this. And in some parts of West Bengal where most of the Bangladeshi Hindus are likely to gravitate to, the environment has become decidedly anti-Hindu, with a significant number of Hindus being killed in the aftermath of Mamata Banerjee’s electoral victory.
The sub-continent is an inter-connected place. Communal incidents in one country are apt to have ripple effects in the surrounding nations.
While Sheikh Hasina must be commended for trying to calm the situation, she needs to do more to inspire confidence in the Hindu Community. On their part the Hindus must continue to organize themselves better electorally and take whatever measures necessary to protect their lives and safeguard their property to prevent their total decimation.
Failing which, Prof Abul Barakat’s prophecy that “there will be no Hindus left in Bangladesh in 3 decades” will come true.