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An Unholy Omen Is Looming Over Bangladesh

Jyoti Rahman
Aug 16, 2023
There is every reason to fear that Bangladesh may witness the age-old tactic of communal violence ahead of the upcoming election. 

On a warm August night 75 years ago, the sun set on the British Raj. In the mottled dawn that followed came into existence two, then three, countries. It wasn’t just the country and provinces that were divided – to use Annada Shankar Ray’s words, Partition entailed allotting everything from tea gardens, coal mines, colleges, police stations, office rooms to chairs, tables, wall clocks to peons, policemen, and professors into two countries. And it was accompanied by one of the largest population movements in human history.

In a seminal 2008 article by Prashant Bharadwaj and his colleagues, The Big March: Migratory Flows after the Partition of India, it is estimated that nearly 3 million Hindus emigrated out of then East Pakistan, while three quarters of a million Muslims moved there from India. The relatively small number of people emigrating eastwards, juxtaposed against the relatively large number of people fleeing, possibly explains why the public memory of partition differs so starkly on the two sides of the Radcliffe Line in the eastern subcontinent. In Indian Bengal, partition is ever-present in the literature as well as in the visual media, in classic novels and movies, evoking a lost world and the plight of a people cut off from their rural roots, and their struggles among the teeming multitudes of Calcutta.

But what about the lives of those who stayed behind?

Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Jatin Sarker were both born in Hindu families in the Mymensingh district of eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh. Chaudhuri, about four decades older than Sarkar, wrote his autobiography before India held its first election, and ceased to be unknown. Sarker also wrote his life story. Unlike Chaudhuri, Sarker’s was in Bangla, published in Bangladesh, never translated in English, and not widely available. He remains unknown. Which is a pity, because Sarker is a far, far better guide than Chaudhuri when it comes to the land of their birth.

When Sarker’s hometown Mymensingh became part of East Pakistan – the rural slum of Jinnah’s moth-nibbled two-winged land of the pure – his family didn’t move to India. They were not atypical. Many Hindu families remained in East Pakistan. Perhaps it was the presence of Mahatma Gandhi or the fantastical belief that Subhas Chandra Bose would return in 1957 – a century after the Great Uprising of 1857, two centuries after the Battle of Plassey – to reunite Mother Bengal. Whatever the reason, there were no trains full of dead bodies to and from Calcutta in that dreadful August. Instead, there were emigrations in dribs and drabs, with major outflows during the communal violence of 1946, 1950, and 1964.

Also read: Why India Needs To Support the Quest for Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh

Sarker describes the lives of middle class bhadralok (gentlemen) Hindus of mofussil East Pakistan in Pakistan-er Janma Mrittu Darshan (‘Witnessing the Life and Death of Pakistan’). While he stopped being an Indian on 14 August 1947, he didn’t become a Pakistani. That country became an Islamic Republic. Hindus were not equal citizens there. They were dhimmis, under the ‘sacred protection’ of the majority. Sarker could never be a Pakistani, but his Bengali Muslim neighbours did not quite feel at home in Pakistan either. In 1971, when East Pakistan died and Bangladesh was born, Sarker thought he would become an equal citizen of a free country. 

And on paper, he is. Bangladesh never became an Islamic Republic, although Hussein Muhammad Ershad, military ruler in the 1980s, inserted Islam as the state religion in the Constitution, and his ally andcurrent prime minister, Sheikh Hasina refused to take it out despite other wholesale changes to the document. There is no formal discrimination with respect to religion. Hindus are not formally denied a job, a bank loan, or admission to an educational institution (except madrassas of course). On paper, Sarker has no reason to write Bangladeshey Pakistan-er bhut darshan (‘Witnessing Pakistan’s Ghost in Bangladesh’), a hypothetical sequel where he might have talked about things that one did not wish for in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.Things like communal violence targeting Hindus for example. 

By communal violence, one does not mean a Gujrat 2002 – nothing like that has ever happened in Bangladesh. And one also needs to acknowledge that the mutual apathy and distrust, if not overt antagonism, between the eastern subcontinent’s two large religious communities (and multiple ethnic communities) is much more complex than the tales of eternal harmony. As Annada Shankar Ray noted, the two communities had co-existed in the region for generations and centuries without really intermingling. Of course, that complex interplay of historical legacy affects the Hindu-Muslim interpersonal interactions on a daily basis —no one is better off to deny this. 

For example, in a fascinating experiment, Pushkar Maitra and colleagues show that it is the minority status, not religious identity itself, that drives people’s behaviour. That is, a Muslim in West Bengal trusts a fellow Muslim more than a Hindu, but a Bangladeshi Muslim is indifferent between the communities.

The historical legacy of the divergent paths taken by the two communities in the 18th and 19th century continue to have economic consequences even in today’s Bangladesh. Salma Ahmed found that even in the decade to 2009, Hindu male workers earnt more than their Muslim colleagues because they were better educated on average, but they faced discrimination and earnt less than might have been expected from their qualification.

There is, of course, no law supporting discrimination against Hindus. There is, however, a law that makes the community particularly vulnerable — the Enemy Property Act 1965 and its Bangladeshi successors.

The Act allows the state to seize properties of those who leave the country. In practice, this has been used over the decades to grab Hindu properties. Typically, local big-wigs grab some prime land, and then use death or emigration of one of the family members as an excuse to enlist the entire property. If emigration is not voluntary, coercion or intimidation is commonplace.

According to Abul Barakat, as of 2000, over two-fifths of Hindu households had been affected by the Act, leading to a loss of over half of their land (over 5% of the total land area of Bangladesh). This transfer of land, however, benefitted less than 0.4% of Bangladeshis. There has been no land reform by the state on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. The beneficiaries were those with the might that comes from political connections.

What were the political affiliations of the offenders? According to Barakat – who is well-connected with the Awami League, allegedly contributing to the party’s electoral platform in the 2000s and rewarded with cushy jobs by the current government – over 44% of the land grabbers were connected with the Awami League, more than the combined total of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami linked offenders. And this study came out in 2000, well before the current 15 years of Awami League reign. 

And thus we come to the dysfunctional polity that curses the life of Bangladeshi Hindus. All the historical legacies notwithstanding, the single biggest threat to the wellbeing of Bangladeshi Hindus in 2023 is an authoritarian and increasingly dysfunctional political landscape where most members of the community are treated as the expendable untermensch (racially or socially inferior) by the powers-that-be. 

Even though there has been no incident comparable to the Gujarat riots in Bangladesh, there has been violence. In December 1992, when the centuries-old Babri mosque in Ayodhya was razed to ground, temples were desecrated across Bangladesh. Khaleda Zia, then prime minister, ordered the state machinery to move in quickly to stem the violence. 

Zia must have remembered the experience very well. The Gujarat rampage happened during her second stint in power. Her government ensured that there were no reprisals against the Hindu community in Bangladesh. She was also acutely aware of the communal violence that marred her return to power in 2001.

Of the 300 seats in Bangladesh’s parliament, Hindus were a non-trivial minority in about 70. In a tight election, their votes could make a huge difference. Not allowing them to vote was one way of reducing their influence. That is precisely what happened in 2001. In that election, Awami League received 40% of the votes against the BNP’s 41%. Hindu voters in some districts became the victim of targeted communal violence after the election. 

Bangladesh’s stressed and stretched electoral democracy failed to safeguard the Hindu community.

The story, of course, does not end there.

Two decades later, images and stories of the victims of 2001 resurfaced in a toxic cocktail of misinformation and propaganda against Mamata Banerjee in the 2021 West Bengal election. Majoritarian democracy is not sufficient to safeguard citizens’ rights, this much is self-evident when one looks across the Radcliffe Line.

Of course, discarding democracy is guaranteed to extinguish citizens’ rights, this much is also self-evident when one just thinks of Bangladesh of the past decade.

In Bangladesh under a supposedly secular, inclusive government of Hasina Wajed, however, there has been repeated communal violence, with active connivance if not instigation of her partymen.

Never in the history of Bangladesh, the Hindu community saw coordinated attacks on temples during Durga Puja, until 2021 that is, after a copy of the Quran was found in a temple. A video of the incident spread like wildfire and soon, angry mobs started attacking temples across the country. Within four days, eight people died including three Hindus. 

During the coordinated attack, in Chandpur, Ariyan Sajjad, a member of the Awami League’s student wing and son of local Awami League leader Shahida Begum, called the local Muslims to launch an attack on temples and pandals of Hindus in protest of the “desecration of Quran” . In Bandarban, Awami League leader Zahirul Islam addressed the mob before they started attacking the temple.

This was not an isolated incident. As a former officer of the Indian Police Service, Vibhuti Rai, remarked about communal violence in India, no such event can last for more than 24 hours without the consent of the state – a sentiment that is applicable on an even shorter time-frame in Bangladesh, given the more compressed distances involved. 

Ain O Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, has documented 3,679 incidents of attacks on Hindus from 2013 to 2021, which included 1,559 incidents of housebreaking and arson, 1,678 incidents of vandalism and arson in idols, worship halls, and temples and the death of 11 Hindus in these attacks . The individuals involved in these attacks are loyal to Awami League, Bangladeshi media outlets revealed. For example, people close to Shamsul Hoque Tuku, the deputy speaker of parliament, perpetrated targeted violence in a Hindu village in Pabna . Dozens of Hindu houses and business establishments in Brahmanbaria were attacked by the followers of Obaidul Muktadir Chowdhury, the local member of parliament and a former personal aide to Hasina, in 2016 .

Of course, none of the cases involving the attacks on minority communities have been properly investigated. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Bangladesh has been under a de facto one-party, if not one-person, rule for nearly a decade now. Hasina Wajed’s authoritarian regime may or may not come to an end soon – elections are due in a few months and discontent is risingbut then again, she rigged the last two and may as well rig another one. 

There is every reason to fear that the increasingly beleaguered dictator may turn to the age-old tactic of communal violence. 

In November 1990, L.K. Advani led a yatra across India to demand the razing of the Babri mosque. In Dhaka, goons associated with his party vandalised the Dhakeshwari Temple in the capital, to give President Ershad an excuse to impose curfew and act like a statesman. 

Ershad’s gambit failed, and his government fell the next month after a popular uprising. 

Might Hasina update the playbook for the 21st century, deploying social media and disinformation on the one hand, and a far more draconian state machinery of repression on the other, all against the backdrop of a Hindutva government seeking a third term in India a few months later?

One does not need to be a paranoid conspiracy monger to be apprehensive about the unholy omen as we approach the autumn – the traditional festive season of the Bengali Hindus.

Nearly 76 years after partition, Gayeshwar Chandra Roy, a member of the BNP standing committee, recently bemoaned, “It is a sad fact that the people of Bangladesh’s minority community have no say anywhere; neitherr in administration, nor in judiciary. In one word, Bangladesh does not care. Due to insecurity, there is a gradual exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh.” 

Almost 77 years ago, the Bengal delta was red with communal bloodletting that couldn’t have been stopped by the British Raj in its last days, until a frail old man came with a message of peace. There is, of course, no Mahatma in Bangladesh. But nor is one needed. It would suffice for the state machinery to do what it did in 1992 or 2002.

The reality, however, is that in the past decade, the Bangladeshi state has become very good at stamping out dissent. But given the rot, it has become very bad at statehood and the type of resolute action that would have thwarted these attacks.

Until and unless there is an honest acknowledgment that the state is broken and needs to be rebuilt, with a free and fair election as the first step of that process, Bangladesh will remain haunted by the spectre of unholy omens. 

Jyoti Rahman is a Bangladeshi writer. His pieces are archived at https://jrahman.substack.com/ 

The title of this piece refers to Ashani Sanket, a classic Bangla novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadyaya, filmed by Satyajit Ray in 1973. The English title of the movie is Distant Thunder, but the literal translation of the Bangla title is An Unholy Omen.

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