The damage done to shops and houses still looks very fresh, even almost two weeks after they were ransacked. The badly twisted and torn tin shades of the shops and the damaged walls demonstrate the ferocity of the flash attacks on Hindu businesses in the Ramganj village of Nilphamari district in northern Bangladesh. Almost two weeks later the fear among the minority religious community is still so prevalent that they have not come back to reclaim their lost shops. Some of the families of the non-Muslim communities have taken shelter in a neighboring village and whenever they venture out they move in a group.
In the run up to the general elections and its aftermath, Bangladesh has seen a series of attacks on the Hindu minority in different parts of the country, especially the north. The Islamic fundamentalist group, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been largely responsible for this violence.
“Jamaat-Shibir (the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami) has created a situation of panic in and around the village. They destroyed around 50 shops in my area and we had to flee to another village to take shelter,” says Jaynto Mondol, a resident of Ramganj, whose family has been living in the village for generations. Speaking with The Diplomat, the 43 -year-old grocery shop owner feels that “the fundamentalist forces want to turn the nation into a purely Islamic country by throwing the Hindus out. We can’t live in peace. For two weeks I have been taking shelter in a friend’s house in a neighboring village, to save ourselves from the lurking danger.”
“The problem is not the Muslims of Bangladesh; the problem is with Jamaat and their thought. Violence by the Islamic fundamentalist group makes me feel unsafe. The administration should protect us from such danger,” says Joy Debnath, a resident of the neighboring district of Bogra.
There is a historical reason for the Islamic fundamentalist party’s antipathy towards the Hindu minority in Bangladesh; the immediate context, however, was the recently concluded controversial elections which didn’t see any participation from the 18-party Opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The minorities in Bangladesh–Hindus, Christians and Buddhists–comprise around 10 percent of the country’s population and generally vote for the secular Awami League. Jamaat, with support from its alliance partner, the BNP, had targeted marginalized religious groups before the elections to keep them away from the polling stations. Those who cast their votes fell prey to Jamaat’s rage.
The Daily Star reports that “attacks continue on Hindus in different places of the country, adding to the woes of the panic-stricken minority community which has been falling victim to rape, arson and vandalism allegedly by Jamaat-Shibir and BNP men for the past few weeks surrounding the January 5 national elections.”
Outraged by the destruction of livelihoods and property, several civil society groups have demanded a special tribunal to try the perpetrators.
“The rise in recent attacks is the sign of a reassertion of the communal forces led by the Jamaat -Shibir. Ever the Tribunal was set up we have seen increased attacks on minorities by them. It is an attempt to use these minorities as pawns to bargain for the release of criminals facing trial under the Tribunal. Such attacks are an attack on the character of the constitution and the spirit of Bengali nationalism,” says Professor Nim Chandta Bhowmik of Dhaka University, who is also a senior member of the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Forum.
The Islamic fundamentalist group played a dubious role in the Bangladesh’s war of liberation by siding with the Pakistani army and helping them eliminate people who were demanding an independent nation based on a linguistic and secular identity. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government set up an International Crimes Tribunal in 2009 to try such war criminals and the first person to be hanged by the Tribunal was Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior Jamaat leader from the war era.
The Jamaat radicals target Hindus, who suffered large scale persecution at the hands of anti-liberation forces in the 1970s for testifying against their leaders at the Tribunal.
In 1971, Bangladesh was 25 percent Hindu but continuous attacks on them by Islamic fundamentalists and the BNP have forced many to migrate and take shelter in India and elsewhere abroad. The Diplomat visited some of the areas in the Nilphamari district of North Bangladesh which have a sizable Hindu population and found many Hindus live in fear of the future.
On the surface, both Hindus and Muslims live cordially together. But the growing infiltration of Jamaat threatens this historically stable communal camaraderie.
“I was sitting in the temple when some miscreants came and destroyed the idols and tried burning the place of worship. I just managed to escape by the grace of God,” says Suresh Mondol, a resident of a Binakudi village in Nilphamari district. Speaking with The Diplomat he says that “we are now vigilant these days and have formed a group of people who keep watch on the village. Jamaat threatens our existence and wants to grab our property.”
“If Hindus are scared of a Jamaat-BNP alliance so are we. I might be Muslim but that does not mean I cannot exist with Hindus. They are as much a part of this soil as we are. The fundamentalists want chaos and want to destroy peace in the region,” says Naim Hossain, Mondol’s neighbor.
Is secularism, one core principle of Bangladesh’s historical evolution, in danger? What does this threat from Islamic fundamentalist forces mean for Bangladesh?
Shahriar Kabir, a prominent civil society activist, told The Diplomat: “in every election, minorities are targeted for their support for the secular party like the Awami League. The main reason for attacks is the support for the Awami League. Jamaat’s hidden agenda is to convert Bangladesh into a monolithic Islamic country like Pakistan, taking revenge for the defeat of 1971.”
In 2001, during the BNP -Jamaat regime, thousands of Hindus left the country after constant prosecution. They became a political tool in the hands of these right-wing political parties to target the Awami League which has traditionally won over these minorities come election time.
Another vocal civil rights activist and professor at Dhaka University, Sadeka Halim, who recently visited some of the affected areas, opines that “attacks on minorities in the subcontinent are not new. It is a process. It is Jamaat which is responsible. It is an electoral tool to combat the government which is trying their leaders in the Tribunal. They are not killing but destroying the Hindu minority’s economic prospects by looting their property.” In an interview with The Diplomat, Halim, who is also an Information Commissioner says: “I want to ask the administration why they fail to protect vulnerable minorities. Intelligence should have been ready with their reports when the Tribunal was set up on how Jamaat is going to use them as pawns against the government.”
The BNP, however, has denied any involvement in the attacks on the minorities. It blames the ruling alliance for the increasing violence against Hindus.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Dr Mufuzzul Karim, former ambassador to the UK during the BNP’s regime, said that “the miscreants who have indulged in violence must be punished and brought to justice. You cannot be sure who has done it. Unless and until there is a proper enquiry one should not name an organization or group. The security of minorities is absolutely necessary. We have a long tradition of living peacefully in the country.”
But this civilizational history and identity is under siege in Bangladesh today.