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Bangladesh’s self-styled ‘secularists’ are no protectors of minorities

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ramuIn the violence that has greeted the death sentence passed on opposition leader Dilwar Hossain Sayeedi over the course of the week, there has been claim and counter claim about who is to blame for it and what they have done. This is particularly the case when it comes to attacks on minorities.

For their part, the Jamaat and BNP opposition camps claim that their supporters have been the subject of unprecedented police brutality as they exercised their democratic right to protest the verdict. Figures for the death toll range from 60 to over 100 shot dead.

The counter accusation made by the ruling Awami League, and propagated by its supporters in the press and media, is that the opposition and its supporters have attacked the minority Hindu community. Nearly a thousand minority houses and around 50 temples are reported to have been attacked. Houses and businesses of the minorities were burnt in Chittagong, Rajshahi, Khulna, Barisal, Noakhali, Gaibandha, Rangpur, Sylhet, Thakurgaon, Bagerhat and Chapainawabganj. The government and government leaning media have in unison pointed the finger at the opposition in general, and at Jamaat in particular.

As intended, this charge has gained traction in the international media, spread fear amongst minorities and fired up many in the pro government camp with moral indignation. The opposition for their part fiercely deny these accusations, and members of their deeply mistrusted student wing have converged outside Hindu temples in a bid to save these houses of worship and demonstrate their innocence. Nevertheless the ruling Awami League and its allies have given such protestations short shrift, and have benefitted in projecting their opposition as fundamentally opposed to the rights and dignity of Bangladesh’s religious minorities. This strategy has been a historically profitable one, but one that recent evidence confounds.

Questioning the Jamaati Bogeyman

One has to question Jamaat’s capacity to organise a nationwide and well-coordinated attack against minorities. The organisational capacity of Jamaat has been under sustained attack for well over three years. Local offices have been closed, regional leaders and organising cadres have been monitored and arrested in a systematic manner.

In a recent Amar Desh Op-Ed, a Hindu commentator Shanjib Choudhury argued that it is highly unlikely that the party, already accused of being ‘communal’ in their politics,  would not engage in something so foolish as this at a time when they are being persecuted themselves and under serious scrutiny. The organisation has gone out of its way to issue press statements, contest media reports and urge people to protect the Hindu and other minority communities.

The evidence available does not just point to the opposition, but also to the doors of the Awami League government. As a government it has failed its basic duty of upholding the peace and protecting lives and properties of its citizens, but as a political party too it has had an active hand in persecuting minorities.

To keep a critical eye, it is worthwhile examining the Awami League’s record on minorities in light of recent experiences of its violent practices cynically leverage communal tensions for electoral, economic and personal gains.

From Ramu to Bishwajit

The pattern of violence against minorities and the manipulation of perception of that violence has form in the recent past.  Reducing events to partisan politicking has the effect of making it difficult to deal with complex realities, and makes matters worse. This is well illustrated by the example of Ramu in Cox’s Bazar, a south eastern district where the Buddhist villages came under mob attack on the night of 29th September 2012 and the prime minister blamed the local opposition MP, the opposition in general and did anything but take responsibility. The delayed reaction of the police and local administration that night remains veiled in mystery and the shameful event brushed aside by the government as an attempt to distract attention from the war crimes trial.

An investigation led by Advocate Rabindra Ghosh established that before the episode there was a gathering of people at the spot where the local Awami League MP, local administration and other leaders were present. For almost four hours people were engaged in demonstrations against an alleged insult to Islam by a local Buddhist. As time passed the demonstration became rowdy and in the presence of the local administration, the mob started attacking various temples.

In more recent, and vivid, national memory is the plight of Bishwajit Das, a 24 year old tailor who was butchered to death by ruling party members on Monday 9 December 2012 because he was mistaken to be a member of opposition party. Bishwajit begged for his life shouting that far from being a from Jamaat , he was a  Hindu. Despite video footage and pictures of the killers were broadcast by the electronic and print media, the government including the Prime Minister Hasina Wajid, claimed that its party men did not kill Bishwajit, but that it was the work of Jamaat and Shibbir men.

A wider pattern of anti-minority violence

The 2010 annual report of Odhikar, a Bangladeshi Human Rights NGO, records the deaths of six members of the minority community and injury of 384. In a later report Odhikar records that on January 13 2011,, following violence in the Shailakupa Municipality, Hindu shops came under attack from Awami activists and 20 people were injured. One explanation for this was that the activists thought the Hindus of the town did not cast their vote in favour of their candidate.

In 2012 the attacks grew more frequent, with actions not just attributed to ordinary party members but high ranking officials of the Awami League, its student wing (Chatra League) and its youth wing(Jubo League), with the collusion of security and local administrative officials. Many of  these incidents have been reported in the mass media.

A cursory analysis of the incidents of anti-minority violence in the last year, as evidenced on the website DeshRights, paints a disturbing picture for the future of Bangladesh. These are not attacks occurring in the middle of the night by hooded assailants, but in broad daylight by recognised figures in the community. What is perhaps even more troubling is that despite how well documented these attacks are, they are yet to prompt members of the political and intellectual elite to challenge the government.

Challenging the accepted wisdom

What is apparent from these incidences is that the accepted wisdom that the Awami League is a secular party that protects the rights of the minorities needs to be questioned. These documented incidents demonstrate that much of today’s Awami League has practically abandoned the ideals of its founders and much of it has decayed into a cynical, power grabbing, money orientated organisation.

This does not mean that the opposition can be absolved from attacks on minorities. Amnesty International on 1st December 2001 noted attacks on the Hindu minority perpetrated by supporters of today’s main opposition party, the BNP.

The timing of the recent communal violence does not benefit the BNP-Jamaat led opposition, but the governing party.  Just when international opinion is turning against the government with regards to the killing of protesters by the security forces, the ugly head of communal violence reared its head, just in time for the visit of the Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee.

The charge of cross-dressing, attacking national symbols to blame on Jamaat, has become more evidenced of late. This week a Jubo League gang was caught vandalising a national monument to freedom fighters especially revered by secular nationalists and wider society in Bogra. (Jubo League Leader arrested in Bogra whilst vandalising Shaheed Minar Manab Zamin, 5 March 2013-03-05)
In light of the present government’s passive and active persecution of minorities via its party cadres,  is it not reasonable and  simply politically responsible to ask whether the Awami League is really the protector of religious minorities in Bangladesh?

Raising the level of debate

Anyone who has spoken to capable bureaucrats from minority faith communities will have come to know of the glass ceilings that persist in the national public administration. All parties need to do more to ensure the dignity of minorities in Bangladesh. The public debate on pluralism has remained a simplistic one, drawn on colonial lines, where secularism is equated with anti-communalism. This too must be reviewed in light of empirical evidence, as illustrated above and nuanced.

Violence against minorities is challenge to Bangladeshi society. The roots of which have little to do with the symbols of beliefs of religious communities that live in Bangladesh, but are a symptom of the, manipulative politics, structural inequality, and unaccountability of the political and intellectual elite. In order to tackle this problem, we first have to dispense with the fig leaf that the Awami League and its band of self-proclaimed secular progressives can protect the minorities, and move beyond the false binary, that anybody who opposes them is a bigot and a persecutor of minorities.

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  1. [...] spike in the prosecution of religious minorities in the country. Reports of attacks have reached 1,000 minority houses and 50 temples. Amnesty International has shown concern over this recent wave of attacks on the minority Hindu [...]

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