Behind the attacks on Bangladesh's Hindus: A battle for a nation's identity

Attacks on Hindu localities and places of worship, like temples and Durga Puja mandaps, are aimed at terrorizing Hindus so that they don't assert politically, stay away from voting and even vote against Awami League in frustration at lack of protection, writes Subir Bhaumik for South Asia Monitor 

Subir Bhaumik Oct 24, 2021
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Behind the attacks on Bangladesh's Hindus

Hindus account for around ten percent of Bangladesh's 170 million people, but they are a decisive factor in 50 of the 300 parliament seats. Senior Awami League leader and former minister Amir Hossain Amu once told me that if the Hindus vote  without fear, the Awami League can win fifty to sixty seats “even by putting up a 'kolagaach' ( banana tree)  as a candidate.”  

That’s like a huge headstart for the Awami League because it then needs to win only 100 of the remaining 250 odd seats.  

So like in the countdown to the 2001 Bangladesh elections, the Hindus are now being attacked as soft targets by parties and groups belonging to Bangladesh's Islamist ecosystem. 

Attacks on Hindu localities and places of worship, like temples and Durga Puja mandaps, are aimed at terrorizing Hindus so that they don't assert themselves politically, stay away from voting and even vote against Awami League in frustration at lack of protection.

Islamist conspiracy to discredit Hasina government

The arrest of Iqbal Hossain, a wayward drug addict who placed the Quran at the feet of Hanuman in a puja pandal in Comilla, and that of Fayez Ahmed who rushed to circulate the pictures on Facebook live,  have blown the lid on the Islamist conspiracy to stir trouble during Durga Puja.

Awami League leaders say this is aimed at terrorizing Hindus, discrediting the Hasina government and complicating bilateral relations with India. 

 The Awami League came to power in 1996,  for the first time in 20 years after the 1975 Bangladesh coup, in which Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed with almost his entire family.  Only Hasina and sister Rehana, then away in Germany, survived.

The Islamist 0pposition parties, like BNP and its coalition partner Jamaat e Islami, started instigating sporadic riots targeting Hindus in the rundown to the 2001 polls. The idea was to strike fear among them and send the message that the secularist Awami League was not capable of protecting them even when in power.

The ploy worked, especially after a pro-Jamaat army general heading the border guards triggered a border clash with India. The anti-Hindu pogroms and the wave of anti-Indian feelings caused by the Pyrwdiah and Boroibari clashes impacted the Awami League adversely and it lost the 2001 elections.

The Awami League is now in power continuously since 2009 for three successive terms. No party has had such a run since the country achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The parliament polls are just two years away and the Islamist opposition parties realise they face an existential crisis if the League were to return to power again.

Under Sheikh Hasina Wajed's leadership, Bangladesh has witnessed a phenomenal economic turnaround in a  Golden Decade of Development ( 2009 onwards), which gives the party a headstart, despite allegations of corruption against some ministers and MPs and Opposition charges of rigging.

Battle for Bangladesh

In the last year or so, the Islamist opposition parties have tried to cobble together a coalition, more broadbased than before, even trying to draw some other parties who don’t directly subscribe to an Islamist vision for Bangladesh but who resent the Awami League’s monopolistic control of parliament and polity in the last more than one decade.  

Alongside the coalition-building efforts, they have staged violent streets protests on various pretexts  -- from opposing Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s status as "un Islamic", to protesting against the French crackdown on Islamist radicals to opposing the Bangladesh visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as special guest in the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Bangladesh's independence.

Hasina hit back at them hard, with dozens of Hifazat-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and activists locked up in jail on charges of murder, loot and arson. The Hifazat’s poster boy, Mamunul Huq, was picked up womanizing in a resort with a woman he claimed was his second wife but the woman spilled the beans saying they were not married and he was just exploiting her with the promise of a job.

Even as the violence against the Hindus triggered strong protests by secular groups, a junior minister of Hasina announced Bangladesh will return to the 1972 secular Constitution, scrapping the 8th amendment in 1988 during General HM Ershad's tenure which established Islam as the state religion.

 The announcement apparently has the support of PM Hasina. The Awami League has absolute majority to ensure the passage of the proposed bill in parliament, but such a plan does set the stage for a possibly violent confrontation which will both have a religious and political manifestation in the rundown to the parliament. 

The UN and the Western nations have called for the protection of Hindus even as India has lauded the tough policing that has led to the death of four rioters and the arrest of hundreds of them. There will less scope for them to cry over human rights violations when Hasina unleashes her security forces and party cadres to tame the Islamist agitation that seems inevitable on the state religion issue.

The Taliban takeover has upped Islamist morale in Bangladesh but Hasina, who has braved 19 assassination attempts so far, is no Ashraf Ghani and the Awami League who spearheaded the 1971 liberation war is no US-funded stooge. The battle for Bangladesh has begun, one that India needs to closely watch without getting carried away by Hindutva rhetoric.

( The writer is a former BBC correspondent, author and strategic analyst. The views expressed are personal)