Minorities under assault in Bangladesh: Can civil society turn the tide?

While the ruling Awami League remains committed to protecting the minorities, the administration has been often unable to prevent Islamist rampages, writes Tapas Das for South Asia Monitor

Tapas Das Oct 20, 2021
Civil society protests in Bangladesh against minority attacks

Religious extremism is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh, which after its birth included secularism and socialism in its constitution. Islamists attacked Hindus and their property during the 2021 Durga Puja festival. According to rights group Ain o Shalish Kendra, 3,721 attacks took place on the Hindu community - averaging 413 a year - between January 2013 and September 2021. At least 1,678 cases of vandalism and arson attacks on Hindu idols and places of worship were reported in the period.

Between February 28 and April 8, 2013,  Ain O Shalish Kendro, which documents these attacks, reported that 162 Hindu homes and 163 businesses, 96 temples and 81 idols were vandalized. Buddhists too have been attacked in Cox's Bazar and Chittagong. After the announcement of the 10th general elections in 2013-2014, 485 houses of minority communities were set on fire, 578 commercial establishments looted and 152 temples torched in 32 districts. There are fluctuations in communal violence. In 2016, the number of communal incidents was 1,871. This fell to 1,004 in 2017 and 806 in 2018.

Threats to Hindus

As a result, migration has become a part of life for Bangladeshi Hindus. Consequently, the percentage of minorities there has reduced from 23 percent in 1951 to less than 9 percent today. From 1964 to 2013, around 11.3 million Hindus left Bangladesh due to religious persecution and discrimination, as stated by well known BangladeshiAbi; economist Abul Barkat. After a 30-year research, Barkat, who teaches at the University of Dhaka, found that the exodus mostly took place during military regimes. Barkat predicts that, at this rate, within 30 years there will be no Hindu left in Bangladesh.

What has happened in Bangladesh that within 50 years the religious minority is at such risk? Mainly two factors are responsible for the situation. One is politicisation of Islam, and the other is the steady growth of religious fundamentalism.

Overturning Secularism

From its inception, Bangladeshi leaders took some steps that made the country a breeding ground for religious extremism. Despite the secular character of the 1972 constitution, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman joined the OIC at the Islamic Summit in Lahore in February 1974. In August that year, he signed the charter establishing the Islamic Development Bank in Dhaka. 

After his assassination, his successor, Gen Ziaur Rahman picked up considerable support from Islamic-minded segments by establishing a Ministry of Religion, making religious studies compulsory in schools, introducing modern education in madrassas, maintaining good relations with Arab nations and dropping references to secularism in the Constitution. The BNP took credit for “having brought Islam back to Bangladesh”. The eighth constitutional amendment passed by Parliament declared Islam a state religion of Bangladesh.

According to Barkat, the Jamaat-e-Islami has created a state within a state and an economy within an economy in Bangladesh. In his opinion, the Jamaat has established itself in almost every sector -- from large financial institutions to household-level microcredit organizations, from madrasas to mass media, and from big trading houses to NGOs.

Barkat has calculated that Jamaat’s net annual profits from such ventures amount to about $278 million. The largest chunk (27.5 percent) comes from banks, insurance and leasing companies. Next come NGOs which contribute 18.7 percent; trade and commerce (10.5 percent), pharmaceutical industries and healthcare institutions (10.1), education sector (9.4); real estate business (8.8); transport (7.3), and media and IT business (7.1).

Can Bangladesh battle fundamentalism?

It can be said that fundamentalism has become strong in the economy in Bangladesh. As a result, it is impacting social life. It will not be easy to get out of this current situation. However, Bangladesh has shown that whenever a fundamentalist force has risen, civil society has stood up to it. If the present government takes a positive role in supporting civil society, Bangladesh may yet be able to return to the 1972 constitution.

However, the diminution of leftist politics in Bangladesh has reduced the secular space. The elimination of leftists which started with Lt. Gen Ziaur Rahman continued under successive regimes and peaked after Begum Khaleda Zia took power. She accepted the Jamaat-e-Islami as a major ally of the BNP. This facilitated the spread of religious intolerance as commitment to the values of the liberation war began to diminish in sections of Bangladeshi society and politics.

After the Awami League returned to power, it accommodated leftwing politicians in the government. However, their declining popular support and influence reduced the secular-liberal space that had so far been a bulwark of minorities. While the ruling Awami League remains committed to protecting the minorities, the administration has been often unable to prevent Islamist rampages. 

The Bangladesh judiciary too has upheld secular values. But increasing religiosity has left the Awami League with little option but to accommodate demands for greater Islamisation of education and encourage deference to Islam as the state religion. So the minorities continue to be under increasing political, economic and religious pressure.

(The writer, who specializes in Bangladesh politics, is a Ph.D Research Scholar, Department of Political Science, Presidency University, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at dtapas319@gmail.com)