Unnatural Disasters: Pogroms have killed thousands of Bangladeshi. minorities; millions more are refugees in India.
In the West, Bangladesh is a synonym for poverty, a basket-case nation with a soaring population, a pitiful economy, and a plague of natural disasters. Less well known is that the country's minorities have long waged one of the world's most difficult and serious struggles for survival. Successive military - and government-sponsored pogroms have killed thousands of minority Bangladeshis outright, while the fortunate ones have become refugees in India.
In perhaps the most dramatic instance, the Pakistan army killed three million people in nine months during the course of Bangladesh's 1971 war in independence. Ten million refugees took shelter in India. Most victims were members of the Hindu minority.
Today, attacks on minorities and their cultures in Bangladesh take many forms. Minorities are the victims of government-sponsored pogroms and riots as well as of a ban on the hiring of minorities. Moreover, they suffer police, military, and judicial inaction in the face of individual and Muslim-sponsored terror, discrimination, and repression.
A particularly glaring case is the Enemy Property Act, initially passed in 1949, then renamed in 1965 and 1972. Under this law the government can confiscate minority properties and businesses with no compensation or notice simply by declaring a person to be an enemy of the state. Between 1975 and 1989, the Bangladesh government confiscated 1.5 million acres of land from the nation's minorities, in addition to homes, fishing ponds, shops, and businesses. A November 1991 report indicates that 60 percent of minority property may have already been confiscated.
ROOTS OF VIOLENCE
Though born as a country only 20 years ago, Bangladesh is an ancient land with a long history. Together with the present-day Indian state of West Bengal, ancient Indian scriptures refer to it as Banga desh (land). Banga, which the English called Bengal, covers the world's largest delta, that of the rivers of Ganga and Brahmaputra.
For millennia, the Bengali area of the Indian subcontinent has had a mixture of religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups. In Bangladesh, today's minorities are Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, as well as plains and hill tribal and Urdu languages. The fate of all these groups has come to be linked to that of Hindu Bengalis, who constitute more than 95 percent of the minorities.
The Muslim presence dates at least from the fourteenth century, when non-native Muslim kings - Pathans and Mughals - became ruler of Bengal. However, Bengalis had started embracing Islam even before then, and Muslim rule expedited that process. In the seventeenth century, Muslim power declined throughout India as British power rose, but relations among Hindu, Muslims, and Buddhists remained relatively peaceful.
Two hundred years of British rule dramatically changed the relations between Bengal's Hindus and Muslims. An early British action that may mark the first distancing of Hindus from Muslims was the Permanent Settlement Act. This 1792 law vested Bengal's tax collection in the hands of the overwhelmingly Hindu gentry at a time when most peasants were Muslim. (Muslim rulers also depended on this Hindu gentry for governing Bengal.)
More concretely, religion-based politics in Bangladesh - known in the region as "communalism" originated in Britain's partitioning of Bengal in 1905 on the basis of religion. Western Bengal, with a Hindu majority, formed one province, and Muslim East Bengal another. The British claimed the area was too large to administer as one unit, but mostly Hindu nationalists accused the British of a divide-and-rule policy that injected religion into Indian politics. The English exacerbated the tensions by granting several benefits to Muslim elites at the cost of the Hindu middle-class. After much agitation, in particular from the nationalists, Britain reunited Bengal in 1912, but communal politics remained a permanent feature there, as in all India.
Still, a precarious balance existed in Bengal until the late 1940s. In 1946, on the eve of Indian independence and the partition of India into India and Pakistan, a ghastly pogrom, supported by the ruling Muslim League administration in Bengal, occurred against poor, rural Hindus in the eastern Noakhali district. Estimates of the number of Hindus murdered varies, from a government figure of 1,000 to unofficial figures of tens of thousands. This killing created the term "Noakhalir danga" (Noakhali Riot), and it set the stage for the future of minorities in Bangladesh.
Mahatma Gandhi intervened to stop the Noakhali carnage, but after Pakistan came into being there was no Mahatma to stop the killing of Hindu and other minorities. Anti-Hindu pogroms in East Pakistan took place in 1947, 1949, 1951, 1952, 1954 1956 1564, and 1971. Pakistan's military-bureaucratic rulers routinely used anti-Hindu riots and anti-India slogans to slow the growth of Bengali nationalism.
In 1964, at the height of the Bengali nationalist movement, Pakistan unleashed a reign of terror. Estimates of number of Hindus murdered varies from 10,000 to several times that. Newspapers in India reported this event extensively, but those in Pakistan only noted that even Muslims were killed trying to save Hindu neighbors. The New York Times failed to cover the tragedy, although the Washington Post and London Times reported that over 1,000 were killed in the first days of the killing, including a U.S. priest.
Then came the 1971 independence war during which Pakistan targeted Hindu and other minorities, affecting the homes and businesses of almost all Hindus families. Over 70 percent of those killed and those who became refugees were Hindu and other minorities. Bengali police and the Pakistani army frequently stopped men stripped them naked to check whether they were circumcised or not, and asked them to recite from the Koran. Non-Muslim women were practically barred from wearing anything that would identify them as such, since their identification as anything but Muslim could mean instant death. Many books cover this subject, almost all in Bengali; Bhayabaha Aviggata (Terrifying Experience) covers over 50 instances in which the Pakistan army and its collaborators murdered Hindus and Muslims. In one case, soldiers shot to death 338 Hindus at Syedpur in North Bengal after loading them in railway box cars.
POGROMS, KILLINGS, AND OFFICIAL DISCRIMINATION
In Bangladesh, I have often asked people, "How are minorities doing?" For many years, the same answers came over and over - villages and cities, from rich and poor, from Muslims and Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists: "Barely surviving." "Back against the wall." "On our way to destruction." "We will not be able to maintain our identity." Until a few years ago, I also heard, "A lot better than before Pakistani rule." Recently, however, people say, "Even Pakistani days were better than now."
This is saddening and sobering. For a new years after independence, large-scale killing of minorities disappeared. It even seemed that the majority-minority, Muslim-non-Muslim communalism might end. After all, minorities had paid a heavy price for Bangladesh's independence.
However, minorities soon started to feel pressure for several reasons, including the decision of Bangladesh's first Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman to issue a blanket pardon of murderers after independence. In addition, Rahman, who was considered tolerant and secular, retained the Enemy Property Act, and he refused to allow the repair of the Ramna Kali temple in Dhaka city after its desecration and burning by the Pakistan army. Rahman also gave a famous speech in the Chittagong Hills in which he asked the hill tribal peoples to give up their identity and become Bengalis.
Attacks on minorities and their festivities started to become routine, and after Rahman's assassination, official anti-Hindu acts intesified. Minorities could no longer get government or semi-government jobs - such as with the police, the military, or the bureaucracy - even though Bangladesh's minorities are relatively well educated (see table below). Minorities complain that after passing civil-service tests they are dropped from consideration once their identity becomes known. They are also barred from overseas assignments at Bangladeshi embassies or the United Nations.
Of this situation, Matiur Rahman and Syed AzizulHaq, two well-known Muslim intellectuals of Bangladesh, have written:
Even though there's no legal restriction on hiring [Hindu] minorities at higher levels, in reality we find there's neither a Hindu Secretary nor an Additional Secretary. There's only one at the [next lower] level of Joint Secretary and only a few Deputy Secretaries. They don't expect any promotion.
At this moment there are only six Hindu District Commissioners [out of sixty-four]. Although Hindus may be appointed in the police at the lower level, it will be hard to find [them] at the Police Super level. There are none at the foreign service. Judiciary has a similar picture. There's only one judge at the High Court level. In the Bangladesh Army, there are only six Hindu commissioned officers. The highest ranking officer is a colonel, and rest are majors.
Organized attacks on minorities and their temples, viharas, ashrams, and churches also increased manyfold in the last half of 1980s, with large-scale attacks in 1987, 1989, and 1990. In 1989, over 400 temples were destroyed or damaged. This wave reached its height with the destruction of desecration of perhaps 80 percent of Bangladesh's Hindu-Buddhist temples and the devastation of thousands of Hindu homes and businesses between October 30 and November 1, 1990. The Disgrace, edited by Debashis Nandi in Bangladesh, lists 150 temples totally or partially destroyed or desecrated in the city of Chittagong alone. In February 1991, the Bangladeshi journal Parishad Barta listed thousands of temples, churches, homes, and businesses destroyed between October 30 and November 1, 1991. It also listed Christian churches, schools, hospitals, and homes attacked in January and February 1991 at the beginning of the Gulf War. Anjali, a book published in Dhaka in 1991, lists another several hundred temples destroyed, damaged, or desecrated.
(Barbara Crosette, a New York Times reporter, wrote a glowing report on minority security soon after the November 1989 events. Again, in March 1991, she visited Bangladesh and wrote a similar story in essence supporting the pogroms while temples, homes, and businesses were still smoldering.)
Bangladeshi minorities have begun organizing themselves under various banners to protect their human rights and document many of these atrocities. There are committees organized to push for the repeal of the Enemy Property Act, to organize Puja festivals, to protect against settling Muslims in tribal lands, and to protect Christian and Buddhist institutions.
The most important among these groups is a non-party organization, the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council. Headquartered in Dhaka, with branches all over the country, the council has high-lighted the destruction of churches and temples and the forced eviction of minorities to India. It has also brought attention to the abduction, rape, and forced conversion to Islam of women. In parts of Bangladesh, fear of this has made many minority families reluctant to send their daughters to college unmarried. The Unity Council documents such offenses in its journal, Parishad Barta, but more important than the absolute number of incidents is the fear that has griped the minority community. As a result, fewer girls may be going to college, despite a long tradition of higher education among Hindu and Christian girls in Bangladesh.
Besides the Unity Council, a Bangladesh Women's Organization and a Bangladesh Human Rights and Legal Institute have been formed in Dhaka. Other important organizations include the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peoples Action Committee and several local Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and tribal organizations that protect the rights of each group on a local level.
The task of these organizations is immense. The plight of Bangladesh's minorities can be summarized in a news report that appeared in September 1989 about a dirt-poor Hindu of the Nadirabad village in eastern Bangladesh. In 1987, Mrs. Birajbala Debnath's husband was kidnapped and cut to pieces when he refused to give up his tiny homestead free of charge to a Muslim and migrate to India. A Muslim boatman, Abdus Shahid, described what happened next to Mrs. Debnath and her five children:
I had my boat docked at the Nadirabad village. It was in the middle of the night, around 1 a.m. All of a sudden, I saw a group of 15 to 20 people force Mrs. Birajbala and her five children [into my boat]. They were scared to death. They couldn't even cry. Some had their clothes on, others didn't. The kidnappers asked me to row the boat. I got scared, too. The boat arrived at the Dhopajhhuri Bill [river bank]. [The kidnappers] had already brought drums [empty oil barrels], salt, and lime. The killers unloaded [the family] at the edge of the bank. I remained at my boat. All of a sudden, I saw that they were about to slaughter Mrs. Birajbala. She cried at the top of her voice. She was begging again and again by clutching the legs of the killers. The killers then cut her into pieces and stuffed her into a drum. After that, they cut into pieces the elder daughter. From a distance, I watched the younger children begging for their lives over and over again. [They were also murdered.] I can't express that in words. Tears came out of my eyes. I called for God. Oh Allah, why did you bring me here? I was feeling dizzy. There was nothing that could be done. The killers buried both the drums in the river bed and asked me to row the boat.
While several organizations expressed their outrage at these gruesome murders, protests have done nothing to stem nationwide attacks on minorities. And one of the first things that the newly elected government of Khaleda Zia discussed in April 1991 was whether minorities should be allowed to vote for the Muslim majority or not, potentially creating a separate electorate. In the summer of 1991, two low-caste Hindu villages in the Kotalipara area were burned to the ground on the basis of a false rumor. Mo one has been prosecuted. Unless the world takes note of their plight, Bangladesh's minorities and their cultures will follow either the path of Mrs. Birajbala or that of millions of refugees in India.
Bangladesh's minority population has declined drastically since the 1947 partition of India (see table). Where have these people gone? All have headed to India. The 1946 Noakhali riot made it clear that Pakistan wouldn't protect minority life and property. Thus, the riot marks the start of Hindu migration to West Bengal and Tripura in India, which remained secular after partition, as well as a general diaspora of Bangladeshi Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and tribal groups. Tripura is now 70 percent Bengali refugee, including the state's chief minister, a member of the Congress Party, and his Communist predecessor. A third of West Bengal's 67 million people are of Bangladeshi origin, including the chief minister, a member of the Communist Party, and his Congress predecessor.
Estimates of the total number of Bangladeshi-origin Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and tribals in India vary between 26 million and 38 million. Bangladeshi Buddhist refugees make up the second largest ethnic group in Arunachal and Mizoram states. Refugees make up the largest group in the Andaman Islands, the central Indian Dandakaranya Forest area, and parts of the Indian states of Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya, Orissa.
Over 50,000 Chakma refugees - Bangladeshi Buddhist tribals from the Chittagong Hills - have been camped in the Tripura State of India for several years. Despite their decade-long armed autonomy movement, these tribal peoples continue to be displaced from their homeland. In 1947, at the time of partition, the Chittagong Hill Tracts were almost 100 percent non-Muslim, but by 1981 Muslims were over 40 percent of the population in its Bandarban district and over onethird in the rest of the area.
In the wake of 1964's reign of terror alone, over 1.1 million refugees went to India. According to government statistics, the number of Bangladeshi refugees going to India each year varied from about 4,000 to a high of over 660,000 in 1964. However, not all refugees register with the Indian government to be counted in statistics.
Not surprisingly, this vast wave of refugees has led to a backlash, and anti-Bengali, anti-refugee incidents have occurred in Assam and Tripura.
Minorities in Bangladesh
Year Total Population Minorities
1941 41,997,297 29.3%
1951 44,165,750 23.1%
1961 55,222,663 19.6%
1974 76,389,000 14.3%
1981 89,921,000 13.3%
Minority Hiring in Bangladesh
Administration (officers) 5%
Administration (lower rank) 3-5%
Administration (secretaries) 0%
Customs and excise 0%
Income-tax officials 1.5%
Military officers 1.5%
Military soldiers 0%
Border security 0%
Police, officers 6%
Police rank and file 2.5%
Major bank managers 0%
Embassy & Consulate staff 0%
Foreign assignments 0%
Home Ministry 0%
Ministry of Defense 0%
Industry managers 1%
Industry laborers 3-4%
Recent bank loans 1%
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.