Attacks on minorities in Bangladesh: No longer a “communal issue”
Recently, Muslim mob attacks on Hindu houses and temples in Nasirnagar (Brahmanbaria) and elsewhere in Gopalganj, Chittagong, and Sunamganj districts in Bangladesh have drawn wide media attention, within and outside the country. I can't agree more with Daily Star's editorial (Nov 2) that Government inaction would only embolden the bigots; and that: "any mix of politics and faith cannot work a democracy…. Whoever plays with fire should know that fire would ultimately play him."
The attacks on dozens of Hindu temples and destruction of hundreds of Hindu houses in Nasirnagar alone were based on wild rumours about one local Hindu youth's offensive Facebook posting against Islam. However, these are false flag operations to justify the attacks on local Hindus. The main motive of the attacks, as the National Human Rights Commission observes, was "to grab Hindu property".
While Hindu victims were licking their wounds in Brahmanbaria, Chittagong, Gopalganj, and Sunamganj villages, on November 6 some rowdy Bangladeshi Muslims – allegedly with police and local ruling party MP's support – attacked and killed two "tribal" Santal Christians at Gobindapur in Gaibandha district in northern Bangladesh. Thousands of Santals lost movables, forced to flee the villages, and local police had arrest warrants for 300 Santals (who fled to avoid arrest) for resorting to violence.
We believe the expropriation of thousands of Santal peasants from around 800,000 hectares of land in the locality was the main reason why local Muslim villagers – with support from a ruling party MP and police – initiated the premeditated attacks on Santals. Muslim villagers set ablaze hundreds of makeshift homes of the Santals after ransacking and looting their valuables and driving them out of their homes. Sultana Kamal, a leading human rights activist in Bangladesh, blames ruling party supporters for the "communal attacks" on minorities across the country. I have strong reservations about using the expression, "communal attacks" in this regard.
While colonial divide-and-rule policy, conflicting economic and political aspirations, and religious fanaticism of people were mainly responsible for the communal riots in British India, the post-colonial ethno-religious conflicts in South Asia are anything but "communal". Historically, communal riots in colonial Bengal were between rival communities who hated, maimed, plundered, raped, and killed each other; there was hardly any one-sided victimization of minorities by members of majority communities as has become normative in Bangladesh since 1947. Kishoreganj (1930), Dhaka (1941), Noakhali (1946) and parts of Comilla and Jamalpur witnessed one-sided attacks by majority Muslims on minority Hindus during the British rule.
While expropriation, rape, and killing of minorities weren't uncommon in Bangladesh up to early 1970s, they reached their climax in 1971, when with Pakistani occupation army support, even certain minority communities retaliated against the majority. Politically, economically, and numerically dominant Bengali Muslims haven't put an end to the process of victimisation of disempowered members of the population in general, and especially of the Hindu, Chakma, Larma, Mogh, aboriginal Garo, Santal, and other communities, after the Liberation.
It's not a religious problem. The popular culture based on age-old tradition of hatred for people professing different religions from the religion of the main stream of the population – albeit in the name of religious superiority – nurtures communal hatred. Hate and mistrust for minorities who speak different languages or belong to different ethno-linguistic groups also promotes racial or linguistic riots. Bangladesh is no exception in this regard.
Thanks to the bitter history of Hindu domination of Bengali Muslims in British India, and the manipulative communal historiography and policy promoted by the Pakistani authorities during 1947 and 1971, many Bangladeshi Muslims nurture a deep suspicion of anything Hindu and Indian. However, it's too trite an assumption that attacks on Hindus, Santals, and other minorities in Bangladesh by majority Muslims are "communally motivated".
The way some Bangladeshis desecrate Hindu-Buddhist temples, burn down minority properties, expropriate, rape, and kill members of minority communities are primarily greed-induced, economically motivated political violence by a tiny minority of Muslim hoodlums. Being too weak to resist the criminals, non-Muslim, and non-Bengali (Hill Tribes, Garos, and Santals) victims simply suffer, flee, or die without any redress. Many of them sell their properties (at nominal price) and migrate. Similarly, the killing of thousands of Muslims following the destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu mobs in India in 1992, and the Gujarat killings organised by the Hindu extremists and those in power in 2002 – around 3,000 Muslims got killed – were not communal riots but state-sponsored pogroms of Muslims.
Prime Minister Hasina's statement is heartening. She promised foolproof security to the minorities; didn't blame the major opposition parties for the attacks on Hindus at Nasirngar; and admitted internal feuds within her party had been the main factors behind the problem. One wonders as to how one would explain attacks on Hindu minorities elsewhere in the country, before and after the Nasirnagar incidents! Firstly, there are extremists among Bangladeshi Muslims who justify discriminatory treatments against Hindus – including expropriation, expulsion and even rape and killing of Hindus – only because intolerant Hindus do so to the minority Muslim community in India. Secondly, criminal elements among Bengali Muslims take advantage of the troubled waters to loot and extort hapless Hindus and other marginalised people, in the name of glorifying Islam.
In the backdrop of the growing intolerance towards Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh, politicians, intellectuals, and people from every walk of life should resist the manifestation of intolerance and racism in any form. They eventually lead to totalitarian governance or fascism. Educated Bangladeshis' aversion to politics, and their insatiable greed, and proclivity to plunder to become rich overnight are big obstacles to good governance. There's no point blaming the leaders while the followers are equally bad. "A people that elect corrupt politicians … are not victims … but accomplices", said George Orwell.
It's time to make using pejoratives like kafir and mala'un against ethno-religious minorities a felony, a hate-crime. It would be a bold step toward ending persecution of religious and ethno-national minorities, because any society that allows hate-crime against minorities, eventually witnesses large scale religious or racial riots, and even pogroms. We know the history of unimpeded hate-crime against Jews in Germany, and African Americans in the US.
The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014).