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Violence against minorities in Bangladesh

1 Apr 2002


A minority in minority

Violence against Hindus, though seemingly religious in content, actually has many complex and secular origins.

by Imitaz Ahmed

Bangladeshs election day on 1 October 2001 was relatively peaceful. The election itself was relatively fair. But, things began to change immediately thereafter, indeed, right with the announcement of the election trends that indicated that the regime in power, the Awami League, was heading for the worst ever electoral performance by a national party in Bangladesh. A clear winner emerged in the combination of moderate and right-wing forces under the leadership of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The dramatic violence that soon erupted in many parts of the country had two notable characteristics.

The first is the routine post-election violence that is a part of Bangladeshs democratic history: Winners normally attack losers with an immense sense of pride and vengeance. The most con-spicuous part of this violence is the seemingly biased role of the police, who either merely watch the spectacle or, more shamelessly, participate in the proceedings on the side of the winner. The second is more horrifying and concerns the attack on the minorities, mainly Hindu. Here, what is conspicuous is the part-icipation of members of almost all major political parities – BNP, Jamaat-e-Islam, and even the Awami League, traditionally regarded as a pro-minority party. Needless to say, the police either looked on passively or, as is being alleged, was party to the attacks.

While there is a tendency to attribute partisan post-election violence to polarised politics and the culture of intolerance – something that has been politically and socially ingrained from the colonial period onwards – the attack on minorities is seen to be more an outcome of a global phenomenon, with the suffering of the Hindus mainly linked to their status as a minority in minority in Bangladesh. There may be some truth to this view, but it does not capture the complex nature of an issue which is more internal and related to the mode of governance that is pursued and practiced in Bangladesh. But before venturing on that issue, it is necessary to clarify one or two points related to the organisation of violence in Bangladesh.

Post-election violence is not something new here. There were violent incidents after both the 1991 and 1996 elections, although the scale was more modest than the last epidsode and the targets more dispersed and non-religious. Also, violence against Hindus took place even before election day, when the interim government was in place to conduct the polls. There were reports in mainstream newspapers that in several places (Sathkhira, for instance) it was the members of the Awami League who were involved in covertly harassing and attacking Hindus, possibly with the intention of blaming right-wing groups and winning the sympathy and votes of the minority and secular forces. This clearly suggests that violence against the Hindu community, although seemingly religious in intent, is actually more complex and, ironically, more secular in content.

Although the two parties differed on practically every issue in the latest episode, both the BNP government and the opposition Awami League provided near identical figures on the post-election violence against Hindus. According to the figures provided by the Home Minister, some 266 murders and 213 rape cases were recorded in the first 25 days of October across the country. Most of the murders were recorded in Dhaka, Feni and Chittagong districts, while most of the rape cases were recorded in Bogra, Sirajganj and Naogaon districts. The Home Minister, however, did not specify the Hindu community as being the target of such attacks. A week later the Awami League in a written statement claimed that since the BNP government took over some 300 party leaders, workers and members of the minority community had been killed and over 300 women, including 50 minor girls, were raped throughout the country. No breakdown, however, was provided as to the location of such murders and rapes.

There seems to be what one would call a majoritarian consensus in-so-far as violence against the Hindu minority is concerned. The near-identical figures and the fuzziness in pinpointing the victims communally only show that both the parties are well aware that too much attention on the minority question is politically suicidal in a country whose governing principle has fallen prey to the modernist creed of majoritarianism. A closer scrutiny will make this clear.

Social Engineering The mode of governance can be either regimented or democratic. Regimented regimes, which can be either military or civilian, are generally of two distinctive types: authoritarian and totalitarian. Democratic regimes, on the other hand, are less varied, and involve civilian control, although shades of difference are always there. What distinguishes regimented regimes from the democratic regimes is the fact that the latter is more supportive of the goals of human freedom. Such a difference, however, must not blind us from the fact that a common element binds them together, and that common element is the will of the majority. Indeed, modern states, whether regimented or democratic, are all modern majoritarian states, which are principally organised and reproduced by way of constructing the nation and the nationalities.

In the case of regimented regimes, such organisation is more deliberate and often crude, marked by a policy of using and reusing artefacts and ideas to unify the majority section of the people nationally. Such artefacts and ideas range from religion to race, on the one hand, and from public schooling (with emphasis on the dominant language) to social engineering on the other. But once these ideas mature, directed as they are at the majority section of the people, they tend to alienate those who do not fit the unifying categories. In the case of democratic regimes, however, the organisation of majoritarianism is more related to electoral politics, where parties are forced to woo the majority community to win elections. In a socially fragmented society, often the party or the candidate will settle for the easiest way, and that is, heat up communal or religious feelings to organise the nation and the nationalities.

In both cases, we soon arrive at a situation where minorities are not only left alone and alienated but also are reproduced as communities or sub-nationalities, having distinctive socio-political agendas from that of the majority community. It is only a short step from here to making the minority the scapegoat of all ills (social, economic, even political) and a majoritarian target of abuse, murder, rape and other forms of violence, indeed, with the avowed intention of organising and reproducing the power of the majority community. In the case of Bangladesh, polarised politics and the culture of intolerance, including a disempowered civil society, further deepens the state of ill-feeling and mistrust between the Hindus and the Muslim majority, in the process putting at risk the fate of the minorities. Is there a way out? This must be answered by identifying tasks at three different levels. Firstly, we must try to be protective. The primary task is to protect the members of the minority community from the violence organised by the members of the majority. We must urgently create new structures and institutions at this level, mainly to take up the cause of the victims. Such structures and institutions could include the creation of an ombudsperson, the establishment of an independent and autonomous human rights commission, the creation of roving and on-the-spot judicial courts, and the continuous monitoring of communally-motivated violent acts by governmental and non-governmental agencies.

econdly, there must be preventive activity. Here, the task includes improving the law and order situation, not only by strengthening the number of security personnel (police, ansars, neighbourhood security bodies, and the like) in violent-prone areas but also, and more importantly, by initiating police reforms. Such reforms should work for a better understanding of the police and the sociology of policing and could include de-governmentalising the structure of the police force, arranging for police education on communal relations, creating more interactions between the police and civil and non-governmental agencies – including those speaking for women and children.

Finally, curative measures. The task would be to further democratise democratic practices, with the objective of arresting the progressive alienation of the minority Hindus that is structurally rooted in the organisation of modern Democracy and majoritarianism. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said that modern Democracy is a heartless doctrine” where 51 percent can impose its will over 49 percent. In a pluralist society, this can visit disaster upon a minority community. The task, therefore, is to reinvent representation (locally, regionally, as well as nationally) in which people are not always placed in the minority or even viewed or categorised as a minority. The wider task, should therefore range from curricular reforms at all levels of education to decentralising the parliament. No doubt, the challenge is immense.  

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail

28 Jul 2007

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