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Hindus in Bangladesh

  • Profile

    The Hindu population of Bangladesh suffered considerable as a consequence of political events since 1947. They were particularly targeted during the Bangladesh Liberation War as many Pakistanis blamed them for the secession, resulting in targeted executions, rape and other human rights abuses against Hindu communities. According to the official 1951 census for East Bengal (East Pakistan) Hindus consisted of 22 per cent of the total population of the province, a number that had been depleted to 15 per cent to 1991 and in the 2011 census were numbered at just 8.5 per cent. Nevertheless, they remain the largest religious minority group in Bangladesh.

    Since the beginning of the new millennium, the Hindu population has suffered significantly at the hands of Islamic extremists resulting in their further exodus into West Bengal in India. Despite persistent persecution, Hindus have managed to gain some political influence because of their geographical concentration in some regions. The oppression of Hindus in Bangladesh has been a constant feature in its history, both when it was still East Pakistan and since independence. Today, though distributed across Bangladesh, the Hindu population is particularly concentrated in the north and southwest of the country.

    Historical context

    Prior to the Partition of India, Hindus formed a significant proportion of the population of Bengal. Immediately after the creation of Pakistan, many Hindu families migrated to urban pockets of West Bengal in Calcutta. A similar exodus took place at the time of the civil war in 1971. Although Islam was made the state religion of Bangladesh under the Eighth Constitutional Amendment in 1988 (thereby overturning the 1971 Constitution which declared Bangladesh to be a secular state), Article 41 of the Constitution recognizes other religions and gives citizens the right to practise and promote their religious beliefs. Further provisions of Article 41 guarantee an individual’s right to refuse to practise a religion, or to be compelled to be educated in a religion other than their own. Sections 295, 296, 297 and 298 of the Penal Code deal with offences against religious places or practices.

    Despite these provisions and the constitutional principle of non-discrimination, Hindus and other observers have alleged that there is covert and overt discrimination against Hindus as well as direct persecution of them. The Eighth Constitutional Amendment was seen by many observers as a step leading towards the imposition of shari’a (Islamic law) in Bangladesh, along the same lines as in Pakistan. Fundamentalist agitation directed against Hindus and other religious minorities has increased during the late 1980s and 1990s. Among the most serious incidents were clashes in November 1990 when, against a backdrop of communal disturbances in neighbouring India around the controversy over the Babri mosque, in Ayodhya, India, mobs set fire to Hindu temples in Chittagong and Dhaka. The attacks were encouraged by religious zealots and local leaders using Islam as a pretext for violence against Hindus; according to independent witnesses, police stood in silence nearby. It appears that in many cases the real reason for violence against religious minorities is to pressure them to leave their lands in an attempt to take over these lands.

    The most explicit and officially tolerated means of depriving Hindus of their lands and properties has been the use of the Vested Property Act. The roots of the Vested Property Act can be traced to the Enemy Property Ordinance of 1965, promulgated as a consequence of the seventeen-day war between India and Pakistan. Companies, lands and buildings of Indian nationals and those residing in India fell under the control and management of the Pakistan government. Although they were to be returned to their rightful owners after the war ended, the state of war was never officially lifted right up to the time of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and India, at least for the time being, was not the enemy. However, instead of abrogating the Enemy Act, the newly formed Bangladesh government reinforced its provisions with the Vested and Non-Resident Property (Administration) Act of 1974. In April 2001, the Awami League passed the Vested Property Return Bill (2001) according to the provisions of the new law, land seized under the Vested Property Act was to be returned to the original owners or their heirs. The government was obliged to announce the returnable property within the stipulated time period of 180 days. However, in November 2002, the BNP government amended the Vested Property Law, allowing the government an unlimited right to return the properties to their rightful owners. This has meant that not only the process of returning properties taken from Hindus has failed to materialise, but further confiscations have also been conducted under the existing Vested Property Act.

    While justice for many of the Hindu victims of targeted violence during the Bangladesh Liberation War remains elusive, attempts to prosecute alleged perpetrators have frequently ignited fresh rounds of violence in recent years. The activities of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), set up by the AL in 2009 to try those accused of carrying out human rights abuses during the war for independence, has become increasingly politicized as many of those charged are associated with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) or Jamaat-e-Islami. For example, on 28 February 2013 Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a Bangladeshi Islamist politician and the Vice President of Jamaat-e-Islami, was convicted on 16 charges, including murder, looting, arson, rape and forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, and sentenced to death on two counts. In the weeks following the judgment, a number of Hindu establishments – including houses, businesses and temples – were attacked, vandalized and burnt down in reprisal attacks by his supporters. The violence was spread out across the country and Hindus living in almost all the divisions of Bangladesh were affected. More than 50 temples were attacked and over 1,500 homes reportedly destroyed.

    Similar scapegoating has occurred after almost every national election in Bangladesh, with the Hindu community targeted as the presumed ‘vote bank’ of the Awami League by opposition supporters and extremists. Nevertheless, framing their persecution as primarily political overlooks the dynamics of communal discrimination at play. Indeed, the social stigmatization of community members has also enabled violence against them. For example, in April 2014 a Muslim teacher with a longstanding grudge against his Hindu colleague allegedly set up a false account in his name where he then posted derogatory remarks about Islam. He subsequently mobilized a crowd of around 1,000 locals in an attack against the Hindu community, leaving 10 injured and 32 homes destroyed.

    Current issues

    Major political events such as national elections have served as flashpoints for communal violence, with Hindus the worst affected. In early 2014, for instance, in the build up to the election, Hindus were subjected to threats and attacks to intimidate communities ahead of the vote. In the wake of the Awami League’s electoral victory, Hindus and other minorities continued to be targeted, with a large number of Hindu temples burnt down, vandalized and looted. The refusal of communities to boycott the elections led to widespread violence in certain areas, such as Malopara, where Jamaat-e-Islami activists spread false rumours that a number of their members had been killed in clashes to incite largescale attacks against the community. An estimated 500 Hindu families from Gopalpur village alone lost their homes in the violence.

    Though there have been some signs of improvement towards greater inclusion, with the appointment of a number of Hindu minority members to senior positions – in January 2015, for instance, the government appointed the first Hindu to hold the office of chief justice in the Supreme Court – they remain under-represented in official circles. With 14 Hindu members, the current parliament has the highest levels of representation of the community in the country’s history, compared to six in 1991, five in 1996, three in 2001 and ten in 2008. Nevertheless, even the current number amounts to just 4 per cent of the parliament, a fraction of their proportion within the national population. Historically, too, Hindu MPs have been concentrated in one party: since 1991, save for one exception, all Hindus elected to parliament were members of the Awami League.

    Hindu communities continue to suffer disproportionately from land grabbing. Importantly, land appropriations were until recently enabled by the so-called Vested Property Act (formerly known as the Enemy Property Act during Pakistani rule), a piece of legislation that allowed authorities to take over ‘enemy’ land, much of it in practice belonging to Hindus. This led to the expropriation of as much as 2.6 million acres between 1965 and 2006, with devastating effects for an estimated 1.2 million Hindu households. Since then, there have been numerous attempts by Hindus who lost property through the Act to reclaim it, particularly since the creation of the Vested Properties Return (Amendment) Bill of 2011, which required the government to publish details of those properties which can be returned to their rightful owners. However, implementation has so far been limited, with many of those who have attempted to restore property ownership reportedly intimidated and thousands of cases delayed in a legal limbo, meaning relatively few cases have so far been resolved in practice.

    Another legacy of the Vested Property Act is the migration of millions of Hindus to India in the face of land grabbing and displacement from their homes. The decline of the Hindu population, from more than 22 per cent in the 1940s to less than 9 per cent today, is the result of this exodus: between 1964 and 2001, for instance, an estimated 8.1 million ‘missing Hindus’ left, amounting to around 219,000 people annually. Continued discrimination, land grabbing and the growing threat of violence have meant that Bangladeshi Hindus have continued to emigrate, in many cases irregularly, to India.

    More recently, Hindus have been targeted not only in intercommunal attacks but increasingly by extremist militants. On 5 December 2015, a series of blasts targeting a Hindu ceremony in Dinjapur left six worshippers injured. A few days later, another temple in Dinajpur was attacked by militants with guns and bombs, leaving nine injured. But though the recent spate of terror attacks is highly significant, they represent only one part of the violence and discrimination that religious minorities in Bangladesh experience on an almost daily basis. Communal violence also remains commonplace. Leading rights organization Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) reports that, between January and June 2016, violence targeting Hindus in Bangladesh resulted in the burning of 66 homes, 24 people being injured and the destruction of at least 49 temples, monasteries or statues. Much of this violence is carried out at a local level by individuals or groups rather than militants, often driven by personal disputes, land grabbing and the apparent impunity that characterizes many attacks.

    Within the Hindu community, the Dalit population remains especially marginalized and subject to discrimination not only by the majority population but also by more affluent, higher-caste Hindus who may, for example, exclude them from certain rituals and from shared spaces such as temples, restaurants and markets. Isolated in remote rural settlements or segregated in poorly serviced urban ‘colonies’, they face widespread poverty, ostracization and food insecurity. Besides exclusion from many areas of employment, they have also been subjected to land grabbing, violence and forced conversion. As a result, anti-discrimination measures aimed at improving the situation of Bangladesh’s Hindus need to take particular account of this highly marginalized group.

    Updated July 2018

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