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Hindus in Bangladesh: The roots of communal violence

Since 1947, the population has decreased from 30% to less than 9%


During this year’s Durga Puja, communal violence broke out in Bangladesh, resulting in the vandalisation of Hindu temples and shrines, hundreds injured, and dozens of Hindus and Muslims dead. After a viral video showed a Qur’an placed on the knee of a statue in a Hindu shrine, mob violence erupted. Security forces were deployed in over 20 districts, with police firing tear gas into crowds from Cumilla to Dhaka. The BBC reported that community leaders have called this the “worst large-scale mob violence” against Hindus in Bangladesh’s history. Aside from religious sites, Hindu village homes were burned, with cattle and other goods stolen. Hundreds of Bangladeshis have protested the violence in Dhaka.


Hindus currently comprise less than 9% of the Bangladeshi population, down from roughly 30% in 1947, as many Hindus have fled to India over time. Economist Abul Barkat says around 750 people from minority communities leave Bangladesh daily, motivated by social rather than economic reasons. This outflow of Hindus in the Muslim-majority country must be contextualised in the aftermath of the bloody 1947 Partition. At that time, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, part of the bisected Muslim-majority country created by horrific communal violence. Between 1947 and 1971, Bangladeshis fought to preserve their ethnic and cultural identity, especially the right to speak the Bengali language, in the face of harsh persecution from the Pakistani army. Yet, while Bengalis faced systematic persecution as a whole, the plight of Hindus was distinct. For instance, the 1964 East Pakistan riots were a massacre that led to an outpouring of refugees into India.

 


Following the genocide and ensuing liberation in 1971, Bangladesh adopted a secular constitution. As events evolved, the country underwent a process of Islamisation, resulting in a formally Islamic constitution being adopted in 1988. Since then, while secularism remains an essential principle in theory, Islam has played an increasingly prominent role in domestic politics. Right-wing Islamist groups have gained prominence, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami political party. The radical Hefazat-e-Islam group controls thousands of madrasas (Islamic schools) in Bangladesh, and its members have been systematically arrested and otherwise targeted by police. 


Under Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League government straddles a delicate balance of prosecuting such groups while maintaining the narrative of Bangladesh’s Islamic identity. At the moment, she is considering reverting to the secular 1972 constitution, although it is unclear whether this is politically feasible. Her government faces a challenge in maintaining a good bipartisan relationship with India, which is of utmost strategic importance. This has gotten particularly thorny since Narendra Modi’s far-right Hindu government took power. When Modi visited Bangladesh earlier in 2021, protests erupted into violence that left twelve dead. Thus, the government has several factors to consider in its anti-extremism strategy.    


Crucially, this discourse must include the role of the far-right BJP in neighbouring India in stoking religious violence. Hindutva supporters call for India to be a Hindu nation, thereby demanding the deportation of Muslims and immigrants and advocating for decreased immigration from Bangladesh. This xenophobic rhetoric provides ample ammunition for Islamist political elements in Bangladesh to turn justified anger into resentment taken out on religious minorities.

 


This context is vital in framing how the government and society should respond to the horrific violence against Hindus in Bangladesh. It is crucial to unequivocally condemn the harm that is being wrecked upon minorities without slipping into the Hindutva politician’s trap of blaming Muslims at large or Bangladesh’s status as an Islamic country. Coexistence between Hindus and Muslims is both possible and proven, but in the wake of Partition, various political elements have made it increasingly difficult to cultivate harmonious inter-religious environments throughout the subcontinent.


This is not to detract from the Bangladeshi state’s responsibility to hold accountable its citizens responsible for this spat of violence. Yet, prosecuting a few individuals is simply insufficient to address the root cause of these communal tensions. Through in-depth investigations and committees resembling truth and reconciliation, the government should establish legal protections for minorities while consciously cultivating inter-community interactions in civil society. Combating religious fundamentalism is a complicated task, but ensuring that every citizen’s economic needs are met is a good way to dissipate some populist discontent that often underlies religious violence. 


It is telling that groups with right-wing Hindu nationalist ties, such as the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), have loudly condemned the violence in Bangladesh. It is not the organising that is the problem -- it is the selective outrage. Communal violence, which led to the horrific attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh, is the same force that led to the systematic lynchings of Muslims in India and violence against Adivasi people. It is the same violent continuation of Partition that leads to functional segregation and uncontrolled hate. To express selective outcry in this incredibly saddening moment is to exploit these tragic acts of violence to perpetuate an Islamophobic agenda rather than diagnosing the core issue. Taking a historical view, one can frame interreligious dynamics through the lens of politics and power instead of the rather simplistic one of religion alone.


Solidarity with minorities and victims of religious violence is necessary, and we must not shy away from unequivocal condemnation of such horrific attacks. Simultaneously, it is crucial not to view these events as existing in isolation -- provoked because of what one person did to a Qur’an or orchestrated by the minds of a single radical group. The unfinished business of Partition has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, directly and indirectly, and violent antagonism between Hindus and Muslims is a persistent thread of that historical trauma. 


Bangladesh’s task -- at both the society and state level -- is to reckon with that past and come to a place of coexistence that goes beyond tolerance to embracing pluralism. That requires reconciliation, caring for people’s basic economic needs, and a whole host of other events that go beyond addressing the issue of religious hate. “Weeding out radical Islam” is insufficient at best and a scapegoat for the abuse of police and state power at worst.

About the author

Ria Mazumdar is South Asian Today's US political analyst. A Bengali-American, she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz

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