By Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed
Sep 21, 2018
THE situation of minorities in Bangladesh is a human rights issue. The status of minorities all over the world has demonstrated a pattern of discrimination and insecurity. Bangladesh is no exception. Violent attacks on religious minorities in Bangladesh prompted popular protests at home and abroad, and the minority communities think that it is an attempt to force them to leave the country as in 1971.They fear that the extent of the dreadfulness of attacks on the minorities might exceed what they had seen in 2001 and appealed to the international community apart from the political parties to look into the matter seriously.
The example of minorities in Bangladesh has a typical trend. The seeds of violence against the minority communities are inherent within the structures of the modern system which has turned human beings into vote banks and vote constituencies. Lack of accountability and transparency of the state machinery only makes the situation worse. Bangladesh ought to recognise the plurality of its culture and people. Undoubtedly, civil society has the major and the most important role to play in this respect.
Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority nation with secularism as its basic principles and freedom of religion is guaranteed by its constitution. The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but also states that other religions can be practised in harmony. The major religion in Bangladesh is Islam (90 per cent), but a significant percentage of the population adheres to Hinduism (9 per cent). Other religious groups include the Buddhists (0.6 per cent, mostly Theravada), Christians (0.3 per cent, mostly Roman Catholics), and Animists (0.1 per cent).
A US religious freedom report says that Bangladesh is among 37 countries where violations of rights against minorities are rife. About 90 per cent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people are Muslims, 9 per cent are Hindus and the rest belong to different religions, including Buddhism and Christianity.
Besides the dominant ethnic Bengali people, there are some three million people belonging to 45 ethnic tribal groups who are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and animists.
The Muslim-majority Bangladesh, long known for religious harmony and secular culture and traditions, had seen a sharp rise in religious extremism in past couple of years.
In 2016, four bloggers and a publisher, whose writings and publications were critical of religions, especially Islam, were hacked to death by extremists. Alleged operatives of group, which calls itself the Islamic State, shot dead an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer in 2015. An Italian Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor narrowly escaped murder allegedly in the hands of the religious extremists. More than two dozen Catholic priests, Protestant pastors and Christian aid workers have received death threats through mail, phone calls and text messages.
On November 10, 2017 at least 30 Hindu homes were burnt to the ground by thousands of protesters, predominantly Muslims, after a local Hindu uploaded a ‘blasphemous Facebook posting’ insulting Islam and the Prophet in Rangpur. After initially seeing the posting, hundreds of Muslim locals began protesting and gave the authorities an ultimatum to arrest the man in question within 24 hours. Since the police failed to do so, the protesters were joined by around 8,000 people from surrounding villages and began burning houses in the village named Thakubari, a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood. The resultant fires and destruction have left dozens of Hindu families homeless and penniless.
Similar atrocities have occurred in the past in other parts of the country. For instance, in November 2016, a Muslim mob armed with locally-made weapons demolished at least 10 temples to the ground and vandalised hundreds of houses of the Hindu community in Brahmanbaria’s Nasirnagar, similarly in response to a Facebook posting which is alleged to have insulted Islam.
Bangladesh is becoming an uncomfortable place for minority communities, say leaders from minority communities, echoing a US report on religious freedom.
The 2017 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report documented violence against religious minorities in 37 countries, including Bangladesh. The annual report published on April 25, 2017 reported that deadly attacks against religious minorities, bloggers, intellectuals, and foreigners by domestic and transnational extremist groups had increased in Bangladesh in 2016.
Although the government had taken steps to investigate, arrest, and prosecute perpetrators, threats and violence have heightened the sense of fear among Bangladeshi citizens of all religious groups, the report said.
Reacting to the report, Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission said that in most cases, the government and ruling class are involved directly or indirectly in the persecution of religious minorities. ‘It crushes minorities’ hope for justice and creates a hostile environment for them’, said Nokrek.
Rana Dasgupta, a Hindu lawyer and secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist and Christians’ Unity Council, syas that Bangladeshi minorities are used to quash sensitive social and political issues.
In January 2017, the group published a report that showed there were 1,471 incidents of violence and abuse against minorities in 2016 — a fivefold surge from 262 cases in 2015. Dasgupta says that if the situation continues minorities will disappear from the country one day.
Also agreeing with the US report, Ashoke Barua, secretary of Bangladesh the Buddhist Federation, says that sectarianism poses an increasing threat to minorities and that grassroots leaders failed to address religious tolerance. Barua also said that when the Hindus, Buddhists and Christians face abuse, there is no one to turn to for justice.
To me like many others, it is not a problem of religion. The popular culture based on age-old tradition of hatred for people professing different religions from the religion of the mainstream of the population nurtures communal hatred. Hate and mistrust for minorities who speak different languages or belong to different ethno-linguistic groups also promote racial or linguistic riots. Bangladesh is no exception in this regard. Using Islam as a shield to legitimise their violence, miscreants end up insulting Islam they claim a thousand times to follow.
Islam is a religion of peace and these atrocities on minorities at least do not reflect upholding peace. Islam also encourages being respectful to the people of other religion. Hence, we should no longer remain passive in this kind of occurrences done in the name of Islam.
We have to save humanity and for that, we should do whatever requires.
Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed is executive editor of the New York Times – Bangladesh national section.