A Bleak Future for Bangladesh Hindu's

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Neil Ozman

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Apr 18, 2002, 1:02:41 AM4/18/02
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SOCIAL CHANGE
A Bleak Future for Bangladesh Hindu's
In the last fifty years, more than ten million of the country's Hindu's have
fled to India in the face of sustained persecution and periodic riots
With its poverty and frequent cyclones, Bangladesh is major news each year.
But the unfolding fate of Hindus in the country rarely makes headlines. The
numbers tell the story. In 1872, 53% of the people in what is now Bangladesh
were Hindus. In 1900, it was 32.7%, and by 1947, 22%. Today it has dropped
to 10%. Conceivably, by 2050 Bangladesh will have achieved the status of
Pakistan: no significant Hindu population. Ishani Chowdhury, a New York
university student, was commissioned by Hinduism Today to report on one of
the most heartless persecutions and forced migrations of modern times. Be
advised, this is a gut-wrenching story of a people systematically hounded
out of their ancestral land because of their religion, a story largely
ignored by the world.

My mother saw with her own eyes trainloads of Hindus crossing over to Bihar,
the state in which she lived. They were part of the ten million that fled to
India from Bangladesh during the 1971 revolt. Their arms were slashed so
they would not be able to work, their eyes were gouged out, breasts of women
were severed, on their chests the words "Pakistan Zindabad" ("Long Live
Pakistan") were branded with a hot iron rod. People went insane from all the
horrors they had seen and experienced.

One day a Hindu refugee had managed to come to my mother's house in hopes of
finding shelter. She had not eaten in days, was dirty, her simple cotton
sari ripped, her hair disheveled, her shoeless feet bleeding from the long
journey. There was a look of hopelessness and fear in her eyes, like
something was haunting her or about to attack her. All she could say was,
"Save me! Save me! They are going to come after me! Save me!"

Days later, when she regained her senses, Laxmi Rani told her tale. Her
father and her husband were respected doctors in their community. One day
her husband went to the local pond but never returned. They found his dead
body floating in the water. A while later, when she was feeding her small
child, local Muslims stormed into the house and snatched her child from her
arms. She pleaded with them as she followed them outside. The child was
taken to a bonfire and tossed in. It was not an isolated incident, she said.
Across the country, Hindu men were being indiscriminately butchered and the
women grabbed and taken away by force. Little children were made to eat beef
and forcibly converted to Islam. Somehow, Laxmi Rani managed to escape and
boarded a train headed for India. Our family sheltered her and later took
her to the refugee camp at the local temple. My mother related many such
heart-wrenching stories.

The first great outflow of Hindus from Bangladesh occurred at Independence
in 1947 with the creation of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (as Bangladesh
was then known) on opposite sides of the Indian subcontinent. Among those
fleeing were most of the Hindus in the British administrative services.
Their posts were filled by West Pakistanis with little respect for the local
Bengali people of East Pakistan, who did not speak the Urdu language used in
the West. It was the beginning of a hostile relationship that would
culminate in the 1971 revolt in which Bangladesh, with India's help, broke
with West Pakistan and became an independent nation. West Pakistan sent
troops to quell the rebellious territory, believing the unrest to be the
result of "a few intellectuals." West Pakistan President Khan predicted, "A
few thousand dead in Dhaka, and East Pakistan will be quiet soon."

For nine months the West Pakistan army tried to secure the area by the most
brutal means. Possibly three million people, mostly Hindus, died; and ten
million Hindus and many Muslims fled to India. Finally, in December, 1971,
India, unable to ignore the flood of refugees across her borders, intervened
and defeated the West Pakistan army in a matter of days. Bangladesh,
shattered by war and with much of its educated class dead, became the
world's 139th country.

Two incidents from 1971 will help to convey the war's terror. According to
the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council, an organization which monitors
the condition of minorities in Bangladesh, on June 13, 1971, 400 Hindus were
loaded into a train that they believed would take them to India. Instead,
they were taken to Syedpur where all were murdered by Pakistan army
personnel. In the second incident, the Pakistan army attacked the Dhaka
University, raping girls and killing at least 500 students, as well as many
faculty. Similar killings and rapes took place across the country. Time
magazine reported on August 2, 1971, "The Hindus, who account for
three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the
brunt of the Muslim military hatred."

While the 1971 war impacted all Bangladeshis, pogroms against Hindus have
occurred time and again in the country's history. For example, 50,000 Hindus
in and around Dhaka were killed in 1964 when a holy relic was stolen from a
mosque in Kashmir--compare this to a few thousand deaths in East Timor or
Bosnia. After the 1975 assassination of President Sheik Mujibar Rahman by
military coup, the constitution was, in phases, amended to make Islam the
state religion of Bangladesh. In celebration, Muslim radicals attacked
Hindus. India noticed, once again, an exodus of refugees at her borders.
Following the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindu
militants, dozens of Hindus were killed in riots across Bangladesh and
approximately 3,000 temples were damaged or destroyed. Who can imagine 3,000
American churches destroyed within days? "There were riots in East Pakistan
almost every year, and severe killings in 1944, 1947, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1960
and 1963," states SK Bhattacharyya in Genocide in East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

Added to the long list of mass attacks is the daily harassment of Hindus.
The Dhaka newspaper Sangabad reported on September 24, 1989, the story of
Mrs. Birajabala Debnath of Nidarabad. She became a widow after her husband
was murdered because he refused to give up his land to his Muslim neighbor.
Then she and her five children were abducted in the middle of the night and
murdered.

At New York's Bangladeshi Hindu Mandir (www.hindumandir.nu), nearly everyone
has a somber tale to tell. This simple building has provided a safe haven of
peace and prayer to the Hindus who managed to escape the ravages of
Bangladesh. The weekly temple program I visited draws hundreds and is
enlivened with the sounds of kirtan, Gita classes and tabla lessons.
However, a sudden silence befalls the crowd when the topic turns to their
native land. "We are all refugees. We cannot be Hindus there. They kill us
whenever they get the chance. And the police do not do anything. Remember
Dhaka University's Jagannath Hall?"

Mr. Shankar Das goes on to detail Amnesty International's 1996 report (www.
amnesty.org/ailib/aipub/1996/ASA/31300496.htm) which stated nearly 700 law
enforcement personnel raided the University's only Hindu hall in 1996,
firing teargas, stealing valuables and raping and beating students. The
raid, which lasted three hours, saw many deaths and injuries. "What can you
do when even the law is against you?" As he fights back his tears, these
once joyous temple devotees hang their heads in hopelessness. "We are lucky
we are here where we can pray in peace. That is not possible in Bangladesh.
The historic Ramna Kali Bari Temple in Dhaka, hundreds of years old, was
destroyed. President Sheik Rahman further leveled the area. If you go there
now, all you will see is a park".

Ratan Dasgupta told me, "Harassment of womenfolk is all too common in
Bangladesh. We are persecuted. That is why we have come here. Living there
is impossible. Nearly ten years ago my cousin's sister was abducted from our
house by a group of 25 neighborhood boys. They came with sticks and started
breaking everything in the house. We were too afraid to do anything. Then
they demanded my cousin. My uncle was hit when he tried to stop them. They
grabbed her and took her away. God only knows what happened to her. Since
she was very pretty, they either forced her to marry some Muslim boy or sold
her to a brothel."

"Violence is random and without cause," a man from Montreal told me. "A
Hindu woman will be taunted in public, her sari tugged at, her hand grabbed,
all this in her husband's presence. And what will the police do when a
complaint is received? Either dismiss it or join in the action." "If there
is a fight between two Muslims, somehow they will resolve it," he went on,
"but to vent the anger, they will go to a Hindu home and just start throwing
rocks at the window."

In the midst of this crowd sits a small elderly woman in a simple white
sari, her tear-filled eyes beckoning me. In a trembling voice she says, "I
am an old woman. I have seen many things in my lifetime. In my village, we
cannot hold Durga puja [see page 24]. Every year they come and destroy the
deity. The temple was smeared with cow's blood and urinated upon. The pujari
was beaten and his house set on fire. We were told to stop doing puja.
Everywhere around us people were screaming and crying. I lost my husband
there. Even though my son has managed to bring us here, I worry about home.
No one is safe there."

Muslims who protest the situation around them do so at great peril. Taslima
Nasrin, spurred by the horror of atrocities against Hindus from 1990-92,
wrote a novel, Lajja ("Shame"). Her act brought her a fatwa (death sentence,
the same as meted out to Salman Rushdie) by Islamic extremists and has
forced her to go into hiding in Europe.

There have been legal assaults against the Hindus as well, most especially
the Vested Property Act, formerly called the "Enemy Property Act." It allows
for the lands of a person who has fled the country to be seized and
redistributed. The US State Department said in its 1997 Human Rights report,
"Many Hindus lost landholdings because of anti-Hindu discrimination in the
application of the law." Millions of acres have been so confiscated.

Resident Hindus who try to sell their homes will often get no more than 50
percent of the market price, according to the man from Montreal. "Sometimes
a fake deed will be used to claim his land," he said. "And most of the time,
the Hindus lose the case in court despite all the evidence."

"In front of your eyes, you will see madrasas (Islamic schools) being
built," I was told, "while the remaining Hindu centers are closing down.
There is no pujari (priest) to teach, and whoever is there is afraid for
their life. The remnants of our past are being lost, our new generation will
not know anything about our religion or history."

Five decades of harassment in Bangladesh is exacerbated by the world's
capacity to ignore the situation. As massive and horrific as the happenings
are, you never see this on CNN or in Newsweek. The three-page 1999 US State
Department report on International Religious Freedom in Bangladesh does
detail discrimination against Hindus, but in only one sentence:
"Intercommunal violence reportedly has caused some members of religious
minorities to depart the country, primarily Hindus emigrating to India where
many have relatives." In such casual terms is written off one of the
greatest forced human migrations of the 20th century, involving more than
ten million people. Other reports regard the expulsion of Bangladeshi Hindus
as a "done deed," and don't even list them as refugees any more, but as
"resettled."

State Department reports on religious freedom have been criticized for being
concerned only with Christians, who are few in Bangladesh (hence its
three-page report). India, on the other hand, got a ten-page report, with
five pages devoted to alleged discrimination against Christians (resulting
in three deaths); just three paragraphs deal with Muslim attacks against
Hindus in Kashmir (resulting in 139 deaths). The word Kashmir occurs nine
times, Christian 90 times; and there is nothing on the millions of
Bangladesh Hindus now living in India.

Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheik Hasina, said in New York recently that
Bangladesh Hindus "have one foot in India, and the other in Bangladesh" and
asked, given this divided loyalty, what they should expect and how much the
local Muslims will listen to her government. And she is considered
"pro-Indian" in Bangladesh.

Despite the discounting of atrocities, Bangladeshi Hindus in America cannot
easily forget. While the second generation of Bangladeshi Hindus in America
may take for granted the simple act of performing anjali (flower offering),
parents are quick to remind them of the privilege of being able to worship
in peace. "It's not just prayer. It's at every level. In Bangladesh, if you
are not a Muslim, then you cannot get a job. They will not let you get
admission to good colleges. Our children must know this. It's their
homeland. What we have not been able to do, they must carry out," remarks
Mrs. Dey.

As the evening program draws to a close in New York, Mrs. Sen's tear-choked
words darken the once joyous atmosphere. "Everyone is against us. Other
Hindus don't help us. We cannot do anything. If we speak out, our family
members back home will be tortured if word spreads. But we have to take a
chance, this cannot go on forever. How much longer do we have to hide?".

Contacts: Hindu, Boudhwa and Christian Oikya Parisad: Dr. Nim Chandra
Bhoumick, Secretary, c/o Department of Physics, University of Dhaka, Dhaka
1000, Bangladesh

Go back to the index

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FESTIVALS
Days of the Goddess
Yearly Durga Puja serves to focus both religious faith and harassment born
of intolerance
The Hindus of Bangladesh are worshippers of Durga Devi, a form of Shakti,
the all-powerful Goddess in all Her glory. Like their kin in nearby West
Bengal, the ten-day Durga Puja in September/October is the most vital
festival for Hindus. This same festival for the Goddess is celebrated as
Dussehra and Navaratri elsewhere in India. Elaborate decorations and
Sanskrit shlokas invoke the Mother Goddess to bless all the devotees who
come to see Her.

The annual pomp and pageantry suffered a devastating blow in 1990, when all
across Bangladesh pandals (elaborate temporary temples set up along the
roadsides) and images were rampaged and looted. More than fifty pandals in
Dhaka were mercilessly destroyed at the hands of Muslim fanatics. The once
joyous season was overshadowed by a cloud of fear over the lack of
protection and the violent shaking of devotee's faith.

Ignored by the police, outnumbered by the Muslims, Hindus in 1992 for the
first time in Bangladesh and Hindu history, performed Durga Puja without the
Deity present in physical form--only a ghot or khumba (a coconut on a pot).
In 1996, 20,000 pandals with Deities were set up across the country, a few
more than the previous year. That year the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told
devotees at the Dhakeswari temple in Dhaka, "You will have the equal rights
to practice your respective religions with full dignity and honor and none
to interfere in it." But in 1997, the Organiser newspaper from Delhi
reported, "Gangs descended on puja pandals and demanded jazia [the Islamic
tax on non-Muslims] from the puja organizers for performing 'idol worship'
in Islamic Bangladesh. Since the pattern of attack was the same throughout
Bangladesh, it is suspected that it was a well-planned operation, especially
because no police help was available."

The Durga Puja popular across all of the Bengali-speaking area is an ancient
home festival. Rich devotees in the last century turned their home puja into
a grand community affair. Soon all the rich families did the same. Today
most pandals are erected by community organizations.

The Bangladesh community in New York was able to celebrate Durga Puja in
their own, newly acquired, temple for the first time in 1998, and considered
this a great landmark. "It is freedom indeed," said Dwijen Bhattacharjya,
"to be able to attend puja wearing dhotis and saris, the women flaunting
sindoor and sankha [wedding signs], and to let our children celebrate our
tradition without fear!"


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