Bangladesh minorities bear brunt of violence

Homes and places of worship targeted as violence sweeps country in aftermath of controversial war crimes verdicts.
Saif Khalid Last Modified: 24 Mar 2013 10:19

Proceedings against accused war criminals in Bangladesh have caused civil unrest and violence

A few weeks ago, after Friday prayers, a mob of more than 3,000 people attacked the house of Sadhanchandra Mandal, a Hindu, in southwestern Bangladesh.

“They attacked our houses shouting slogans such as ... ''We are the Taliban, this Bengal will be Afghan', and looted everything," said 60-year-old Mandal, who said the attackers used petrol and weapons in the assault against his home.

"I don't understand how we will survive here - anytime I will be killed, as they are threatening me."

Mandal said the police and a paramilitary battalion did nothing to stop the crowd from attacking houses in the remote villages of the Satkhira district where he lives.

"My wife and daughter-in-law with her two kids saved their lives by swimming across a pond," Mandal told Al Jazeera. "We are still not safe.”

The South Asian nation has been caught up in turmoil ever since two war crimes tribunals sentenced several public figures for atrocities committed during the country's liberation war from Pakistan in 1971, and it is members of the minority community like Mandal who have borne the brunt of the violence.

Among those sentenced are leaders of the country's largest Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, whose supporters are blamed for much of the violence. Supporters of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have also hit the streets, as some of their own leaders are also facing war crimes charges.

With tensions running high, minorities have come to be seen as soft targets to vent frustration.

According to an Amnesty International report published on March 6, more than 40 temples have been destroyed, idols of Hindu deities defiled, and hundreds made homeless after their houses were burned down.


Buddhist temple destroyed in Bangladesh

About 100 people have been killed so far, mostly opposition activists, since Jamaat vice president Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced to death on February 28 for mass killings, rapes and other atrocities in 1971.

Rights groups have criticised the government's handling of the post-verdict violence. Odhikar, a human rights organisation based in Dhaka, issued a report blaming the police for “indiscriminately” shooting at protesters, including political activists, women, children and ordinary citizens.

The minorities have also been complaining of government ineptidue in ensuring their safety. Besides Hindus, Buddhists are reported to have come under attack from marauding mobs.

With more war crimes verdicts expected over the coming months, they are continuing to live in fear.

Surobhi Rani Mandal, who is from Khulna district, explained with tears in her eyes that “religious bigots ransacked and torched my house. Where can we go now?".

“How can I pray now?” asked Rani, whose personal idols were destroyed in the attacks.

“Nobody is coming to help us. I lost my three cows on which I depended for my livelihood by selling milk. I am worried Jamaat Chhatra Shibir [the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami] hooligans will attack again.”


Though Rani has identified some of the attackers, no action has yet been taken against them.

Hundreds of Jamaat supporters have been arrested for their alleged involvement in recent violence. But the Islamist party has denied its role in the attacks on minorities, claiming the government was acting against its members as part of a “political vendetta”.

"Jamaat-e-Islami calls for immediate appointment of an independent judicial commission to probe into the attacks," said Maqbul Ahmad, the party's acting leader, in a statement published on the party's website.

Impunity for lawbreakers is a major problem in Bangladesh. Corruption and lack of professionalism among the police force worsen the situation of the country's minorities, who form nearly 10 percent of Bangladesh's roughly 153 million people.

Rabindra Ghosh, founder of Bangladesh Minority Watch, said he himself has been assaulted in the past, but the police failed to find the culprits. In most cases, he claimed, the police know the identity of the perpetrators but do not act.

Many attackers target minorities for their property, while others aim violence specifically against Hindu women, said Ghosh.

He mentioned the case of a 14-year-old kidnapped nearly two months ago in Sylhet district, in the country's north. Her family filed papers with the police naming the suspect, but to no avail.

When Al Jazeera asked Sakhawat Hossain, the superintendent of police in Sylhet, about the case, he said he was not aware of it. However, he said the police do act when they receive allegations from victims' families, and promised to inquire about the incident.

Religious intolerance

Bangladesh was founded as a secular state, but has recently witnessed a rise in religious intolerance. The country's minority population has declined sharply as many left the country, seeking safety.

In many cases, supporters of the Awami League, which is seen as sympathetic to minorities, have also participated in the attacks against minorities.

Global Human Rights Defence, a Netherlands-based rights group, documented in a 2010 report a number of cases in which ruling members of the Awami League were found to be involved in persecution of Hindus and ethnic minorities.

Minorities say attackers are often seeking to exploit any available pretext to grab their land and property.

The highly polarised politics of Bangladesh, exemplified by the bitter political rivalry between two leading politicians - current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia - have not helped the cause of minorities.

Hasina's Awami League has dithered on working towards equal economic and political opportunities for minorities and restorating the secularism originally laid out in the Bangladeshi constitution. The country's constitution, which treats all citizens as equal, adopted Islam as the state religion in 1988.

Amid all the violence, a peaceful youth movement has been camping out at Shahbagh Square in central Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for those involved in war crimes.

The Awami League, which had promised in its manifesto to bring war crimes suspects to justice, has tacitly supported the Shabagh protesters, but Zia, the opposition leader, has called them “atheists and spoilt people”.

With additional reporting from Sumi Khan in Dhaka.



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