BNP is Bangladesh’s BJP, Hindus have no option but to vote for the Awami League, says civil society leader Rana Dasgupta
Whenever Bangladesh prepares to vote in its parliamentary elections — as it will once more on 30 December, its religious minorities slip into acute anxiety and fear
Whenever Bangladesh prepares to vote in its parliamentary elections — as it will once more on 30 December, its religious minorities slip into acute anxiety and fear. This is because they are violently targeted to polarise the electorate and also dissuade them from voting for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. This Sunday, Hasina will cross swords with former prime minister Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which heads an Opposition alliance that includes the Jamaat-e-Islami, a Muslim fundamentalist organisation.
The Jamaat despicably perpetrates violence against religious minorities, who constitute 11.8 percent of Bangladesh's electorate. Of the 11.8 percent, Hindus make up 10.8 percent, which is precisely why the Jamaat considers them as its principal foe. Are religious minorities living in dread of the 30 December election? Which of the two parties — Awami League or BNP — do Hindus and other minorities prefer? Are Hindu candidates in the fray?
Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad, or Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council, is on hand to answer these questions. Counted among the prominent leaders of Bangladesh's civil society, he has also served as a prosecutor in Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal that was constituted in 2009 to investigate and try those responsible for the mass killings during Bangladesh's liberation movement of 1971.
Edited excerpts of an interview conducted over the phone follow:
What is the significance of Bangladesh's 11th parliamentary elections for religious minorities, particularly Hindus?
In the past, from 1991 until 2014, it was our experience that minorities were targeted in the days preceding as well as after the elections. But for the first time, the [Bangladesh] Election Commission has directed law-enforcement agencies to provide security to religious minorities in both the pre- and post-election periods. This has resulted in a very good relationship between the administration and religious minority communities.
That said, there have been two incidents in which Hindus were targeted.
Could you provide details of the incidents in which Hindus were targeted?
One house in Thakurgaon district and another five in Sonagachi village, Feni district, were burnt down. There have been incidents of Hindu leaders being threatened. That said, we feel the situation of minorities in this election, at least until now, is far better than that in the past.
Who burnt the houses?
Communal elements thrive in the Feni district. However, the person who has been arrested for setting the houses on fire belongs to the ruling Awami League. We don't yet know why he did it.
Isn't it surprising that the accused in Feni district belongs to the Awami League, which is considered a pro-minority party?
As of now, we simply have no clarity why Awami League workers chose to burn down the houses of Hindus. But what you say is indeed true — the Awami League is generally considered protective of religious minorities.
Do religious minorities fear the return of the BNP?
Yes, minorities fear the BNP's return. This is because the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is part of the Jatiyo Oikyo Front [National United Front, the Opposition alliance], is an anti-liberation force [meaning it fought to crush the movement for the liberation of Bangladesh]. In 1971, in collusion with the Pakistani occupation army, the Jamaat committed genocide and war crimes. In fact, the International Crimes Tribunal described the Jamaat as a fascist organisation. So if the BNP-Jamaat coalition were to come to power, minorities will face negative consequences (read religious persecution).
Has any BNP leader tried to dispel the fear among minorities, like promising to provide security to them if the party were to come to power?
In the past, whenever the BNP-Jamaat coalition was in power, the Jamaat carried out attacks on religious minorities. It is the Jamaat’s political outlook to turn out religious minorities from their hearth and home and make Bangladesh a Hindu-free country. It is their agenda to make Bangladesh like Pakistan or any West Asian country. As to your question, no, BNP leaders have not provided any assurances to religious minorities.
Isn't it true that after the BNP came to power in 2001, Hindus were persecuted on a massive scale?
Not only in 2001, but even earlier. When Khaleda came to power in 1991, religious persecution continued for 27 days. Between 2001 and 2006, when she was again in power, thousands of incidents of religious persecution took place.
After the Hasina came to power in 2008, a commission was constituted to investigate the violence perpetrated against minorities between 2001 and 2006. We reported 15,000 incidents of religious persecution to the commission. Out of those, the commission took note of 5,000 incidents and made its recommendations. Its report was submitted in 2012. Neither was the report made public, nor did the Awami League government implement any of the recommendations the commission made.
Then again, in the pre- and post-election period of 2014, when the International Crimes Tribunal was investigating war crimes, then too we witnessed large-scale targeting of religious minorities.
Given this background, would it be correct to assume that minorities will back the Awami League in the 2019 election?
Yes. In India, religious minorities have several options. Bangladesh's minorities have no alternative to the Awami League. There are two major players in Bangladesh — the Awami League and the BNP. There are several things going for the Awami League as far as minorities are concerned. For one, the Awami League led the fight for Bangladesh's liberation. Secularism still remains the party's principle. Also, in comparison to the BNP, the Awami League is more democratic.
The BNP believes in religious nationalism. It is like India's BJP or Pakistan's Muslim League (PML). Since BNP is Bangladesh's BJP, Hindus have no option but to vote for the Awami League.
How many minority candidates have the Awami League and the BNP fielded?
Our organisation has been appealing to all political parties to field minority candidates in proportion to their population. According to our population ratio, minorities should have 36 seats in the 300-member Parliament. But the Awami League has fielded 18 minority candidates and the BNP-led alliance seven. I think the Left parties have nominated between 30 and 34 minority candidates. Unfortunately, the Left parties will be left behind (in the electoral race). They have been reduced to being small organisations.
Do any of the 25 candidates fielded by the Awami League and the BNP have a good chance of winning?
Of the 25 candidates, we feel 20 to 21 of them should win.
Out of these 25 candidates, how many are Christians, Buddhists and Hindus?
There are three Buddhists, one Christian and 21 Hindus.
How many minority community MPs were there in the 10th Parliament?
There were 17.
Have all these 25 candidates been fielded in constituencies where religious minorities are numerous?
Twenty-one candidates have been fielded from constituencies where minorities make up between 20 and 50 percent of the electorate. Three or four candidates have been fielded from constituencies where minorities constitute less than 10 percent of the population.
Do both the Awami League and the BNP field minority candidates in those constituencies where minorities are numerous?
In only one minority-numerous constituency have both the Awami League and the BNP fielded a candidate. In other constituencies, if the Awami League has fielded a Hindu candidate, the BNP has nominated a Hindu.
Would it be right to say that many Muslims will be voting for minorities, particularly Hindu, candidates if you expect 21 of them to win?
True, very true.
So Bangladesh does have a culture of co-existence that the Jamaat wants to undermine.
Yes, you are right. In previous elections, there were hate speeches and communal propaganda. In this election, however, we don't hear such speeches.
Has your organisation tried to speak to the Jamaat to dissuade them from attacking minorities?
We haven't spoken to Jamaat-e-Islami as we feel that as it is an anti-liberation force, whose agenda is to turn out the minorities from their hearth and home, there is nothing to be gained from talking to them. But we have had talks with the BNP.