Connecting Regions of Asia.

Bangladesh’s Hindu Factor Decoded


It looks like a repeat of the countdown to the 2001 Bangladesh elections. The Awami League had come to power in 1996,  for the first time in 20 years after the 1975 Bangladesh coup, in which Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed with almost his entire family.  Only Hasina and sister Rehana, then away in Germany, survived.
The Islamist Opposition parties, like BNP and its coalition partner Jamaat e Islami , started instigating sporadic riots targeting Hindus in the rundown to the 2001 polls. The idea was to strike fear among them and send the message that the secularist Awami League was not capable of protecting them even when in power.
The ploy worked , specially after a pro Jamaat army general heading the border guards triggered a border clash with India . The anti Hindu pogroms and the wave of anti Indian feelings caused by the Pyrwdiah and Boroibari clashes impacted the Awami League adversely and it lost the 2001 elections.
The Hindus are now 12 percent of Bangladesh’s populations but senior Awami League leader and 1971 Liberation War organizer Amir Hossain Amu once told some Indian journalists including myself that the Hindus vote Awami League and if they can do so without fear , the League can win fifty to sixty seats “even by putting up a banana tree as candidate.”  In the 300 member Jatiyo Sangsad (parliament) , that’s like a huge headstart for the Awami League because it then needs to win only 100 of the remaining 250 odd seats.  “ So the BNP and pro Pakistan Jamaat will try their best to terrorise Hindus into either staying away from the polls or even force them to vote for their coalition on the issue of safety and survival,” Amu had said.
The Awami League is now in power continuously since 2009 for three successive terms. No party has had such a run since the country achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The parliament polls are just two years away and the Islamist Opposition parties realise they face an existential crisis if the League were to return to power again , on the strength of a phenomenal economic turnaround in Bangladesh Golden Decade of Development ( 2009 onwards) under the able leadership of Pm Sheikh Hasina.  Hasina’s fulfilling her slain father’s promise of a “Golden Bengal” gives it a headstart in the polls, despite allegations of corruption against some ministers and MPs and Opposition charges of rigging.
In the last year or so, the Islamist Opposition parties have tried to cobble together a coalition , more broadbased than before, even trying to draw some other parties who don’t directly subscribe to an Islamist vision for Bangladesh but who resent the Awami League’s monopolistic control of parliament and polity in the last more than one decade.  Alongside the coalition building efforts, they have hit the streets on various pretexts .
First it was the issue of Mujibur Rahman’s  statues which the Opposition parties and Muslim fundamentalist groups described as ‘un Islamic’ , pleading for construction of minarets rather than statues in memory of the country’s founding father on his both centenary..  Mujib statues were defaced across the countries, public transports were bombed and government properties were extensively vandalized before Hasina’s tough police action brought the situation under control.
Then came the issue of President Macron’s crackdown on Islamist groups in France after the brutal beheadings, when the French embassy in Dhaka was gheraoed by thousands of Hifazat e Islam supporters. The Hifazat is not a formal political party like the RSS in India but its religious clout is huge because it controls the Qaumi madrassas in the country and count on young students there as their footsoldiers.
After this agitation was controlled, the Hifazat and Jamaat hit the streets to protest the Bangladesh visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi , calling him the “butcher of Muslims” for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Hasina defended her decision to invite Modi in view of the great role India played in the liberation of Bangladesh. Hifazat supporters even burnt down a music academy in Brahmanbaria which is housed in the ancestral villa of the great classical musician Allaudin Khan.  Dozens of buses were burnt down, police stations and government offices attack and property of Awami League leaders targeted. Hasina hit back hard, with dozens of Hifazat leaders locked up in jail on charges of murder, loot and arson. The Hifazat’s poster boy, Mamunul Huq, was picked up womanizing in a resort with a woman he claimed was his second wife but the woman spilled the beans saying they were not married and he was just exploiting her with promise of a job.
Bangladesh’s former information and telecom minister Tarana Halim, an Awami League activist since her school days and a top actress and later a top lawyer, seeks to put mid October’s Durga Puja time violence into this larger context.
“The Hindus are soft targets. The real target is the Awami League. All this is happening with an eye on the countdown to the elections,” she said in an interview.
But many Awami Leaguers like her point to the party’s growing weakness after 12 years in power , like ‘ infiltration of many Opposition and Islamists’ into the secular party, and corruption among influential leaders. They call for a ‘comprehensive cleansing’ of the party leadership, a rejuvenation of the party organization and a focus on political education to promote secularism as a core value across the country.
Another Awami woman leader Aysha Zaman argues that the “party must get rid of the hybrids who are watermelons … Islamists inside and Awami outside’.
The Awami League, like the CPM in West Bengal, was always feared as an Opposition party because of its powerful cadre base. These cadres of the Awami Shechasevak Bahini (Volunteer Force)  joined the Mukti Bahini to fight the Liberation War as guerrillas backed by the Indian army and border guards in 1971. Later they brought down the government of General Ershad through powerful street agitations in 1991 and their role, especially the women volunteers, in bringing the party back to power can never be underestimated. Shahnaz Parvin Dolly suffered an abortion after sustaining police beatings during one such agitation and still nurses a painful back injury. “ But my greater pain is when my party nominates a political nobody  as MP and not me, despite the huge amount of love Hasina showers on me,”  said Dolly, now joint secretary of the Mohila Jubo League.
Aysha says these motivated cadre forces threw a ring around Hasina during the August 2004 grenade attack on her rally. More than twenty party leaders and activists including Mohila League chairman Ivy Rahman ( wife of later President Zillur Rahman ) died but they protected Hasina from the Islamist terrorists.  
But when she tried mobilizing her cadres to protect the Hindus during Wednesday’s violence in her native Comilla, she found s Yuba League (Youth League) leader saying the Durga Puja should be closed down. “ I shouted him down saying no Hindu in my country is stupid enough to place the Holy Qu’ran at the feet of Hanuman and Bengali Hindus don’t worship Hanuman in Durga Puja,” Aysha said. “ But I was so dismayed because these hybrids have infiltrated our party and unless they are weeded out, we will suffer because the Hindus will lose faith in her.”
Aysha , Dolly and Tarana say this is a tougher battle than fighting elections. Perhaps none can disagree.

Intro : The Bangladesh violence during Durga Puja targeting Hindu temples and pandals is aimed at terrorizing the minority community to keep them away from voting . Since the minorities vote for the ruling Awami League and their outcome of more than fifty seats in the 300 member parliament depends on them , the Islamist Opposition has tried terrorizing them ahead of elections, like in 2001. Now that the polls are barely two years away, the ruling Awami League feels the Islamist parties are back at their old game of terrorizing Hindus and other religious minorities by attacking their  localities and places of worship. The Islamists have first tried street violence over Mujib statues, then over developments in Frances and then opposing Indian PM Modi’s visit to Bangladesh . Now they are going for the Hindus as soft targets, both to terrorisse them to stay away from voting by driving home the message that the Awami League cannot protect them despite being in power.

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