It hurts every time I hear about violence against minorities, be it last week’s attack on Hindus by Muslims in the Comilla district, or persecution of Muslims by radical Buddhists in Myanmar.
Perpetrators no doubt have their own compelling reasons to pound on small and powerless groups of people – land disputes, religious bigotry, political conspiracy, ethnic conflicts or blasphemy – but nothing can justify violence as a tool for settling problems. The issue is doubly shameful for a multi-religious nation like Bangladesh with a long history of secular culture.
In most parts of Bangladesh, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists mix easily. While Muslims account for 90 percent of the population, most follow a moderate form of Islam that allows all religions to come together to celebrate religious and national festivals. A sense of interfaith harmony is woven into the social fabric.
But, this is not the whole picture. For decades, many Hindus have struggled for survival amid attacks and pogroms by Islamic fundamentalist groups, political parties and governments. Police and the judiciary have often responded with apathy, thereby emboldening the perpetrators.
The severity of the situation can be seen in the statistics. Major attacks on Hindus, who from partition in 1947 onwards were depicted as enemies of the state, peaked in the 1971 liberation war, when some 70 percent of the three million people killed were Hindu. Numbers reduced dramatically: in 1947, Hindus accounted for 30 percent of the country’s 42 million people, but today they account for only 9 percent of an estimated 160 million.
Their broad support for the Awami League government has only added to perceptions among Islamists that they were enemies of the dominant religion. In 2001, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami Party took over from the Awami League and launched a series of offensives against Hindus. Pledges by the Awami League, on its return to power in 2009, to bring the perpetrators of the killings to justice have never been fulfilled.
The shrinking of Bangladesh’s Hindu population has much to do with the exodus of entire communities. “Minorities never want to leave the country, but they have been forced to leave,” said Rana Dasgupta, a Hindu lawyer and secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council.
They are not the only minority to suffer, however. Christian churches were vandalized in 1998, and in 2001 an Islamic militant group bombed a Catholic church in the Gopalgonj district during Sunday mass, killing 10. The mastermind of the attack was detained and interrogated but not prosecuted.
Buddhists too have been hit by attacks. In September 2012, a Muslim mob angered by an apparently blasphemous Facebook image allegedly posted by a Buddhist man destroyed about 100 Buddhist homes and 30 temples in the Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar districts. Police detained 250 people but again no prosecutions were made.
Violence against Bangladesh minorities continues unabated, largely because of a culture of impunity against attackers and the failure of legal mechanisms to deliver justice to victims. Tribal groups have been forced to leave the country en masse as the perennial victims of land grabs and violence, with no recourse to compensation. Elements of the government apathetic towards minority rights give their tacit support, and this seeps into the courtroom, where justice is rarely delivered.
Minority leaders are growing more vocal about rights, and campaign for special provisions to protect their communities. They have called on the government to formulate a law to protect minorities from future violence, to create 60 reserved seats in parliament and to transfer cases of violence against minorities to a fast-track court that can resolve them quickly.
It’s time to take these into consideration. The rights of minorities need protecting, and the culture of impunity that allows their tormenters to walk free must end. Failure to do so would be a national disgrace – after all, a nation’s excellence depends on how well it treats its most vulnerable members.