Who stands by religious minorities in Bangladesh?

Published : 22 Oct 2021 09:26 PM | Updated : 24 Oct 2021 03:33 PM

Bangladesh Awami Leage since its inception in late 1940s started practicing non-communal politics in the subcontinent. The Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who led the liberation struggle of Bangladesh, took the initiative to secularize Awami League and the erstwhile socio-political culture of this land. One of the core principles of Bangabandhu’s liberation struggle was the principle of secularism and non-communalism. After independence of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu adopted ‘secularism’ as one of the four fundamental principles of state policy. This principle had been fundamental to the governance of Bangladesh and formed the basis of the work of the state and of its citizens. All other state laws, policies and programmes of the government of Bangabandhu were being taken in line with this fundamental principle in the constitution.

After the assassination of the Father of the Nation along with his family members, the extra-constitutional government of General Zia unconstitutionally dismantled the principle of secularism from the constitution and incorporated provisions in the constitution allowing religious politics in the country amending article 38 of the constitution for their narrow political gains. All the state practices were supportive to the communal politics which had an enormous influence in the broad socio-political-cultural canvass. Subsequently, in line with General Zia’s philosophy, another extra-constitutional regime of General Ershad also continued to bring religion in state affairs for their narrow political gain and to perpetuate their rule. BNP-Jamat’s two government tenures led by Begum Khaleda Zia were carrying the legacies of the extra-constitutional military regimes in terms of supporting communal policies at all levels.

During this period, the religious minorities, especially a significant number of   Hindu population were subject to oppression and repression. During the so-called elections in this period, the voters belonging to Hindu religion were customarily obstructed to cast their votes as the incumbent regimes and their allies historically think that the religious minorities including the Hindu population is a vote bank for Awami League.

The daughter of the Father of the Nation Sheikh Hasina after returning to Bangladesh in May 1981 started to lead a historic movement for restoration of democracy and rule of law in the country. Protection of the rights of the people belonging to religious minorities was an important feature of her movements. Her movements for establishing fundamental rights continued till she took the state power by winning the general elections in 1996 and even beyond.

The population belonging to Hindu religion had a historic grievance with regard to land rights of a significant number of people belonging to them under the Vested Properties Act. This is a controversial law enacted during Pakistan period that allowed the government to confiscate property from individuals it deems as an enemy of the state. Before the independence of Bangladesh, it was known as the Enemy Property Act. The law was an instrument for taking away the lands of the Hindu population who went to India from 1965 to 1969. It was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government who repealed the Vested Property Law by way of enacting the Vested Properties Return Act in April 2001 in the parliament while the opposition BNP and Jamaat members boycotted the session of the parliament. However, the BNP-Jamat government from 2001-2006 did not take any initiative to enforce the provisions of the new law and address the legal issues pertaining to it. Rather, they brought two amendments in the law in the year 2002 to create impediments for the enforcement of the 2001 law made by Awami League government and to frustrate the objectives of the law. Even after the Vested Properties Return Act in April 2001, land encroachment involving Hindu land had continued during BNP government as evident in many writings including that of Rabindranath Trivedi published in Asian Tribune on 29 May 2007.

It was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government who successfully addressed all the legal issues of the vested property law regime by the year 2013 by way of necessary legal enactments, amendments and executive orders with the satisfaction of the aggrieved people belonging to Hindu population. 

Prime Minister Shekh Hasina’s government in 2011 through 15th Amendment to the Constitution reintroduced the principle of secularism in the preamble of the constitution and thereby the state brought back its secular character. The incorporation of the principle of secularism in the preamble of the constitution overrides any provision in the constitution or elsewhere which is contradictory to the principle of secularism. The reason being that under constitutional law, if there is any conflict between the preamble and any provision in the body of the constitution, the provisions of preamble shall prevail. Bangladesh Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina has taken numerous legislative, administrative and policy steps for the welfare of the population belonging to religious minorities. Now people of all religions in Bangladesh stand in the equal footing to enjoy the freedom to practice their own religions.

Since August 1975, the Hindu population in Bangladesh were subject to oppression, repression and discrimination by the leaders, members and beneficiaries of the regimes of General Zia and General Ershad. Owing to this, a number of Hindu population were compelled to migrate to India. This anti-Hindu trend continued during the two tenures of Khaleda Zia. Apart from various oppressive and repressive events against Hindu population during Khaleda Zia’s regime, there have been discriminatory administrative orders passed by the government of Khaleda Zia. In 1993, the Home Ministry asked commercial banks to regulate withdrawal of cash by Hindus and stop disbursement of loans to the Hindu community in districts bordering India.

In October 2001, just after the national elections, BNP-Jamat leaders and activists  unleashed a systematic campaign of violence against Hindus that went on for about 150 days. A judicial commission constituted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government probing this violence documented about 18,000 incidents of major crime; about 1,000 Hindu women were raped and 200 were victims of gang rape. Many people fled to India. After forming government Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the initiative to bring the criminals into justice. In the light of the recommendation of the judicial commission constituted by her government, criminal cases were filed against every incident. Criminals were prosecuted; a good number of accuseds were sentenced to jail and other are still facing trials.

The government of Sheikh Hasina has taken effective steps to bring the religious minorities to the mainstream society and state affairs in terms of access to opportunities in public service and various sectors of the state. During the non-Awami League governments, people belonging to Hindu religion were subject to discrimination and deprived of equal opportunity and equity. Like the government of the Father of the Nation, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government fairly and equitably addressed the issue. She has adopted a just and fair policy and provided equal opportunities to the religious minorities in public services and other affairs. As a result of her initiatives, a significant number of people belonging to Hindu religion are getting employment in public service and different sectors of the economy. It is only during the Awami government when persons belonging to Hindu religion have been appointed in important portfolios in the government and judiciary. During Awami League government, many officials belonging to Hindu religion have been appointed in the highest positions in the civil service. The highest position in the judiciary was embellished for the first time by a person belonging to Hindu religion during Awami League government. The number of Awami League leaders belonging to religious minorities in the committees of different tiers of the Party (and its affiliated and sister organizations), in the Parliament and the Cabinet are historically commendable. This always reflects the true secular character of Bangladesh Awami League. Bangladesh Awami League has created an atmosphere in the country conducive and supportive to religious minorities and peaceful and harmonious coexistence of the people of all religions in the society.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina adopted zero tolerance policy towards terrorism and violence against people belonging to religious minorities. ‘Dhormo Jaar Jaar, Utsob Shobar,’ (Religion as per one’s own, but festivals common to all)- is not only a mere slogan adopted by Awami League, but also a depiction of religious harmony in Bengali society and culture for hundreds of years. Our government always provides adequate protections during the festivals of religious minorities. This year, about 35,000 Durga Pujas mandaps were organized across the country and went off peacefully except some undesired and heinous incidents in Cumilla, Chandpur, Noakhali, Feni and Rangpur. Festivals of religious minorities, like the Durga Puja, have been provided adequate security by the government. In 2017, over 30,000 Durga Puja mandaps were organized across the country, and went off without any security issue. In 2018, 31,272 Durga Pujas mandaps were managed in Bangladesh. The total number of Durga Pujas mandaps rose to 35000 in this year which signifies the fact that the government has been adequately supportive to organizing the puja mandaps in terms of providing security and other facilities.

On 13 October, 2021 the first incident of attack in a local temple in Cumilla town was reported arising out of an unexpected incident which deems to be a part of a conspiracy to start communal terrorism.   At the directive of the Prime Minister, the Government took the incident into serious cognizance instantly and started taking all the necessary actions. Prime Minister has directed all concerned in the government to take immediate steps to identity and arrest the criminals and bring them into justice and also to take preventive measures in order to protect the religious minorities especially the Hindu population. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also ordered to provide adequate compensation speedily to the affected people. The Government deployed Boarder Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in 22 (twenty two) districts following tensions over the Cumilla incident. But several incidents of heinous attack in Hindu temples were occurred in the next few days in Chandpur, Noakhali, Feni and Rangpur and the most serious incident occurred in Noakhali. Prime Minister Sheikh Haina has urged the Awami League leaders and activists to come down to the ground to resist the attacks on Hindu Mandirs and the houses and properties belonging to religious minorities. She already sent high-powered teams comprising of Awami League central Committee leaders to Cumilla, Hajiganj in Chandpur, Noakhali, Bashkhali in Chittagong and Pirganj in Rangpur. Prime Minister and Awami League President Sheikh Hasina has launched a number of party programmes nationwide to combat the communal terrorism. Prime Minister has directed all concerned to extend all-out supports towards the Hindu community.

Starting from the Cumilla incident till date, 71 criminal cases are lodged and about 500 people are arrested on charges of communal attacks and violence all over the country. A number of new cases are being processed. The police and the law enforcing agencies are working hard and driving operations to arrest the accused people and the suspected ones.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has dismantled the regime of the impunity in Bangladesh and instead, established rule of law in the country. Her government responded instantly to every incident of communal violence in the country by way of bringing the criminal to justice, while the other governments actively indulged to this kind of heinous acts. In the incident of attack on a Buddhist temple in Ramu in the year 2012, 300 people were arrested in the first week of the attack including the Upazilla Chairman of Naikhongchhari Tofael Ahmed (Jamat leader) who was suspended from his position. The trial of the accused are continuing in the regular criminal courts and the state party (government)  has been working hard as prosecution to ensure punishment for the criminals. In Nasir Nagar incident in 2016, in the first two days of the incident 53 suspected were arrested and sent to jail. Government did not exempt anyone from the prosecution. The trial is going on in the regular courts.  It is noted that because of the numbers of the courts as compared to the population size in the country, trials in the courts in Bangladesh generally take a considerable period of time for final disposal. Even the trial of the killers of the Father of the Nation and his family members took many years for final disposal.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina truly believes in secular and non-communal politics. Sheikh Hasina said, “Bangladesh Awami League does not use the term minority as a nomenclature for religious minorities in Bangladesh. She mentioned, “we all are citizens of Bangladesh standing on the equal footing and our constitution, laws of the land and the culture and heritage do not discriminate among our citizens on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, gender etc.” 

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has given stern warning to perpetrators of communal violence. She said, "The incidents are being thoroughly investigated. Nobody will be spared. It does not matter which religion they belong to. They will be hunted down and punished.” She further said, "They must be found. We did so in the past and will do it in the future, too. They must face due punishment. Exemplary punishment will be given so that none can dare to engage in the future.”

We have the information that some political parties are trying to have recourse to communal terrorism in order to dismantle the current political and economic stability of the country and to tarnish the image of Bangladesh outside world. It is substantially clear who could be the potential beneficiary to this atrocity. A number of authentic reports indicate that there had been political motive to destabilize the government behind the recent communal violence. The reports have clearly indicated that BNP and its allies and their activists and supporters have actively participated in the communal violence. After the first incident in Cumilla, many BNP leaders through their social media IDs have instigated or indulged the common people to engage in communal violence. During the last ten years, BNP and its allies have used several methods of campaign to destabilize the government. Having failed in every method, they have had recourse to communal violence for this goal. Given the sensitivity of the socio-political-cultural ethos of South Asia, playing communal card was an easy task for them. However, because of the staunch and stringent  position of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in dealing and addressing the issue, the situation is under control of the government. The government has taken effective and adequate measures, both preventive and punitive, for the protection and welfare of the people belonging to religious minorities as well as for rendering justice to the victims and their families.


Dr. Salim Mahmud is Information and Research Secretary, Bangladesh Awami League