The political drivers behind the attacks on Bangladesh’s Hindus

The Awami League has now been in power since 2009. Parliamentary polls are just two years away and Islamist opposition parties are willing to deploy all means to wrest power back
Bangladeshi activists join in a torch procession demanding justice for the violence against Hindus during Durga Puja festival, Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 18, 2021. (REUTERS) PREMIUM
Bangladeshi activists join in a torch procession demanding justice for the violence against Hindus during Durga Puja festival, Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 18, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated on Oct 25, 2021 04:12 PM IST
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BySubir Bhaumik

Three arrests in Bangladesh have blown the lid off the recent attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh. Iqbal Hossain, who placed the Koran at the feet of Hanuman in a puja pandal in Comilla, was nabbed from Cox’s Bazar coast. Fayez Ahmed, who circulated the pictures on Facebook, lived long years in Saudi Arabia . Police say the Koran used for provoking trouble was printed in that country and belongs to Fayez. Kamaluddin Abbasi , who led a huge mob in Chandpur within hours of the Comilla fracas, has confessed in court to leading the attack on a Hindu temple, when police opened fire to kill five rioters. All three are activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami , the pro-Pakistan party which opposed Bangladesh’s independence .

Hindus are just around 10% of Bangladesh’s 170 million people, but they are a decisive factor in more than 50 of the 300 parliament seats. So, they are now being attacked as soft targets by parties and groups belonging to Bangladesh’s Islamist ecosystem. The aim is to terrorise Hindus so that they stay away from voting; discredit the secular Sheikh Hasina government; and complicate bilateral ties with India.

In 2000-2001, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, started instigating similar attacks targeting Hindus to send them a message that the secularist Awami League , then in power as now, was not capable of protecting them . The ploy worked, especially after a pro-Jamaat army general heading the border guards triggered a border clash with India. The League lost the 2001 elections.

The Awami League has now been in power since 2009. Parliamentary polls are just two years away and Islamist opposition parties are willing to deploy all means to wrest power back. Over the past year, these outfits have attempted to cobble together a coalition, more broad-based than before and somewhat less radical outwardly.

Alongside these coalition-building efforts, the Islamist opposition has staged violent street protests on various pretexts — from opposing Mujibur Rahman’s statues as “un-Islamic” to protesting against the French crackdown on Islamist radicals to opposing the Bangladesh visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as special guest at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence.

Hasina has hit back hard, locking up in jail dozens of Hifazat-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami leaders on charges of murder, loot and arson. As the violence against Hindus triggered strong protests by secular groups, a junior minister in Hasina’s government announced that Bangladesh will return to the 1972 secular Constitution, scrapping the 8th amendment introduced in 1988 during General HM Ershad’s tenure which established Islam as the State religion.

The announcement apparently has Hasina’s support, and the Awami League has an absolute majority to ensure the passage of the proposed bill in parliament. But such a plan does set the stage for a possibly violent confrontation which will have both religious and political manifestations.

The United Nations and western nations have called for the protection of Hindus. India has lauded the tough policing that has led to the death of five rioters and arrest of hundreds of them. Given the background of attacks on Hindus, the widespread international condemnation, and the recognition that Bangladesh’s government needs to act, there will be limited scope to push a narrative centred on human rights violations — a pattern seen in the past — by interested parties, when Hasina unleashes her security forces and party cadres to tame the Islamist agitation that seems inevitable on the State religion issue.

The Taliban takeover has boosted the Islamists’ morale in Bangladesh but Hasina, who has braved 19 assasination attempts so far, is no Ashraf Ghani and the Awami League, which spearheaded the 1971 liberation war, is not a United States (US)-funded plant which will disappear at the first instance of a backlash. The battle for Bangladesh has started, one that India needs to watch closely.

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author who has reported extensively from Bangladesh and India’s Northeast

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022