By Shafi Md Mostofa *
Bangladesh is once again in the spotlight of the international media for violating minority rights. In October 2021, there were attacks against at least 80 of 32,000 makeshift temples at the Durga Puja, the biggest annual Hindu festival. Over 3600 attacks on religious minorities took place between 2013 and 2021.
These attacks included vandalism and arson of 559 homes and at least 1678 temples, idols and places of worship. The immediate cause of the recent violence has been the slander of the holy quran, which was placed on the knee of the Hindu god Hanuman.
The brains behind these attacks have a program of political expediency and economic advantage. They are not motivated by Hindu or Islamic religious beliefs, but by criminality. Some claim that these anti-government forces strategically attack minorities to put pressure on the government. Counter-narratives claim that the government is taking advantage of this chaotic situation to marginalize the opposition. It is evident that militants of the ruling party are in some cases implicated in these attacks and the government has tended to turn a blind eye.
In many cases, the government loses lawsuits after each attack on minorities because the law is designed to arrest members of the opposition, rather than prosecute the perpetrators. Bangladeshi human rights organizations have OK that the government has been negligent in protecting the Hindu community in the country.
Economic interests provoke community violence. In several cases, human rights groups discovered that the attacks on several Hindu temples in Bangladesh were well planned, with the aim of taking over the community’s land. The Acquired Property Act of 1965 was used to seize Hindu property. Human rights groups and civil society activists have long urged successive governments to repeal the law. In response to these demands, the ruling Awami League amended this law to the Return of Invested Property Act 2013, which allows forfeited properties to be reclaimed by their original Hindu owners. However, minorities have not yet benefited from this law.
Mob attacks on Hindu temples and houses involve socio-religious and historical factors. Feelings of vicarious victimization, religious hatred and colonial heritage shape anti-non-Muslim sentiment in Bangladesh. Historically, Pakistan and India were divided on the basis of the two-nation theory. Pakistan was created exclusively for Muslims and India for Hindus. These feelings are still deeply rooted.
Although Bangladesh split from Pakistan and became a secular nation-state in 1971, it still bears signs of opportunistic majority politics, especially after the assassination of the country’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. Afterwards 1975, Bangladesh saw the rise of Islam as a state religion. Since then, Islamist narratives have become part of politics. Even though secularism was restored to the constitution in 2011, Islam remains the state religion. This ambiguity shows the divided nature of the country’s population, which undermines the imposition of equal rights for minorities.
Local clerics, who are indigenous to the land, had authority over the interpretation of the sacred texts of Islam and could influence people’s behavior. Due to increasing globalization, these local clergymen have lost their grip and outside leaders or academics have taken control of the interpretation of the text, which sometimes clashes with the country’s spirit of multi-faith harmony.
One of the main causes of radicalization is feelings of victimization. This feeling of victimization can also be vicarious victimization. Neighboring India and Myanmar both persecute Muslims. Videos of this persecution are increasing on social media, generating feelings of vicarious victimization. A radicalization study in Bangladesh revealed that Muslim persecutions in India and Myanmar have helped to radicalize young people.
Religious differences and a community mindset are key factors in the October attacks, which shattered trust between Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh. To restore that trust, the government must go beyond simply allocating money to rebuild Hindu houses and temples.
In the long term, the government should introduce multi-faith education into the national curriculum in accordance with the constitutional spirit of Bangladesh. The program needs to be updated to produce critical thinkers, rather than relying on rote memorization. At the same time, the government should conduct research to find out why growing numbers of people endorse violence. Bangladesh must come up with more inclusive state policies that include everyone, including political dissidents and religious minorities.
As a short-term strategy, the government should hire academics to organize interfaith dialogues in conflict-prone areas, launch cultural exchange programs for young people, and use popular religious scholars to spread messages of peace and solidarity. The culprits must be brought to justice. Without immediate government action, the future for minority rights and livelihoods in Bangladesh is bleak.
* About the Author: Shafi Md Mostofa is Assistant Professor of World Religions and Culture at the University of Dhaka and Assistant Lecturer at the University of New England, Australia.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum