Non-Muslims in Bangladesh:How Do We Treat Our Minorities? Time for Some Honest Answers
A month or so ago, I was in Kurigram and talking to an NGO worker. She was young and pretty and although the ostentatious sindur was not there on her sinthi, the white sankha on her hand told me that she was married. She proudly told me that she is considered to be the best worker in heroffice, and I could see that she possessed those ingredients of management that setleaders apart from the others. The reason she had started this conversation, it turned out, was that she was asking for my opinion over a dilemma that she was going through. She was, in reality echoing the anguished question that has rankled the minds of Hindus all over Bangladesh since 1992. “Dada, we are still young and now is the appropriate time to make the choice of whether to go over to India or not. Will we be able to live here, in Bangladesh?”
She had not asked me the question that would normally occupy the mind of a young person, out to make her presence felt in the world. She had not asked whether she will one day make it to the top of the office she worked in, or how she could help her husband in turning around the family business or whether they could one day become the pivotal players in the Kurigram social circuit. “We are being given subtle messages that our neighbours would be happy to buy my husband’s property in the town. There is pressure as well from our relatives in West Dinajpur to cross over and settle there,” she said.
I remembered that as a sequel to the Babri Masjid demolition, when there was widespread violence on the Hindu community here, the same anguished question was raised at a Conference of the Rabindra sangeet Sammilan Parishad in Dhaka. One of the responses, from an intellectual of the country was a tearful appeal from the stage. He concluded that in a Bangladesh bathed with the combined blood of its Hindu and Muslim children, things were bound to get better and that they should stick it out for just a little more time. The appeal was so passionately and intensely made that it induced sympathetic tears in many of those who were in the auditorium. Ten years later, tears welled up in the eyes of this dada as well, as he faced that same question from this young and beautiful woman. Even if she was able to ignore the “gentle” suggestion of selling her homestead, would she not, ten years from today, still be strapped to her desk as a programme officer, as she watched the entire retinue of her Muslim colleagues, one after the other, bypass her—yes, even in an NGO setting, let alone the government?
This is not a story cooked up to provoke a controversy. This is the brutal reality for one significant chunk of the Bangladesh population; the denial of rights that the state had promised him or her in 1971. The time has come for the majority community to face this issue squarely and honestly.
This young lady in Kurigram could thank her lucky stars that she was not Shilpi Chakraborty. For Shilpi, a 14-year-old student in a village school in Arua upazila of Manikganj, the time clock reminding her that she did not belong here, had already started ticking. Their neighbour had claimed a part of her father’s property. The father, in turn, had brought the Thana Amin whome asured the land and confirmed that the land was theirs and placed demarcating pillars in the presence of the village elders. A few days later, the pillars were found missing but under the stern stare of that ‘eternal guilt’, Shilpi’s father did not dare raise a voice. On the night of April 26, she was sleeping between her mother and father. The neighbour’s son and seven or eight other accomplices forced open the door, tied the father to a tree, dragged the mother outside and then four of them gang-raped her. When they left at dawn, they did not of course, forget to defile the whatever excuse of a shiv-mandir that stood in the premises. When we saw her in her spartan but spotlessly clean room, her head was drawn down in shame and she was answering in monosyllables. All that her mother wanted us to do was to arrange for some sort of a marriage for her because lajja would never again let her take the two km walk to school. Her father was devastated, because like the daughter, his own prestige as the village priest had been destroyed.
Not that there has never been resistance. On the outskirts of Faridpur live a community of Adivasis, (from Central India, they say) who had settled here seven or eight generations ago and who were officially allocated a large tract of land. That land happens to be prime property today, as the Faridpur-Khulna highway runs right through this land. These people live on the fringes of the society, the men doing menial labour and the wives, foraging the forest for firewood. Of late, some of them were beginning to get themselves educated, and one man in particular, Bhagya, was emerging as the leader of the community. (Reminds me of Alfred Soren, the leader of the Santhals, who was burnt to death under similar circumstances, in Naogaon). Around the beginning of May a girl student of the community was harassed on her way to school, and Bhagya protested. That set one event following the other, and on the afternoon of May 7, a large number of people invaded the community, beat up the women cooking their meal of the day, kicked away their rice pots (according to them, the supreme insult and in a few cases disrobed the women down to their skins. Twenty-six houses were damaged, their property looted, some homes totally demolished and one home burnt to ashes. Two mandirs were razed to the ground and the deities in them defiled. As for the expletives hurled at them, they took no notice of them. The Adivasis, however, unlike their Bengali co-religionists who have been cowered into accepting everything lying down, decided to fight it out and the community as a whole took up the issue. Perhaps, it was the Adivasi resilience that worked in them. We wait to see if they get justice.
The news of Bibharani Singha, has received wide coverage in the vernacularpress. She was studying in the second year in the Bangabandhu College at Chitalmari and was abducted by an employee of a photocopying shop—in this instance, a member of her own community—and it is rumoured that after a day or two she had conceded to marry him. However, by the time her father could trace her, the lover-boy had lost his ownership rights to some other people in Bagerhat, close to the powers that be in today’s Bangladesh. When she was finally recovered from Khulna, around the beginning of May, she had been repeatedly raped, burnt all over with cigarette butts when she resisted and numerous slashes were made on her body with a sharp knife. She and her father had to sign a written statement to the effect that nothing had happened and they would not seek redress. Consequently, no one—not even the father—dared to talk to us about the incident or name the culprits. We enquired with the OC of Bagerhat Thana why he had dithered in accepting a police case and why it was not recorded as rape. The master thespian tried to wriggle out of the situation by telling us that the victim herself had refused to take a medical examination.
I shall not talk about Mridul Rakshit, who was forced to live incognito in Dhaka for the last five years because he was under the threat of being killed. It was his young son, who finally paid that price, on his behalf, around the beginning of April. Mridul Rakshit now has no one to bequeath his Chittagong property to and no reason to safeguard it. Thus has been removed the last obstacle to selling his property and going where a section of the majority community wants all Hindus to go. The story of the minorities in South Asia has been asad one. But can we not show the way in Bangladesh
Originally printed at http://www.islaminterfaith.org/july2003/article.html#article2, and reprinted at TAM with permission.