It is not easy being a Hindu politician in Bangladesh. Ask Pankaj Nath, a sitting Awami League MP from the Barisal-4 constituency of the Bengali-speaking nation, who is now running as an independent in the January 7, national elections. Pankaj Nath has been a Sheikh Hasina loyalist all his life and one of the popular leaders of the party. Still, Nath has been denied a party ticket in favour of a Muslim candidate. Many of his followers in his constituency, Barisal and the capital city, Dhaka, reeked of religious discrimination.
“Pankaj Nath is a Hindu leader who is also popular among Muslims. His constituency, Barisal-4, is Muslim majority yet he always wins from there. Strangely, the Awami League fielded a Muslim candidate instead. Many Hindus feel disturbed by the decision,” says Nilay Biswas, a Hindu student from Dhaka University.
The Awami League candidate has now stepped out of the race owning to a controversy over her dual citizenship and Nath may well win again. But Biswas and other Hindu students of the Dhaka University are concerned about the fate of Hindus in Bangladesh if Sheikh Hasina does not come back to power. “If this is the condition of Hindus when Hasina is in power, imagine how worse off we will be if she is defeated,” says Tirtho Bose Deb (name changed on request), another Hindu student from the University.
Bose Deb says the Pankaj Nath episode is not a solitary event. Over the years, the Hindu population in Bangladesh, has been at the receiving end of communal attacks, hurled with taunts for their religious beliefs and marginalised in every possible way. “In a country where the majority population believes in one God, we struggle daily trying to worship our many Gods,” says Bose Deb.
The worst attack on Hindu lives and beliefs came in 2021, when a fake news was circulated that a copy of the Quran had been placed at the feet of a statue of Bhagwan Hanuman at a pandal in Cumilla district. It was the time of Durga puja and riots broke out in Cumilla and soon spread to other districts. Hindus were killed, their properties and homes were destroyed, pandals were vandalised. Such was the intensity and ferocity of the attacks that international media woke up and took notice.
The Sheikh Hasina Government came under pressure as the plight of the Hindu minority got international attention. This year, after India lost the Cricket World Cup final, videos surfaced of Bangladeshi fans cheering India’s defeat. There were some fans who were heard in the videos saying they would not have been so happy even if Bangladesh had won the World Cup.
“Hindus in Bangladesh are often equated with India. We are told we are Indians staying on uninvited in Bangladesh. So, after India’s World Cup loss, the Bangladeshi fans did not just celebrate India’s defeat, but took digs at us. Hindus have spilled blood for Bnagladesh’s war of Independence in 1971 and yet our loyalty towards our country is questioned,” says Bose Deb.
Bose Deb says Hasina’s Awami League has promoted secular values but the Government has not been able to assuage hurt feelings of Hindus in Bangladesh. But, Bose Deb says Hindus in Bangladesh have no choice but to opt for Awami League. The country’s principal opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has a bad history of allowing attacks on Hindus when it was in power with the Jamaat-e-Islami. This time, the Jamaat has publicly said it wants Sharia law in Bangladesh.
On a worrisome note, the Hindu population has gone down from 13.5 per cent in 1974 to 7.9 per cent in 2022. The BNP-Jamaat years were a living hell for Hindus in Bangladesh. The BNP joined hands with Jamaat, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, to form a four-party alliance. They won the 2001 national election. After the win, massacre after massacre of Hindus went on for six months. Later, a judicial commission that investigated the violence said there were around 18,000 incidents of crimes against Hindus, around 1,000 Hindu women were raped and 200 were victims of gang rape, while nearly 500,000 Hindus fled to India.
“Nearly 15 years of Sheikh Hasina’s has not been able to make us forget those years. Every time Hindus are attacked in Bangladesh we remember those years, of the earlier regime” said Hindu rights activist Jayanta Karmakar. Karmakar says it breaks his heart to see broken idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses lying on streets every year during Durga puja and other Hindu festivals. He admits since the attacks in 2021, things have been better.
The Sheikh Hasina Government has tightened security across temples in the country and there was relative peace during Durga puja in both 2002 and 2003. The alternative to Hasina Government would be the death knell for the Hindu population in the country. “Where will Hindus go if the Jamaat somehow manages to come to power?” he rues.
On a worrisome note, the Hindu population has gone down from 13.5 per cent in 1974 to 7.9 per cent in 2022.
For now, both the BNP and Jamaat cannot participate in the elections. The appellate division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court has dismissed a leave-to-appeal filed by Jamaat-e-Islami challenging a High Court verdict, which declared the party’s registration with the Election Commission as illegal.
This means the Jamaat cannot participate in the January 7 elections. The BNP has declared that it won’t participate in the elections till Sheikh Hasina steps down as the Prime Minister and elections are held under a caretaker Government. The Hasina Government has rejected the demand.
It seems almost certain now that with both the BNP and the Jamaat out of the race, Hasina will be the Prime Minister for a fourth term. So, what do Hindus expect from the next Government? The largest association of minorities in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity, has seven main demands including Enactment of Minority Protection Act, Formation of National Minority Commission, Enactment of Elimination of Discrimination Act, Enactment of Interstate Property Conservation Act and Return of Vested Property Act.
The question is: Will Sheikh Hasina deliver on these expectations and let Hindus breathe easy if she comes back to power in 2024?