Bangladesh: Can minority communities expect a peaceful election this time?

Written by Fazlur Rahman Raju | Published on: December 26, 2018

The latest attack took place on Friday night in Thakurgaon, where eight houses belonging to a Hindu family were gutted in a fire in Sadar upazila, causing Tk5 lakh worth of damage


web-Thakurgaon fire incident claimed to be attack on minorities
Local people visit the site of incident where eight houses belonging to a Hindu minority family, was gutted by a fire in the early hours of Friday, December 21, 2018 Dhaka Tribune
 
While the nation has been gearing up to vote in a new government on Sunday, there have been several reports of violent attacks across the country – on election campaigns, offices, and sometimes, on the candidates themselves.

Some of the victims of these attacks were reportedly members of minority communities, and it is claimed that the attacks were aimed at inciting communal violence ahead of the general election, slated for December 30.

The latest of such attacks took place on Friday night in Thakurgaon, where eight houses belonging to a Hindu family were gutted in a fire in Sadar upazila, causing Tk5 lakh worth of damage.

Local political leaders blamed rival parties for trying to instigate communal violence and disrupt the election process. However, the local fire department and upazila administration said it was merely an accident, which the political leaders were trying to take advantage of.
Earlier on December 16, four houses belonging to local Hindu families were set on fire by unknown assailants in the middle of the night at Sonagazi upazila of Feni, resulting in damages worth Tk10 lakh.

Local police said they were looking into the case to find out who had done it, and why.

So far, no evidence has been found that these incidents were deliberate and aimed at stoking communal violence before the election.

Yet, the minority communities of the country are still dreading attacks – given the history of violence against them in Bangladesh.

According to Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad (Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council), around 380 people belonging to minority communities have been attacked between January and August this year.

The number of attacks and incidents of violence on members of the minority communities stood at 1,471 in 2016 and 1,004 in 2017.

The historical trend
Minority communities in Bangladesh have faced a shocking amount of violence during election periods, according to community members and rights activists.

In many cases, the violence forced members of minority communities to leave the country to escape persecution.

Advocate Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad, said since 1990, elections are not a festival for minority communities, but a terrible catastrophe as they come under attack.

The 2008 elections were an exception, as minority communities did not face any major violence then, he added.

According to a study conducted by Dhaka University Professor Abul Barkat, between 1964 and 2013, around 11.3 million Hindus left Bangladesh due to religious persecution and discrimination.

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune about the main reasons behind the exodus, Prof Barkat said the biggest reason is that minority communities do not feel secure in Bangladesh.

During the regime of the BNP-led alliance from 2001 to 2006, minority communities, especially Hindus, became a major target. Hundreds of Hindus were killed, and hundreds of temples and idols were vandalized and burned.
 
At that time, rights activists throughout the country protested against the violence and urged the government to bring justice to the victims.

After the Awami League returned to power in December 2008, rights activists drew the attention of the government to try those responsible for post-electoral violence in 2001.

The government then formed a commission, headed by Judge Shahabuddin, which submitted a report containing several recommendations to the then home minister Sahara Khatun in 2011. However, the recommendations are yet to be implemented.

Rana Dasgupta said following the formation of the commission, several rights groups, including Ain O Salish Kendra, Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad, and Nari Progati Sangha, compiled a list of around 15,000 incidents of violence against minorities during the tenure of the previous BNP-led government.

On January 5, 2014, the day of the 10th general election, more than 200 people carried out an attack on the Hindu community in the village of Malopara under Abhaynagar upazila in Jessore. The attackers burnt down 12 houses and vandalized over 130 others during the attack. They also exploded 10-15 crude bombs and injured several people.

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Mukul Sarkar, who was wounded during the attack on Malopara, said they still live with the horrors of that experience.

“We are peaceful, but became victims of election-related violence,” he said.

Sarkar fears similar attacks might be carried out on December 30.

Saying that they do not want to live in such fear, he added: “If these violent acts continue, we have to leave our country.”

Apart from Jessore, minority communities in Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Rajshahi and Lalmonirhat came under attack before and after the 2014 general election.

Sanjoy Dey, a resident of Banshkhali upazila in Chittagong, said: “Minority communities are not victims of election-related violence, but a vested group used election-related violence against minority communities to serve their own agenda.

“During election time, these evil forces try to strike fear in minority communities, going as far as attacking entire communities, forcing the minorities to leave the country,” he said.

The risky areas
Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad has identified 40-50 areas across the country as high risk and 80-85 areas as risky for election-related violence, as those places have large populations belonging to minority communities.

In those areas, the council has formed area-based committees, with youths trained to tackle violence against minorities – particularly election-related violence.

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune over phone, Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad Presidium Member Kajal Debnath said it is common for minority communities to be victims of election-related violence, even though they themselves do not perpetrate any violence. 
He urged all major political parties to speak out on the issue, in order to raise awareness among political activists.

He also opined that political leaders should be held responsible if any political party carries out attacks.

Veteran actor Pijush Bandyopadhyay, also the convener of Samprity Bangladesh, also expressed fear that the minority groups in Bangladesh may face attacks during the upcoming election.

In a press briefing at the National Press Club in October this year, he said: “We fear that those responsible for atrocities during the Liberation War will spring to action before the polls.”

“Considering the incidents that took place following previous elections, we fear that such attacks will occur again,” he added.

Pijush also called upon the Muslims of the country to stand against any such atrocities.