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Geopolitics

Islamists Target Hindu Minority In Bangladesh

''The goal of the fundamentalists is to force us to leave Bangladesh and go to India,” says one activist for the rights of religious minorities.

Hindu devotees Swamibagh, Bangladesh
Hindu devotees Swamibagh, Bangladesh
Frédéric Bobin

ENAYETPUR — There is a pile of burned-out metal sheets and poles, and the smell of ashes still remains in Enayetpur, a Bangladeshi hamlet situated on the Gulf of Bengal. Three houses of braided palm, where 20 people were sleeping Jan. 8, did not resist long in the fire caused by attackers who threw Molotov cocktails during the night.

Miraculously, only one person, Acharjee Mitu, was wounded. He still has some burns on his forehead, a shiny pink stain. A week later, the villagers are still in shock. They belong to the country’s Hindu minority, which represents just 9% of the population. During the last year, Muslim attacks against Hindus — and occasionally against Buddhists — have intensified. The controversial Jan. 5 elections, boycotted by an opposition that includes influential fundamentalist Muslims, have worsened the climate of violence.

Resident Sanjay Acharjee did not see the attackers. But he has no doubt about their identity: “They are activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami and of BNP — Bangladesh Nationalist Party.”

Jamaat-e-Islami is the primary Islamist party in Bangladesh. It is historically allied with the BNP. In recent weeks, the two parties orchestrated a violent campaign to protest the last elections on the grounds that it was not “transparent.” Police and paramilitary forces have responded with great brutality, polarizing the Bangladeshi political scene even further.

In this highly charged context, the Hindu minority was an easy target for the most extreme opposition activists, including those related to the Islamist movement. The Islamists wanted to make them pay for their participation in the elections.

Hindus — and other minorities (including Buddhists and Christians) — have always supported the Awami League, the ruling party since 2009 whose mandate was renewed after the Jan. 5 elections. Embodying the legacy of the struggle for Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) independence against Pakistan in 1971, the Awami League defends secular values of religious minorities as a safeguard against Islamist extremism.

“The goal of the fundamentalists is to force us to leave Bangladesh and go to India,” says Ranajit Kumur Dey, president of an organization defending the rights of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian minorities. In fact, the exodus to a large neighboring country with a Hindu majority is a history that dates back to the partition in 1947 between India and Pakistan of the former British “crown jewel.” Today only about 11 million Hindus are still living in Bangladesh.

The independence of Bangladesh in 1971, during which Hindus were victims of pro-Pakistani forces, accelerated the demographic decline. In Enayetpur, people still remember that time. A fire back then destroyed all the households. “The majority of the population of the village fled to India,” says Sanjay Acharjee.

The increasing number of attacks in recent months, motivated both by religious fanaticism and land expropriation, has revived the memory of that dark period among Hindus. A vigilante group has organized night patrols, and the lack of sleep has given them dark circles under their eyes.

“If I had the means, I would leave Bangladesh,” says Arun Acharjee. “We do not want to leave the country that is our homeland,” says Gobinda Mohajan. “But we live in permanent insecurity.”

What’s hardest for Mohajan to understand is that the secular government of the Awami League is ineffective in protecting Hindus, even though the religious minority supports the government. Mohajan is even tempted to put all the parties of the “Muslim majority” in the same basket. “They are all interconnected and share the same feelings,” he sighs.

A disillusioned statement that leaves little room for hope.

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