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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Elections in Bangladesh: A Nightmare for its Minorities

Paper no. 2069
22.12.2006

Elections in Bangladesh: A Nightmare for its Minorities

by Dr. Anand Kumar

http://www.saag.org/papers21/paper2069.html

Generally, elections in Bangladesh are known for the extreme political rivalry that exists between the two main political parties BNP and the Awami League. This rivalry is so intense that it overshadows all other issues, though they are no less important for the proper functioning of a democracy. In democratic countries, during the elections voters get special treatment. Eying their votes, political parties try to woo them. This has been specially so in the case of minorities. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, elections have proved to be a bane for the minorities of the country. Minorities have been generally subjected to harsh treatment in Bangladesh. Several laws like the Vested Property Act increased the miseries of the minority population. Riots have taken place in Bangladesh against the minority community forcing them to leave the country. The number of religious minorities has come down in a big way over the last nine decades. According to the 1901 census, 33 per cent of the population of then East Pakistan was Hindu and.09 per cent others. But the 1991 census showed that 10.5 per cent of the population was Hindu and one per cent others.In Bangladesh, Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) was the once place where minorities were in large numbers. But even there the government has been following a deliberate policy to outnumber minorities in their own land. This led to an insurgency problem in the CHT area. The issue was attempted to be resolved through the CHT Agreement of 1997. Unfortunately, there has been hardly any progress in the implementation of this agreement. Violence was unleashed against the Hindu minorities after the victory of BNP alliance during the last elections in 2001. The Human Rights Congress for Bangladeshi Minorities estimated that dozens of people were killed, more than 1,000 women from minority groups were raped and several thousand people lost their land in the three months around the election. In a report in August 2003, a US-based human rights organization, Refugees International, claimed that religious minorities, especially Hindus, still face discrimination in Bangladesh. The report claimed that religious minorities "face restrictions in areas such as access to jobs in the government or military". It also claimed that upto "20,000 Hindus were displaced in recent years" due to communal violence. It demanded the Bangladesh government to comply with laws protecting religious minorities and establish an independent body to probe the attacks on Hindus in 2001. The report alleged that "despite calls for a full, impartial and independent investigation of the 2001 attacks, the Government of Bangladesh has taken no action to bring to justice the perpetrators". The organisation also demanded that property appropriated under the Vested Property Act (VPA) from Hindus be returned to them according to a well defined timetable. Religious Minorities Faced Pressure during Local Elections
Religious minorities faced threats and intimidation by the supporters of the preceding four-party alliance members before the May 9, 2005 Chittagong City Corporation (CCC) polls. Polls campaigners for the BNP-led alliance's mayoral candidate reportedly asked voters in the minority-dominated areas not to turn up at polling centres on the voting day. The alliance's target was to keep over one lakh and fifty thousand minority voters (mostly Hindus, making about 15 percent of total voters) away from polling centres as they are generally considered vote bank of the main opposition Awami League (AL). Alliance loyalists tried to put pressure on minority voters saying there will be violence on the polls day. This strategy was designed to keep Hindu voters, mainly females, off the polling centres so that fake votes could be polled in their names.
Even this time, the elections in Bangladesh may or may not take place on time but there is no let up in discrimination and violence against the minorities. Thousands of voters - either from the minority communities or considered as supporters of the Awami League (AL) – have been excluded from the updated voters list in the BNP-dominated areas of the Dhaka. In their place, a large number of fake names have been included.Two thousand and two hundred voters out of 3,600 at Rishipara of Maniknagar, a minority- dominated area, are not on the voter list. They staged a demonstration in the area on December 10 protesting that they are not being listed this time also. Minorities allege that their names have been deleted after registration as the Caretaker government which is a front for the erstwhile Khaleda Zia government fears that people of Rishipara might cast votes for Awami League. Only 15 of the 300 tenants at house No32 of Rishipara were reportedly listed as voters.According to Nobokumar, 'panchayet chief' of Rishipara, though field level Election Commission (EC) staff listed 140 named for updating the voter list, he later erased 90 names. The authorities however deny the allegation. In Dinajpur town several thousand members of the minority communities were not included in the updated voter list. Though a revision of voter list has been taking place under pressure of Awami League led alliance these voters possibly may not be enrolled this time also due to acute shortage of voter registration forms. On the other hand, the updated voter list has included the names of many under aged students of a madrasa in the Dhaka’s Mohammadpur area. Their names have not been removed even when the correction process in the voter list is on. The field level Election Commission (EC) staffs continue to show negligence for several reasons. First, there is a severe shortage of voter registration forms. Secondly, while visiting their respective areas, these officials are guided by the cadres of BNP and Jamaat. They are encouraged to skip the houses of minority community and of those people whom they suspect to be supporters of the Awami League. According to Dinajpur chapter of the Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities, members of the minority communities in the town total 2.25 lakh, and 1.5 lakh of them are eligible voters. But around 70 thousand of them were not listed.A large number of people from the minority community visited the EC offices voluntarily to get enrolled as voters since the EC field staffs were unable to cope with listing such a huge number of voters through door to door visits. But many of them had to return frustrated due to acute shortage of voter registration forms. Local EC staff has reportedly confessed that they might not be able to list many of the minority people as voters due to lack of forms.In Madrasas, however, a large number of students aged under 18 have been registered as voters. In Jamia Rahmania Arabia Madrasa at Mohammadpur even students of class VII are included in the updated list. More than 800 of the 1,500 students and teachers are reportedly on the updated list. The election commission staff has not rectified these mistakes. The election officials adopted a completely different approach while visiting the minority institutions. During their first visit to Shakkyamuni Buddhist Monastery and indigenous community-run Bonoful Adivasi Green Heart School and College, at Mirpur enumerators listed only four out of the 30 staffs as voters. According to the assistant director of the monastery, Real Dewan, rest of the staff was given forms to be filled up much later. A number of stranded Pakistanis (Biharis) have also managed to get their names included in the updated voter list. Around 22,000 stranded Pakistanis out of 62,000 have been reportedly enrolled as voters at Saidpur upazila of Nilphamari. A large number of stranded Pakistanis have been listed as voters in several camps of Rajshahi division including Bogra. Manipulation of the Voter List in Chittagong Hill TractsTo influence the outcome of the upcoming elections, an attempt has been made to tamper with the voter list of the CHT area. The indigenous people of three Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) districts are alleging that thousands of 'outsiders' have been enrolled in the voter list while permanent residents of the area are being left out. Speaking to media at the National Press Club in Dhaka on August 7 ahead of the World Indigenous Day, Chairman of CHT Regional Council Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma (Santu Larma) said, "At least 30,000 Rohingya refugees have been enrolled in the voter list…even though the permanent residents are supposed to be enrolled in the voter list, the real CHT people are being left out in the list which is in violation of the peace treaty." He demanded the locals should prepare the voter list in CHT. He further alleged that many army, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and police personnel posted in the region have become voters. If these people were posted at other places during the elections, there will be room for vote-fraud. He also feared that the indigenous people will not be allowed to cast their votes freely. He pointed out that the peace treaty he signed in December 1997 stipulated that the tribal people will have a separate voter list. Polling Day Coincided With Hindu FestivalTo further discourage minority voters from turning up at the polling booths, the Election Commission had announced the polling day as January 23 which coincides with the Hindu religious festival Saraswati Puja. However, the EC has now agreed to move the date a day before on the request of the community. The updating of voter list in Bangladesh is being done in a particular way. The so called neutral caretaker government in Bangladesh which is acting as a front for the BNP led alliance is including names of only those voters who they think would vote for the Khaleda led alliance. The removal of names of minority voters from the voter list is a dangerous situation for them. This has made them aliens in their own country. This kind of treatment of minorities forces them to think of migrating to other places which are relatively safer. But this development might also lead to unfortunate situations. It will be like playing into the hands of extremist Islamist forces who want these minorities to leave the country so that their brand of extremist Islam can be imposed. In this context, the role of international community as well as the role of international human rights organization becomes very important. The pressure exerted by them can help these communities to retrieve their rights. Protection of their rights will also ultimately help to thwart the designs of Islamists in Bangladesh. Conclusion
The elections in Bangladesh do not create any enthusiasm among the minority voters, rather, it creates panic in the areas inhabited by them. The extreme political polarization in Bangladesh is spilling over its streets in the form of street battles between the cadres of two main political alliances. The country is facing complete chaos. The law and order is in a critical situation. In this situation, the prime concern of everybody, both domestically as well as internationally is to hold somehow elections in the country. The concern for minorities and their democratic rights hardly appears to be on the agenda of any body. Minorities of Bangladesh are living in extreme fear. They live in Bangladesh, but their names have been struck off from the voter list. This too has happened when a major point of dispute between the two main political parties is the flawed voter list which has more than 1.2 crore extra voters. The country does not seem to have any place where minorities can seek redressal of their grievances. Islamists are gradually threatening to take over Bangladesh. A feeling of increasing insecurity among the minorities will only make their job easy.
(The author can be reached at anandkrai@yahoo.com)

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