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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Whither Minority Rights in Bangladesh?

Source: Asia Tribune

By Rabindranath Trivedi


The exodus of Hindus from East Bengal to India continued throughout the existence of Pakistan. Many Hindu Bengalis left for Calcutta after partition. Up to 1971 before the war of liberation begun over 5.3 million Hindus had sought refuge in India, mostly in West Bengal and Bangladesh surrounding states between the periods of August 1947 and 24 March 1971.

But the exodus of Hindus from East Bengal to India in 1971 was of different, the Hindus, in order to crush the Bengali nationalist movement, were targets of the Pakistan army. The Hindus as a class were to be eliminated. After 25 March till December 1971, Ten million Bengali refugees were stranded in inhuman, pitiable conditions in 825 Indian camps across the border in West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh .

It appeared that Yahya Khan hoped to kill two birds with one stone by creating the refugee issue. By getting rid of the Awami Leaguers and Hindus whom Yahya termed 'secessionists' and who voted massively for Sheikh Mujib, he was aiming to consolidate Pakistan as an Islamic State.

At the same time Yahya was hoping to ruin the social and economic fabric of the eastern part of India, which was in bad shape, by inflicting staggering numbers of refugees on it. The population of Hindu minority has declined from 15% (1974) to 10% (2001). Our former Hindu leaders and generation in East Bengal began their life in the peculiar political environment of communal hatred, distrust and disgrace.

The Hindu leadership in the Constitutional Assembly in Feb.1948 conceived the historic State-Language issue. It was the Hindu Leadership (1947-54) as the Leader and member of the opposition led the nation in the definitive direction to the constitution, parliament and democracy. Hindu Leadership had abandoned the separate electorate system and their advocacy for the joint electoral system was a milestone in our national history. If there were no joint electoral system in 1970, Bangladesh would not have her genesis as a Republic in 1971.

In Bangladesh, the Hindu minority becomes the coveted enemy under Vested Property Act. Many believed that the agony of the Hindus would be over and they would regain their lost honour with the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971.

It was entirely a mistaken notion. By and large, the successive Governments in liberated Bangladesh have followed the same policy as was pursued and practiced by Pakistan towards her Hindu and other minorities. So, we are to think over the issue meticulously and should sort out rationally for ameliorating the grievances of the minorities in Bangladesh.

After August 1975, the process of Islamisation during General Zia and Ershad regimes in Bangladesh renewed the flow of minorities due to unequal application of Law, humiliation, discrimination in service and violation of human rights. The fate of the minorities remains under the same wheels even in 2010. The crux of the problem is the Eighth Amendment, whereby Gen. H.M. Ershad converted the country into an Islamic Republic and made Islam the State Religion. Another Black Law is the Enemy (now Vested) Property Act of 1965, which remains on the statute book and is being miss-used to confiscate the property of Hindus.

This is a key reason for the continuous migration of Hindus from the country. Therefore, what we are sincerely demanding is the restoration of the Constitution of 1972, a Minority Rights Commission, and freedom of religion with the removal of Islam as State Religion, and a crackdown on the incidents of human trafficking.

Dr Akbar Ali Khan opined: “If Islam is considered as an essential component of Bangladeshi Nationalism, the role of the minority community in the political life of Bangladesh needs to be delineated. Total Hindu population in Bangladesh exceeds the population of Muslim majority countries like Yemen Republic, Jordan, Tajikistan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Oman etc. Politicians in Bangladesh must, therefore, come to grips with this inescapable reality.”(Dr Akbar Ali Khan, Discovery of Bangladesh: Explorations into Dynamics of a Hidden Nation, U P L, P151-52).

Bangladesh is second largest Hindu populated country in the world. They need reservation through Constitutional proviso. They want empowerment and social justice as equal citizens of the Republic. For this, representation of the minority communities in the registration of parties and voters must be ensured. The justice and electoral system must work equally for those in the mainstream as well as for those say for example, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A failure to do so would result in making the same mistakes that we have been making since the birth of this nation i.e. failing to place justice at the core of our nation-building efforts. Abdul Gaffer Chowdhury , a senior columnist, rightly said that " Bangladeshi " means the Muslim citizens of the land others like Hindu, Buddhists ,Christians and tribal origins are align citizens, they would be absorbed in the majority community by conversion or make them compelled to leave

So the Awami League government’s planning to restore 'secularism', one of the four original principles of state policy, in its constitution and will also retain the Quranic expression ‘bismillah’ without recognizing other religions would be a great bluff and theocratic design in the name of democracy and rule of law and human rights. M J Akbar opined:’ Islam did not make Pakistan a natural democracy; nor did Hinduism turn Nepal into one. Buddhism has not ensured democracy in Burma; its generals bow their head while greeting and still remain autocrats in uniform. Indian Muslims are the only Muslims in the world to have enjoyed more than five decades of uninterrupted, unconditional, adult franchise democracy. They, a section of Muslims, remain marginalised economically, but the polity has empowered them vigorously.

India is unique because of the ideology that won it freedom from the British: a commitment to multi-cultural equality and a celebration of the unequivocal rights of individual and collective. (The New Nation, 18 Dec. 2007) The Hindus in Bangladesh participated in the Liberation War and sacrificed a lot for Bangladesh with the expectation that in the newly liberated country, nation-state Bangladesh, they would enjoy equal status and rights along with the majority Muslim community. The sacrifices of the Hindu leadership were never acknowledged either officially or publicly. Moreover, In Bangladesh, Bengali, Hindu and India are equated with a typical psyche by the ruling cliché.

We have witnessed various periods of military and democratic rule in Bangladesh’s history and yet we have not learnt from history. The future of Bangladesh depends on how we can strengthen and give institutional shape to democracy, rule of law and human rights .That is of essence. Prof. Abdur Razzaque said,“What compounds the situation arises from the fact that no nation today is an island.

Bangladesh and its nation is of course not. It is link in a chain which is worldwide. Economically, politically, in the world of technology and of ideas, Bangladesh is an insignificant but vitally connected link in a chain.

Because it is so small and insignificant, ideas, impulses and practices which dominate or shape the world merely affect us, are acts of God over which we have no control. Whether we like it or not what happens in India is of vital importance to Bangladesh and not the other way about. What happens in Bangladesh is only of marginal importance and interest to India. It is concerting but a hard fact of life. " ( Abdur Razzaq,1980,p-17)The existing literature on the history of Bangladesh underplays not only the inner contradictions of the Muslims of Bengal, but also other significant features of her past. It's a 'crisis of confidence'. But in practice, the persecution of the minorities continued even after independence.The forms of oppression upon the minorities both physically and psychologically is manifold:

Constitutionally: by adopting 5th and 8th amendment to the Constitution, minorities have been downgraded and made them second class citizens in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh;

Economically, they have been crippled through discriminatory laws and practices; they have been made non-entity in different civil services including, administration, Foreign, army and police (below 2%) and other services including education;

Politically, they have been segregated and alienated from the mainstream and become a ‘vote-bank’ and become a subject of humiliation; They are totally deprived of the privileges of participation in the top positions of government as well the state; and Culturally and socially, they along with place of warship and women are insecure; Their ancestral properties lying vested with the government including Devuttur properties, though the supreme court (Appellate Division) and the High Court of Bangladesh declare those laws illegal.

A number of eminent personalities including 13 parliament members of minority community signed the memorandum with a 7-point demand and submitted to the prime minister’s office one seeking changes to ''Vested Property Return (amendment) Act'' in light of the Supreme Court verdict, reports the Daily Star.

It may be mentioned here that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in a judgment in 2006 said :“ Since the law of enemy property itself died with the repeal of Ordinance No.1 of 1969 on 23 -3-1974 no further vested property case can be started thereafter on the basis of the law which is already dead.

Accordingly, there is no basis at all to treat the case land as vested property upon started VP Case (58 DLR 2006 pp 177-185) .The Awami League Hindu lawmakers placed their other demands include a clear definition of vested property on the basis of Supreme Court's orders, return of all properties grabbed after 1974 and formation of tribunals at districts to dispose of the cases.

Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh minorities (HRCBM) was constituted on December 10,2004 to campaign for the rights of the minorities who have been denied their fundamental rights and are placed in a disadvantageous position economically, administratively, socially and politically; our mission is to blend human rights advocacy with humanitarian services and sustainable development; so that minorities may prosper in free and fair atmosphere and may make full contribution towards national development, international peace and cooperation in keeping with the progressive aspirations of the mankind.

HRCBM will oppose unlawful, fraudulent and intentional lease of Debottor Properties, Cremation Sites, Religious Institutions of minorities, grabbing of minority properties and lands with special reference to lands of indigenous people and settlement of non-locals in Chittagong Hill Tracks that directly violates the judgment in the Higher Court of Bangladesh; We will continue to support for materialization of CHT Peace Accord, and uphold principles of equity, natural justice and fundamental human rights. We have investigated more than 40 incidents of repression, torture, persecution, land-grabbing, forceful conversion, gang-rape, and demolition of temples of Minorities in various parts of Bangladesh since Sheikh Hasina came to power.Again, in the absence of reservation in the services, will not communal jealousy keep out by steady pressure or unfair exercise of patronage members of minorities who have no great political importance? We are not afraid of open persecution.

In recent years, the world community has woken up to the problems of the minorities, resulting in the adoption of several measures at the international level.

Although the sub-commission on prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities was formed as a subsidiary body of the United Nations commission on human rights as early as in 1947, new approaches towards the implementation of policies for an effective international protection of the ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities was becoming necessary.The rise of domestic conflicts around the world, resulting in suffering, displacement of people and social disruption during late Eighties and early Nineties brought minority rights into focus. The Daily Star in its an editorial opined :" Member of the minority community have reasons to be concerned over some recent incidents in which quite a few of their families came under attack Such a gross violation of rights of any segment of the society will have to be dealt with an iron hand, because that is where the real test of a democratic and pluralistic society lies. (The Daily Star editorial, 3 Sept 09) .

The most comprehensive UN human rights document devoted solely to minority rights is the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, adopted consensually by the UN general assembly in 1992. The declaration’s preamble states that the promotion and realization of the right of the minorities is integral to the development of society.

It asks all signatories to take necessary legislative measures to uphold the principles of the declaration. It is our sincere desire that Bangladesh, member of the United Nations, upholds the rule of law and endows upon its citizens the human rights and justice guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meghna Guhathakurta opined on the Occasion of 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10, December 2008: “The future of the rights movement in Bangladesh rests on equal participation of all sections of the people. This particularly refers to minorities; religious, ethnic, caste-based, and linguistic who in times of trouble, find themselves in a position to defend respectively their physical, economic and cultural rights to life, land and traditions, rights that has been promised to them by the Constitution of this country. Many may say that these rights pertain to the whole of humanity, why only address them in the context of minorities. True, but it is only through identifying social discrimination and ethno-racialism as social indicators of poverty and lack of justice that we can identify those very factors, which are equally responsible for the underdevelopment of minority communities as well as the hampered growth of a secular and democratic polity.”

Rabindranath Trivedi, is a Freedom Fighter, retired Additional Secretary, GoB, and presently Secretary General , Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities (HRCBM), an NGO in special consultative status with ECOSOC of the United Nations.

- Asian Tribune -