Hindu minority become target of Bangladesh violence

13 January 2014 - 19:20 pm

They came at 9.30am on December 13, about 60 or 70 of them, to sack his family home in the village of Jagannathpur and terrorise the occupants. The gang worked with brutal efficiency, petrol-bombing the house, burning the motorcycles outside, stealing jewellery and smashing with clubs every household appliance not consumed by the flames.

“When anything happens, Hindus are attacked,” says Subhash Ghosh, his eyes filling with tears as he stands outside the burnt shell of his house in the Bangladeshi countryside near the Indian border. “Everything is lost.”

He and another 21 members of his extended family have sought refuge in a nearby town and dare not stay the night on the farm their family has owned for more than a century.

The attack by militants of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamist party allied to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was one of thousands of violent incidents in the run-up to the general election of January 5. It occurred the day after the execution of Abdul Quader Mollah, a JI leader convicted of war crimes.

Local Hindus had nothing to do with the execution. But here in the southwest near the Ganges delta, members of the Hindu minority are particular targets of JI because of their religion and because they almost all support the Awami League, the nominally secular party which has run Muslim-dominated Bangladesh for the past five years and which won the election after a BNP boycott.

The historic region of Bengal has a history of bloody communalism. In nearby Chuknagar on May 20 1971, Pakistani troops massacred thousands of Hindus – about 15,000, the locals say – as they fought to keep what was then East Pakistan from seceding to become the independent nation of Bangladesh.

Mr Ghosh fought as a guerrilla “freedom fighter” against the Pakistanis and their local supporters, who included JI. The ranks of the Islamists today are swollen by the landless descendants of Muslims who fled from India at the time of the violent partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Some of his Hindu neighbours have fled across the border to India, but at the age of 63 Mr Ghosh has no desire to abandon his home or his shrimp farming business, even if he does sometimes wonder about claiming asylum in the UK or Australia. “I cannot leave the country like a coward and I cannot be a rickshaw-puller in India because I have land and property here,” he says. “What would I do in India?”

Hindus in nearby villages tell similar stories of arson, rape, stabbings and beatings: Mr Ghosh says 55 to 60 Hindu homes and businesses in the area have been attacked. Most interviewees though do not want their names used in the media for fear of reprisals. JI militants, using temporary mobile telephone numbers, repeatedly called the locals guiding Financial Times reporters in the district to ask why we were interviewing victims, but refused to meet us or speak to us.

The latest round of violence began in the Satkhira district nearly a year ago, but worsened sharply in December, when JI took control of several villages, cutting down trees and building embankments to stop the security forces from entering. Some locals call the area “Pakistan in Bangladesh”.

“A few days back it was a horrible situation,” says Chowdhury Manjurul Kabir, the police superintendent sent from Dhaka to restore order a month ago. “There was no certainty about life. If someone came out, he might not go back to his home. The whole district was like a graveyard.”

He said: “Jamaat-Shibir [the JI youth wing] activists are not big in numbers, they panicked everybody. That is their success. Some people were killed very brutally.”

Hindus, once a majority here, still make up 25 to 30 per cent of the population compared with 8 per cent in the whole of Bangladesh, and are easy targets, but they are not the only victims.

In Saroskati Bazaar, Abdul Rahman shows me a gruesome photo on his mobile phone of a dead man whose throat has been cut. It is his 32-year-old brother Mehdi Hasan, who was head of the local Awami League’s youth wing.

At 1am on December 13 – the same day Mr Ghosh’s house was attacked – a group of about 20 JI militants allegedly attacked Mr Rahman’s house, where his brother had been taking shelter, abducted him, killed him and left the body next to a canal about a kilometre down the road. “He was murdered,” says Mr Rahman.

The police chief has restored an uneasy peace to most of Satkhira, but residents are in a sombre mood as they contemplate the polarisation of national politics between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s repressive Awami League government and the opposition BNP, supported by its increasingly violent Jamaat-e-Islami allies.

“The extremist forces here, they are quite strong,” says one local development worker, who asked not be named. “With these two political parties, it’s not possible to have a sustainable democratic system.”

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