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The Persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh Feels Scarily Familiar

But action being taken offers hope that it won't turn into a genocide.
01 February 2014, 7:00amUpdated on 03 February 2014, 9:23am

The Bangladeshi village of Malopara is a shady hamlet of a few hundred fishermen, nestled in the bend of the shallow Bhairab River. It feels peaceful, a rare haven from the suffocating density of urban Bangladesh. But in early January, Malopara felt anything but serene. The town had just suffered two visits from political activists wielding sticks and small bombs. Anticipating a third strike, the men sent most of the village’s women and children elsewhere. Their premonition was sadly correct: On the night of the 5th of January, a mob of over 100 men invaded the town, beat residents, damaged houses and finally forced locals to swim across the river to flee gunfire.

Asked if he thought his life would end that night, Bishwajit Sorkar – one of two dozen men beaten during the attack – says yes. He adds that he had been hit so hard in the ribcage he coughed up blood.

The violence that Sorkar and his neighbours faced is more troubling in the long-term than any isolated beating, however. Extremist groups are targeting Hindus nationwide. Travelling to visit the affected villages, I couldn’t help but wonder if things could get even worse. To me, the whole thing has concerning parallels with the build up to the genocide in Rwanda.

In 1994, Rwanda – a sub-Saharan African nation of 7.5 million – erupted into violence that would leave over 500,000 Rwandans dead in just 100 days. During the slaying, the Hutu majority (90 percent of the population) attacked the Tutsi minority (9 percent). The genocide came after years of extremist propagandising, episodic violence and forced migration targeting Tutsis. In the aftermath, explanations of the horror hinged, in part, on the fact that Rwanda was impoverished and the most densely populated nation in Africa. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond argued that “population growth, environmental damage, and climate change provided the dynamite” for an explosion of violence.

In Bangladesh, recent attacks are based on religion, not ethnicity. But in other ways, they are similar to Rwanda. A Muslim majority (nearly 90 percent of the population) are attacking the Hindu minority (8.5 percent). The attacks are the most recent in a long-running pattern of extremist discourse, episodic violence and forced migration affecting Hindus. They are occurring in the most densely populated large country on Earth, famous for its low wages and under pressure as ground zero for climate change.

In Malopara, where damage to houses was mostly limited to broken windows, the attacks nonetheless threatened community members’ economic survival. Shyamol Biswas, 35, was one of six men who suffered a broken leg in the assault. Sitting on his back porch, he says, “I’m a poor man. I don’t eat every day. I’m not sure how I will support my family. I have to stay sitting for two months…. Our situation is not good.”

Biswas said he thought Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections on the 5th of January provoked the violence. In 2013, Bangladesh’s opposition parties boycotted the elections to protest against changes to polling procedural rules. As voting time approached, supporters of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and their Islamic fundamentalist allies Jamaat-e-Islami expressed their discontent by attacking supporters of their main rival, the incumbent Awami League.

Hindus traditionally vote for Awami League, and in Malopara, this loyalty was obvious. Like everyone else I ask, Biswas and Sorkar say they are dedicated to the party. Both believe Jamaat attacked them for that reason alone.

But the election is not the only cause of anti-Hindu pogroms. In reality, severe attacks have been occurring for much longer in Bangladesh. In Lalmonirhat, for example, attacks on Hindu temples started when an Islamist war criminal was hanged in December. In Satkhira, the country’s worst affected locality, attacks began amid national strife in February last year. Bangladesh human rights group Ain O Salish Kendra reported that 278 Hindu homes, 208 Hindu-owned businesses and 495 temples were damaged in 2013, while 188 people were injured.

Sunil Kumar Biswas, 45, sits in front of his residence with a casted leg, which has been broken by anti-Hindu attackers.

The situation in Malopara may hint at what is to come. In his book on Rwandan genocide history We Wish to Inform You Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch describes “practice massacres”, in which small groups of the Tutsi minority were killed. (“Rwandan Tutsis count the years… in a hopscotch fashion – fifty-nine, sixty, sixty-one, sixty-three, and so on, through ninety-four – sometimes skipping several years when they knew no terror,” he explains.)  In the first three weeks of January, over two dozen Hindu villages in Bangladesh experienced something like a “practice massacre”. Malopara was a relatively mild example; elsewhere, the onslaught included rape, murder and death threats to entire communities. Fearing for their lives, some Hindus fled into Bangladesh’s cities or across the Indian border. Many towns suffered massive property destruction.

Anti-Hindu pogroms stretch back decades and relate to the power balances of colonialism and independence. In that, there is another echo of Rwanda.

Prior to Rwanda’s colonisation, its Tutsi minority reigned as chiefs. Later, Belgian colonisers instituted laws making Tutsis – and only Tutsis – the ruling class. When independence came, the Hutu majority instituted discriminatory anti-Tutsi policies, reversing the power balance. By the 1980s, “Hutu Power” – an extreme-right ideology promoting Hutu dominance – took hold. Tutsis, once 14 percent of the population, emigrated until they were just 8.2 percent of Rwandan residents. By April 1994, extremist propaganda had primed the country for genocide.

Bangladeshi history is similar. Before and during British rule, the Bengal region was a part of India. In the 1947 Partition, the region was split between Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-majority Bangladesh (then part of Pakistan). The end of colonialism inverted power in Bangladesh, just as it had in Rwanda. Hindus once favoured as the ruling elite became a minority. Muslims once excluded from power now enjoyed it. An extreme-right group promoting Muslim dominance sprang up. (That Islamist group, Jamaat, is the same one many blame for recent attacks.) Hindus began to emigrate, shrinking from 22 percent of the population to just 8.5 percent today. By 2013, a Dhaka protest drew two million Islamic fundamentalists.

Would it be going too far to suggest that Bangladesh’s Muslims are like Hutus and that Hindus are like Tutsis?

Bangladesh Border Guard members in Kornai Bazaar, Dinajpur, repair shops damaged in the attacks while guarding the village.

Luckily, the similarities aren’t endless, and in the past month we’ve seen preventative measures taken Bangladesh that never were in Rwanda.

In the first three weeks of January, over three dozen organisations held non-violent protests across Bangladesh demanding protection and justice for Hindus. Expat groups mounted protests in the UK and US, while international watchdogs issued demands for a government inquest into the attacks. English-language Bangladeshi media reported on the violence and activist response over 100 times in the first three weeks of January. These efforts were far greater than Bangladeshi Hindus could muster alone.

The country formerly known as East Pakistan based its original support for Hindus on the ideals of the ethnic nationalist movement that won the country independence. A group of ageing freedom fighters called a press conference to evoke memories of the 1971 war that liberated Bangladesh from Pakistani rule – which included genocidal violence nearly as severe as the one in Rwanda in 1994. Muslim-led protest groups re-emphasised their disdain for Jamaat, a group that committed war crimes against Bangladeshis during the war, and pointed to the Bengali ethnicity and language 99 percent of the population shares as a reason for unity.

Their efforts bore fruit. Bangladesh’s Supreme Court issued a ruling demanding government action to protect minority communities. The government began to identify and prosecute attackers. The BNP, closely allied with likely perpetrators, announced their disapproval of the attacks. Even Jamaat, alleged to be the attackers themselves, issued statements claiming a frame-up and seeking a UN investigation.

An x-ray of Shushil Sarker, 40, shows a leg bone broken by anti-Hindu attackers on the 5th of May, 2013

This sort of defence was unheard of in pre-genocide Rwanda. Although the country saw Tutsis mounting guerrilla warfare in the early 1990s, there were no Hutu appeals to Rwanda’s shared language or laws to defend Tutsi rights that were this organised. And most Bangladeshi Muslims, faced with ethnic discrimination and violence being carried out by some of their own number, seem committed to promoting unity instead.

The popularity of the Hindu cause has meant plentiful help has reached victims. In Malopara last week, soldiers oversaw rebuilding projects while charities distributed goods. Local police, still on guard near the town’s Hindu temple, had also donated a day’s wages to villagers. Locals anticipated the Prime Minister herself would visit soon.

But while Malopara residents are unlikely to see the onslaught the Tutsi suffered, they know eliminating intolerance is a job not yet complete in their country. Aware of the huge number of Islamic fundamentalists still in Bangladesh, Sorkar, Biswas and over a dozen others told me that, as Hindus, they always expect to be attacked again.

Follow Sophia on Twitter: @msophianewman

More from Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is Locked in a Dumb and Violent Torpor

Bangladesh's Election Year is Pretty Macabre So Far

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