“I stand before you all today with a heavy heart to tell the tales of the endless raging minority cleansing campaign,” declared Dwijen Bhattacharjya at the International Conference on Minority Cleansing in Bangladesh, held on April 28 at a cavernous Indian restaurant in Queens. “From Barisal in the south, to Savar in the center, to Rajshai in the north, the trails of terror have swept across Bangladesh.”
While the media spotlight has been focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan, the rise of fundamentalism in nearby Bangladesh has gone virtually unnoticed. The nation’s tradition of moderate Islam is under threat as religious intolerance takes hold following the victory of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in last October’s elections. “What is happening?” writes Shahriar Kabir, a documentary filmmaker based in Dhaka, is the initial stage of the “Talibanizing of Bangladesh’s politics and society.”
The BNP is led by Khaleda Zia, widow of the assassinated military dictator General Zia, who amended the original Constitution, replacing secularism with the “Sovereignty of Allah.” Khaleda Zia was swift to condemn the September 11 attacks and offer support to America before the elections. But the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party is a key partner in her governing coalition. The party has argued that strict Islamic Sharia law should be implemented in Bangladesh, just as it was by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Jamaat collaborated with Pakistan during the bloody 1971 war of liberation, and the seventeen parliamentary seats that they gained in October are the first they have ever won.
Concern over the escalation of violence against the minority population following the BNP-Jamaat victory had brought Bangladeshi-Americans, congressmen, journalists and civil rights activists together on this rainy Sunday afternoon in Queens. Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities, which represent 10 percent of Bangladesh’s population of 130 million, have been terrorized collectively; secular Muslims, individually. Bidyut Saker, head of the New York-based Bangladeshi Hindus of America, reports that at least forty minority people have been murdered and thousands beaten; hundreds of temples desecrated and statues destroyed; thousands of homes and businesses looted or burned. William Sloan, president of the Canadian branch of the American Association of Jurors, visited Bangladesh in February and described his horror on seeing Hindu victims of torture. One man’s fingers had been cut off, another’s hand was amputated, still more were blinded and others had iron rods nailed through their legs or abdomen. He also recalled the desperate stories of women and children who had been gang-raped, often in front of their fathers or husbands. Last December Amnesty International reported that “over 100 women may have been subjected to rape?” and all evidence “persistently allege[s] that the perpetrators have been mainly members of the BNP or its coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami.” Attorney Elizabeth Barna, a speaker at the conference who handles asylum applications for many Bangladeshis, contends that the “number is more likely to lie in the thousands.” In a society where virginity is a prerequisite for marriage, only a fraction of women ever report such attacks. This culture of fear and violence has triggered an exodus to India. Jana Masen, Asia Policy Advisor at the World Refugee Survey, estimates that up to 20,000 people have fled across the border since October.
The gathering also addressed the suppression of the press and intimidation of journalists, in particular filmmaker Shahriar Kabir. Kabir has dedicated his life to exposing those responsible for crimes against religious minorities. His 1993 film Cry for Justice documented the complicity of two Jamaat leaders, Matiur Rahman Nizami and Delwar Hossain Sayedee, in the genocide of 3 million people during the 1971 war of liberation. Last November Kabir was in Calcutta filming the statements of Hindu refugees who had recently fled Bangladesh for his new documentary, Cry for Amity. On his return to Dhaka, he was arrested on charges of treason, and his passport, videotapes and camera were confiscated. Detained under the Special Powers Act of 1974, he spent fifty-nine days in the notoriously overcrowded Dhaka Central Jail. Amnesty International declared him a “prisoner of conscience.” In response to a habeas corpus petition, the High Court bench declared the extension of Kabir’s detention illegal, and on January 20 he was granted six months’ interim bail. But his persecution continues. As Kabir recently wrote to me: “My life is under threat from religio extremists and fanatic Mullahs. A very eminent Mullah named Maolana Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who is also a parliament member and a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, issued Fatwah (religious decree) declaring me a Murtad (a person eligible to kill).”
Kabir’s experience recalls the harrowing plight of Taslima Nasrin, who wrote about the last wave of violence to engulf the country a decade ago. In 1992 Hindu fanatics demolished the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, claiming it had been built on the birthplace of the god Lord Rama. Muslims reacted with a campaign of retaliatory rage which spread to Bangladesh. Nasrin, appalled by what she witnessed, described the horrifying experience of one Hindu family in her novel Shame, published in 1993. She was placed under fatwa by Muslim leaders and, fearing for her life, fled to Europe, where she still lives.
While the atrocities Nasrin described were triggered by events in India, the current pogrom is being directed from within Bangladesh. During the main Eid al-Fitr congregation in December at the national mosque, the chief imam proclaimed in the presence of Cabinet ministers and thousands of people: “President Bush and America is the most heinous terrorist in the world.” He continued, “The Americans will be washed away if Bangladesh’s 120 million [sic] Muslims spit on them.” A few weeks later Delwar Hossain Sayedee, the Jamaat leader who subsequently placed Kabir under fatwa, decreed that all statues except those of Muslim worshipers should be destroyed. The Hindustan Times reported in January that eighteen terrorist training camps backed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate are currently operating in Bangladesh. Several are run by Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which is believed to have been founded in 1992 with money from Osama bin Laden. A more insidious threat is posed by the exponential growth of madrassahs, or religious schools, in the last decade. The April Far Eastern Economic Review revealed that 64,000 are operating throughout Bangladesh. These are described by a retired high-ranking civil servant as a “potential political time bomb.”
The conclusion of those speaking at the conference in Queens is that this situation can be defused only if Khaleda Zia is pressured by George Bush and his Western allies into meeting certain conditions. These include: restoring secularism to the Constitution and “promoting a pluralistic democracy”; ordering members of the BNP alliance to stop their persecution of religious minorities; instructing the police “to protect the minority communities”; the repatriation of “refugees and displaced people”; the formation of an “independent commission to investigate the atrocities”; and the introduction of a “Minority Protection Act, which must include an Affirmative Action Law and a Hate Crime Law.” Unable to leave Dhaka and still facing charges of treason that carry a death sentence, Shahriar Kabir continues to struggle for “secularism, democracy and human rights.” The question remains whether the international community will live up to its rhetoric and join his fight.