“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.