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OPED | Tuesday, July 21, 2009 | Email | Print |


A terrifying existence

Richard L Benkin

Why this silence on organised anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh?

Reports began trickling out of Bangladesh this spring about an anti-Hindu violence in the heart of its capital carried out in three stages: March 30, April 17, and April 29. A community of approximately 400 Hindus was reportedly going about its business when “hundreds of Muslims” suddenly descended on them and demanded they quit the homes where they and their families had lived for the past 150 years. Witnesses also report that police watched passively while attackers beat residents and destroyed a Hindu temple.

And although every Hindu, as well as the international community, should have reacted with horror and outrage, neither did.

The Bangladeshi Government denied that any such thing happened, and local police captain Tofazzal Hossain declared, “No demolition of temple occurred. There was no temple there, only a few idols.” Yet, sources for the charge — Global Human Rights Defence at The Hague and the Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist, Christian Unity Council, as well as several local human rights groups and newspapers — are highly credible, prompting our two-month investigation that confirms something terrible did occur, even if not exactly as described by initial reports.

For while not all 400 Hindus were made homeless, a significant number were, which is tragic enough, especially since many remain so months later. Nor has the Bangladeshi Government even bothered to deny that Hindus were beaten, some religious desecration occurred, or that police were present during the attacks. We also confirmed that the area attacked was located directly behind the Sutrapur Police Station in Dhaka and the Shiv Mandir only about 18 m from it; yet, the police did nothing to stop its destruction.

This is not about one terrible event, but about a system of legalised ethnic cleansing that has proceeded non-stop for decades and which places every one of Bangladesh’s 13,000,000-15,000,000 Hindus at risk. For despite Government protestations to the contrary, normal legal protections are suspended for Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh who are often subject to arbitrary actions by the Muslim majority.

Two Hindus, Jogesh Chandra and Taraknath Das, originally owned the land in Sutrapur. They migrated to India in 1947 but before doing so, gifted it to the remaining Hindus; most of them their former servants. A local Muslim, Mahbubur Rahman, tried for years to seize it but could not produce the necessary legal fiction. But after Rahman’s death, his brother and nephews determined to do what he could not because they were politically well-connected.

They used their position to prevail upon police to demand written proof of ownership from the Hindus, which all parties knew they could not provide given their impoverished state and the nature of partition-era transactions. Nevertheless, that was all the Government needed to secretly void the Hindus’ title using Bangladesh’s Vested Property Act. This empowers the Government to declare any ‘non-Muslim’ land vested once its ownership is questioned, no mater how flimsy the pretext, and award it to any Muslim who then can seize it, as was done in Sutrapur.

Next, the police refused to pursue any prosecution in the matter, even though at least three separate crimes were committed: Land seizure, beatings, and religious destruction. The GHRD and other groups have lodged formal protests and brought the matter to Dhaka’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but he also “refused to take any action against the perpetrators of crime,” according to GHRD’s Jenny Lundstrom.

Nor did the cover-up stop there. Mr Zakir Hossain, chief executive of local human rights group, Nagorik Uddyog, told me that his organisation appealed to the Bangladeshi Parliament and Awami League MP Shuranjit Sengupta, but neither he nor his party has taken any action. All of the Bangladeshi officials I contacted refused to comment on the incident.

It would appear that these enforcers of the law have become enforcers of lawlessness, abetting crimes against minorities and sending a message that Bangladesh is a country where the law gives Muslims preferential treatment even if it means ignoring elementary standards of justice.

This explains how Muslims have been able to seize 75 per cent of all Hindu-owned land in Bangladesh. It also means that the reduction of Hindus from almost 30 per cent of the population to nine per cent has been no accident but a deliberate process of ethnic cleansing, which if unchecked, will rid Bangladesh of its remaining Hindu population in our lifetime. And nobody seems to care; the world’s self-appointed human rights arbiters remain shamefully silent.

Meanwhile, dozens of Hindu victims from Sutrapur, including mothers and their children, remain homeless. The lucky ones are flopping in different slums each night, but for others, as one victim put it, “We are now passing a miserable life with no home and very little to eat.”

Perhaps Americans and Europeans will think of her the next time they purchase a garment labelled, “Made in Bangladesh.”

-- The writer campaigns for minority rights in Bangladesh.


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