Analysis

Bangladesh’s Deadly Identity Crisis

Attacks on the Hindu community show how the country has turned away from its pluralist heritage.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Bangladeshi Hindus stage a demonstration to protest recent religious violence in Dhaka on Oct. 18.
Bangladeshi Hindus stage a demonstration to protest recent religious violence in Dhaka on Oct. 18. MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP via Getty Image

On Oct. 15, mob violence erupted in the town of Begumganj, Bangladesh, during Durga Puja, the holiest Bengali Hindu festival of the year. The unrest was sparked by online rumors that the Quran had been desecrated when it was allegedly placed at the feet of the Hindu goddess Durga. Recent reports suggest that Muslim hard-liners may have used social media to provoke the violence, which killed two Hindu worshippers. In the wake of the incident, attacks on Hindu sites swept across Bangladesh, with at least 17 temples targeted, homes ransacked, and several Hindus killed in other clashes, according to local reports. The violence has triggered protests from Dhaka to London.

The Bangladeshi government has said those responsible for the recent attacks will face prosecution. Yet the unrest is part of a disturbing and long-running pattern toward the country’s Hindu minority. The periodic communal violence reflects Bangladesh’s splintering identity, between its Bengali heritage and its Muslim religious majority. In recent decades, Bangladesh has seen a surge in Islamism—in part bolstered by the growth of anti-Muslim sentiment in neighboring India. The recent incidents show that the country now risks losing its pluralistic heritage under the shadow of growing intolerance.

When British India was divided into the states of India and Pakistan in 1947—largely along religious lines—the predominantly Muslim eastern portion of Bengal province became East Pakistan, which declared independence as Bangladesh in 1971. Although many Hindus left the region for India during Partition, fearing persecution, many others remained. Over the next six decades, this population declined, in relative terms, to about 8 percent of the population today. Bangladesh’s Hindus are now a beleaguered minority, increasingly facing discrimination and even violence in everyday life.

On Oct. 15, mob violence erupted in the town of Begumganj, Bangladesh, during Durga Puja, the holiest Bengali Hindu festival of the year. The unrest was sparked by online rumors that the Quran had been desecrated when it was allegedly placed at the feet of the Hindu goddess Durga. Recent reports suggest that Muslim hard-liners may have used social media to provoke the violence, which killed two Hindu worshippers. In the wake of the incident, attacks on Hindu sites swept across Bangladesh, with at least 17 temples targeted, homes ransacked, and several Hindus killed in other clashes, according to local reports. The violence has triggered protests from Dhaka to London.

The Bangladeshi government has said those responsible for the recent attacks will face prosecution. Yet the unrest is part of a disturbing and long-running pattern toward the country’s Hindu minority. The periodic communal violence reflects Bangladesh’s splintering identity, between its Bengali heritage and its Muslim religious majority. In recent decades, Bangladesh has seen a surge in Islamism—in part bolstered by the growth of anti-Muslim sentiment in neighboring India. The recent incidents show that the country now risks losing its pluralistic heritage under the shadow of growing intolerance.

When British India was divided into the states of India and Pakistan in 1947—largely along religious lines—the predominantly Muslim eastern portion of Bengal province became East Pakistan, which declared independence as Bangladesh in 1971. Although many Hindus left the region for India during Partition, fearing persecution, many others remained. Over the next six decades, this population declined, in relative terms, to about 8 percent of the population today. Bangladesh’s Hindus are now a beleaguered minority, increasingly facing discrimination and even violence in everyday life.

Bangladesh’s Muslim majority has long had a divided identity. On the one hand, Bangladeshis are attached to the Bengali language, which is largely seen as a source of shared cultural pride. Linguistic discrimination more than any other factor led the nation into its 1971 independence war. (People in Pakistan, then West Pakistan, predominantly speak Urdu and Punjabi.) On the other hand, Islam has uniquely permeated present-day Bangladesh. It arrived in what was then the province of Bengal relatively late: around the 13th century, well after the Muslim conquests of present-day Pakistan and northwestern India. Unlike elsewhere on the subcontinent, Muslim rulers in Bengal introduced their religion slowly. The peasantry adopted their agricultural technology, their values, and eventually their faith—absent the orthodox norms common in other parts of the Islamic world.

However, Bangladesh’s moderate version of Islam began to shift in the 1980s, in part because of the growing influence of Wahhabism. Saudi funds enabled the building of madrassas (religious schools) and mosques, as well as supported radical imams. At the same time, many Bangladeshis traveled to the Persian Gulf in the wake of the 1970s oil boom, becoming exposed to a more rigid version of Islam. They returned to Bangladesh flush with their earnings and newfound religious zeal. The country’s largest Islamist political party, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, likely courted these returning expatriates.

Against this backdrop, a number of radical Islamist organizations emerged, particularly in the last two decades. Among the most prominent are Ansarullah Bangla Team, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). These groups have attacked secular intellectuals, terrorized the Hindu community, and launched dramatic terrorist attacks, including in Dhaka, the capital. They have sought to intimidate those who dare to challenge their vision of Islam, including educators, journalists, and even politicians. Although the government has spoken out against Islamist extremism, its willingness and ability to crack down on these organizations has not been sufficient.

The influence of radical groups in Bangladesh has emboldened attacks on the Hindu community. Bangladesh has seen nearly 4,000 attacks against its Hindu community since January 2013, according to a prominent local human rights organization. In October 2016, for example, a mob of Muslims attacked 15 Hindu temples and the homes of more than 100 Hindu families in Nasirnagar, near Dhaka. As with this month’s incident, what triggered the violence was a rumored religious offense, shared on Facebook.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has waxed and waned in its efforts to curb Islamic radicalism.

The Bangladeshi government’s track record does not offer much comfort in the wake of the recent violence. When the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party ruled in an alliance with the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party from 2001 to 2006, the government was widely seen as unsympathetic to ethnic and religious minorities. (The High Court outlawed Jamaat-e-Islami in 2013.) Despite its secular values, the ruling Awami League party has not demonstrated any great commitment to protecting the Hindu community and other minorities. Barring a few constituencies, neither major party relies on minority electoral support.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has waxed and waned in its efforts to curb Islamic radicalism. After a series of attacks against Hindus in 2016, the government cracked down, leading to mass arrests. The same year, a terrorist attack in a Dhaka bakery killed 24 people, including 17 foreign citizens; seven militants, members of a JMB splinter faction, were sentenced to death for their involvement. In those cases, bad global publicity likely influenced the government’s actions. But this time Hasina may have little compelling reason for another large-scale crackdown on Muslim extremists, apart from fear of antagonizing Hindus in India—where the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry may actually incline her government to soft-pedal the issue.

External developments have accelerated Bangladesh’s turn toward Islamism. Hindu nationalism in neighboring India under the Bharatiya Janata Party and the growing marginalization of the Muslim community there have emboldened Muslim extremists in Bangladesh. Angry over the attacks on their fellow Muslims in India, some Bangladeshi Muslims have retaliated against the Hindu minority in their own country. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dhaka in March, hard-liners attacked Hindu temples, and violence spread across the country. And in the wake of this month’s violence, Hasina warned that incidents in India could have adverse effects on the Hindu community in Bangladesh.

No doubt under some pressure from New Delhi, Hasina has said those responsible for the October attacks will be brought to justice. But justice—if delivered—will be far from speedy, given the abject state of policing in Bangladesh and the country’s judicial backlog. In the meantime, renewed attacks against the Hindu community are likely, and in the absence of sustained diplomatic pressure, their plight will remain unaddressed.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy as well as a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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