POST ELECTORAL SURPRISE AWAITS BANGLADESH = FORMER DICTATOR ERSHAD MAY BECOME THE NEXT PRIME MINISTER = MEMBERS OF RAPID ACTION BATTALION WORKING IN FAVOR OF A POLITICAL PARTY = 'JANATAR MANCHA' LEADERS IN CIVIL ADMINISTRATION ACTIVE IN INFLUENCING ELECTION RESULT = POLITICAL PARTIES WRAPPING CAMPAIGN TODAY = RESTRICTION ON MOVEMENT OF VEHICLES IMPOSED = KHALEDA ZIA & SHEIKH HASINA ADDRESSING THE NATION ON SATURDAY EVENING REGISTRATION NO: DA 5025 - VOLUME - 4, ISSUE - 1, DHAKA, DECEMBER 24, 2008
Current Bangladesh Time: 6:57:50 PM (Sat)

Bangladeshi Minorities Need Political Independence

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

With the scheduled date for national elections fast approaching, the Awami League (AL) continues its decades-long courtship of Bangladesh’s minorities. Its 2008 “election manifesto” identifies five “priority issues” and buried as one of seven points under the fifth priority is: “Use of religion and communalism in politics will be banned. Security and rights of religious and ethnic minorities will be ensured. Courtesy and tolerance will be inculcated in the political culture of the country. Militancy and extortion will be banned. Awami League will take initiative to formulate a consensual and unanimous charter of political behavior.”

To be sure, the AL is on solid ground when it urges minorities to reject the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with its long history of coddling Islamist radicals. There is nonetheless a real question of the AL’s commitment to these ideals aside from the total befuddlement among all observers about how it would implement these high-sounding principles. AL has yet to say how it will ban “use of religion and communalism in politics.” How does it propose to stop such things as leaflets being distributed in districts with minority candidates, as reported in The Daily Star? The paper notes that leaflets distributed in the Thakurgaon-I district urges voters to reject AL candidate Ramesh Chandra Sen because he is a Hindu and uses verses from the Quran to try and convince voters. Another leaflet was entitled “Al-Quraner-Bani” and asks Muslims not to vote for any non-Muslim candidate. According to an election officer, however, these things already are legal. How the AL would make sure these things do not happen is something they never have spelled out.

Moreover, the AL’s history should not encourage religious minorities. By now, all Bangladeshis recall the AL’s shameful agreement with Khelafat Majlis (KM) in December 2006. In that MOU, the AL discarded all pretense of being a party committed to minority rights when it agreed not only to let the Islamist party into its coalition if it won the election, but it would all the KM to proceed with implementing Sharia Law on all citizens. Fortunately, the elections scheduled for the following month were postponed, but the AL’s action revealed that its members are far more concerned about winning an election no matter what it means for millions of Bangladeshi citizen.

Moreover, the AL had five years of uncontested rule between 1996 and 2001 during which time it did not stop minority oppression. It was during this period that Hindus fell to a minority of less than ten percent of Bangladeshis for the first time in history. In fact, the Bangladeshi Muslim population grew about five times as fast as the Hindu population in that period, due in large part to continued attacks and Hindu emigration because of them. Additionally, the AL had five full years to repeal the racist Vested Property Act (VPA) that legalizes the plunder of Hindu assets. Yet it waited until the eve of its exit from power when it passed the impotent Vested Property Return Act, which was never implemented or structured to return looted properties to their rightful owners. Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University has conducted the most authoritative study of the VPA and found that the AL and BNP were virtually identical in the extent to which they benefited from plundered minority assets under the VPA. Barak found that only about four percent of the Bangladeshi Muslim population is given the “vested” Hindu lands, and all of them are associated with one political party or another. During the terms of BNP rule, that party controlled 45 percent of the spoils to the AL’s 31 percent. But during Awami rule, it received 44 percent to 32 percent for the BNP. Clearly, while the two parties say different things, their actions are essentially the same.

Even attempts to prevent the traditional intimidation of and violence against minority voters do not appear to be earnest. Earlier this month, for instance, at a public hearing, the newly constituted National Human Rights Commission was challenged publicly by the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) over the fact that it did not include a single member who was a religious minority. The Commission was unable to answer BHBCUC’s challenge. At a December hearing by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the current US ambassador to Dhaka, James F. Moriarty, was asked about the current state of affairs in Bangladesh by the Commission. (USCIRF has had extensive involvement in Bangladesh, and its conclusions about the nation are considered extremely authoritative.) The Ambassador expressed a hope that elections would be free and fair and reflect “Bengalis practicing a unique form or religious syncretism.” He added, however, that “there are those who would like to end this tradition of moderation and tolerance—and that is a matter of grave concern.” The AL no less than the BNP has assiduously avoided any specifics about how it would prevent that from happening.

How committed is the AL or the BNP to minority rights and representation in a new parliament? The AL is fielding 13 minority candidates and the BNP six. With 450 seats in the parliament, that means a maximum 2.9 percent minority seats for the AL and 1.3 percent for the BNP with minorities representing anywhere from 11 to 14 percent of the Bangladeshi population. Hardly a ringing endorsement of either party!

Some members of minority communities are beginning to tell their co-religionists that they would do best to avoid associating with either of the major parties and run as an independent force in the elections. In a recent conversation, one Bangladeshi Hindu who has been living in the United States told me how American Jew have been thought to vote reliably for Democrats in national elections; but with the growth of organizations like the Republican Jewish Coalition and other party shifts, that is changing. Enough Jews have been donating to and voting for Republicans in recent years that “the Democrats can’t take your vote for granted, and Republicans know they can get it if they work for it. Bangladeshi minorities ought to do the same here.”