On the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina termed "communal harmony" as one of the biggest achievements of her decade long rule, but reality on the ground is complex.
Lawyer and activist, Rana Dasgupta, is no stranger to death threats, persecution and a battery of cases filed against him, including charges of terrorism and treason.
As general secretary of the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, a Bangladeshi human rights group that works to unite the country's minorities, he still dreads the thought of facing a treason case filed against him back in 2001.
He was accused of supplying information about minority oppression to a British television channel.
“I spoke to Channel 4 of the UK. After the BNP-Jamaat coalition won election in 2001, serious violence erupted against the Hindu community in different parts of the country,” Dasgupta said.
There were reports of harassment of Hindus, including killings, rape, looting, and torture related to post-election violence. According to the book, “Hindu Deaths After 2001 election”, supporters of the BNP raped at least 10 Hindu females in the island district of Bhola and looted several Hindu houses.
The “Annual report on International religious freedom 2004,” said that 11 members of a Hindu family were burnt to death when arsonists set ablaze their home near the port city of Chittagong after the 2001 election.
“I spoke from my position as a minority right activist. Yet I was accused of working against the interest of my country," said Dasgupta, who is also a prosecutor at Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).
He told this correspondent that in a predominantly Muslim country such as Bangladesh, Hindus are often looked upon with scepticism.
“Many people think [we] work for the interest of India, and if anything bad happens [to us] in Bangladesh, we will find our refuge in India,” he said.
“Anti-India and anti-Hindu sentiments thus become synonymous to a large group of people here.”
Persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh
Dasgupta says the feeling of mistrust against the Hindus led to their systematic persecution and forced a large exodus of the religious group from Bangladesh to neighbouring India, home to nearly a billion Hindus.
To him, the anti-Hindu sentiment is pretty evident as the discrimination ranges from the upward mobility of the Hindu community, to how they are religiously profiled in everyday circumstances, like giving a job interview or renting a house.
According to a study by Dhaka University's economics professor Abul Barkat, around 11.3 million Hindus left Bangladesh between 1964 and 2013 due to religious persecution and discrimination.
Barkat, in his book “Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh: Living with Vested Property”, also found that Bangladeshi Hindus lost 2.6 million acres of land in the country in the last five decades.
India's Home Minister, Amit Shah, while moving the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the Indian parliament, said that non-Muslims comprised 22 percent of Bangladesh's population in 1947 - the year India gained independence from British rule - and their share in 2011 fell to 7.8 percent
According to the last complete population census of Bangladesh, which was completed in 2011, the current Hindu population is 14 million, comprising 8.5 percent of Bangladesh’s population.
Gobinda Chandra Pramanik, the secretary general of Bangladesh National Hindu Mahajote, a group that works for the interest of Bangladeshi Hindus, told this correspondent that there were a number of attacks on the community after the BNP-Jamaat coalition government came to power in 2001.
“The then government did not pay heed to our appeals and didn't bring any of the perpetrators to book for burning our houses, vandalising our temples and evicting us from our lands,” he said.
In 2009, Bangladesh High Court ordered a judicial investigation into the post 2001 election violence.
In 2011 the judicial commission submitted the findings of its investigation. The report found evidence of targeted violence against the Hindu community by 25 thousand people which included 25 Ministers and Members of Parliament of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the Jamaat-e-Islami-led alliance government.
The commission reported that the number of rapes committed exceeded 18 thousand. The report also notes incidents of violence, arson, looting, and torture against the minority Hindu community of Bangladesh.
The report was rejected by the BNP-Jamaat coalition and they accused the investigation of being partisan.
“It's true that the situation has gotten better under the Awami League rule, but the sense of insecurity among Hindus still looms large,” said Pramanik
According to the data of Hindu Mohajote, in 2019, Hindus faced a total of 683 attacks across the country in which 31,505 people of the religious minority group were affected.
The country witnessed a total of 153 incidents of attacks, vandalism and setting fire to Hindu temples in 2019. The number was 131 in 2018, said the Hindu Mohajote data.
Dasgupta said the persecuted Hindus in Bangladesh have mostly gone to India. “This particularly happens in the bordering districts with India,” he said. “Persecution and subsequent migration of Hindus from Bangladesh is not a made up fact. It's real.”
Migration due to various factors
Bangladeshi journalist, Zyma Islam, in one of her articles in The Daily Star newspaper, however argued that Hindu migration from Bangladesh did not happen "because of any constant persecution by the state of Bangladesh".
“The story of human movement, and indeed persecution too, is more nuanced than that,” she wrote.
Islam mentioned that a large part of Hindu migration happened before Bangladesh was formed in 1971.
She noted that the 1974 census said the country's minority population reduced by over a third to 14.6 percent.
“This drop, quite clearly, is due to the fact that over the decade, the newly-formed nation-states exchanged populations. And in 1971, the Pakistani military deliberately executed an ethnic cleansing campaign against the non-Muslims and Muslims.”
A report in India's Business Standard said the Hindu exodus since Bangladesh's independence in 1971 was mostly attributed to religious persecution, but it also included the economy.
“But as religious tensions have eased over the years and the country's economy has liberalised, things seem to be changing. Bangladesh's booming economy and India's slowing economy could potentially reverse years of Hindu migration to India,” said the report.
The Business Standard report mentioned that the Hindus looking to migrate from Bangladesh “might not find India as attractive a prospect as nations like Canada and Australia which are relatively favourable destinations for skilled and educated migrants".
According to data from the National Hindu Mohajot, about 15,000 Hindus migrated to North American countries including the US and Canada from Bangladesh in the last decade.
The poorest Hindus of the Bangladesh community usually don’t have the option to migrate to developed countries like Canada, US or Australia. They mostly migrate in India, as per the statement of National Hindu Mohajot.
Communal harmony in Bangladesh
Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while addressing a crowd in Dhaka celebrating the Hindu festival Durga Puja, termed "communal harmony" as one of the biggest achievements of her government spanning over a decade from 2009.
She said that Bangladesh is a secular state and all the people, irrespective of their religions, have learned to move together here.
Anupam Debashis Roy, editor of Muktiforum, an independent media platform, told TRT World that there is communal harmony in Bangladesh compared to other parts of South Asia.
He said the communal repression in Bangladesh is mostly motivated by electoral politics.
“If you look at the major acts of communal violence, you can see that they are almost always instigated and even organised by those who are in power or those who are aspiring to get into power. This is vote-bank politics where the colonial divide and rule politics is still operational,” he said.
Ali Riaz, professor of politics and government at Illinois State University in the United States, told this correspondent that the Bangladeshi state, irrespective of which party is in power, has failed the minorities - religious, ethnic and others - since its inception.
"Therefore, a sense of insecurity and a feeling of marginalisation are always present. The sense of communal harmony has diminished significantly over the past decades for several reasons, particularly because of the changes in the society and polity," he said.
Rising anti-India sentiment
Riaz said the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) carried out in Assam, the Indian state bordering Bangladesh, and the subsequent passage of the CAA by India have accentuated anti-Hindu and anti-Indian sentiments in Bangladesh.
As many as 12 organisations arranged a protest rally in Dhaka after the Indian government enacted the CAA. Bangladesh’s highest circulated daily, Prothom Alo, also carried a number of reports in which it said, the CAA will create anxiety and tension in Bangladesh, where "a huge number of the population has been historically anti-India" and "the number is increasing."
Riaz said the anti-India sentiment is rising because they have come “at the heel of unfounded allegations of mass migration from Bangladesh, threat to 'push in' alleged Bangladeshis, describing Bangladeshis as 'termites', putting Bangladesh under pressure and completely disregarding the Bangladeshi perception."
Bangladeshi Muslims feel a sense of religious affinity with the Muslims in India and consider New Delhi's measures as highly discriminatory against them, said Riaz.
But the academic points to another reason why popular sentiments against India are on the rise in Bangladesh. He said there has always been a strand within Bangladesh which feels that India acts like a "big brother" to Bangladesh.
For Riaz, the ruling Awami League insisting on "a golden era of relationship" with India, is the primary source of discontent in Bangladesh.
"It is now evident that Bangladesh has conceded more than what it received from India since 2009. It was expected that it will change over time, that India will reciprocate, and some semblance of balance will be established. But after almost a decade of waiting, patience is running out," he said.
Riaz counted India's stand on the Rohingya crisis, the sharing of water between the two neighbours, border killings and trade deficit, as the reasons for the rising discontent.
Muktiforum editor Roy agreed, saying the situation is more complex than a simple narrative of communal hatred towards the Bangladeshi Hindus.
"The BJP in India is trying to turn India into a Hindu nation, so the communal angle that pre-existed but was latent, is now getting a political justification," he said.