The desecration of Ma Durga images and vandalism in pandals throughout Bangladesh are just the latest in the series of pogroms the minorities face in Bangladesh.
The anti-Hindu pogrom and the desecration of Ma Durga images and vandalism in pandals throughout Bangladesh have brought the problems of Hindus in that country once again to focus. Right now there are no less than 1.3 crore Hindus, with a handful of Buddhists and Christians, living in that country, constituting about 8 per cent of the population; before Partition, they had constituted nearly 30 percent, according to the 1941 Census. Among them, a small number live in the cities and pursue professions like Law and Medicine, while the majority live in the countryside and are usually artisans, fishermen or peasants. Durga Puja is the principal festival of Bengali Hindus. This year’s Puja has seen the wholesale desecration of Durga idols and vandalism in Durga Puja pandals across Bangladesh. The questions would naturally arise: Why? And can anything be done about it?
Communal violence in South Asia is a little bit like dysentery. It is either acute or chronic. The best example of acute communal violence is what happened in Punjab between 1946 and 1948 when there was a total exchange of population between Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab, along with a lot of murder and mayhem on both sides. All Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistani Punjab came over to Indian Punjab and practically all Muslims in Indian Punjab migrated to Pakistani Punjab. The result was that since then our Punjab or Haryana have not seen any communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.
Serious communal violence in Bengal had, in fact, started even before Independence, in a little-known corner of the province in the district of Noakhali. Here, in October 1946, Muslim League mobs, led by one Golam Sarwar, attacked the 20 per cent Hindu minority and in a frenzy of bestial murder, rape, slaughter of cows, forcible feeding of beef to Hindus and forcible conversion, spread such a reign of terror that most Hindus migrated from the district. Currently, the Hindu population in the district, divided into Noakhali, Lakshmipur and Feni districts, is 2-3 per cent. This district earned notoriety because Mahatma Gandhi camped here and spent a couple of months trying to spread the message of love in his own way. He toured the affected villages on foot, held his pet ‘prayer meetings’ and entreated the Hindus to come back to their half-burnt homes. The result of all these efforts was exactly zero. This very Noakhali has just seen, during the Durga Puja of 2021, a horrible bout of desecration, vandalism and murder. More about this later.
The communal violence that is chronic to Bangladesh is a result of a series of events that took place in 1947. We all know that Gandhi was not in New Delhi on August 15, 1947, but camping in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where he was accompanied by the infamous premier of undivided Bengal, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy. Suhrawardy had been the driving force behind the Great Calcutta Killings of August 16-19, 1946, just a year back. Gandhi’s presence in Calcutta was hailed by the whole world, principally by Lord Mountbatten who called him the “one-man boundary force”. But the principal achievement of that boundary force was that there was no exchange of population between the two Bengals around that time, and that is the genesis of the chronic nature of the communal problem in erstwhile East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh.
Principally, as a result of Gandhi’s presence, there was no disturbance on August 15, 1947, in Calcutta. In fact, people from the two communities sprinkled rose water on each other. But East Pakistan was a slightly different story. As West Pakistanis arrived in East Pakistan they were surprised to see that all the principal areas involving intellectual pursuits were in the hands of Bengali Hindus. The professions, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, and other callings, such as clerks, small shopkeepers and so on were all dominated by Hindus. The West Pakistani elite had no idea of East Bengal before. They also perceived that the intellectual space in the province was occupied by Hindu culture and it was urgently necessary to remove it. In order to do this, they first had recourse to Arabisation or Urdu-isation of the Bengali language, down to writing the language in Arabic script. However, this was opposed both by the Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslim intelligentsia, small as it was at that time. Also, around this time demands started rising from East Pakistan for making Bengali the national language of Pakistan, in spite of the fact that Mohammed Ali Jinnah had said in unequivocal language that the national language of Pakistan will be only Urdu and no one should have any doubt about the score. As the demand for Bengali as a national language started gathering momentum, the West Pakistani rulers suspected Hindu hands in this. In fact, one of the very first people to demand this was Dhirendra Nath Datta, advocate and politician from Comilla. Dhirendra Nath Datta was horribly tortured and killed in the Mainamati Cantonment at Comilla in 1971 by the Pakistani Army during the liberation struggle of Bangladesh. But that is another story. In any case, the Hindu hands needed taking care of.
The expulsion of Hindus from the landmass known at different times as East Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh is such a carefully hidden story that most people know very little about it. Whenever the topic of post-Partition migration comes up, people instinctively think of Punjab. The migration in Bengal was a different story altogether. Between 1947 and 1950 there was no major pogrom. However, the East Pakistan government, which was run basically by West Pakistani bureaucrats, had undertaken a programme of disentitling Hindus who were possessed of large real estates. This was done by requisitioning properties at random and paying a pittance for them or fixing rental rates arbitrarily. In between, isolated cases of murder, rape and other crimes against Hindus went on, and the Hindus got no assistance from the police.
Hindus who could read the writing on the wall decided to leave for West Bengal right then and many of them managed to exchange property with West Bengali Muslims, though most often they got an unfair deal. The situation continued until 1950 during which India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart Liaquat Ali Khan had signed two Inter-Dominion Agreements to the effect that the two countries would look after their minorities. While the attitude of India, then overcome with the guilt of the assassination of Gandhi, was sincere in respect of adherence to the agreement, the attitude of Pakistan was one of total hypocrisy and the exodus continued.
Around the end of 1949, East Pakistani rulers decided that this was not enough to drive out Hindus. Therefore, they planned a well-thought-out scheme for a pogrom against Hindus which would result in their mass exodus. This process started in late January 1950 when India was rejoicing its adoption of its Constitution and the formation of the Republic of India. Hindus were persecuted all over East Pakistan and they started fleeing the country. Meanwhile there were horrible massacres. An article like this would not permit description of the magnitude and the horror of that pogrom, but one incident should suffice. There is a railway bridge, then known as the Anderson Bridge, about a kilometre long across the Meghna river between the stations of Ashugonj and Bhairab Bazar in East Pakistan. On February 12, 1950, all trains which crossed the bridge were stopped in mid-river, and all Hindus in all the trains were knifed and in a dead or half-dead state thrown overboard into the river. I have this information from an eyewitness who was saved because he was wearing a pair of pyjamas instead of the Hindus’ customary dhoti, and was thus mistaken for a Muslim.
This could not have happened without the whole incident being carefully planned and orchestrated by the Pakistani government. Among the districts worst affected was Barisal. It is a district where there was not a single inch of railway, and all transportation was by river craft. A huge number of people who were stuck at the steamer wharves were subjected to murder and mayhem and the wharves ran red with Hindu blood. With this incident the intellectual class among the Hindus either left East Pakistan immediately or decided that they would leave very shortly; and, their exodus was complete by the mid-1950s. Thereafter it was only a very small fraction of the middle class and the large body of manual labourers, artisans, fishermen and peasants who were left in East Pakistan among the Hindus. They had no employable skills with which they could sustain themselves in West Bengal, so they stayed back.
During this time Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee was a Cabinet minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first cabinet of independent India. He pressed Nehru to bring about an exchange of population as had happened in Punjab or to demand land from East Pakistan to rehabilitate the Hindus who had already left or who were sure to leave East Pakistan in the near future. Nehru flatly refused to do either. In fact, Nehru did not have any clear idea of what he intended to do with this exodus. Meanwhile a retaliatory pogrom had started in West Bengal against Muslims and this touched Nehru’s heart. Liaquat Ali Khan also offered to Nehru to sign a pact. Nehru clutched at this straw and immediately signed a pact, known as the Delhi Pact, on April 8, 1950. According to this pact, each country would look after its minorities.
This pact did not make any sense at all, because it could not have been unknown to Nehru that the pogroms that had so far taken place were engineered by the Pakistan government itself. The two inter-dominion agreements that he had signed had also failed. So with whom was he signing a pact, and from whom was he seeking an assurance that Hindus in Pakistan would be looked after? But then, that was Nehru’s mind. He liked to live in a make-believe world of his own and refused to see reality. This has been commented by the eminent journalist Durga Das in his book, India From Curzon To Nehru And After. This has also been commented upon in a book that I had authored, My People Uprooted: The Exodus of Hindus from East Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee resigned from the Cabinet in protest against this pact and eventually went on to found the Bharatiya Jana Sangh which later on metamorphosed itself into the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) of today. With Dr Mookerjee, K.C. Niyogi, another Bengali minister, also resigned from the Cabinet. But these did not deter Nehru who sat contented in his belief that his signing of the pact had finally put a stop to the migration of Bengali Hindu refugees from East Pakistan. Of course the migration did not stop, nor did the pogroms stop in East Pakistan. But Nehru once again chose to ignore them.
Similar pogroms had been engineered by the East Pakistan government in 1964, and of course in 1971. The 1964 pogrom was caused by the disappearance of the hair of Prophet Mohammad from the Hazratbal mosque of Srinagar in Kashmir, with which the East Pakistani Hindus had nothing whatever to do. The hair was also found shortly thereafter. But the disappearance of the hair, though contrived, and at any rate temporary, had raised jihadi anger and there was no better place to vent that anger than upon the helpless Hindus of East Bengal.
And finally there was the grand pogrom of 1971 during the liberation struggle of Bangladesh, in which the West Pakistani rulers had concluded that the Hindus were principally responsible for this secessionist movement. And they killed Hindus with impunity. It ought to be said that quite a few Bengali Muslims were also killed, but reliable estimates put the proportion of Hindus at around 80 per cent among those killed. Just one example will suffice. We all know about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. How many people were killed at Jallianwala Bagh? About 1,500, perhaps? In a small town called Chuknagar, in the district of Khulna, in the Upazila of Dumuria, an estimated 10,000 unarmed, helpless Hindus, half of them women and children, were slaughtered by a contingent of Pakistani Army and their collaborators, called Razakars, on May 20, 1971. These poor Hindus were trying to escape to India because they knew that they would be butchered by the Pakistanis.
Then the country was liberated from Pakistani yoke and Bangladesh came into being. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had been incarcerated in West Pakistan, was also repatriated and became the premier of the new country. The good times for the Hindus in that country lasted till 1975. Then on August 15, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated. Prominent leaders of the liberation struggle, who were also friendly towards Hindus, such as Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam and Kamruzzaman were jailed and killed in the jail by a military regime, in a carnage known in Bangladesh as Jail-Hatya. Thereafter ensued a period of varying torture and persecution of Hindus. This period was rather like the squeezing out of toothpaste from a tube, with occasional spurts; for instance, in 1988 when the Chief Martial Law Administrator General Ershad declared Islam to be the national religion of Bangladesh, which hitherto had been a secular state. There was a spurt of anti-Hindu violence and pogrom in 1992 when the disputed structure in Ayodhya was demolished. The great rebel feminist Taslima Nasrin has written about the 1971 carnage in her novel Lajja (Shame).
Then came in 2001 the rule of Khaleda Zia, and another period of Hindu baiting and pogroms. Strangely, India had a hand in this. Brajesh Mishra, as emissary of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, saw Khaleda, and in a piece of extremely ill-advised communication reportedly assured her that “India has no favourites in Bangladesh”. Khaleda took this to mean that no matter what she did inside her country was no business of India, and this let loose another bout of anti-Hindu pogroms. This has been documented very carefully and extensively by a team led by the eminent journalist Shahryar Kabir, as a result of which he had to do time in jail. The documentation is contained in a White Paper describing 1,500 days of persecution of minorities in the country.
Sheikh Hasina came back to power in 2009 and thereafter there was a period of relative calm for Hindus. The word ‘relative’ is very important, because there were occasional spurts of anti-Hindu violence which the government ignored. Thereafter in the latter half of the second decade of the century the ugly head of anti-Hindu pogrom was raised again, this time in the district of Brahmanbaria, which is the native district of this author (both his parents were born in this district). In a village known as Nasirnagar, a young Hindu fisherman by the name of Rasaraj Das was accused of abusing the Prophet on Facebook. In fact, Das was educated only up to Class IV, and had no idea what Facebook is. But the fundamentalists spread this rumour, as a result of this some 300 Hindu houses were torched. I had a long discussion with the local MP, RAM Ubaydul Muktadir Chowdhury on this subject. This district was right next to Tripura where I was Governor from 2015 to 2018.
What we have just now seen during the Durga Puja of 2021 from October 13 onwards is almost a repetition of the Nasirnagar pogrom. Here again somebody accused that a copy of the Quran had been placed at the foot of the Ma Durga idol, thereby Islam has been insulted, and naturally this calls for a pogrom. So a pogrom started in Comilla, very close to Tripura’s capital Agartala, and the news travelled with lightning speed to the adjoining areas of Noakhali, which was the scene of the 1946 carnage, and also to Chittagong. Jihad-crazed Muslim mobs destroyed and vandalised a large number of Hindu temples and Puja pandals and zeroed in on the celebrations organised by the International Society of Krishna-Consciousness (ISKCON, often called Hare-Krishna) and the Ramakrishna Mission. This has been extensively video-graphed and is available on social media. They also killed quite a few Hindus.
Meanwhile a radical, militant, Islamist, fundamentalist, fringe had been quietly growing in the country. I got wind of this from very reliable quarters who also told me that it is alarming that the government of Sheikh Hasina was doing nothing about it. It is these fundamentalists who had started this pogrom in Comilla. Sheikh Hasina has raised her voice against it and has stated that she will make all possible efforts to apprehend the culprits and bring them to justice. That is all very good, but it happened quite a bit after the pogrom started. Not only so, but her statements so far have not been backed by adequate action. Having said that, there is no other politician of national standing in Bangladesh who can be relied upon to restore any sense of security to Hindus. Therefore, she has got to be supported. A lot of brickbats have been thrown at her from both Bangladesh and India, but no one so far has been able to suggest an alternative leader or an alternative strategy.
Why do these radicals do these to the Hindus who had done them no wrong, who are a helpless, beleaguered, tiny minority? One reason is obvious: Because they are helpless, they are fair game. This had been done by the Nazis against the Jews, by Whites against Africans or people of African descent in South Africa and the US South, by the Muslim Turks against Christian Armenians. Next, there is the jihadi craze. This is an Islamic country, and kafirs, Hindus, idol-worshippers (the Bangladeshi pejorative term is malaun) will not be allowed to live here — let them go to Hindustan, or else we’ll kill them! The tormentors also know that the political ethos of India is such that there will never be any retaliation of these against Indian Muslims. And third, the Hindus are still possessed of considerable real estate. If the Hindus go away all that property will be theirs. In fact, huge chunks of real property originally belonging to Hindus have already been expropriated by Muslims. A team led by scholar Abul Barkat has documented quite a bit of it.
So, is there a solution to this? There is indeed, theoretically speaking. How far this can be put to practice is a different matter. The solution lies in Bengali Hindus of West Bengal becoming conscious of the state of Hindus in Bangladesh and creating pressure on the Central government to do something about it. Unless this is done, the politicians at the Centre would not be bothered about the state of Hindus in Bangladesh; because, it would be reasoned, that if their very first cousins, namely the Hindus of West Bengal, are not worried about it, why should Gujaratis, Punjabis, Maharashtrians, Odias or Tamils be? And such reasoning would not be unjustified!
Whether this can be done at all or not is not clear, but there are rays of hope. Because this time the kind of activity and the furore that has been generated in West Bengal has never been seen before. As a matter of fact, even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which had so far tried very hard to obfuscate the persecution and killing of Hindus has raised a thin voice against the happenings in Bangladesh. Expatriate Bengali Hindus both from India and Bangladesh have also spoken in a loud voice. Now the future is for us to watch.
The writer, a well-known author, is former Governor of Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The views expressed are personal.