Minority Question in Bangladesh: ‘Distorted’ Reality?

The minority narrative about Bangladesh is largely dominated by violence against Hindus. The common arguments regarding this narrative focus on the declining Hindu population in Bangladesh, the growing violence against them, and majoritarian oppression. Recently, International Commission on Human Rights and Religious Freedom (ICHRRF) – a US NGO, published a report on Bangladesh’s minority situation. The report also expressed concern over the minority situation regarding the violence against Hindus in Bangladesh. The report also called for establishing a hate speech law, setting up a ministry for minorities, and stopping ‘ethnic cleansing’. 

However, the report also went extra-mile, labeling the decline of the Hindu Population as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and even compared the situation with a ‘holocaust’. But in reality, it seems the situation is not as bad as ICHRRF takes. Such distortion of reality, coupled with questionable testimonies and the organization’s ‘securitization’ objective behind the report, questions our minds: what is the actual scenario of minority rights in Bangladesh? Is ICHRRF providing a distorted picture of the minority situation of Bangladesh? And lastly, should this ‘Hindu repression’ narrative lead to the minority question of Bangladesh?

ICHRRF’s Report and Its Fundamental Flaws

ICHRRF published its latest report on April 30, 2022. The report focused on minority rights in Bangladesh. Even though the report also acknowledged ‘other’ minorities, such as Buddhists and Christians, it mostly focused on the declining Hindu population and persecution of Hindus. The report incorporated testimonies given by individuals who claimed to be stakeholders of the issue. One such individual is Priya Saha. Mrs. Saha a controversial figure. She went to the White House in 2019 and provided misinformation to then-President Trump about 37 million minorities missing from Bangladesh. Her misinformation to the president immediately created a backlash, and US Ambassador had to confirm that her allegation against Bangladesh was untrue. Mrs. Saha was the general secretary of Mohila Oikya Parisad – Female Rights Organization previously. But she was expelled from her post for misleading activities, including collecting foreign funds using dramatization.

Another flaw of the report is the exaggeration of the reality. In the testimonies, the report compared Bangladesh’s minority situation with some of the world’s worst cases, including the Rwanda genocide (p.16) and the Nazi holocaust (p.47). It also accused Bangladesh of ethnic cleansing (p.17) and labeled the society as a Talibanized one (p.55). If the situation in Bangladesh is true as the testimonies claimed, it would become an international human rights issue. Even though the situation is not a rosy one, Bangladesh has garnered much applause for its religious harmony, even from the Pope himself. The state itself does not have any ethnic cleansing project and doesn’t adopt any policy that excludes religions.

Apart from the exaggerations, it seems ICHRRF is aiming to securitize the minority issue of Bangladesh by calling for creating a ministry of minority and hate speech laws. Bangladesh doesn’t acknowledge any minority in its constitution. In the eyes of the law, all are equal. Creating a ‘ministry’ would only further fragment society. Again, to curb hate speech, Bangladesh already has a law, the ‘much talked’ Digital Security Act (DSA). Even though the activists largely criticize DSA due to its misuse, the law is effective in curbing hate speeches. So by providing such a recommendation, ICHRRF is trying to securitize the minority issue in Bangladesh.

It is also worth mentioning that the ICHRRF itself is a controversial organization. Its directors are mostly from Hindu backgrounds and of Indian origins. Recently, it acknowledged the controversial ‘Kashmir Hindu Genocide’, an alleged genocide politically promoted by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Acknowledging this controversial genocide which supported the BJP agenda only, was also celebrated by BJP. It seems ICHRRF maintains a close tie with BJP.

Challenging ‘Hindu repression’ Narrative

As mentioned earlier, Bangladesh’s minority narrative is dominated by Hindu repression. The general claims about it are that the Hindu population is declining, and the attacks against the Hindus are increasing. There is no shying away that religious violence is taking place all over the region due to the growing rightwing populism in South Asia. Bangladesh is also no exception. Even recently, the country also witnessed violence during Durga Puja. But, it seems the declining population is not the result of persecution or cleansing. Rather it is a result of regular human migration.

The outflow of Hindu migration is resulting in a decline of Hindus in Bangladesh. In 1951, Hindus accounted for 23% of the population. Over the next seven decades, the number declined to 9.6% by 2011. Many believe the cause behind this decline is the persecution and violence against minorities. The ICHRRF report also posed concerns over this declining trend. But it seems reality begs to differ.

By 1974, Hindus accounted for 14.6% of the total population. So, how did the number decline by around 9% in only 23 years? The number declined due to the human movements in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, many Hindu families migrated to India, while many Muslims migrated to then East Pakistan from India. The 1974’s census supports such a claim as it shows that between 1951 and 1974, the Muslim population increased from 34 million to 65 million, almost doubling. This drastic increase coupling with outmigration to India resulted in such a decline.

In the next four decades, the number further declined from 14.6% to 9.6% in 2011, which means the average decline rate was 1.25% per decade. There are various reasons behind this decline. Muslim population growth, declining fertility rate, and outmigration are the major causes behind it. Joint research by ICDDR,B and the University of North Carolina support such a claim.

The joint research titled “Hindu Population Growth in Bangladesh: A Demographic Puzzle” studied the demographic change in Matlab Upazilla of Chandpur district from 1989 to 2016. The research found that the Hindu community of Matlab Upazilla has a poor fertility rate that is responsible for the 71% lower growth rate of the community. Moreover, the research also found a tendency of outmigration among the Hindus of Matlab. Between 2005 and 2012, around 36% of Hindus of Matlab migrated to India. This outmigration has many reasons, such as economic condition, religious assimilation, and familial connection.

Hence, it is not right to claim that the decline of Hindus is a result of persecution or ethnic cleansing. Instead, Hindus enjoy equal treatment in Bangladesh. Prominent critical scholar and activist Badaruddin Omar believes such. Omar believes that Hindus obtained equal or more government jobs, leadership in cultural fronts, and decision-making positions compared to Muslims despite their proportion. Omar wrote an article titled “Who are the Original Minority [In Bangladesh]” (Translated). Omar rejected Hindu repression as the dominant narrative of the minority in Bangladesh, arguing that apart from economic, cultural, and political opportunities, Hindus in Bangladesh also have support from Muslims who take on the streets to protest when minority repression takes place.

Even though Omar faced backlash from all sides immediately after the publication, he also wrote a rebuttal to the critiques. Omar argued that the original minorities in Bangladesh are the indigenous population such as Chakma, Marma, and Santal etc., as they have the least representation in almost all sectors. He also criticized Bangladesh’s Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity that it is dominated by upper-class Hindus and represents Hindus mostly. Omar’s argument was also supported by another prominent critical scholar and activist, Farhad Mazher.

It seems that even though the minority narrative of Bangladesh is largely dominated by Hindu persecution and declining Hindus, it is not the actual picture. Instead, state policy strikes equality among all religions. There is no shying away from that the spillover of rightwing populism affects Hindus, but there is no persecution or cleansing project.

Moreover, the minority narrative should uphold the indigenous population and class struggle as identified by critical scholars such as Omar and Mazher. International reports such as ICHRRF should avoid securitization and exaggeration. Otherwise, it will only create further fragmentation and will only discredit the rights activists who are working diligently to address these issues.

[Photo by Jubair Bin Iqbal, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Doreen Chowdhury is an aspiring author and analyst. She is currently pursuing her Doctoral studies at University of Groningen. Her areas of interest are Comparative Politics, Globalization, South Asian Studies and Migration Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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