As Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights, Bangladesh gears up for elections. Given the recent anti-Hindu violence in the country, one must ponder, is Sheikh Hasina a modern-day Antiochus IV and is she transforming her country into another Pakistan?
As Jewish people across the world are celebrating Hanukkah, the festival of lights, Bangladesh is gearing up for elections. The Bangladeshi elections are set to take place on December 30. As the elections approach, the Bangladeshi Hindu community is living in great fear as their community has been historically frequently targeted as the elections approach within the country. According to Dr. Richard Benkin, an American geopolitical analyst, “the US State Department is reviewing 23 separate incidents of targeted anti-Hindu violence from January through July of 2018 that the Bangladeshi government neither prevented nor prosecuted.”
According to Dr. Benkin, “The most serious anti-Hindu violence thus far in the election run-up took place in the Rangpur district. Religious leaders there encouraged a crowd to avenge their faith after claiming that one of the Hindu villagers posted a statement on Facebook ‘insulting the prophet Mohammad.’ The accusation turned out to be false. The alleged perpetrator had long ago left the village and, regardless, did not have the skills needed to leave the alleged post. That, however, is beside the point to most observers who insist that there is no way to normalize such a violent and unrestrained reaction to an unsubstantiated allegation. That reaction involved ‘tens of thousands’ of attackers overrunning the village and committing multiple crimes that involved beatings, arson, and looting. Some villagers have alleged sexual assault as well.”
What happened in Rangpur district was not an isolated example. On a daily basis, Hindus are being murdered, raped, abducted and forcefully converted to Islam. Their lands are being seized from them, their holy places are being desecrated and their homes are being destroyed. Forces loyal to the Sheikh Hasina government are doing everything in their power in order to make Bangladesh to be a minority-free country. Routinely, Hindus within the country face systematic pressure and threats merely so that they will be compelled to move to India and to leave behind their ancestral homeland.
Between 2001 and 2014, there were more than 20,000 incidents of minority violence in the country. More than 600 minorities were killed and over 60,000 people were affected by the violence. About 12,000 people became disabled. According to a report put by the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, the amount of damage has exceeded millions of rupees. In 2016, the World Hindu Struggle Committee reported that local newspapers in Bangladesh claimed that 98 Hindus were murdered, 26 Hindus were raped, 38 Hindus were abducted, 22 Hindus disappeared, 209 statues were vandalized, and worship was halted in 366 Hindu temples. According to them, the figures are likely to be in reality much higher than the official statistics for the mere reason that Bangladeshi newspapers are discouraged from reporting on incidents of anti-Hindu violence in the country.
According to the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, between January and May 2017 alone, 81 temples, monasteries and statues were destroyed within the country. The Bangladesh Minority Council reported: “In the last 46 years, thousands of religious idols sacred to Hindus, were decapitated and destroyed in every district of Bangladesh. Hundreds of temples were put to the torch. Most Muslims believed that idolatry is an offense to Islam, so some of them think it is their sacred duty to desecrate Hindu or Buddhist idols. Not a single person has been prosecuted or punished for these deeds even though the authorities are vigilant in protecting even the minutest aspersion leveled on Islam.”
Since the announcement of the national polls till now, there have been 12 political murders in Bangladesh and two of the victims are Hindu. Also, in the wake of the elections, there are many people being arbitrarily arrested on a daily basis. Below, the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights is documenting the following examples of persecution against minorities and the repression of opposition activists that occurred within Bangladesh in October, November and the beginning of December 2018, right before the elections are set to occur within the country.
Examples of Hindu persecution in October and November 2018
- A Hindu woman was stabbed in the Bagerhat district of Bangladesh. The victims’ name is Aditi Barel, who is the daughter of ex-chairman of Chitalmari Upazilla, the late Kali Das Barel. She is also the wife of Ramananda Paul, the Pijojpur Sadar Upazila Assistant Commissioner. After Barel was injured following being stabbed, she was admitted to the Pirojpur Sadar Hospital. Attempts are being made to arrest the perpetrator. The security surrounding Barel has been strengthened. Her condition is no longer life threatening but she has injuries in the lower part of the body.
- A feud broke out in the Temple of Binodpur in Shibqani Upazila of Chapainawabqani after the renovation of a damaged room was blocked by Hrbjul Alam and his people. 5 people were injured in the incident.
- A Hindu woman was murdered. She was strangled and set alight inside of a home in Tangail.
- 1 Hindu was killed and 4 others were injured during attack on minority families led by Kalu Mandal, who killed Ashutosh Sarker (42) in the attack due to his refusal to sell land at Ullapara in Sirajganj.
- A minority woman was hung from a tree after being raped in Bandarban. The deceased was identified as Lakaching Tanchanga, age 28.
- A group of Hindus were attacked so that Hindu businesses could be seized. Shahid Prakash and his group attacked Amar Kanta’s pharmacy and a couple of other stores.
- A Hindu woman was hacked to death in Chittagong.
- A Hindu girl was abducted in Bogra.
- Shaimum Sarwar Kamal, an Awami League MP of Bangladesh, physically assaulted his old Hindu teacher Sunil Kumar Sharma in Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh
- A Hindu temple was ransacked by Union Council chairman (Panchayat chief) Advocate Shahidul Islam together with 44-50 men in the Pirojpur district of south-western Bangladesh.
- A 70-year-old Hindu woman named Abala Rani Das was beaten to death in the Barishal (formerly Barisal) District of south-central Bangladesh.
- 7-year-old 2 second grade girls were sexually abused by a 57- year-old Muslim man named Nurunnabi Mia in the Gaibandha District of northern Bangladesh
- Hindu leader Sujon Paul & another Hindu youth Bappi Saha were attacked by local youth of the ruling Awami League Party, Sadiqur Rahman & Azad with their cohort in the Barguna District of southern Bangladesh.
- In the Chandpur District of south-eastern Bangladesh, the head of a cow was found on land belonging to a Hindu as an attempt to seize the plot of land from him.
- Hindu cobbler Hiralal Rabidas has been evicted from his shop by businessman Mozammel Haque, former Union Council member (Panchayat member) Fazlul Haque & their associates in Gazipur District of central Bangladesh.
- A stone statue of lord Shiva has been stolen from a Hindu temple in the Naogaon District of northern Bangladesh.
- A crude bomb exploded near a Hindu temple in the Satkhira District of south-western Bangladesh.
- Puja pandal was attacked & vandalized during a Durga puja celebration by members of the Bangladesh Awami League’s local unit joint convener Faizul Haque Samir. He attacked together with Roman, Dilu Miah & more 12-13 hooligans in the Sylhet District of north-east Bangladesh.
- 15,000 critics of the Bangladeshi government were recently arrested and most of the people arrested were Hindu.
According to the World Hindu Struggle Committee, out of all of the Hindu lands that were seized, 44.2% of the perpetrators are associated with the ruling Awami League Party. To the contrary, the BNP Party only seized 31.7% of the total Hindu lands that were taken away from their rightful owners. The World Hindu Struggle Committee claims that this demonstrates that there was never a period in Bangladeshi history that was good for the minorities.
However, the World Hindu Struggle Committee has also noted a rapid deterioration under the Awami League. For example, only 13 Hindus were nominated for official positions this year, while 19 were nominated in 2014. And even these Hindus have faced threats. Last September, the Olema League’s president Maulana Muhammad Akhtar Hussein Bukhari announced: “If Hindus are nominated in the upcoming eleven parliamentary elections, they will be resisted.”
Repression of Critics in November 2018
Even though elections are set to take place later this month, the BNP has no candidate in three different constituencies. The Election Commission has canceled the nomination of a number of BNP leaders. Furthermore, there are reports that the government is monitoring social media activity in order to ensure that there is no “fake news and propaganda before the election.”
In other words, journalists are not permitted to criticize the Awami League leading up to the elections. Furthermore, 472 BNP opposition figures have been detained shortly after the elections were announced. This represents a continuation of an ongoing policy of the Sheikh Hasina government, which seeks to repress the BNP and other opposition groups. Over the past 9 years, 90,340 cases have been filed against BNP activists. 75,925 of them remain in jail. 1,512 others have been killed. 423 other BNP people have merely disappeared.
According to Shipan Kumer Basu, the President of the World Hindu Struggle Committee, all of this demonstrates that this election is merely going to be another staged election, like what happened in 2014: “The world already knows that 154 candidates of the Awami League won 300 seats in the final elections that took place in 2014 under shady circumstances. In the recent city elections, the Sheikh Hasina government stole votes. As a result, no one is willing to go to the polling station because they feel that their vote does not even matter.”
Is Bangladesh the next Pakistan?
Ahead of the elections at the end of the month, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced that she plans to get the Saudis to build 560 model mosques and an Islamic university. In addition, she declared that Bangladesh is an Islamic state: “Anyone who pronounces offensive statements against it or against the Prophet Muhammed will be prosecuted according to the law.” These actions come after she declared that a degree from an Islamic madrassa will be on par with a university degree within the country. Analysts report that these moves were made in order to pander to radical Islamist voters but the BNP also panders to that same voter base. This means that presently, there is no secular liberal alternative running in the upcoming Bangladeshi elections.
Bangladeshi dissident Sazzadul Huq thinks that Bangladesh is well on the road to being the next Pakistan: “It is true that there is no Blasphemy Law in Bangladesh. But, the ICT act (Information and Technology Act) which has turned into the Digital Security Act is just a de facto of blasphemy law. Bloggers, journalists, writers, online activists, human rights activists and LGBT activists have been under the microscope of the government and threats from Islamic fundamentalists for online materials that may have been perceived by some to have hurt their religious beliefs. As a result, peoples’ freedom of thought and expression is being violated. The conscious people of Bangladesh are being restricted from speaking the truth.”
If Sheikh Hasina’s legislation comes into fruition, a horrific situation for journalists and bloggers likely will become even worse. Already, Pakistan is an unfree country where it is unsafe for journalists to openly speak and report the truth. According to dissident Repunzel Baloch, hundreds of journalists have been abducted and killed by Pakistani forces in Balochistan, Pashtunistan, Sindh and Pok. He claimed that in Balochistan alone, over 50 journalists have been abducted, tortured and killed by Pakistani military forces.
“Hamid Mir who was an honest journalist working for Pakistani TV was attacked by ISIS for reporting the truth about the Baloch cause and highlighting the crimes of the government,” Baloch added, emphasizing that Manzoor Bugti was abducted, Javed Naseer disappeared, Razzaq Gul also went missing, Haji Abdul Raqiz Baloch was abducted, and that there are many more cases of journalists who fell victim to the Pakistani government.
While Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who insulted her Muslim neighbors in Pakistan by drinking from a well, won’t be executed for blasphemy in the end, her life is still in danger. She and her family is being hunted house to house within the country. There is a bounty that was placed on her head by various radical groups. Even though her life is in danger, she was banned from leaving Pakistan and is forced to live in hiding. Despite the fact that Bibi was freed from prison, the Blasphemy Law that destroyed her life is still in place. In Pakistan, Ahmedi Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others can still face the ordeal that Asia Bibi faced and worse in the future. If the Sheikh Hasina government is not put in check, this is what Bangladeshis have to look forward to.
Is Sheikh Hasina a modern-day Antiochus IV?
While a dictator elected via sham elections is not the same as an emperor, the lack of tolerance that the ruling Awami League government has demonstrated towards non-Muslim minorities has an uncanny resemblance to the persecution that the Jewish people experienced during the Hanukkah story. Like the Jews in the Seleucid Empire, the Hindus look on helplessly as their temples are being desecrated and their religion is being blatantly disrespected. Furthermore, the instances of cow meat being utilized to disrespect Hindus is very similar to how the Ancient Greeks used to expose Jews to pork as a means of insulting them. And Sheikh Hasina is doing everything in her power to encourage her countrymen to harm the Hindus, just as Antiochus IV did to the Jewish people during Hanukkah.
Of course, there are some differences. The Jewish people in the Hanukkah story were deprived of the right to study Torah, to engage in circumcisions of babies, to observe Shabbat and festivals. Jews who refused to follow the king’s order were murdered. There is the story of Hannah and her seven sons, who were all killed for refusing to bow down to a statue. The Book of Maccabees recounts that many Jewish women together with their babies were thrown to their deaths as a punishment for staying committed to their faith.
In the case of the Hindus of Bangladesh, many are also murdered, raped, and abducted merely because they are Hindu and for no other reason. However, too often, conversion to Islam is not enough to spare Hindus from facing grave oppression. There are numerous cases of Hindu women who converted to Islam and married Muslims but they still were murdered for having Hindu heritage. While on the surface being Hindu is not illegal in Bangladesh like being Jewish was illegal in Seleucid Greece, if one insists of remaining as a Hindu in Bangladesh, one will be persecuted with impunity and in many cases, the government will do nothing to help you if you or your loved one is murdered, raped, abducted or has their land seized. In fact, the current ruling Bangladeshi government will encourage you to suffer such a fate.
Thus, the Seleucid Greeks sought to live alongside the Jews but to force them to become Greek. However, the ruling Bangladeshi government seeks to slowly erase the Hindu population within the country, either by conversion to Islam, expulsion to India or death. However, the Muslims in Bangladesh are not prepared to accept the Hindus as equals even if they convert. They would still be third class Muslims subject to systematic abuse due to their Hindu heritage. In this manner, perhaps Sheikh Hasina has more in common with Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who told their Jews to convert, leave or die and continued to oppress the converted Jews, than the Seleucid Greeks, who offered the Jews equality once they converted and were absorbed into the Greek way of living.
Nevertheless, while of course there are differences between what happened in Seleucid Greece and what is happening in Bangladesh today, there are enough similarities to draw a parallel. Both the Jews of ancient Israel and the Hindus of Bangladesh were the natives living on their ancestral homeland but found themselves dominated over by others, who oppressed them merely because they had a different faith. And in both cases, both nations cling to the faith of their heritage against incredible odds, fighting back against the oppression imposed on them, believing that by standing up for justice, they will be able to light a candle which will brighten up all of humanity. In the case of the Hanukkah story, the Jewish people had a happy ending: “After many years of war, the Jews returned to their homes and land, every man sitting under his vine and under his fig tree, with none of them being afraid.” Basu is inspired by the Jewish people’s success during the Hanukkah story and wishes for the same for his people.