Date: 9/20/2002


Human Rights in Bangladesh : Focus on Communal Persecution (*)

.......................Shahriar Kabir

If we want to ascertain the human rights situation in any country basically we have to look into five areas.

a) How much constitutional guarantee a country gives to its people regarding equal rights as well as individual status.

b) Then we need to find out how sincere is the government in ensuring the basic rights as enshrined in the constitution.

c) Is there an independent judiciary to address violations of such rights?

d) The existence of a free press that can boldly write about any wrongs on these matters. And

e) The last, but not the least is to watch if the human rights organisations and activists can work freely and independently without the pressures of a political party or government.

Looking into the constitution of our country, Bangladesh, one would come across that basic rights have been ensured, but with some serious anomalies and contradictions.

In the second part, Article 11 of the constitution ('Democracy and Human Rights') says 'The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed.' Again, in the same Article (IA) says, 'Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions.' These two parts are contradictory.

In Part III Article 28(1) of the constitution says, 'The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.' This article and several other similar ones become meaningless when section 2A of part one of the constitution says, 'The state religion of the Republic is Islam '.' The second paragraph of the Preamble also starts: 'Pledging that the high ideals of absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah ''

There was no discriminatory clause between Muslim and non-Muslim in the original constitution of Bangladesh. Pro-Pakistanis capture power after the 1975 assassination of Bangladesh's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bangladesh had emerged as a secular state on the grave of Pakistani religious ideals.

After the assassination of Bangabandhu two military rulers, General Ziaur Rahman and General H.M. Ershad removed the roots of the country's secular, non-communal and humane ideals. They changed the constitution to serve a vested quarter and thus eliminated the clause of equal rights for the Hindus, Christians and Buddhists along with indigenous ethnic communities like Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Maug, Hajong, etc.

In the original constitution, which was written in 1972, Article 12 in Part II enshrined 'secularism and freedom of Religion' in the section called Fundamental Principle of State Policy. General Ziaur Rahman's military government totally erased this part of the constitution and that was how the religious and ethnic minority groups became second-class citizens to suffer state discrimination.

State discrimination and torture had its influence on the political, economic, social and cultural lives of the minority groups, and as a result their basic human rights as per the constitution, have been trampled.

Now if we look at Part III of the constitution under the heading 'Fundamental Rights', one will come across 23 Articles (26 to 47A) where the duties of the government relating to human rights have been clearly stated.

Sadly, I must say that the government has to face regular court cases for violating these articles. The government is not very disturbed because the judicial system and the administration are not free from its influence. The incidents of influence in the higher courts have increased sharply since the BNP-Jamaat alliance came to power in last October.


Annual reports on Bangladesh's state of human rights are regularly published by a number of national and international organizations, including the 'United States State Department', 'Amnesty International', 'Transparency International, etc.. The reports on the situation in 2001 show that human rights situation has dangerously deteriorated in Bangladesh.

'US Department of State -- Country 'Report on Human Rights Practice' was published on 4 March 2002. Six points of the report have been widely discussed. They are; 1) Respect for Human Rights, 2) Respect for Civil Liberties, 3) Respect for Political Rights, 4) Government's Attitude Regarding International and Non-governmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights, 5) Discrimination based on Race, Sex, religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status, 6) Workers Rights, etc..

There are many subsections. Under 'Respect for Human Rights', the sub-sections are a) Arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, b) Disappearance, c) torture and cruel inhuman or degradingÝ treatment or punishment d) arbitrary arrest, detention and exile e) denial of fair public trial and f) arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence.

The subsections of Section-2 are a) freedom of speech and press, b) freedom of peaceful assembly and association, c) freedom of religion and d) freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation.

Subsections under section 5 are a) women, b) children, c) persons with disabilities, d) indigenous people and religious minorities.

Subsections under section 6 are a) right of association, b) right to organize and bargain collectively, c) prohibition of forced or compulsory labor, d) status of child labor practices and minimum age for employment, e) acceptable condition of work and f) trafficking in person.

The State Department's country report carries a lot of importance on Bangladesh's human rights situation, as all sides of the issue have been dealt with in detail. Since this report does not take sides, it has always been a matter of concern for all governments that ruled Bangladesh. Even then, the US avoids those areas which goes against its own interests and in comparison the Amnesty International is more neutral and has given more importance on the torture of religious minorities.

TODAY, I want to discuss precisely this aspect of human rights violation in Bangladesh.


The fierce persecution against the religious minorities that started soon after the October, 2001, general elections still continues even after the lapse of one year. The main opposition Awami League and a large section of Bangladesh's civil society have opined that the election was 'unacceptable' to them as the voting was influenced in many ways, including intimidation of opposition supporters and religious minorities.

Various kinds of rigging took place and the Awami League has published a book called 'A Rigged Election: An Illegitimate Government' along with a White Paper. So far five White Papers have been published by different groups on the torture and intimidation of religious minorities, specially the Hindus, during the elections. After the takeover of the administration by the interim caretaker government which oversaw the elections, torture or intimidation was carried out in a very 'planned way.'

ÝThe issue of communal torture has many dimensions in Bangladesh. If we take the recent incidents of communal atrocities in Bangladesh and link them only to elections or politics then it will not be fair or accurate. We need to know the historical, political, geographical, economical, cultural and psychological aspects of communal problems of Bangladesh to understand it in its entirety.

Islam came to Bangladesh during the rule of the Sen dynasty in the twelfth century. In the Western part of India Islam came in the form of warriors. Mohammad bin Kasem conquered Sindh with his sword and then spread Islam while in the eastern part of India Sufis came with the traders and they preached Islam.

Hinduism and Buddhism came to Bangladesh much before Islam did, while there were also other faiths. The Bengalees are generally very tolerant and believed in co-existence of people from different faiths, even though conflicts were forced upon them by the rulers at different times. The political character of communalism raised its head in the Indian sub-continent during the British rule that pursued a policy of 'divide and rule' so that the followers of the two major religions --Hindus and Muslims -- could not unite against the rulers. The British have blamed the two religions for wrongs against each other and tried to portray themselves as ideal rulers.

At the end of the 19th Century communal incidents increasingly took political shape between the two faiths. The political career of Pakistan's father of the nation Mohammad Ali Jinnah started from the Indian National Congress Party as a secularist which was appreciated by a leader like Sarojini Naidu who called jinnah 'the champion of Hindu-Muslim unity'.

At one stage Jinnah left the Congress Party to join the Muslim League and became so virulent a Hindu-hater that he demanded a separate state for the Muslims i.e. Pakistan. The British had either direct or indirect hand in the communal riots that took place in the sub-continent in the 1940s, which was in fact the final result of the British rulers' 'divide and rule' policy among the religious faiths.

The British rule ended in 1947 leaving a broken sub-continent with the birth of Pakistan on the basis of religion. But Jinnah himself later rejected his own two-nation theory by saying that the followers of all religious faiths would get equal rights and status in Pakistan. He said, '..... in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.' (Presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan at Karachi; August 11, 1947) The Western-educated Jinnah wanted to see Pakistan as a modern democratic state, but the feudal and the military entente buried Jinnah's dream turning it into a theocratic-military state.

Bengalee Muslims soon came out of their erroneous and blind support for Pakistan when they saw that they were being treated like residents of a colony. For 23 years Pakistani rulers sold Islam to carry out their repressive policies on the Bengalees. They labeled all movements of the Bengalees starting from the one for the language itself and the 1971 independence war as 'anti-Islamic' and an 'Indian conspiracy.'

The Bengalees, despite being religious, never liked the use of religion for political or repressive purposes. In 1971 Bengalees were labeled as 'enemies of Islam' by the Pakistani junta and their local collaborators the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim League. They even carried out genocide and rape in the name of Islam.

During the nine month long liberation war of Bangladesh the Pakistani army and their collaborators killed three million Bengalees, raped more than a quarter million women and destroyed invaluable infrastructure, which are considered to be the worst crimes against humanity since the Nazis in the World War II.

The constitution presented to the nation by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after the birth of Bangladesh was a milestone for a backward country where the vast population are muslim by faith. The four pillars of statehood enshrined in the constitution were 1) secularism, 2) democracy, 3) (Bengalee) nationalism and 4) socialism. It was categorically stated that none can form a political party on the basis of religion. Very few constitutions across the world contained the clauses for equal rights for minorities and respect to the United Nations Universal Declaration on human rights.

The killing of Bangabandhu in 1975 and takeover of power by pro-Pakistanis clearly demonstrated that Pakistan never accepted the birth of a Bengalee nation. General Ziaur Rahman might have fought in the Bangladesh war, but the party he formed during his term as army chief comprised of those who collaborated with the Pakistani army or were against the independence of Bangladesh. His first act was to place 'Bismillah' at the beginning of the constitution and lifting the ban on religion-based parties, which in reality is taking the country back to the Pakistani era.

The religious and ethnic minorities started to flee to India since the time Ziaur Rahman grabbed power because of torture and intimidation. This was the beginning of Islamization or Pakistanization of Bangladesh. During the 1971 war of the total 10 million Bengalees who took shelter in India, 7.2 million were Hindus. Most of them returned after the independence of Bangladesh, but again started to leave for India after the 1975 coup and most of them never returned after that.

But cases of intimidation or repression on the minorities drastically came down during the rule of Bangabandhu's daughter and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina between 1996-2001. Her Awami League government repealed the 'Enemy Properties Act' of the Pakistani period and removed the unwritten obstacles in the way of placing Hindus in high government posts. A peace treaty was signed in the hill tracts ending two decades of tribal insurgency, which improved the human rights situation in the region.

There has been a serious decline in the communal situation of the country after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami government came to office after the October 2001, general elections.


The religious minorities had been facing torture by Muslim religious fundamentalists and communal rightwing groups since the inception of Pakistan. Even during the parliamentary election of 1996, one that brought the Awami League to power, various communal groups subjected them to intimidation but they kept silent possibly because the Awami League came to power.

However, the torture and repression the Hindus faced surrounding the 2001 elections were unprecedented in the country's history. The Hindus were intimidated, their homes and businesses looted or burned, they were victims of extortion or rape -- just to ensure they stayed away from voting, and they left the area.

I traveled across Bangladesh before the elections on behalf of the 'Ekatturer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee' and recorded the statements of victims of those savage incidents. Both the BNP and Jamaat used fiery communal statements to get votes. In the constituency of Jamaat Member of Parliament Delwar Hossain Sayeedi such a slogan was chanted'this election is a fight between Hindus and Muslims'. Supporters chanted this slogan in presence of BNP chief Khaleda Zia at a public meeting in Pirojpur district. Sayeedi's rival was Shudangshu Shekhar Halder, a Hindu lawyer, of the Awami League.

One of BNP's main leaders and former president Dr. Badruddoza Chowdhury, despite his reputation as a responsible man, also spread communal hatred ahead of the elections, which created the fertile ground for the unprecedented communal violence before the October 1, 2001, elections.

A number of national and international human rights organizations, including the 'Ekatturer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee', 'Ain O Salish Kendra', 'Sammilito Samajik Andolon', 'Bangladesh Mahila Parishad',

'Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist, Christian Oikkya Parishad' etc. carried out surveys on the communal violence centering the elections. Many newspapers, including pro-government ones, published reports on communal violence. However, it is impossible to get the real picture of what happened before and after the elections. The reasons being:

1) Victims stayed away from registering complaints/cases with police fearing more repression as the attackers belonged to the ruling BNP-Jamaat coalition;

2) It is impossible to get information on the incidents that took place in remote areas;

3) Victims of rape rarely report it to the police not only fearing further torture, but also because of social conservativeness. In many countries of Asia including Bangladesh the rape victim is more ostracized by the society than the rapist;

4) Police consciously refused to record incidents of communal violence as the government denied that such incidents took place from the very start;

5) It is impossible to get the facts from those thousands of Hindus who fled to India from Bangladesh to save their lives, leaving behind all their belongings.

Except during the nine months of the 1971 Independence War, such gruesome communal incidents never took place in the history of Bangladesh. In 1971 the attackers were outsiders, the Pakistani army, but this time it was more tragic and fearsome than that of 1971 -- this time the attackers were Bengalees and neighbours of the victims. Those religious minority people who fled the country during the 1971 war came back after independence, but those who fled in 2001 told me that they would never return.

Communal violence, which started soon after the caretaker government took charge in July 2001, took an alarming turn after the elections. Not a single day passed without an incident after the new government came to power and the pattern was torching of homes, looting, extortion and rape.

Even those aged six or sixty years were not spared by the rapists, who also killed females of all ages, including babies. The list of those killed includes priests of Hindu temples, Buddhist monks and elderly educationists who could not have ever caused harm to anybody. Some Christians also fell victim to this insaneorgy.

The government ignored all appeals from human rights organisations and political groups to stop communal persecution. One of the rights group 'Ain-O-Salish Kendra' even filed a case with the High Court aggrieved by government indifference, and even after nine months have elapsed the authorities have given no explanation. Instead, the prime minister and the home minister repeatedly denied that any communal violence took place and accused newspapers of publishing baseless, exaggerated and partisan reports. The top brasses of the government never gave any importance to communal violence even after the Amnesty International expressed its grave concern about the incidents during meetings with the prime minister and home minister.

Police never took any action against the culprits, who were encouraged because of the government stand. The victims, those who gathered courage to report communal incidents to the press or human rights groups, were intimidated by police, backed by ruling party men and were made to sign bonds saying newspapers reports were untrue, that there was no violence or torture. During the last Durga Puja, the most important religious festival of the Hindu community, the authorities in many cases forced faithful to celebrate in a festive manner who were not in a position to celebrate the Puja festival with any joy.

Social scientists have described the incidents of recent communal persecution in Bangladesh as nothing less than 'ethnic cleansing.' Nearly three months ahead of the elections BNP-Jamaat gangsters publicly proclaimed that no Hindus could stay in Bangladesh, as these political parties believe that only non-Muslims support the Awami League and the easiest way to take revenge on their opponents was to resort to communal repression.

The BNP-Jamat coalition government also believes, if the non-Muslims leave the country because of communal violence then a) Awami Legaue's vote will shrink and b) it will be easier to turn Bangladesh into a monolithic Islamic country like Pakistan.

Our findings show that religious minorities irrespective of their party affiliations became victims of communal violence. Veteran educationist Gopal Krishna Muhuri, who supported the Workers Party, was killed in Chittagong by criminals affiliated with the Jamaat, while Buddhist Monks Gyanjoty Mahathero, Dulal Barua and Hindu priest Madanmohan Goswami had no links with any political party. Despite promising to vote for the BNP, Bashana Rani, the mother of gang-raped minor girl Purnima of Sirajganj district, was not spared.

Thus it will be wrong to assume that only those who supported the Awami League were victims of communal repression, although there is definitely a political reason for which Awami League workers are facing repression for the last nine months. However, attacks on the religious minorities were basically communal in nature as they were attempts by fundamentalists to turn Bangladesh from a pluralist state to a monolithic one.

The major daily that reported the communal violence more than the others was the 'Janakantha' newspaper. Stopping government advertisements has punished the 'Janakantha' and similar newspapers, a major source of subsistence, and its publisher, editor and journalists frequently face prosecution on various charges. The NGOs that are working against communalism and fundamentalism are facing the same fate.

In November last year I was arrested, jailed and charged with treason for writing, giving an interview to the BBC and planning to make a documentary film on the communal violence. I was tortured physically and mentally. Despite being freed on bail by orders of the High Court, all my activities are watched by police detectives, besides my mails are censored and my telephone is tapped. I and my family are constantly threatened over telephone and e-mail and by religious fundamentalist newspapers. Police did not register any complaint when I tried to do so, and the detectives are harassing even my friends. My publishers are being threatened not to bring out my books and that is why I told a press conference after coming out from the Dhaka Central jail that I have come to a bigger prison from a smaller one.

I have to write hundreds of pages to give the nightmarish account of my two months in jail. I would like to point out here that many international rights organisations have published country reports on Bangladesh, but they never studied the jails of Bangladesh where conditions were primitive.


None can deny the fact that ethnic and religious minority communities in many parts of the world suffer from neglect and are victims of discriminations. An idea has emerged in parts of the western world after the September 11 horrible attack on the United States by Muslim terrorists that all Muslims are terrorists. The way the Muslims were being treated in these parts are definitely violation of United Nations human rights charter.

Religious fundamentalism and communalism are enemies of humanity, democracy and socio-economic progress, although it exists among all religious faiths. The recent communal violence in India's Gujrat state tarnished the image of secular India of Gandhi and Nehru, and it would take a long time to heal the wound and remove the fear from the minds of the Muslims there. Not only Muslims, but also those who believe in secularism including those of you here must have been anguished by what happened in Gujrat.

The civil society in South Asia is concerned about capital punishments being handed down to both Muslims and non-Muslims under the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan as we are concerned about the rise of Zionism in Israel whose victims are the innocent Palestinians. Similarly, we are concerned about state and I or foreign sponsored terrorism on ethnic and religious minorities in Philippines, Myanmar, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kurdistan Kashmir and in Xjingian.

We have seen the chain reaction in the relationship and the rise of communalism and fundamentalism in South Asia. When religious zealots destroyed the Babri Mosque in India, hundreds of temples were destroyed in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The rise of religious fundamentalists and communal terrorists under state patronage in Pakistan has made their growth smooth as is the case of India, which has become a threat to the existence of the Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

They are now a threat to human civilization.

Talibans were created by the Capitalist America to oust the Soviet-backed socialist government and that Taliban has become a Frankenstein which is now not only threat to the US but to the entire human civilization.

In the era of globalization, all democratic forces and humanists should come forward must unite to resist communalism and fundamentalism all over the world.

* This paper was written for the conference on 'Human Rights in Bangladesh' held on 17 August 2002, at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.