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Bangladesh election 2024: What’s the future of Hindus as Sheikh Hasina woos Islamists

2023-12-26 06:07:36

Manik Bhowmik’s land in Cumilla district of Bangladesh was forcefully taken over by Khurshid Alam, a leader of the farmers’ wing of the Awami League.

Manik Bhowmik isn’t a nobody. A lawyer by profession, it took a lot of protests by several organisations to help recover his land. However, most minorities aren’t so lucky and end up losing their land.

Bhowmik’s case of 2021 isn’t an isolated incident. There are numerous cases of land-grabbing where Hindus are the victims. Most of these attacks don’t even make it to the national media in Bangladesh.

Such has been the “othering” and persecution of minorities in Bangladesh that the share of Hindus in Bangladesh’s population has dipped from 22 per cent in 1951 to below 8 per cent in 2022. This, even as the population of Muslims rose to over 91 per cent from 76 per cent in 1951.

Between 1964 and 2013, over 11 million Hindus fled Bangladesh due to religious persecution, according to the Hindu American Foundation. It says 230,000 Hindus continue to leave the country every year.

The 2011 census showed that a million Hindus went missing from the country’s population between 2000 and 2010, according to DW.

The state religion of Bangladesh is Islam, but the Awami League government reintroduced ‘secularism’ to the preamble in 2011.

Why are religious minorities facing such attacks and persecution when a ‘secular’ Awami League government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is in power in Bangladesh, and that too, for the last 15 years?

This is a burning question and becomes even more interesting as Bangladesh prepares to vote in the crucial general election on January 7.

Deep Halder, journalist and author of ‘Being Hindu in Bangladesh: The Untold Story’, says the January 2024 election will have a huge impact on Hindus.

“If the Hasina government is replaced by any element that is inimical to the idea of a secular Bangladesh that was envisaged during the country’s war of independence, it will be doom for Hindus in Bangladesh as we saw in 2001 when BNP-Jamaat came to power,” says Deep Halder.

Halder is referring to the massacre of Hindus and the large-scale arson and pogrom that took place in Bangladesh after the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The BNP, however, claims to be a “pro-minority party” and points to the grabbing of land of the Hindus by Awami League members to reveal the “real face” of Sheikh Hasina’s party. It recently released a document highlighting the atrocities against Hindus during the Sheikh Hasina regime.


‘Allah Sarbashaktiman’ and ‘Allah is great’ was at the centre of the Awami League manifesto in the 2018 general election. The party hasn’t come out with its manifesto for the January 2024 election yet.

Mubashar Hasan, author of ‘Islam and Politics in Bangladesh: The Followers of Ummah’, says that both the mainstream parties — Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — use Islamic culture and values in their politics. He doesn’t see the Awami League, as the party professes, to be a secular party.

“In my research, I have not found any leader in Bangladesh from the immediate post-independence period who did not favour the majority religion in policy-making and foreign policy. In my book, I argue that there is no secular party in Bangladesh,” Mubashar Hasan tells IndiaToday.In. “Within this context, minorities have become political pawns,” he adds.

A look at Bangladesh’s religious diversity. A million Hindus went missing from Bangladesh’s population between 2000 and 2010, according to the country’s census data. (Source: Bangladesh census)

Bangladesh watchers elaborated on how Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League government have been courting the Islamists. From hobnobbing with the ultra-right Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh to the opening of Saudi-funded mosques, and the mushrooming of madrasas to an explosion of newly minted clerics, the Awami League has gone all out to reach out to right-wing voters.

Critics have also slammed her for trying to create a rift amongst the Muslims of Bangladesh for electoral dividends.

“Sheikh Hasina is tapping the far-right Islamist groups to create a divide in the mainstream Islamist politics in Bangladesh and to get some ‘dummy candidates’ for the next election,” AKM Wahiduzzaman, information and technology affairs secretary of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, tells IndiaToday.In.

“Sheikh Hasina and her government are bringing far-right Islamist politicians into the leadership of the Awami League and making them MPs and advisors. They are providing funds and infrastructure facilities to far-right Islamist groups and creating new political parties for far-right Islamist politicians,” says Wahiduzzaman.

He points to Bangladesh’s election commission recognising six new Islamic political parties in the recent past.

The basic difference between the Awami League and the BNP is in their perception of history, Muntassir Mamoon, Bangabandhu Chair of Chittagong University, tells IndiaToday.In.

He draws a contrast between the secular-minded Awami League founder Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, who came to power after a coup and later founded the BNP.

“Ziaur Rahman, his followers and the Jatiya Party believe the roots of Bangladesh are in 1947 (along religious lines), and the 1971 Liberation from Pakistan was a deviation. The Leftists and the Awami League believe that 1947 was a deviation and the 1971 liberation was the culmination of the long struggle for rights. The Muktojuddho (Liberation War) slogan was for secularism,” says Mamoon. He blames “Pakistan-minded” Ziaur Rahman and dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad for “destroying the secular fabric of Bangladesh society”.

But why is the Awami League, with its history of calling for secularism during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, trying to cut across to the other side of the political spectrum?


Bangladesh watchers and experts say it is Sheikh Hasina’s and the Awami League’s political compulsions that are forcing them to woo the Islamists. They say it is crucial to remember that the Awami League is an election-oriented political party, and practical politics influences its course of action.

“Among Bangladesh’s five major political parties, the Awami League is the only officially secular party. However, in the current political landscape, the Awami League is practically unable to become more secular and counter anti-secular elements. Recent developments suggest that the Awami League occasionally befriends anti-secular forces for political benefits,” Professor Shantanu Majumder of Dhaka University tells IndiaToday.In.

Though the Awami League has prevented extremists from making things worse, it doesn’t have the power or the political will to check the Islamists. With any further pro-minority or secular push, it will lose hold over society and voter base, which it can’t afford to.

For 21 years, from 1975 to 1996, the Awami League fought the propaganda that it was “pro-Hindu and pro-India”.

“When Sheikh Hasina first came to power in 1996, she was on the defensive. From 2008, she cracked down on the extremists and militants. She has pushed back against the Pakistan psyche and pushed for friendship with India, for which the BNP and the Jamaat were against,” says Mamoon.

Some experts say that it is a strategy to fight the BNP-Jamaat combine.

“Bangladesh, being a Muslim-majority country, appeals to the far right, and it will always help the electoral prospect of the Awami League. Moreover, the party thinks it can fight the Jamaat, which is aligned with the BNP, with this. Keeping the religious political party by its side, Hasina thinks her government will have smooth sailing,” says Smruti S Pattanaik, a research fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.


Some experts have questioned the secular credentials of the Sheikh Hasina government.

“Just as Sheikh Hasina’s personal achievements as prime minister do not mean empowering women as a whole, it does not mean that she is minority-friendly by placing a few minority people in key positions to protect authoritarian regimes. Instead, the brutal actions of influential minority figures make weak and marginalised minorities more vulnerable,” says a Bangladeshi expert on condition of anonymity.

Fearing retribution, not many political commentators want to criticise the Awami League government.

The share of Hindus in Bangladesh’s overall population has dipped over the years. (Source: Bangladesh census)

Most Bangladesh experts, however, point out that despite all the political constraints, the Awami League remains the choice of minority voters.

“Every politician would want to tap into all the voter bases possible and there has been a fair amount of talk about Sheikh Hasina’s cosying up to the Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh and the mushrooming of madrasas in Bangladesh during her tenure. It also has to be noted that her government has been tough on terror and provided enough security so that lives were not lost during Hindu festivals like the Durga Puja,” says journalist-author Deep Halder.

“The BNP doesn’t have a legacy to be proud of. There were massacres under the BNP’s watch in 2001,” says Halder, whose book ‘Being Hindu In Bangladesh: The Untold Story’ describes in detail the post-election violence against minorities in 2021. He says things have become better with the Awami League coming to power in 2008 but blames the ‘othering’ of Hindus in Bangladesh for their plight.

IDSA’s Smruti Pattanaik too agrees with this. She says the promotion of radical right alienates minorities and secular elements within Bangladesh. She says the minorities hardly have a choice when it comes to the contesting political parties.

“The minorities hardly have an option. Between the Awami League and the BNP, most minorities prefer voting for the former. That is why the post-2001 election the BNP supporters targeted minorities,” says Pattanaik.

“Sheikh Hasina has been in power for 15 straight years. One can argue that the minorities are relatively better. But a sense of ‘othering of Hindus’ in Bangladeshi society hasn’t stopped,” he adds.

A reason why Hindus stayed back in Bangladesh is because they still believe in the idea of Bangladesh, says Halder.

“They don’t look at India as a place they need to come to because it is a Hindu-majority country. But yes, when there are attacks, and when they are made to feel like ‘the other’, they think of India as a place where they will be relatively safer,” he says.

History professor Mamoon says the rise of Hindutva in India, like other religiopolitical ideologies in the world, is influencing religious antagonism in Bangladesh.

He says the Awami League has courted every section of society, including Islamists, for votes, but that doesn’t mean minorities are unsafe in Bangladesh. The cases of land-grabbing, he says, are not community-specific and weaker sections are generally the victims.

“The Awami League still has a secular attitude. If Hasina is in power, minorities will feel safe, liberals will feel safe. She has also developed Bangladesh like never before and minorities are equal stakeholders in this,” says Mamoon.

The bottom line, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League has been wooing the Islamists as it tries to widen its voter base, but the party founded by Mujibur Rahman might remain the preferred choice of the liberals and minorities.

Published On:

Dec 26, 2023

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