Islamist Extremism Increases in Bangladesh

Recent violent attacks on Hindus and their homes in a village in Bangladesh’s northern Rangpur Sadar district represent the latest episode in tension over the vulnerable state of Hindu communities in Bangladesh.

Located some 250 kilometers northwest of Dhaka, the village became the epicenter of religiously motivated violence in a country marred by a steady streak of what seems to be low-grade, yet highly violent, communal warfare.

In this latest episode, the spark that lit the flames of Muslim rage against the Hindu residents appears to have been a Facebook post, apparently uploaded by a resident of the village, that allegedly defamed the prophet Muhammad. While these facts remain to be verified or fully investigated, a mob of 20,000 descended on the village after Friday prayers on Nov. 10 and left more than 30 homes destroyed.

While the incident did not go unnoticed by the Indian government, which does on occasion display concern for the plight of Hindu minorities in its backyard, the fact remains that both the Indian and Bangladeshi authorities at the highest levels have historically shown very little conviction in reversing a longstanding pattern of intolerance, violence and bigotry towards Hindus in Bangladesh.

Nor are Hindus the only minorities at risk. There is growing concern in the international community over rising intolerance of all minorities. Since 2013, Bangladesh has experienced violent attacks by extremists including atheists, secular bloggers, liberals and foreigners – many Buddhists, Christians and Hindus as well as Ahmadis and Shi’a Muslims, according to Minority Rights Group International, a global human rights NGO with partners in 60 countries.

Many of the attacks, according to Minority Rights and several other NGOs, have originated with local extremists in league with Islamic State, the violent jihadi group seeking to create a Caliphate in the Middle East but which has suffered a series of steep reverses in Iraq and Syria at the hands of both Russian and US-backed troops.

“For religious minorities, who have borne much of the brunt of these attacks, this violence is the latest chapter in a long history of discrimination and segregation that stretches back to [Bangladesh’s] independence and the legacy of colonialism, the 1947 Partition and the bloody civil war in 1971 during which the Hindu population in particular was targeted,” Minority Rights International said in a November 2016 report titled Under threat: The challenges facing religious minorities in Bangladesh

To be sure, unlike prior administrations, the Modi-led government seems to at least be taking a notable public position on such high-profile violence against Hindus.

Although India sided with Dhaka in the bloody 1971 civil war in which Bangladesh broke away from East Pakistan to form the new country, relations have continued to cool. In late 1990, attacks against Bengali Hindus followed reports that the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in India had been demolished by Hindi nationalists.

Scholars such as Richard Benkin and various organizations including Amnesty International have for years reported on the violence directed at Hindus in the country, and under the cover of a strong political pivot towards the Islamists in recent decades, Bangladesh has been further besieged with overt anti-Hindu rhetoric and violence.

The estimated 12.5 million Hindus have been reduced to under 9 percent of the Bangladeshi population from about 15 percent at the time of its formation in 1971. Of course the Hindu makeup of the region was much more robust – and census data suggest it was well in the 30 percent range - in the early part of the 20th century.

The documented exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh provides a glimpse of the plight of the Hindu minorities in the country, and if present trends of their demographic decline persists (and there are no signs to suggest otherwise), the ethno-religious tapestry of Bangladesh will undoubtedly be far from what it looked like at the time of its formation.

Amid the mob violence that destroys villages, families, and livelihoods, amidst the forced conversion of Hindus, and systematic religious intimidation, Hindus are increasingly not just a targeted minority in the country, they are at risk of culturally and politically hollowing its republican aspirations. It is indeed critical that the international community - and not just the Indian government – heed the significance of the systematic and on-going patterns of religious persecution in Bangladesh.

The Thakurpara tragedy raises questions whether the political establishment in Dhaka is tacitly or otherwise treating the ethno-religious violence in the country half-heartedly and through the prism of political expedience.

Sunil Kukreja is a professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound in Washington State in the United States