Book Review: ‘Being Hindu in Bangladesh’ is Brilliantly Researched Story of the Untold Plight of a People of Minority Religion

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Let’s run through these two statements first. I heard them during my days in Dhaka sometime ago. And it has not changed, I know it from my sources in the capital city of Bangladesh.

So what are these two statements?

First, it is widely believed that the plight of horror-struck Hindus in Bangladesh would touch its lowest ebb if the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regains power in the 2024 elections. Hindus will, claim all experts, virtually cease to exist because murderous mobs will make their lives miserable.

Second, it is also widely believed that Hindus in Bangladesh will always have reasons to worry even if the Awami League retains power. Sheikh Hasina’s party is better for Hindus than other political alternatives. But the million-dollar question is: What after Hasina? Will Hindus in Bangladesh merely exist? Actually, nothing more or nothing less will happen with them, their lives, and their careers.

India’s seasoned editor Deep Halder has walked out of the newsroom and pulled a Kolkata professor, Avishek Biswas, out of his classroom, to work like war reporters in the hinterland of Bangladesh to document incidents of such horrific crimes. It is a commendable effort, something which — ideally — should have been done by the Indian government through its deep-dive operatives.

No, India did not react. Cultural exchanges continued between two neighbouring nations, discussions remain high on the ubiquitous Hilsa, Jamdani saris, Rabindrasangeet and Bangladesh rock bands. No one talked about Hindus in Bangladesh. But luckily, this book happened. Being Hindu in Bangladesh: The Untold Story from HarperCollins is meticulously researched, and painful, because India gave its everything to help East Pakistan transform into Bangladesh, and bore the brunt of those horrific days when approximately three million people were killed, the majority of them Hindus. The murders were carried out by the Pakistan military, and those responsible were left unpunished as a consequence of the 1972 Simla Accord between prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

What happened in 1971 was a genocide. And what is happening now is a silent, ethnic cleansing. I read a tweet by Sanjeev Sanyal, a top member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and a seasoned author. Wrote Sanyal: “My Bengali Hindu family was ethnically cleansed from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).”

Veteran researcher and academician Priyankar Raha says Hindus are in trouble in Bangladesh. “They really do not know what to do because they are not getting the right signals of support from India.”

So, let’s return to the book. The biggest trigger for this one was a detailed interview with a woman who looked like a character straight out of Pather Panchali, the Satyajit Ray classic. Halder met up with Smritikana Biswas, a 90-year-old woman who witnessed the brutalities of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Noakhali during 1946, and also saw the brutality of 2021, and attacks on Hindu temples and homes. She was devastated, she remembered how once her father wanted to kill Smritikana’s sister when the 1946 pogrom hit her village, some five hours from Dhaka. That was the only way to save the girl. The octogenarian woman said she saw chopped bodies all around her then, and she was shocked to see what was happening to the Hindus now. “I have never been able to forget those days when neighbours became rioters and friends became murderers. The stench of blood haunts me till date,” Smritikana told Halder.

Everytime I read through the chapter I shuddered. I read how the Hindus of Bangladesh — nearly 90 per cent of them — are stuck in their homes in villages and towns. They cannot move freely, they do not have a voice nearly five decades after a new nation was born. I read in the chapter, “Horror In The Countryside”, a narration by one Purnima Rani Shil. She was wrecked on the night of October 8, 2001: “They tore my clothes and tied my face, they took me to a nearby field and raped me one after another until I lost consciousness.” Friends and relatives of the accused — some are in jail and some are on the run — call her everyday and abuse her.

In February this year, unidentified people vandalised idols of Hindu gods and goddesses at 14 temples in Muslim-majority northwestern Thakurgaon district.

Is this all? No, this is not all.

The Bangladesh government’s Vested Property Act (VPA) is a controversial law that allows the government to confiscate property from individuals it deems an enemy of the state. “The VPA is a significant reason for the migration of Hindus from Bangladesh and the sharp dip in the population of Hindus in the country. Murder, arson, loot and rape are not the only reasons for the Hindus leaving their birthplace. Hindus are being forced to leave the country unwillingly due to the VPA,” says the book.

The book lists details of a podcast fugitive Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasrin, did recently. “Twenty-eight years ago, then Prime Minister of Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina’s arch rival, Khaleda Zia, banned my book, LajjaLajja was a fictitious tale on the lived reality of Hindus in Bangladesh. Now Sheikh Hasina has been in power, in this stint since 2009. And Khaleda Zia is in jail (house arrest). Why has Hasina not revoked the ban? Why has she not brought back the secular constitution she promised she would? Why has she not checked the growth of waj-mehfils and the spurting of madrasas that brainwash the youth of the country to become anti-women, anti-minority and anti-progress and only to be blinded by hate for worshippers of “false gods”?

Historians claim things have not changed enough in Bangladesh, and that the issue of ethnic cleansing of Hindus is a persistent problem.

The Hindu American Foundation said in a report that 11.3 million Hindus have fled Bangladesh due to religious persecution and intolerance between 1964 and 2013. An additional 230,000 continue leaving annually, furthering the Hindu Bangladeshi diaspora.

“Bangladesh is demanding recognition of the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971, an attempt to hold the Pakistani army accountable for its past cruelties and casualties. But the Bangladesh government must remember that over 20 lakh Hindus were killed by soldiers of the Pakistan army,” says Dhaka-based advocate Rabindra Ghosh. “And along with that, the issue of ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh needs to be highlighted internationally. The time has come for India to react,” says Ghosh.

1971 has not ended. Can discussions on Hilsa and Jamdani take a break? Can India get real and solve this humongous crisis of the Hindus of Bangladesh?

Source: Money Control