[ Alal o Dulal, Apr 2014 ]
Garga Chatterjee and Naeem Mohaiemen for AoD
In October 2012, Prothom Alo published a frightening report that stated, in plain words, that over the last decade (which spans a BNP, an AL, and a Military “CTG” government), the Hindu population of Bangladesh has dropped dramatically and continuously. We at Alal O Dulal are a group of editors committed to a secular Bangladesh. At the same time, we are mindful that “secularism” has become a politically inert, and semantically complex, category, often providing cover for a political party’s other follies (the sentiment here can broadly be categorized as, “at least they are secular”).
Since the publication of the PA report, the editors of AoD have been having a series of discussions on what these numbers mean for the future of Bangladesh. We believe secularism cannot be enforced by force, certainly not through the barrel of a gun. A process of domination, subjugation, and political nullification of oppositions in order to “defend” secularism is dangerous. Instead of producing secularism as a normative, naturalized, and lasting category, it reinforces the perception (internally and externally) that secularism can only be defended by force. This, in the long term, weakens secularism.
Neither of the two main political parties (the AL or the BNP) have made secularism a priority, using it mainly at the polls as a strategy. A common perception that minorities were safer under an AL government, prevailed for a while, benefiting AL in a number of past elections. Riots instigated during the twilight of Ershad era, or the anti-Hindu backlash carried out after 2001 election victory of BNP-JI alliance, or the more recent anti-Hindu violence in 2013, are highlighted to support this view. We have done such highlighting ourselves in our past activist work (at Alal O Dulal, at Drishtipat, in the pages of Daily Star, New Age, Prothom Alo, and Dhaka Tribune). Our own personal political commitments have also been guided by a belief in secularism and therefore in opposition to parties that do not take a public secular stance. However, events of the last four decades prove that minorities have fared poorly under every government.
There is also the concern, in 2013, that our national politics has been degraded to such a degree that attacks against Hindu community may even be deployed as a “false flag” operation, giving a cover to target the opposition parties as the presumed protagonists of these attacks. It is difficult to believe such a scenario, but it is difficult to entirely ignore the troubling evidence.
Indeed, the BNP and Jamaat are usually presumed to be the protagonists of these attacks according to the media. However, the post-Shahbag/Shapla murky political landscape of Bangladesh forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. One question we have been asking ourselves is this: Since the Jamaat is currently hamstrung by the negative backlash it faces due to its role in 1971, and the BNP faces the problem of its alliance with Jamaat, who benefits at the present time from these attacks? What is the benefit to the Jamaat (or BNP) to attacking Hindu homes– a move certain to result in widespread national and international backlash against these two parties (as has happened). Recall that the 2001 attacks happened after BNP-Jamaat were solidly in power, and presumably considered themselves invincible. But the attacks of 2013 happened when that coalition was out of power and in fact on the defensive (in spite of public posturing)– the recent announcement that BNP would not undertake any long campaigns until they get the party (http://www.dhakatribune.com/politics/2014/apr/09/bnp-wants-overcome-frustration-first) shows the party acknowledging its (http://www.dhakatribune.com/politics/2014/apr/11/question-bnp%E2%80%99s-existence-ignites-debate) current weakness, and the tenuousness/controversy of its alliance with Jamaat. In this weakened scenario, why would that alliance, or its subsidiaries, carry out attacks on Hindu homes– an event that would surely create backlash and condemnation against the party?
A few newspaper reports have reported that, in at least some of the cases, ruling AL party affiliated activists were either involved in the attacks, or fomented them, or stood by while they happened . We at Alal O Dulal do not have the resources to investigate these reports further, but an independent, neutral probe body must look into these issues. These reports, mostly falling into silence since they do not match a national liberal-secular script, have reminded us that 2013 is not the same as 2001– when the BNP election victory saw widespread attacks against the Hindu community, and a (http://www.dhakatribune.com/law-amp-rights/2014/jan/24/judicial-commission-finds-bnp-jamaat-involved) probe found BNP-Jamaat involved. At that time, some AoD editors worked actively to rehabilitate victims of one such attack in the village of Annadaprashad– as members of the diaspora activist organization (https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/mukto-mona/conversations/topics/8110),Drishtipat. But in 2014, we find a complex situation where minority communities are surrounded by both hostile forces and “friends” who use them as chess pawns.
In his introduction to the investigative book, Ramu: Shamprodayik Shohingshota Shongkolon<, Barrister Barua shares how communalism is a cross-party, indeed pan-Bangladesh, phenomenon:
“In my professional life I often have to face a different kind of communalism. Instead of feeling pride in my achievements often I am made to feel embarrassed by trivial things. In 2001 when on the occasion of being inducted into the Dhaka Barristers’ Association I went to a courtesy meeting with committee, the Awami League backed Chairman, on examining my educational qualifications, commented,“I see that all your degrees are from India, so why didn’t you stay back there?”
Does the Chairman not know how many of young men from the majority religion go to India every year to obtain their degrees and how many of them choose to stay there? After almost nine years of studying in England when I returned home in 2011 and was interviewing for the post of the lawyer for Dhaka City Corporation, North and was asked exactly the same question by a teacher from Dhaka University, I realized that the country hadn’t moved ahead much from 2001, at least in terms of communal thinking.
Beside these, among the communal words that we hear or use often but pretend to not to notice are: the use of the word “Babu” to address to someone, to call someone “malaun” or “nere” (shaved head) despite deep friendship whenever we lose an argument with them. In recent times the Awami League leader Suranjit Sen has been a major victim of this sort of things. The roots of these ugly words go so deep that it is not easy to uproot them. On top, we have gotten so used to hearing these words that we are no longer shocked by them. But, in the words of Tagore, whether this acceptance is true acceptance is rather doubtful.
In my opinion the fact that there is no law regarding this is a contributing factor as to why we aren’t able to come out of this. The time has come for us to think about introducing an anti-communalism/anti-racism law in our country. In many countries of the world there are effective laws regarding this and these laws are implemented. If we had a similar law in our country that would help in increasing communal harmony. At least it would somewhat alleviate the everyday harassment that minorities have to face in the country.” (excerpt translated by Tibra Ali)
How gholate(murky) is our national politics that we need to consider seriously the allegation made by some newspapers, that attacks against the Hindu community may also have been deployed by the party that represents secularism, as a “false flag” operation to blame the opposition? The water is very muddy by now.
Meanwhile, the opposition BNP also continues to have a party position that is silent on support for secularism as state policy. Other than a few pro forma responses denying responsibility for these attacks, we have not seen the BNP take any strong stance for secularism. This party also uses this issue for their political advantage (no doubt some party stalwarts will take comfort from the fact that we have indicted AL equally for this issue– but again, this is simply about one party getting an advantage over another, neither party is sincere on this issue).
In this situation, where will those outside of majoritarian, Bengali, Muslim, domination-subjugation identification go for political support? They are homeless in Bangladesh.
We should also point out that, in academic discourse, “secularism” is now a vastly debated term. What it means in 2013 is not what it meant in 2001. There is a sprawling body of work and debate on this, but without delving into that, we at AoD define “secularism” as a safeguarding and guaranteeing of all non-majority communities’ political, economic, and cultural rights.
Secularism, in our view would be an embedding set of national policies which would ensure full, deep, and representative presence of such communities in all national spaces. It would foster the implementation of “affirmative action” policies that would ensure representation of these communities to counterbalance decades of under-representation and marginalization. At the same time, we caution that such policy cannot take the forms of current cynical political practice, where representation of minority communities in economic and political life is simply used as a political tool to ensure visible “loyalty”– those are policies that benefit, as with many things in our politics, party not people.
Let us take a longer view. Analysis of the Enemy Property Act (later the Vested Property Act) shows that both AL and BNP, when in power, have used this to grab minorities land. Abuse of state power to grab land from minorities, in fact, appears to be the only constant–on this issue, both major parties are on the same wavelength when it comes to grabbing minorities properties and land.
Every government has used the minorities for political gain, yet nobody has truly been on their side. In the end, no political party truly defends the rights of minorities, perhaps with the exception of small left parties who are sincere at the grassroots, but weak at national electoral level.
After the PA report, AlalODulal published the post (http://alalodulal.org/2012/10/02/hindu-2/)Final destination and quoted Afsan Chowdhury’s words. We at AoD shared his anger and shame and feel it’s appropriate to quote, again, his cuttings words: “After all the words are spent, what remains behind is the shame. We have allowed this to happen again and again (http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2012/10/01/ramu-when-shame-is-not-enough/). We didn’t need a new version of old Pakistan. Bangladesh was to be the exact opposite but thanks to inefficiency, corruption, bigotry and religious excess, we have failed to build a state we could be proud of. For us there is only disgust. On behalf of all who accept what we have said, our sincerest and humblest apology to the people who have suffered in particular and to all minorities in general.”
And of course we must nod toward the late Humayun Azad, who passed away from complications six months after he was brutally attached outside the Book Fair. He coined the phrase “Is this the Bangladesh we wanted?”
Over six months in 2013, a group of independent researchers have been looking at the data cited by Prothom Alo, from Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). They have shared it with AlalODulal, for wider dissemination. In a web exclusive we publish those research results in excel data form (go to article end for link, if quoting these results anywhere, please cite “AlalODulal.org”).
1. In the 2001 census, the total Hindu population was 11,608,268. The annual population growth rate was 1.37%. According to the published research in the Prothom Alo, by 2011 the number of the Hindu population should be 13,200,000. But in BBS` 2011 census report the actual Hindu population is 12,299,940. The gap amounts to 900,060. This is the missing Hindu population.
2. The study of the Prothom Alo had one limitation. BBS adjusted its census and its 2011-data of the Hindu population in 2012 including data of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) that were assigned for the post-enumeration check and that found 3.97 percent people were left out in the first count. Now, the actual number of the Hindu population in 2011 is 12,789,113. Considering the total Hindu population in 2001 and the annual growth rate of 1.37% the predicted number in 2011 should actually be 13,337,065 people. This means that the decrease of Hindu population would change to 547,953 (instead of 900,060). The adjusted figures data from the IRC data sheet on the population change characteristics of Bangladesh between 2001 and 2011 have certain important features.
3. To discover that the decline in Hindu population is 0.5 million, instead of 0.9 million is of little comfort. This is still a very large number and confirms the worrying trend of continuous decline.
4. Even on the adjusted numbers, there is a shortfall of 0.5 million Hindus from what would be predicted using the rate of growth of population in the decade. Unless there has been some drastic and unexplainable change in Hindu fecundity rates or large-scale conversion to other faiths (both of which we consider unlikely as explanations), the reason for this shortfall has to be explored. Prima facie, this represents the net Hindu emigration out of Bangladesh in that period. The real population growth of Hindus of Bangladesh between 2001 and 2011 was 1,148,769 (using the adjusted figures). The gap between predicted growth and actual growth is 547,953.
5. Assuming that the 1.37% annual growth in Hindu population did happen (dismissing drastic fecundity /death rate/life expectancy/conversion explanations), something around 547,953 Hindu individuals of Bangladesh origin exist, somewhere in the world. To make sense of these numbers in some other way, we can state that in the 2001-2011 decade, for 1696721 new individuals added to the Hindu population, 547,953 have left the country. That is about 1 person leaving the country for every 3 persons newly added. This is a shocking statistic.
6. Family planning depends on the long-term plans of the family – which also includes the stability of their present state, including stability of homestead and source of income. While we think that low birth-rates cannot explain a deficit as large as 547,953, it is well known that a sense of security and long-term stability affects birth-rates in a community. For example, the birth-rates of Kashmiri Pandits, after their displacement from the Kashmir valley, have taken a drastic hit. Numerous studies document this.(http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2009/03/2679 ). It is not improbable that a small proportion of the ‘missing Hindus’ were not actually born.
7. What is the geographical distribution of the deficit and does that tell us anything? Some districts have actually registered a net decrease in Hindu population in the 2001 to 2011 period. There are 9 such districts. Most of these 9 districts form a near-contiguous belt – Bhola, Barisal, Jhalokathi, Pirojpur, Bagerhat, Narail, Gopalganj and then Rajbari and Manikganj. What does this strong geographical concentration of the districts actually registering a net Hindu population decrement in 10 years tell us. Some of these districts (Bhola being the most infamous example) have been sites for serious anti-Hindu attacks. It may also be useful to note that in 2001 the BNP-Jamaat won all seats in Manikganj, Bhola, Pirojpur, Jhalokathi, Barisal and Rajbari. But Gopalganj, the ultra-identified borough of Awami League is also in the list. Hence this precludes any clear explanation in terms of local party domination, though one cannot rule it out as one of the out-migration factors.
8. Studies which also look at the volume of ‘enemy property’ in different districts in terms of number of affected families, percentage of Hindu families affected and correlating that with the percentage of Hindu population change would be useful to trying to find out the reasons behind the ‘missing Hindus’ of Bangladesh. For example, see this 2009 ( http://archive.thedailystar.net/forum/2009/february/our.htm )summary of Abul Barakat’s research. Here are some key statistics from Barakat’s research:
a) Households: 43% of all Hindu households (1.2 million) have been affected by EPA/VPA. 57% of households that lost land lost an average of 100 decimals. Survey data shows 33% of affluent Hindu families lost land due to EPA/VPA. 50% of affluent households had at least one close relative who lost land
b) Total Land: Total area of land lost is 2.01 million acres, which is 5.5% of Bangladesh’s total land mass but 45% of land owned by the Hindu community. The research shows two numbers: one is the impact on Hindu community as measured by the official land records, the second is the impact as measured by survey data. The survey data shows 22% more land loss (2.6 million acres) than official records. The type of land lost is typically agricultural, homestead, pond area, orchard, fallow land, etc.
d) Value: Assuming average market price of land as seen in the year 2007, total value of land lost is Tk. 2,416,273 million (Tk. 3,106,636 million from survey data).
e) Sale Value: Even if land is being lawfully sold, the price of Hindu-owned land is reported as Tk. 900,000 per acre, as compared to Tk. 1,500,000 for similar Muslim-owned land
f) Methods of dispossession: Influential parties grab land in connivance with Tahsil and Thana Revenue Office, Tahsil and Thana Revnue Office itself grabs land. Death and/or out-migration of one member of a Hindu family is used as excuse to enlist the whole property. Influential parties grab the land by using violence, local thugs, and forged documents. Influentials allure sharecroppers to occupy land, and then become eventual owners, etc.
g) Accompanying harassment: Harassment that accompanies land-grabbing includes obstruction in casting vote in elections, obstruction in harvesting crops, workplace intimidation, property destruction, eve-teasing, looting, robbery, obstruction in shopping, extortion, etc.
h) Political affiliation: Barakat’s research also shows that grabbers try to change their political affiliation with each change in government. We can conclude that either party affiliation is switching after change of government, or ownership is switching from one party affiliate to another.
9. For those looking to one party or another for a solution, note that this drop has happened in both AL and BNP period. Unless there is an united political push to protect minorities and to give them full rights of a citizen, neither of the two parties will be able to reverse this trend. Where would this trend lead to? This statistical analysis has some shocking pointers. As Dipen Bhattacharya wrote in an earlier op-ed for Alal O Dulal:
“Until a few years ago, I believed that even though the Hindu percentage was declining, the absolute number of the Hindu population was increasing and would continue to increase. However, the truth is <strong>bitter and it’s statistical. It seems the trend is for negative growth numbers. For the next forty years or so, we might expect to see the Hindu population drop from a high of 13 million (in 2011) to 10 million. Whether the population will plummet drastically after 2051 is a matter of speculation. But for all practical purposes, the Hindu community will stop being a major participating community in Bangladesh. If the country stabilizes its population at 250 million, then an estimate for the Hindu number for the year 2101 could be as low as 3.75 million.
Among several explanations of the low growth rate are (i) mass exodus to India, (ii) the disruption of the family structure and (iii) the willful underestimation by the the Census Bureau. Some say the migration to India is for better economic opportunities. Even when the existing religious bonding favors the power structure, some explanations comprise “land-shortage” and “land-grabbing” as if those words could take away the inherent religious bigotry that is present. They fail to see how – without any access to the existing power system of the current Bangladesh society – vulnerable the Hindu population is. Soft and hard intimidation, extortion, threat to family structures, illegal occupation of property, and looting and burning of households and temples are sufficient to have this population scurry across the border. The Hindus migrate to India because their lives are made unbearable through various means in Bangladesh. (http://alalodulal.org/2014/01/09/statistics/) (The Statistical Future of Bangladeshi Hindus )
Meanwhile Ali Riaz came to this conclusion in 2012:
“Take for example the issue of the dwindling Hindu population in the country. An examination of the census data of the composition of religious minorities since 1901, led me to conclude in 2004 that there is a massive out-migration of the Hindu population: about 5.3 million in the preceding 25 years. The Hindu community in Bangladesh has been weak owing to its lack of access to resources and hence has never been able to mount resistance to the institutional persecutions faced. This has left Hindus with no choice but to relocate. In 2001, for example, a large number of Hindus from three districts (Barisal, Pirojpur and Bagerhat) initially moved to the neighbouring Gopalganj district in search of a safe haven. In the absence of a potential haven nearby the persecuted Hindus decided to cross the border. The porous border between Bangladesh and West Bengal, not to mention the cultural and historical ties between these two parts of Bengal, helped the intended migrants to move to the Indian state. Some returned later, but some didn’t…
The census reports of the past 60 years show a steady decline of the Hindu population. This decline is not consistent with the population growth rate of the country. For example, the population growth rate was 3.13 percent for 1961-1974, 3.08 percent for 1974-1981; 2.20 percent for 1981-1991; 1.58 percent for 1991-2001; and roughly 1.34 percent for 2001-2011. It cannot be ascribed to low Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of the adherents of Hindu religion. Even if one takes into account that the TFR among Hindu women is estimated at 13% less (estimate is based on recent contraceptive use rates) until 1991 and 15% after 1991, the average annual growth rates of the Hindu population would have been 2.72 during 1961-1974, 2.68% during 1974-1981; 1.92% during 1981-1991; 1.34% during 1991-2001, and 1.14% during 2001-2011.
If we factor in these assumptions and reconsider the government statistics, the numbers change drastically. By 1991 the Hindu population should have reached 16.5 million as opposed to 11.16 million recorded in census data. The rate of the missing population has increased in the past two decades. The current Hindu population, 13.47 million, is far short of the number one should expect based on population growth rates. The decline of the religious minority community is matched by the increased use of Islamic icons and symbols in political rhetoric, not to mention deletion of secularism as state principle and official designation of Islam as the state religion.”
Full data, with district wise break up on Hindu and other populations and detailed tables are available at Alal o Dulal :