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Bangladesh slammed for persecution of Hindus
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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November 02, 2006 21:56 IST

The US Commission on International Religion Freedom slammed Bangladesh for continuing persecution of minority Hindus. It also urged the Bush administration to get Dhaka to ensure protection of religious freedom and minority rights before the next national elections in January.

In a new report titled 'Policy Focus on Bangladesh', released on Capitol Hill last week, the USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan federal agency funded by the US Congress, said that since its last election, 'Bangladesh has experienced growing violence by religious extremists, intensifying concerns expressed by the countries religious minorities'.

It noted that 'Hindus are particularly vulnerable in a period of rising violence and extremism, whether motivated by religious, political or criminal factors, or some combination'.

The commission, includes one South Asian American, former New York solicitor general Preeta Bansal, now an attorney with the New York-headquartered Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher and From.

'The position of Hindus has multiple disadvantages: perceived identification with India, an alleged preference for one of Bangladesh's two major political parties, and religious beliefs abhorred by Muslim fundamentalists', it noted.

The report said that in many instances, 'such violence appears aimed at encouraging Hindus to flee in order to seize their property in what is a desperately land-poor country'.

It recalled that during and immediately after Bangladesh's Parliamentary election in October 2001, 'there were numerous reports of illegal land seizures, arson, extortion, sexual assault, and intimidation of religious minority group members, particularly Hindus'.

The report, drawn up after commission members, including Bansal, visited Bangladesh, said that 'minority group representatives and human rights groups with whom the commission met ascribed these attacks to armed militant groups or to partisans of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is led by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

'As Hindus and other non-Muslims are popularly perceived to favor the Awami League, intimidating Hindu voters was viewed as a way to help to the BNP and its Islamic allies in the elections', it stated.

The Commission warned the lack of accountability for crimes reported against minority groups in the previous election promoted an atmosphere of impunity and for a renewal of violence against Hindus and other non-Muslims in the upcoming election.

It said that during meetings with the commission, Hindus said they feared political manipulation of voter registration process that could have them excluded from voter rolls. They said government representatives administering the process overlooked minority neighborhoods.

'Hindu leaders with whom the commission met also described problems their children faced in gaining access to religious education in their own religion, as is supposed to be the case in Bangladesh's public education system', the report said.

The commission urged the Bush administration to 'face up to the seriousness of the threat facing Bangladesh and to lead the international community in monitoring the January 2007 elections'.

It also called on Washington to urge Dhaka to prevent anti-minority violence during the election and to encourage the Bangladesh government to address religious extremism and violence.

The Hindu American Foundation applauded the report and commended the commission on the recommendations it submitted to the administration. The commission had invited the HAF as a respondent at a meeting it convened on Capital Hill to coincide with the report's release.

Ishani Chowdhury, HAF's executive director, told the commission's policy brief reiterates the foundation's concern about the situation of the minority Hindus in Bangladesh.

She said the commission's report was in concert with the HAF's detailed report on human rights violations in Bangladesh against minority Hindus.

 That report was released some months ago at a Capitol Hill event presided over by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, Florida [Images]), the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.

Chowdhury said it is imperative that steps be taken to protect the Hindu population, which has dropped from 30 percent of the population in 1947 to 9.6 percent now, and to ban discriminatory laws and practices.

"Our hope is that this message is carried forth and long-term action taken before it truly becomes too late," she said.

Recalling HAF's annual human rights report, Chowdhury said, "The low-scale religious cleansing of the already shrinking minority Hindu population in Bangladesh is of grave concern to not only the Hindu American Foundation but also to those who share the ethos of pluralism and tolerance."

During the forum, former Bangladeshi ambassador to the US Tariq Karim, now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, warned that the homogenous Bangladesh population, 96 percent of whom are ethnic Bengali speakers, are now deeply polarised because of the Islamisation of the polity, enabled and encouraged by the ruling BNP government as well as by previous military and quasi-military administrations.

He warned that what happens in Bangladesh in January 2007 would affect the Indian subcontinent in a major way.

Karim said that the proposed head of the caretaker government, which will assume office in end-October should step aside 'because he once served in the BNP' and, so, lacks credibility.

"Moreover, the BNP-led government deliberately raised the retirement age of high court justices from 65 to 67 years so that the current chief justice of the Supreme Court would become the chief adviser to the caretaker government," he said.

Karim said the secretariat of the Election Commission should be separated from the prime minister's office 'to restore the credibility of the Election Commission'.

Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy - a Washington-based think tank, said the 'unhealthy and dangerous influence of oil-money' being poured into Bangladesh had encouraged the collusion of government officials with Islamist groups and the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's intelligence agency.

He described the Election Commission as a farce and said it had already decided there would be 93 million voters, 13 million more than there are actual voting age citizens, in the upcoming election. "This will allow ballot-stuffing in a grand scale," he said.

He also pilloried the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Patricia Butenis, for describing Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim state, saying this kind of praise seemed to endorse the BNP's lack of protection for minorities in the country and encouraged its strategy of working with extremist Islamist parties responsible for the persecution of minorities.

Cynthia Burton of the International Republican Institute said the two main political parties in Bangladesh, the BNP and the Awami League, were involved in a zero-sum game and, hence, not interested in changing the status quo in Bangladesh.

She said the core institutions in the country are weak and are being further undermined and destabilised by the present government.

Patrick Merloe of the National Democratic Institute said both the BNP and the Awami League's nomination process were 'driven by money and muscle power' and spoke of the abusive measures the police took to break up political rallies.

This hostility between the two parties, he said, 'has led to political instability', and added, 'neither party has encouraged constructive opposition'.

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