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Bangladesh ruling party accused of ethnic cleaning

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York | February 19, 2003 19:00 IST

The Bangladesh government headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was accused of ethnic cleansing and encouraging the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

At a conference at the New Yorker Hotel, a coalition of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian groups blamed her Bangladesh Nationalist Party for its role in the "alarming rise" of militant Islam in Bangladesh, coinciding with a spurt in the killings, torture and persecution of religious minorities, including women.

The Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian Unity Council meet was attended by about 200 people.

Some participants at the meet said Prime Minister Zia should be brought before the International Court of Justice at The Hague for the alleged ethnic cleansing and the killings of thousands of people from the minority communities and of liberal Muslims in Bangladesh. "She cannot go unpunished for what she has done to the minorities and liberal Muslims," remarked Vedprakash Nanda, dean of the Faculty of Law, Denver University, who was a special guest.

Among the speakers were Abdul Ghaffar Chowdhury, a columnist and liberal activist from London, and Bertil Lintner, a Hong-Kong based senior writer for the Far Eastern Economic Review and a contributing writer for The Wall Street Journal. Lintner delivered the keynote address.

In a position paper read out at the conference, the organisers documented what they said were state-sponsored violence and campaign against the minorities and progressive Muslims, which was fast transforming the country into a radical Islamic state. The organisers also brought to the notice of all those present the plight of millions of members of the religious minorities who have fled to India.

"The campaign (against minorities) entered an extremely violent phase in October 2001, forcing 25 million religious minorities to flee to India after being subjected to relentless discrimination, torture, gang-rape, and dispossession of their properties," according to a position paper read out at the conference. "We stand before you with heavy hearts and high hopes, presenting our collective grievances and seeking your help to prevent further misery, torture, death, and exodus from Bangladesh by devising an effective mechanism that will lead to a permanent solution," the paper said.

Chowdhury, who expressed his firm conviction that Hindus and other minorities are very much part and parcel of Bangladesh and that they have every right to fight for their survival, said those who are ruling Bangladesh now are serving the interests of Pakistan and not of Bangladesh.

"After seeing what is happening to the minorities, I am ashamed to say I am a Muslim," declared Chowdhury.

"You [the minorities] must not depend only on one Gaffer Chowdhury or on one [Indian Deputy Prime Minister L K] Advani or India or the Bajrang Dal for help. You are not going to get it. Therefore, please remain united and take a firm stand [against violence]," he stated.

Nanda said while there was compelling and irrefutable evidence of minority cleansing and enough reason for humanitarian intervention by other countries in Bangladesh, as was done in Bosnia and other places, the minorities from Bangladesh needed to keep the issue on the front-burner at all times.

Nanda, who made a four-point suggestion, said every year the minorities needed to take their complaints to forums such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International. "Make the right kind of noises in Washington DC to bring the issue of religious persecution and ethnic cleansing under the sharp focus of the powers that be," he said.

He added that he also saw a larger role for India to resolve the crisis and asked the organisers to send a copy of a book that was released on the occasion documenting the violence against minorities to the Indian government.

"Please urge India to enter into a treaty with Bangladesh under which Dhaka would be responsible for protecting the rights of minorities," he said.

Lintner, who spoke at length, describing his experiences of reporting from remote places in Bangladesh, recounted how authorities initially declined to give him a visa to go to Bangladesh after his first reports created a furore. He also received threats over email that said he would suffer the same fate as journalist Daniel Pearl [who was killed in Karachi] if he ventured to go to Bangladesh and wrote.

In one such report published last year in the Review, Lintner said rising Islamic fundamentalism and religious intolerance are posing trouble for the regions and beyond.

At last week's conference, Lintner more or less reiterated the same position, but noted that part of the problem why things were going out of hand was that Western diplomats in Dhaka were oblivious. "Most diplomats in Dhaka are completely isolated and clueless. Even the US embassy in Dhaka has shown no interest in the rise of extremism in Bangladesh," he said.

The conference ended on a note of optimism with the organisers vowing to keep their struggle on till the issue was resolved.

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