Dhaka, Jan. 31: The narrow lane winding through decrepit, old houses bustles with the life and activity typical of old Dhaka. The small shops on the ground floors of the buildings do brisk business as people and cycle rickshaws noisily jostle for space. Sounds of temple bells mingle into the cacophony of the market.
It seems to be business as usual for Sakharipatty’s Hindu merchants and their clients. There are few signs here of any tension or unease that gripped Hindus in different parts of Bangladesh immediately before and after the general elections of October 2001. Not much seems to have changed in Tantibazar or other adjoining lanes, except for the odd new building that proudly stands on the ruins of an old one.
But it is not just old buildings that are disappearing in this old Hindu locality of Dhaka. In a steady trickle that is not easily visible, the people, too, are vanishing in ones and twos. It’s something people don’t want to talk about. Ask them where the missing members of the family are and you’re told they are away in some district visiting relatives.
The story of vanishing Hindu families is, however, much more common in the villages. There the usual explanation is that they have gone to visit relatives in the big towns. It’s only rarely that these families would admit to their missing members secretly crossing over to relatives’ homes in West Bengal or some other part of India.
Obviously, no one has any authentic figures of the migrating Hindu population since the poll-related violence erupted. “It could be nearly one lakh,” says Shariar Kabir, the country’s leading human rights activist, who was arrested by the Bangladesh government and charged with sedition for working in India on a documentary on the latest migration of the minorities.
The government rubbishes the figure and denies, not just the Hindu migration story, but also charges of discrimination and violence. “It’s true some such incidents took place between October 1 (the election day in 2001) and October 10 (when the new government of Khaleda Zia took over). But once the government took control, normality returned soon in most places,” says minister of state for foreign affairs Riaz Rahman.
To the minority groups, Rahman’s claim is a huge understatement. The violence did abate, not in October, but over the next few months. The government also took steps to restore confidence in the Hindu community on the eve of Durga puja that year. In some cases, it even arranged for financial help to puja committees, as in 1993 when the earlier Zia government offered Taka 20.77 million (Rs 17.20 million) to the Hindu community for reconstruction or restoration of temples that had been destroyed or damaged in the violence following the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
It is also true that the government ensured that there was no major backlash in Bangladesh against the communal carnage in Gujarat .
The government’s action came after an uproar over the attacks on the minorities. Not only the international media or human rights groups but also a powerful section of the Bangladeshi media and civil society groups carried a sustained campaign that the Zia government could not ignore. Besides, the elections over, the minority-hunt was no longer an immediate political objective .
Even the minority groups admit to some improvement in the situation. “We must say that during the recent army drive against crime, the minorities were not discriminated against. This is the first time this positive thing has happened,” says a leader of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council.
But the government’s compulsions do not deter minority-baiters, many of whom have links with the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party or its Islamic fundamentalist partner, the Jamat-e-Islami. Nor does the government’s writ run in remote villages where Hindus and other minorities like the Buddhist Chakmas in the Chittagong hill tracts remain soft targets of mischief-makers. Reports of terrorisation of minorities — looting of property, extortion and rape — continue to pour in from different parts of the country even today. Terrorised Hindus despair of any legal and administrative redress.
Hence the silent march away to safety, often across the border. “The violence this time has broken their hearts and whatever morale was left,” says the unity council leader. “Since they cannot legally migrate to India, it’s got to be a silent migration.” Once in India, they scatter among relatives, friends and others ready to shelter them.
The belligerence of the Sangh parivar in India has only made things worse for the poor, defenceless Hindus. Hounded at home and unwelcome in India, thousands of Hindus in Bangladesh live in fear and await their hour to disappear into the night.