Religious persecution may not be as new a virus as religious extremism, but it can be as disastrous to a country’s politics and society. Increasing evidence suggests that Hindu and other minorities in Bangladesh are facing new threats to their lives and property. The arrival of frightened Hindu families from Bangladesh in relief camps in West Bengal nails the lie of official denials from Dhaka. In fact, such denials tend to encourage the perpetrators of the crimes. It is also futile to try to play down the persecution by arguing that land and other economic interests, and not religion, are behind the attacks on the minorities. It may not be entirely correct to blame it on the new regime in Bangladesh, even though the presence of Islamic fundamentalists in Ms Khaleda Zia’s coalition government seems to have emboldened minority-baiters in the country. Bangladesh’s prime minister needs to be especially vigilant about protecting the freedoms of the minorities because her coalition’s victory in last year’s election was tainted by complaints that large numbers of minorities were forcibly prevented from voting.
There are other reasons too why Dhaka should do more to stop crimes against the minorities. Religious fanaticism in Bangladesh will only help the zealots in India and breed new forces of intolerance on both sides. Trade and other relations between the two countries will inevitably be held hostage to competing communal passions. India’s accusations that Bangladesh has become a new haven for Islamic terrorists have already soured bilateral relations. An influx of hounded Hindus across the border can only make things worse. Even the Marxist government in West Bengal, which had played down an earlier Hindu influx for fear of a communal backlash cannot afford to do so for all time. Dhaka cannot also hope to avoid protests by the international community against such human rights abuses. There are unmistakable signs that the growth of religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh is worrying not just India, but the Western nations as well. For a country whose economy is so dependent on foreign donors, religious obscurantism can also lead to economic doom.