In Bangladesh Fears of Talibanization

The festival of the Goddess Durga in October is normally the high point of the Bengali Hindu cultural calendar. But this year, for thousands of Hindu families in Bangladesh there was no festival and no rejoicing. Instead, gangs of Islamic extremists torched their homes, raped women, poisoned ponds and attacked temples.

At first, many explained the savagery as a post-electoral revenge spree. Hindus in Muslim-majority Bangladesh typically support the Awami League party, which lost in October's national elections. But the scale and ferocity of the recent violence -- which has affected some 4 million people, according to the popular daily newspaper Janakantho -- is raising the specter of Talibanization in a country usually regarded as a moderate Muslim land.

The new Bangladeshi government under Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has deployed police and paramilitary forces, mostly in cities, to quell the violence. But rural areas have seen the most horrific attacks. Many villages can be reached only by boat or on foot, and information is slow to leak out. Bangladeshi newspapers are beginning to reveal the scope of the attacks:

* Nearly 200 women, ranging in age from 8 to 70, were raped in one night in Char Fashion in Bhola.

* The Faizal Vahini, an extremist Islamic group, ordered minorities in Rauzan and Rangunia to pay a monthly "tax" in order to be allowed to stay in their ancestral homes.

* Gopal Krishna Muhuri, a veteran freedom fighter and college principal, was shot to death at his home in Chittagong while reading a newspaper.

* Some 15,000 Hindus took refuge in the village of Ramshil after their homes were destroyed and the women abducted and raped.

The severity of the Hindu-Muslim violence has baffled many, for the roots of the modern nation of Bangladesh lie in language and culture, not religion. When the British left India in 1947, they carved out two Muslim-majority chunks in India's northwest and east: Pakistan and East Pakistan. In 1971, after a bloody civil war to defend Bengali language and culture, Bangladesh was born out of East Pakistan.

Yet according to Dhiman Chowdhury, president of the Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities, tolerance for religious minorities has been on a downward slide in Bangladesh. In 1947, some 35 percent of the population was Hindu. Today it is a mere 10 percent and dropping. "These attacks are designed to displace minorities and evict them out of Bangladesh. It is a systematic and planned annihilation," Chowdhury said.

An elderly Bangladeshi Hindu relief agency worker, who did not want his name revealed, supported Chowdhury's allegations. At some of the towns affected by the recent violence, villagers told him the threats were quite plain. "If you want to stay in Bangladesh, become Muslim. Otherwise you had better leave," he said. The hidden agenda, according to the relief worker, was to seize the land and property of the fleeing Hindus.

Tinku Ali Ishtiaq, a Bangladeshi-born community activist who now lives in Berkeley, Calif., agreed. "The attack on Hindus are really opportunistic, fueled by land-grabbing desires and condoned by the government." Ishtiaq claimed that the government, which is the largest employer in Bangladesh, has systematically purged Hindus from positions of authority in all institutions under its control, such as universities and the army.

Chowdhury and others worry that some of the coalition partners of the new Bangladeshi government, such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Islam Unity Council, have pro-Taliban sympathies. During the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, the Jamaat sided with Pakistan and formed paramilitary death squads that attacked supporters of independence. Now two members of the Jamaat are in the cabinet.

Chowdhury fears that parties like Jamaat and Islamic Unity Council seek a rigid Islamic nationhood under the strict Islamic Sharia law, which the Taliban used as the basis of government. He pointed to a number of Islamic schools, or madrasas, that preach a message of intolerance towards unbelievers. Chowdhury says terrorists from Harkat-ul-Mjuaheddin, which is allied to Al Qaeda, were found in the forests near the Bangladesh-Burma border.

Ishtiaq traces the growth of Islamic fundamentalism to an outpouring of Saudi Arabian money to the Bangladeshi government, mosques and some political groups in the '70s and '80s. But while Islamic fundamentalism has been growing, Ishtaiq does not think the country is about to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Even in the recent elections, parties like Jamaat only managed to come into the government as junior partners of a coalition.

"Their support is rather limited," Ishtiaq said. "But many of their cadres are well-trained, so they can make a lot of noise." A source at the Bangladesh Embassy agreed, saying, "There is not the slightest danger of Talibanization in Bangladesh. Parties like the Jamaat have been in Parliament earlier and the other Islamic parties are quite insignificant."

But other observers say that even if Bangladesh does not go the way of Afghanistan, the hands of fundamentalists in the recent killings and looting is obvious. The government's delayed response and attempts to play down the incidents will embolden extremists, claims a Hindu immigrant from Bangladesh who has lived in the United States for over 20 years. "The bottom line is that terrible things have happened that should not happen in any civilized state among people with a conscience."

PNS Associate Editor Sandip Roy (sandiproy@hotmail.com) is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM San Francisco.

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