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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bangladesh : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date February 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bangladesh : Overview, February 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce6519.html [accessed 22 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated February 2011


Environment

Bangladesh is surrounded to the west, north-west and east by India, shares a south-eastern border with Burma and has the Bay of Bengal to its south. At the time of the independence of India (August 1947), Bengal was partitioned into East and West Bengal on religious lines. East Bengal with a Muslim majority population was designated as the Eastern 'wing' of Pakistan, the same geographical boundaries were inherited by the State of Bangladesh in December 1971.

With a population of some 144 million and a land area of approximately 144,000 square kilometres, Bangladesh is densely populated. It is the third largest Muslim majority country of the world. More significant, Bangladesh has the third largest population of poor people; according to the United Nations, 40 per cent of Bangladeshis live below the poverty line (2006).

Bangladesh is dominated by the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, and its annual monsoon periods has made the country prone to considerable flooding and devastation. As a disaster-prone region, and with so densely populated, Bangladesh also faces a range of severe environmental problems which includes air pollution, arsenic contamination, deforestation and soil erosion.


Peoples

Main languages: Bangla (national language), English

Main religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism

Minority and indigenous groups include Hindus (9.34%, 2001 Census), Adivasis, Biharis, Christians (0.31%, 2001 Census) and Ahmadiyyas.

More than 2 million Adivasis (indigenous peoples) live mainly in the Chittagong Hill Tract and consist of at least twelve tribal groups. The predominant ones are Chakmas, Marma and Tripura.

Biharis form a small but significant minority ethnic group living in and around the capital city Dhaka.

Some 580,000 Christians adhere to at least 32 different denominations.

There are approximately 100,000 Ahmadiyyas, who regard themselves as Muslims. Recent years have witnessed increasing harassment and demands by right-wing religious parties for Ahmadiyyas to be officially declared as non-Muslims.


History

The People's Republic of Bangladesh emerged as an independent state on 16 December 1971 after a bitter civil war between the Bengalis and the West Pakistan army. Prior to independence, the Bengalis, who formed 54 per cent of the total population of Pakistan (98 per cent of the population of East Pakistan), had serious reason to believe that they were being discriminated against and deprived of their due share in government. Failure of the West Pakistan army and politicians to honour their promise to convene a national parliament after Pakistan's first democratically held elections in December 1970 resulted in the 1971 civil war. The civil war lasted for several months and culminated in the Indo-Pakistan War, the ultimate surrender of Pakistan forces and the creation of the state of Bangladesh.

The years following independence were difficult years for Bangladesh, with economic problems compounded by multiple natural disasters and repeated changes of government following the army take-over from, and assassination of, the founder of independent Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Bangladesh's limited experiences with democracy were followed by the long periods of military rule. Since the restoration of democracy in 1991, political power and government has been dominated by two political parties – the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) led by Begum Khalida Zia and the Awami League under the presidency of Shaikh Hasina Wajid. Despite considerable political upheaval, it seems probable that current BNP coalition government will survive until the next general elections scheduled for 2007.


Governance

Two long periods of military rule were brought to an end by a remarkable movement of popular protest in late 1990, which resulted in general elections in February 1991. In March 1991, Begum Khalida Zia was sworn in as the country's first woman prime minister. The presidential system installed by the former military rulers was abolished in September 1991, and in the resulting constitutional amendments full powers were restored to Jatiya Sangsad, a unicameral legislature consisting of 330 members. The return to democracy alone could not resolve the myriad problems confronting Bangladesh, however. Faced with economic and political instability, the newly formed government became an easy target for the opposition and religious fundamental parties. Persistent political unrest forced Begum Zia to call fresh elections in February 1996. The ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) was re-elected to office. The result of the election was, however, suspect as a result of the boycott on the part of the main opposition parties. After a period of political turmoil, protests and unrest the BNP was forced to a second general election of the year in June 1996. In the re-election the Awami League won the largest number of seats and its leader Sheikh Hasina Wajid was sworn in as the country's new prime minister. After by-elections held for fifteen seats on September 1996, the Awami League secured an absolute majority of 176 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad. As a consequence of continuous political violence, strike action and boycott by opposition parties, the Awami League was forced to step down in July 2001 and a general election was held in 1 October 2001. A four-party coalition led by the BNP won over a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Begum Khaleda Zia of the BNP took office as the country's Prime Minister, a position which she has continued to hold until now. In March 2007 Bangladesh faced yet another major political crisis. General Parliamentary elections had been planned for 22 January 2007. However, accusations of corruption and a planned rigged of these elections by the ruling BNP alliance prompted opposition parties to takeout public protests and mass demonstrations. On 11 January 2007, President Iajuddin Ahmed, head of the interim government, which was overseeing the elections, called for a state of emergency and postponed the elections indefinitely. After two years of state of emergency supported by the army the Awami League took office again in January 2009. Elections were held a month later and Zillur Rahman replaced Iajuddin Ahmed as the Head of State. Sheikh Hasina was elected as Head of Government. Some important pieces of legislation were introduced by the interim government and endorsed by the new parliament, including the Human Rights Commission Act and the Right to Information Act.

Amnesty International (AI) reported on an insurgence by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) at the BDR headquarters in Dhaka in February 2009. According to AI, at least 74 people were killed by the rioters and possibly hundreds of BDR staff suffered human rights violations. At least 48 died in custody. AI raised concerns over alleged extrajudicial executions of 70 criminal suspects, 64 death sentences and continuous attacks, rapes, and beatings.

An unprecedented rate of population growth, massive and rising unemployment and a high rate of inflation, along with frequent natural disasters such as the devastating cyclone in April 1991 followed by serious floods two months later, have not helped democracy establish its roots. So far as the protection of the rights of minorities is concerned, the rise of religious fundamentalism has been a source of serious concern. The treatment of the Hindu community in the aftermath of the razing of the Babri mosque and other incidents reflected the tenuous position of religious minorities. More significantly, the pressure on the government of Begum Zia to bring to trial the writer-activist Taslima Nasreen for alleged blasphemy, and widespread militant Islamic factionalism, reflected the rising surge of fundamentalism. The role of the government as well as the law enforcement agencies in violating the rights of Adivasis is a matter of further grave concern. The challenge for government in Bangladesh is to find a balance between dealing with the severe economic situation, on the one hand, and ensuring social justice and the protection of the rights of all its people, on the other.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The persecution of religious minorities featured prominently within the political development of Bangladesh. In January 2004, the Bangladesh government imposed a ban on Ahmaddiya publications as a response to growing demands from mainstream Sunni Imams for Ahmaddiyas to be declared non-Muslims. On an application by the Ahmaddiya community, the High Court intervened to grant a stay of the governmental executive order in December 2004. Police and governmental authorities nevertheless continued to seize books and documents relating to Ahmaddiya faith, and colluded with Muslim extremists to remove signs referring to Ahmaddiya places of worship as 'mosques'. There was also a sustained campaign of harassment, violence and physical abuse against the Ahmaddiya minority. On 29 October 2004, a mob of around 300 men belonging to Khateme-Nabuwat party attacked a mosque in Brahmanbaria, seriously injuring 11 Ahmaddiyas. On 17 April, a crowd of religious extremists attacked another Ahmaddiya mosque in Jotidriangar injuring 25 people.

There was also harassment, abuse and physical destruction of properties belonging to religious minorities during the period 2004-2005. On 1 January 2004, local Bangladesh National Party officials set 20 houses belonging to the Hindu community on fire. This action was repeated in Sarkerpur village in Rangpur district in September 2004. During April 2004, 12 Ahmaddiya houses were destroyed and, on 18 September 2004, Christian convert Dr Joseph Gomes was killed by unidentified assailants. On 22 June 2006, leaders of the Khatme-Nabwat party published an open letter to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, reiterated demands that Ahmaddiayyas be declared non-Muslims and threatening to resort to violent actions.

Religious minorities and other groups such as the Ahmaddiyas and the Biharis continue to suffer from discrimination in key areas of public life: employment, higher education and access to justice. Violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities continued through 2007, according to a US Government Report on Religious Freedom. The report released in September said Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minorities experienced discrimination and on occasion violence. It also said that Ahmaddiyas, an Islamic sect, faced harassment and protesters demanded that they be declared non-Muslims. The report restated that attacks on religious and ethnic minorities continued to be a problem in the 2009 reporting period too. According to the 2009 US State Report on Religious Freedom, there were no reported demonstrators or attacks against the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, although isolated instances of harassment continued. The state is said to have 'acted in an effective manner to protect Anmadis and their property' against sporadic demands that Ahmadis to be declared as non-Muslims.

The Hindu and Christian minorities and the indigenous peoples (particularly those from the Chittagong Hill Tracts) have blamed the government for being complicit in continued seizure of their lands by the so-called Muslim vigilantes and those belonging to extremist religious parties. Amnesty International reported on the government's efforts to implement accords of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which was signed in 1997 and recognised the rights of indigenous peoples living in the area. In August 2009, major army bases were dismantled but no further action was taken to settle a dispute over land ownership which indigenous peoples claim was given to non-indigenous Bangladeshi settlers.

Furthermore the current government has introduced several substantial restrictions on Christian communities. The most significant restriction is that all Christian organisation (including churches and Bangladesh Bible Society) have to be registered as an NGO whose charter and board remains open to governmental scrutiny and approval. The board can be dismissed at any given time and be replaced by a new board appointed by the government. This regulation is in breach of the Constitution, Article 41 (b) of which provides that 'Every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain or manage its own religious institutions'.

There have also been recent reports of human rights violations against indigenous tribal leaders. Amnesty International expressed grave concern over reports of alleged torture and death in custody following the imposition of emergency rule in early 2007. In March 2007, a leader of the Garo indigenous community, Cholesh Richil, reportedly died in custody following torture carried out by military personnel, Amnesty said. The Garo community live in Modhupur, and since 2003 have been opposing the construction of a national park in their traditional homeland. The Garo community is also predominantly Christian.

Continuing violations in Burma has resulted in the influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government does not recognise the Rohingya living outside refugee camps as refugees and instead considers them as economic migrants. Rohingya outside the camps do not have access to food or medical assistance from the government, the UNHCR or any other non-governmental agency.

A survey conducted by researchers including those from the Jahangirnagar University's Department of Anthropology was released in May 2008, documenting extensive land loss by indigenous and minority peoples in ten north-western districts. The survey reflected that most of the ancestral land taken from 1,983 mostly Buddhist tribal families landed in government hands as part of a 'social forestation' scheme. Private individuals also were involved in stealing land from indigenous and minority groups through force or forged documents, the survey found.

The humanitarian news agency, AlertNet reported in September 2010 that after cyclone Aila hit the region in May 2009, nearly 50,000 people in Bangladesh's Khulna and Satkhira districts are still living without shelter and are eating at best once or twice a day. The cyclone killed at least 300 people and more than 87,000 people lost their houses and traditional livelihoods. With climate change driving a growing number of farmers from their land because their fields are under salt water, people depend on relief aid as they have no way to earn a livelihood.

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