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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bangladesh

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date February 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bangladesh, February 2011, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
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


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.


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.


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.


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.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK)
[Human Rights and Legal Aid Centre]
Tel: +880 2 835 851

Amnesty International
Tel: +880 2 818 938, +880 2 868 002

Association for Social Advancement
Tel: +880 2 811 0934 -5, 811 2898, 911 6375

Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh

Hotline (HRs) Bangladesh
Tel: +880 2 935 2149

Institute of Democratic Rights (IDR)

Tel: +880 2 988 8587
Email: or

Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD)
[Environment, Human Rights and Indigenous People]
Tel: +880 2 912 1385


Hill Watch Human Rights Forum


Refugee International (USA)
Tel: +1 202 828 0110

Minorities at Risk Project (USA)
Tel: +1 301 405 6983

Sources and further reading


Amnesty International, Unlawful Killings and Torture in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, London, September 1986.

Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC), Life Is Not Ours: Land and Human Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, London, 1991.

Roy, R.D., 'The problem of dispossession of lands of indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts by government-sponsored migrants: in search of a solution', paper presented at an Open Dialogue and Seminar on the Chittagong Hill Tracts Problems and its Solution, organized by the National Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights in CHT, German Cultural Centre, Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 1995.

SS Islam, Syed Serajul 'Insurgency movement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh: Internal and External Dimensions', Journal of Third World Issues (Fall, 2003) retrieved 10 April 2007,< /a>

Timm, R.W., The Adivasis of Bangladesh, London, MRG report, 1991.


Refugee International, 'Bangladesh: Stateless Biharis Grasp for a Resolution and their Rights' (Washington, USA, March 2006) retrieved 10 March 2007,

Minorities at Risk, Assessment for Biharis in Bangladesh (University of Maryland, USA)

B Whitaker, Biharis of Bangladesh (London, MRG, 1982).


Forests and Indigenous Peoples of Asia, MRG Report, 1999.

Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Overview: Bangladesh (2005) retrieved 20 April 2007,

Roy, Devashish, Traditional Customary Laws and Indigenous Peoples in Asia, MRG report, 2005

United Nations Development Programme, UNDP Country Programme (2006-2010) (United Nations, 2006).


U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (Washington, DC, USA) May 2006.

J. Rehman and N. Roy, 'South Asia' in Minority Rights Groups (eds.), World Directory of Minorities (London, MRG, 1997) 545-547.

BBC News, Analysis: Fears of Bangladeshi Hindus 19 October 2001, retrieved 10 March 2007,

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