Hindu in a Muslim Land
If the Indian Press in general is to be believed, the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, numbering over 10 million, suffers the most cruel oppression at the hands of so-called 'Muslim Fanatics' and 'Islamic Fundamentalists'. Nothing could, however, be further from the truth, as I discovered during a recent two-month stay in Bangladesh. In general, minorities in Muslim majority Bangladesh lead a more secure and prosperous life than minorities in Hindu-majority India, though few in India would readily concede this, for it clearly contradicts the carefully-constructed myth of 'Muslim intolerance.' Unlike in India, where anti-Minority violence, abetted by politicians and the police, is a routine affair in which thousands upon thousands of Muslims and others have lost their lives since Independence, Bangladesh is remarkably free of communal violence. There have been no riots of the sort that India has seen ever since the country's liberation in 1971. The only time that violence against the Hindus occurred was in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. Here, it is important to note that the violence was, in the first place, provoked by the large scale massacre of Muslims in India and, secondly, not more than half a dozen death were reported, compared with the many thousands who lost their lives in India.
Dinajpuri Temple, Dinajpur, Bangladesh
Like all other religious groups in the country, the Hindus of Bangladesh enjoy full religious liberty. I was in Bangladesh during the Puja season and I saw for myself how the Hindus there celebrate their festivals free of any restriction. On the day of Durga Puja, I visited the Dhakeshwari temple, Dhaka's principal Hindu shrine. The temple was packed with worshippers, mendicants and folk singers and the entrance to the shrine was lined with long rows of pavement stalls selling Hindu icons and literature. That evening I took the bus to Dinajpur, up in the north of the country. Almost every little village we passed by had a brightly-lit and gaudily decorated Puja Pandal.
In Dinajpur itself the local Hindus had arranged their Puja at the Rajbari, the enormous mansion of a Hindu landlord. The local Marwari Hindus, all very prosperous businessmen, had organized their own Puja Pandal separate from the Bengali Hindus. Caste is still a very important matter for Bangladeshi Hindus. All the priests officiating at temples and conducting the Pujas are Brahmins, although most of the worshippers belong to the so-called lower castes such as Namashudra, Pod, Rajbanshi and Chandal.
Prior to 1947, East Bengal, as Bangladesh was then known, was one of the most backward parts of British India. Although they were but a small minority, upper caste Hindus owned almost all the land in the province. Most of the agricultural workers and tenants who worked on the fields of the Hindu Zamindars were Muslims. The peasants seemed to have been subjected to the most brutal oppression at the hands of the Zamindars, as the long, blood-filled history of peasant revolts in East Bengal testifies. One has only to see the now crumbling ruins of the vast Zamindari mansions or rajbaris that still dot the Bangladeshi countryside and contrast it with the most abject poverty that most Bangladeshi peasants are still mired in to get a feel of how oppressive the conditions must have been for the largely Muslim peasantry of East Bengal prior to 1947. After East Bengal separated from India, the Zamindari estates, owned by a handful of Hindu landlords, were abolished. While this measure affected just a few Hindu families, the lower-caste Hindus, the vast majority of Bangladeshi Hindus, remained unaffected. They chose to stay on in Bangladesh instead of migrating to India. Today they form the bulk of the country's Hindu population. Certain trades and crafts are monopolized by them, such as the making of musical instruments, iron-smithy and metal carving. Though there are few rich families among them, on the whole they are economically not worse off than the Muslims in general.
Traditionally the Hindus of Bengal have been far ahead of the Muslims in the field of education. Even today the Hindus of Bangladesh enjoy a comfortable representation in the teaching profession, particularly in the villages of outlying and backward districts, such as Noakhali in the Central-east and Dinajpur, in the north-west of the country. Dhaka University, meant to be the country's premier institution of higher education (deplorable, though, I must say, even by Indian standards), has a special hostel for Hindu students, the Jaganath Hall. Well over a thousand students live here in sprawling blocks of flats and the hall's vast compounds contain a large football field, a stadium and a Hindu temple.
I do not wish to paint an over-rosy picture of the conditions of the Hindus of Bangladesh. Like minorities elsewhere, they too have their share of insecurities and fears, problems and dilemmas. But to allege, as many in India do, that they are on the verge of mass-decimation or genocide or that they are brutally oppressed, being robbed of all civic rights, is a gross travesty of the truth. They may not be perfectly happy, it is true, but at least their lives are, on the whole, safe, I would confidently assert.
Here, then, lies a lesson we in India can profitably learn.