ON JULY 24, a close aide to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with two intelligence officers, reached Dhaka, supposedly on a clandestine mission. Although the immediate objective of this person’s visit to the Bangladeshi capital is not known, the visitor’s links with Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), especially with the outfit’s Gujarat chapter, has raised questions about the Hindutva organisation’s role in the months before Bangladesh goes to the polls.
South Asian Monitor is aware of the identity of the Indian PM’s aide but chooses to withhold making it public for legal reasons. The Indian PM’s aide was in Dhaka for two days and is said to have met officials at the Indian High Commission besides some Hindu community members.
Knowledgeable sources in India and Bangladesh confirmed the arrival of Modi’s aide who has deep association with the RSS which, over the past two years, has become “very active” across some Indian and Bangladeshi border states and districts, respectively.
Over the same period of time, several small but discrete “Hindu outfits” sprang up across some Bangladeshi districts, especially those bordering West Bengal and Tripura. The most influential and predominant of such outfits is the Jatiya Hindu Mahajot led by one Gobinda Pramanik who many years ago was among five persons who had garlanded Jamaat-e-Islami amir Ghulam Azam in a public ceremony in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi and Indian sources revealed that other similar outfits, such as the Minority Janata Party, led by one Sukriti Kumar Mandal of Dhaka, besides the Bharat Sevashram Sangha (Bholagiri Ashram) and even an international “Hindu consciousness” organisation have, for over a year or so, begun propagating the Hindutva ideology. Although still low-key, the use of these methods is an attempt by the RSS to replicate its style of “education” and political mobilisation in some Indian border states such West Bengal and Tripura where, of late, it has met with considerable success.
In this context, the sources said that the RSS has set up a “deep cover” unit in a border region of Tripura, from where activists and cadres are pushed into Bangladesh to “educate” and “reorient” the mindsets of Hindus living in some of the districts in India’s eastern neighbouring country. On the other hand, Bangladeshi Hindus also frequent this RSS unit from time to time.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, Hindu Bouddhyo Christian Oikya Parishad (Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council) chairman Rana Dasgupta confirmed the “presence” and “activities” of the RSS, emphatically adding that the Sangh has “penetrated” Bangladesh’s minority Hindu community by “employing the slogan of Hindutva”. A veteran champion involved in protecting the rights and dignity of Bangladesh’s ethnic and religious minorities, Dasgupta disclosed that “over the past two years or so, Hindutva posters using English, Bengali and Hindi scripts have sprung up in some parts of the border villages within Bangladesh”.
Even as the RSS has taken baby steps towards propagating its Hindutva ideology among the minority Hindus of Bangladesh, there has been an unprecedented expansion of Islamism, chiefly at the behest of the Awami League. Recently, press reports revealed the Sheikh Hasina government’s plans to establish mosques across Bangladesh’s 560 upazilas (sub-divisions). The funding for building these mosques, at an estimated cost of Taka 8,000 crore, would come from the Saudi Arab government.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, former Awami League information minister (in the 1996-2001 government) Professor Abu Sayed bluntly said that his party “has failed to protect the minorities”. In Sayed’s words, “after the death of Mujibur Rahman, the Pakistani culture permeated every stratum of government, society and politics in a way that has now assumed the proportion of a poisoned tree”. This, according to Sayed, is the result of the “continuation of an anomaly – secularism as enshrined in the Constitution alongside Islam as the state religion”.
Sayed’s assertion is backed by independent data and statistics, which indicate that attacks on minorities increased manifold during the Awami League’s two terms—1996-2001 and 2008-present—leading thousands of Hindu families to emigrate to India or silently suffer such atrocities.
According to Odhikar, an NGO, 124 members of ethnic and religious minority communities, especially Hindus, were killed and 1,625 were injured in violent attacks between January 2009 and June 2018. In the same period, 50 Hindu homes were looted while there were 866 instances of attack on temples and damage to idols. Odhikar also recorded 50 cases of land grab. These figures, however, do not represent the true scale of the attacks on Hindus. A Bangladesh Minority Council report concluded that “after 1971, at no time has the existential threat to the Hindu community been as great as it is now”.
According data compiled by the Hindu Mahajot, there were 15,054 cases of atrocities against Hindus, including murder, attempt to murder, arson, looting, damage to temples and idols, land grab, intimidation, forcible conversion, rapes, gang rapes and threat to leave the country among others. In 2017, there were 6,474 such incidents, the Hindu Mahajot has recorded.
A November editorial in The New York Times commented that “The Awami League prides itself on being the party of pluralism in Bangladesh. Local Awami League politicians involved in conspiracy to stir religious violence must face more than suspension from their party. The credibility of Ms Hasina’s government is on the line”.
In Dasgupta’s words, the “Hindu community’s previous experience indicates that the condition of the minorities will deteriorate from September and October” by which time the electoral process and campaigning by the political parties is likely to pick up pace. While Dasgupta didn’t spare the BNP-Jamaat combine for targeting Hindus when they were in power earlier, he said that the Awami League must be held accountable for its failure to provide security to the minorities, especially when it has been in power.
Over the past seven years, while atrocities against Hindus have spiked, the stand of successive Indian governments has been ambiguous as far as the “adverse” condition of the minorities is concerned. “When Indian ministers and high-level officials visit Dhaka, they make no public statements against Bangladeshi ruling parties who fail to protect the lives and properties of Hindus. However, for the past two years there has been a subtle change, with Indian High Commission officials touring places across Bangladesh where Hindus are attacked. Indian mission officials now seem concerned,” Dasgupta said.
Preferring anonymity, a senior Awami League functionary admitted that anti-Hindu atrocities and crimes over the past few years has caused a steady out-migration of members of the minority community to Indian states, especially West Bengal. The out-migration of Hindus is facilitated by the “easy transfer of money via hundi and of jewellery. Additionally, there is a fear factor, especially before elections when the Hindus’ security “is not guaranteed” by the ruling party or law enforcement agencies.
The Awami League functionary agreed that the Hindus’ “fear factor” has paved the way for the RSS to penetrate sections of the minority community. Over the past two years, small batches of Bangladeshi Hindus have been receiving “motivational training” in a camp in Tripura. At the same time, Bangladeshi security officials have received reports that a branch of the Indian National Investigating Agency (NIA), which probes cases of terrorism and fundamentalism, has been established in Barasat in the border district of North 24 Parganas. The NIA officials, the sources said, take “undue interest in Bangladeshi politics”.
Even as the political standoff between the BNP and the Awami League continues, there is growing disquiet within the two parties as well as neutral observers that in the event the ruling party suffers a setback in the forthcoming elections, the target of a section of Bangladesh’s fundamentalists, especially the village-level cadres, would be the Hindus. According to political analysts in Dhaka, it is this fear of a post-election backlash that has pushed the RSS to become proactive in Bangladesh.