Bangladesh and Hindus: A Geography of Cleansing

A special edition post reflecting the news from Bangladesh on the execution sentence issued to one of the primary leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB). For those not in the know, the JIB is an Islamist political party (a party seeking to replace the “democratic” state of Bangladesh with one based on shari’a [Islamic] law). While I could write at length (and have elsewhere) on Bangladesh, the salient pieces of information here are the country’s lack of coherent state identity (are we Bengali or Islamic?) and it’s history of accommodating Islamist ideology (that the center-left Awami League is attempting to reverse). The execution order comes on the heels of a trials focused on accusations of war crimes (genocide) committed by senior JIB leaders during the country’s independence conflict in 1971 (independence from Pakistan). Estimates vary but between 1 million and 3 million people in what was East Pakistan lost their lives. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the JIB, including party activists and the party’s student wing (Islami Chhatra Shibir), have started rioting in the country.

The riots themselves are the subject of this special edition post for they betray the JIB’s view of Bangladesh and their answer to the “state identity” question. This current view conforms to the reason its senior leaders stand accused of war crimes, as we shall see. Generally, these riots highlight the nexus between identity, geography, and people, in other words, human geography.

As reported in Bangladeshi press, JIB activists “torch[ed]” a Hindu temple in the southeastern district of Noakhali of Chittagong division. Tensions between the Muslim and Hindu communities have been long standing (since at least the early 1900s) and due, in part, to British imperial policy. As most colonial and imperial powers learned, it was easier to govern areas by empowering a community (often a minority) over the others. The history of Islam of India (and Bengal) extends much before the arrival of the British, of course, generally Islam came via the sword (Mughal and Turkish conquerors) who were generally Persian and elitist. The other avenue were through Sufi monks, who often adapted Islam to local practices, it was this latter avenue that generally won converts among local population groups. However, the most “Indians” (keep in mind a unified political entity of India didn’t exist until the British left, and technically still doesn’t). Because of the existing bureaucratic and administrative structure of (Muslim) Mughal “India”, it was easy for the imperial power to co-opt as it replaced Mughal authority with British authority. And it just so happened that the Muslim community was, based on the entirety of Bengal province, a minority.

As the population of the province grew, attracted by potential economic gains thanks to Calcutta’s link to the wider British empire, the British decided to sub-divide Bengal to more easily govern it. The province underwent two or three “partitions” before being officially partitioned in 1947, during Indian/Pakistani independence. Generally, the partitions and combinations angered one community or another (as land, power, and people are inseparable). But the big wrench was the 1947 partition.

At this point Indians had to answer the question, based on Pakistan’s departure, are we a country of Indians (despite Pakistan’s removal, and adjusting for the north-south divide) or are we a country of Hindus (because of Pakistan’s removal, though allowing for a north-south regionalism). Pakistan, until 1971, had it easy – “we are a country of Muslims” – united. Of course, in practice the government was dominated by Punjabi Muslims in West Pakistan. In 1970-1971, when East Bengal managed to elect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a Prime Minister, he wasn’t allowed to take his position. Bangladesh, with India’s help, gained its independence in 1971 after enduring a civil war that killed millions and accusations of atrocities against the Pakistani Army and Bengali collaborators (bringing us to the trials against the JIB leadership). However, Bangladesh now had an existential crisis – what defines the state? Are they Bengalis? Perhaps not since West Bengal state (primarily Hindu) is part of India. Are we Muslims? Perhaps not since we just broke away from “Pakistan”.

Obviously, the JIB sees the answer as Bangladesh is a “nation” of Muslims, pan-Islamism in regards to Pakistan. This is why their senior leadership committed war crimes against Bengali civilians during the independence movement as part of the al-Badr and Razakar militias. This is why JIB activists targeted a Hindu temple during this unrest, because they are not a legitimate part of the body politic (to the Islamists) . The situation for Hindus is so bad in Bangladesh that a number of academics have discussed the “missing millions” in Bangladeshi Hindu population. While some are murdered, most are forced out of their homes, their lands and property confiscated, and wind up in India. While the JIB may certainly engage in this activity there’s bound to be additional culprits. A systematic study of the links between political parties and social organizations with this problem has yet to be undertaken by Bangladeshi academics (and if it has I don’t know about it).

The geographical link lies in the relative concentrations of the Hindu community within Bangladesh. Primarily, according to past Census data (1991 and 2001), the community is concentrated in the country’s southwest in Khulna division (see map below), which shares a border with West Bengal state. This relatively large concentration of Hindus was actually used as a reason to include that division with India before the 1947 partition. While the countries were largely organized along social lines (Pakistan being Muslim, India being non-Muslim), there were notable economic exceptions. In the case of Bengal, urban areas were allowed to control their hinterlands. Thus, Calcutta ended up receiving hinterlands in Murshidabad that were primarily Muslim, while combined Pakistan (through Chittagong) received non-Muslim hinterlands in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Khulna was somewhat of a surprise decision, assigned to Pakistan despite having a large Hindu minority population.

Hindu Community in Bangladesh, 1991/2001 (via wikipedia)

This geographic disconnect between monolithic state identity and local-level realities continue to be a source of instability for both countries. Indeed, another Bangladeshi press article reported that hardline elements of the “sizeable population of Urdu-speaking Muslims” (interesting since Bengali is a separate language) sympathize with the JIB. Moreover, West Bengal “hardline Islamist radical” elements are attempting to enter Bangladesh.  The article reports that India is calling for the sealing of the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh.

1 thought on “Bangladesh and Hindus: A Geography of Cleansing

  1. Pingback: A Geographic Perspective on Attacks on the Hindu Community in Bangladesh | Z Geography

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