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Hindus in Bangladesh

The Hindu population in Bangladesh has severely declined in the last several decades. Estimated to make up 18.5 percent of East Pakistan's population in 1961, the Hindu proportion of the population had shrunk to about 13.5 percent by 1971. Steady Hindu emigration to India and Burma throughout the 1960s accounted for most of the decline. Although the Hindu population increased in size after 1971 and had reached 10.6 million by 1981, its relative proportion of the total population continued to decrease [though in 1987 Hindus were estimated to represent nearly 16 percent of the population]. According to the 2011 census, Sunni Muslims constitute 90 percent of the population and Hindus made up 9.5 percent of a total population of 152.5 million.

Hindus in Bangladesh in the late 1980s were almost evenly distributed in all regions, with concentrations in Khulna, Jessore, Dinajpur, Faridpur, and Barisal. The contributions of Hindus in arts and letters were far in excess of their numerical strength. In politics, they had traditionally supported the liberal and secular ideology of the Awami League (People's League). Hindu institutions and places of worship received assistance through the Bangladesh Hindu Kalyan Trust (Bangladesh Hindu Welfare Trust), which was sponsored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Government-sponsored television and radio also broadcast readings and interpretations of Hindu scriptures and prayers.

During British rule in India, most industry was Hindu-owned and Hinduoperated . Muslims lagged behind in business and in industry, especially those from eastern Bengal, which had long been regarded as remote from the hub of commerce. The words of Bengali commentator Mansur Ali succinctly describe the Hindu dominance and Muslim inferiority in virtually all spheres of society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: "In Bengal, the landlord is Hindu, the peasant Muslim. The money lender is Hindu, the client is Muslim. The jailor is Hindu, the prisoner is Muslim. The magistrate is Hindu, the accused is Muslim." By remaining aloof from the Western-oriented education system, the Muslims alienated themselves from the many new avenues opening up for the emerging middle class. This self-imposed isolation led to an intensified awareness of their minority role. Curiously, however, it was Muslim opposition to the extension of representative government--a political stance taken out of fear of Hindu dominance--that helped to reestablish rapport with the British, who by 1900 welcomed any available support against mounting Hindu nationalism.

Until the partition of British India in 1947, Hindus controlled about 80 percent of all large rural holdings, urban real estate, and government jobs in East Bengal and dominated finance, commerce, and the professions. Following partition, a massive flight of East Bengali Hindus effectively removed the Hindu economic and political elite and cut the territory's ties to Calcutta. After the emigration of the Hindus, Muslims moved quickly into the vacated positions.

Unlike Islam, Hinduism lacks a single authoritative scripture and a historically known founder. In a sense Hinduism is a synthesis of the religious expression of the people of South Asia and an anonymous expression of their worldview and cosmology, rather than the articulation of a particular creed. The term Hinduism applies to a large number of diverse beliefs and practices. Although religion can best be understood in a regional context, the caste system, beliefs, rituals, and festivals of the Hindus in Bangladesh -- about 16 percent of the population--are peculiarly Bengali.

A distinction has sometimes been made between the religion of the "great tradition" and the popular religion of the "little tradition." The great (or Sanskritic) tradition, sometimes called Brahmanism, developed under the leadership of Hinduism's highest caste group, the Brahmans, who as the traditional priests, teachers, and astrologers enjoy numerous social privileges. The great tradition preserves refined and abstract philosophical concepts that exhibit very little regional variation. At this level, there is emphasis on unity in diversity and a pervasive attitude of relativism.

Hindu philosophy recognizes the Absolute (Brahma) as eternal, unbounded by time, space, and causality and consisting of pure existence, consciousness, and bliss. The highest goal is release (moksha) from the cycle of birth and rebirth and the union of the individualized soul (atman) with Brahma. To attain this goal, a person may follow one of several methods or paths of discipline depending on his or her own temperament or capacity. The first of these paths is known as the way of works (karma marga). Followed by most Hindus, it calls for disinterested right action--the performance of one's caste duties and service to others--without personal involvement in the consequences of action. The way of knowledge (jnana marga) stresses union by eliminating ignorance; mental error rather than moral transgression is considered the root of human misery and evil. The way of devotion (bhakti marga) advocates union by love; its essence is a complete and passionate faith in a personal deity.

For most of its adherents, Hinduism encompasses a variety of devotions and sects that center on one or more of the great gods and are expressed at least partly in a regional context. The great tradition recognizes a trinity of gods, who are actually forms of absolute Brahman: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Brahma receives little notice; everyday devotion tends to center on the worship of Vishnu and Shiva (known by a variety of names) and their countless respective consorts.

The worship of Shiva has generally found adherents among the higher castes in Bangladesh. Worship of Vishnu more explicitly cuts across caste lines by teaching the fundamental oneness of humankind in spirit. Vishnu worship in Bengal expresses the union of the male and female principles in a tradition of love and devotion. This form of Hindu belief and the Sufi tradition of Islam have influenced and interacted with each other in Bengal. Both were popular mystical movements emphasizing the personal relationship of religious leader and disciple instead of the dry stereotypes of the Brahmans or the ulama. As in Bengali Islamic practice, worship of Vishnu frequently occurs in a small devotional society (samaj). Both use the language of earthly love to express communion with the divine. In both traditions, the Bangla language is the vehicle of a large corpus of erotic and mystical literature of great beauty and emotional impact.

On the level of the little tradition, Hinduism admits worship of spirits and godlings of rivers, mountains, vegetation, animals, stones, or disease. Ritual bathing, vows, and pilgrimages to sacred rivers, mountains, shrines, and cities are important practices. An ordinary Hindu will worship at the shrines of Muslim pirs, without being concerned with the religion to which that place is supposed to be affiliated. Hindus revere many holy men and ascetics conspicuous for their bodily mortifications. Some people believe they attain spiritual benefit merely by looking at a great holy man.

Hindu ethics generally center on the principle of ahimsa, noninjury to living creatures--especially the cow, which is held sacred. The principle is expressed in almost universally observed rules against eating beef. By no means are all Hindus vegetarians, but abstinence from all kinds of meat is regarded as a "higher" virtue. High-caste Bangladeshi Hindus, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in South Asia, ordinarily eat fish.

Common among Hindus is the acceptance of the caste system as the structure of society. For virtually all Hindus, even those in revolt against some aspects of the system, caste is taken for granted as the way of life. To be considered Hindu, a group must identify itself in some way as a unit in the caste hierarchy. One cannot join a caste; one is born into it and lives, marries, and dies in it.

Although Hindu society is formally stratified into caste categories, caste did not figure prominently in the Bangladeshi Hindu community. About 75 percent of the Hindus in Bangladesh belonged to the lower castes, notably namasudras (lesser cultivators), and the remainder belonged primarily to outcaste or untouchable groups. Some members of higher castes belonged to the middle or professional class, but there was no Hindu upper class. With the increasing participation of the Hindus in nontraditional professional mobility, the castes were able to interact in wider political and socioeconomic arenas, which caused some erosion of caste consciousness. Although there is no mobility between Hindu castes, caste distinctions did not play as important a role in Bangladesh as in they did in the Hindu-dominated Indian state of West Bengal. Bangladeshi Hindus seemed to have become part of the mainstream culture without surrendering their religious and cultural distinctions.

Hindus and members of other minority communities are considered to be reliable supporters of the Awami League. The coalition government came in power after the national elections in October 2001 headed by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and in collaboration with the two major Islamic hardliner parties Jamaat-E-Islami and Islami Okkyo Jote (Islamic Unity Council). Anti-Hindu violence and harassment were experienced in several districts in Barisal and throughout Bangladesh in areas with sizable Hindu populations during the 2001 elections. Awami League activists at the national and local levels have alleged that this violence affected the turnout of minority voters and ultimately resulted in a landslide victory for the BNP in 2001. A few thousand Hindus also allegedly fled to India during this time.

The coalition government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which came to power on October 1, 2001, initiated a violent campaign and since the BNP's parliamentary victory, a campaign of terrorism, murder and religious cleansing was unleashed on Hindus living in Bangladesh.

Although this wave of violence ensued since the BNP took power in 2001, Hindus had been a disappearing minority in Bangladesh at the hands of Bangladeshi forces who employed human rights abuses, atrocities and ethno-religious cleansing tools. In 1941, Hindus comprised 28% of the Bangladeshi population but by 1991, the Hindu population dwindled to a meager 8% by some estimates. A large part of this decrease in the Hindu population in Bangladesh can be attributed to the 1971 genocide by the then Muslim East Pakistan Party where by some accounts 2.5 million Hindus were murdered and 10 million Hindus fled to India as refugees.

Reminiscent of the Jewish holocaust, Hindu homes were marked by a yellow "H", which in fact guided the pillagers to their homes. Over the following 30 years, thousands of Hindu temples were destroyed, Hindus were systematically disenfranchised from holding political power, and prejudicial legislation ensured an unstable existence for Hindus. In fact, Islamic extremists have routinely dispossessed Hindus, and for that matter Christians and Buddhists, of their ancestral properties and land, burned down their houses and desecrated and razed temples, which has resulted in forcing many to flee as refugees.

According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2005, the "acute animosity" between the Awami League [AL] and the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP), "often leads to politically motivated violence and sometimes heightened societal tensions between Muslims and Hindus..." Since the 2001 election, religious minorities had been targets of violence. According to human rights sources, the attacks have targeted Hindus in particular. From 2005 to 2006, reported incidents against Hindus have included rape, torture, killings; land grabbing and forced evictions, and the destruction of Hindu temples and/or religious icons. Allegedly, some of these attacks were carried out by BNP supporters and Islamic "extremists".

In October 2005, five people were seriously injured when Hindu temples and houses were set on fire in Rangpur District. In the same month, a Hindu temple in Chagarachi District was attacked and its priest, Shri Gopal Chandra Barman, was kidnapped. His body was later found in a nearby river, stabbed and bound with rope. In 2005, there were also reports of threats against Hindu journalists. Islamic groups reportedly sent letters to several journalists warning them that, as non-Muslims, they should not be reporting on Islamic affairs.

The Vested Property Act remained in force until 2001, allowing the government to expropriate “enemy” (in practice, Hindu) lands. Over the course of its existence, the government seized approximately 2.6 million acres of land, affecting almost all Hindus in the country. Many Hindus continued efforts to recover land lost under the act. The Vested Properties Return (Amendment) Bill of 2011 obligates the government to publish lists of returnable vested property through gazette notification within 120 days. Subsequently, Hindu leaders submitted applications to reclaim previously seized vested property and requested an extension to prepare further applications. The Vested Property Return (Second Amendment) Act of 2012, passed on September 18, gives an additional 180 days for interested parties to submit applications for adjudication.

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