The false propaganda about minority persecution in Bangladesh

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against India’s new citizenship law, in Ahmedabad, India, on December 19, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE

In order to justify the discriminatory stance of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, something odd is happening—Bangladesh is being painted by elements within India as a violent state from which Hindus are fleeing away, into India.  

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, which was passed in the Rajya Sabha last week, will be granting naturalised citizenship to undocumented immigrants in India who belong to minority communities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bill makes no mention of Muslims, or even Muslim minority communities like Shias or Ahmadiyyas, let alone persecuted groups like the Rohingyas. The United Nations has called the bill "fundamentally discriminatory in nature."

But this very point is not being acknowledged by pro-bill advocates in India as they try to divert the conversation from the divisive nature of the bill to the state of minorities in its neighbouring countries—and to be very specific, the state of the Hindu community in Bangladesh.

In an interview with India Today, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh defended the bill by saying Bangladesh is a theocratic Islamic state. Meanwhile, Amit Shah, the current Minister of Home Affairs who is also the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had been trying to drum up support for the act by making it seem like an act of mercy for the minorities in Bangladesh.

He earlier said in parliament that Hindus are being tortured in Bangladesh. He added by saying that in 1947, the minority community in Bangladesh formed 22 percent of the total population, while now it is 8 percent. "Were they killed? Were they forcibly converted? Were they pushed into India?" he asked. Later he qualified his statement and said Hindus were not persecuted during Bangabandhu's rule.

The citing of these figures completely disregards history, and falsely represents census data.

There is no denying that Bangladesh has experienced a steady outflux of Hindus since partition: while minorities made up 23.1 percent of the population in 1951, it was found during the last census in 2011 that they did, in fact, make up only 9.6 percent. But this argument fails to recognise that this did not happen because of any constant persecution by the state of Bangladesh; the story of human movement, and indeed persecution too, is more nuanced than that.

To begin with, a significant portion of this drop happened before 1971, when Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan. By 1974, which is the year of the census for that decade, the minority population had been slashed by over a third, to 14.6 percent. This drop, quite clearly, is due to the fact that over the decade, the newly-formed nation-states exchanged populations; and in 1971, the Pakistani military deliberately executed an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Muslims and Muslims.

Meanwhile, the exodus of non-Muslims had been supplemented by an influx of Muslims during the 50's and 60's from Bihar and other regions. Census figures from 1974 state that the Muslim population doubled from 34 million in 1951 to 65 million in 1961. Did this in any way skew the proportions?

But back to the present—it is true that even since 1974, the proportion of non-Muslims has declined. Calculating from census data, the non-Muslim population has steadily declined by an average of 1.25 percentage points every decade since the Liberation War. The highest dip happened between 1981 and 1991, when the proportion of minorities fell by 1.6 percentage points. The least amount of decrease surprisingly happened between 2001 and 2011, which included years particularly marked by increased persecution of minorities surrounding the national elections.

Even if out-migration was not a defining factor, for the Hindu-Muslim ratio to remain constant over the years, they would have had to have equal population growth, meaning that beyond just having the same birth and death rates, they would have to be demographically similar.

In a paper titled "Hindu Population Growth in Bangladesh: A Demographic Puzzle", researchers from ICDDR,B's Health Systems and Population Studies Division and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) studied the population data of 1989-2016 from the Matlab Health and Demographic Surveillance System to find out why Hindus have lower population growth than Muslims. This database was established by ICDDR,B in Matlab upazila of Chandpur to track the health data of residents in the area, and covers data from a period of 50 years, making it a holistic goldmine for studying demographics.

The researchers found that 23 percent of the low population growth may be related to international out-migration by Hindus, but that a much bigger reason was lower fertility rates. The Hindu community studied in Matlab married and gave birth at a later age, used more contraceptives, and have a lower birth rate. The researchers concluded that 71 percent of the low growth rate may be accounted for by the low rates of fertility.

They also found that since 2006, more Hindus have been opting for countries other than India for out-migration. Only 36 percent of the migrating Hindus of Matlab went to India between 2005 and 2012.

Having said this, discrimination against minority communities is a reality, and one would be accused of being in denial if one doesn't acknowledge that. The discrimination ranges from the kind of access members of this community get to power structures, to how they are religiously profiled in everyday circumstances like renting a house. Derogatory slurs and crimes against the community like the vandalism of temples mostly go unpunished. Meanwhile, laws regarding vested property have stripped the community of the dynastic wealth that could have factored into their economic well-being over the decades. Dr Abul Barkat, in his book "Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh: Living with Vested Property", found that the community had lost 2.6 million acres of land.

But is there a full-swing ethnic cleansing going on, with the purpose of pushing Hindus to India? Such a view cannot be supported by any statistical data or objective analysis of the conditions in Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, there are adequate elements in the recent Indian government's messages that support the view that Bangladesh is pushing out their Hindus.

Assam has been erupting in protests over the last two weeks as indigenous citizens of the state fear that with the legalisation of undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, native Assamese will become a minority in their own state. Assam-based Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti Adviser Akhil Gogoi had claimed that 20 lakh Bangladeshi Hindus would become Indians if the citizenship bill was passed. Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #AssamRejectsCAA—the state's reason for protesting is distinctly different from that of the rest of the country. The protesters are singing the same tune that a lot of border states all over the world do—and it is an anti-immigrant one.

The state made matters worse, by cracking down violently on the protests on December 12, leaving six killed, one of whom was a minor. Paramilitary battalions like the Central Reserve Police Force have been stationed in Guwahati.

Ethnic contentions between Bangalis and the indigenous Assamese stretch back to the days of partition. Being border states surrounded by both Bengal and Bangladesh, Assam has been the recipient state for a lot of the refugees pushed out over the years, especially during 1971.  

The history of human movement across the Indian subcontinent is a complex one spanning half a century and millions of people. Homes, documents and lives were lost; maps changed shape as landmasses exchanged populations. Arbitrarily choosing to grant citizenship to members of certain religions will not fix a problem that is as old as time. This legislative decision is not just discriminatory, it is overly simplistic and completely ignorant of history.

And to justify it, Bangladesh is unfairly and without evidence being painted as a country that discriminates against its minorities, especially Hindus.


Zyma Islam is a reporter for The Daily Star.


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