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Forty-year roller coaster for Bangladeshi Hindus
by Staff Writers
Dhaka (AFP) Dec 16, 2011

When Bangladesh became an independent nation after a bloody nine month battle with Pakistan that ended 40 years ago Friday, Narayan Chandra Das, a Bengali Hindu, had high hopes for his new country.

As a Hindu, Das had been branded an "agent of India" during the war and fled when the Pakistani army burned his village in the eastern district of Comilla to the ground.

But when the war ended on December 16, he came straight home to the new Muslim-majority nation.

Forty years after independence, creeping Islamisation, discriminatory policies and a series of violent attacks on Hindus, have, he says, made him wonder whether it was the right choice.

"My brothers fought with Bangladeshi freedom fighters in the war of independence. I joined mainstream political parties as I believed in the idea of a nation where all citizens were equal," he told AFP.

"After all these years, I can say it's not the Bangladesh I dreamt of. In many ways, it's quite close to Pakistan," said Das, 55, who manages a pipe manufacturing company in Dhaka.

Bangladesh was founded as a secular republic under its 1972 constitution, proclaiming equal rights for all faiths. At the time, Muslims accounted for 80 percent of the population, with Hindus making up most of the remainder.

The country's founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popularly referred to as Sheikh Mujib, was an avowed secularist who sought to woo the country's large Hindu electorate.

He abolished the Enemy Property Act, a Pakistani-imposed law that allowed the government to seize property of Hindus who fled to India.

But after Sheikh Mujib was assassinated in a military coup in 1975, the new military rulers began amending the constitution -- replacing secularism with "absolute faith in Allah", legalising religious-based political parties, and making Islam the state religion.

"It was the beginning of creeping Islamisation," Subrata Chowdhury, a lawyer and prominent Hindu activist, told AFP.

"The Enemy Property Act was revived, albeit with a different name," he said.

Throughout the politically turbulent 1990s, the Hindu community came under attack when sectarian tensions flared, particularly during a bout of post-election violence in 2001.

"These attacks triggered a new wave of migration. I know hundreds of families who moved to India," Das said,

Official data shows the Hindu community has shrunk from 15 to 10 percent of the population since the 1970s.

Since the current secular Awami League government -- led by Sheikh Mujib's daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina -- came to power in 2009, it has rolled back some of the religious inroads made by previous military regimes.

In a series of constitutional amendments it restored the principle of secularism but kept Islam as the state religion -- a decision experts have slammed as contradictory and confusing.

It has put 1971 alleged war criminals on trial -- including for specific attacks on the Hindu community -- and pledged to prosecute people identified in a new report as carrying out post-election attacks on Hindus in 2001.

Moreover, last month it passed a landmark bill, enabling the return of property seized by the government from Hindus -- a move that, if enforced, could transform the economic fortunes of the Hindu community.

"Finally, we see some hope," said C.R. Dutta, a freedom fighter and leading Hindu activist.

"There is a change in mindset. Hindus are now more confident... the Islamisation process has been halted," he added.

Returning some properties will be difficult. Many of those seized under previous governments have been cultivated and developed by their Muslim neighbours.

"In effect, my Muslim neighbours now own my family's old land. Can the government really enforce the law to evict them?" Das said.

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