Bangladesh’s “minority problem”

50 years of the country’s nation building have not always gone well for its religious and ethnic minorities.

Bangladesh’s “minority problem”
In December 2020, people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts attend a rally in Dhaka demanding full implementation of the Hill Tracts Agreement, signed in 1997. Photo: Suvra Kanti Das/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

If the constitution of a country is the embodiment, albeit partial, of fundamental principles governing the relationship between the governor and the governed, constitutional provisions are also the manifestation of the country’s sense of the national “self” and the minority “other”. The Constitution of Bangladesh declares in Article 6 that “[t]he people of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangalees as a nation and citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis”. Although Article 23A acknowledges the presence of communities other than Bengalis, it nonetheless underscores that unique cultures of these communities fall outside the “national culture” (defined in line with Bengali nationalism) that the state is obliged to promote under Article 23.

Similarly, Article 2A of the Constitution declares Islam as the “state religion of the Republic” but requires the state to “ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions”. The Constitution starts in a traditional Islamic way with Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim, which is translated in the Constitution both literally and thematically as “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” and also as “In the name of the Creator, the Merciful”. To make it even more interesting, “secularism” is listed in the preamble as one of the four high ideals, which inspired the liberation movement, and which have now been granted the status of the “fundamental principles of the Constitution”.

These apparent contradictions in the Constitution epitomise the inherent tension between two sets of ideologies that Bangladesh, like many postcolonial states, had to grapple with in the nation-building process: ethno-religious nationalism and liberal universalism.

In the case of Bangladesh, Bengali nationalism served not only as the vehicle of liberation movements against oppressive Pakistani rule but also as the key to independent statehood. In contrast, post-Second World War liberal universalism, which promised a more egalitarian world order and offered a template for the internal organisation of minority relations in postcolonial states, remained the normative backdrop against which the nationalist politics advanced. While the force of nationalism saw its fruition in the creation of the Bengali nation-state, liberal universalism was enshrined in the constitutional architecture of Bangladesh in the form of equality and non-discrimination.

To address the “minority problem”, which emanates from these unreconciled positions, nationalist ruling elites in countries like Bangladesh often conceive of the postcolonial state itself as an ideology, claiming that the unified homogeneous national state, its liberal constitutional structure, and the developmental agenda will solve the minority problem. In asserting their faith in the healing power of the postcolonial state, the elites conveniently avoid crucial questions about the continuation of colonial political order, the class character of the economic structure, and the hegemony of nation-building projects — factors that lead to the minority problem in the first place.

As Bangladesh celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, it is thus important to reflect on the country’s treatment of its ethnic and religious minorities — the “others” of the national “self” — as a useful reminder of the damaging impact of the hegemonic nation-building project against the historical backdrop of colonial legacies and the neoliberal economy. 

Minorities within the Bengali nation: 1971-1975

The long political struggle for freedom from Pakistani oppression and ensuing Liberation War of 1971 advanced in the name of the Bengali nation, which promised a socialist, democratic, and secular future. These core principles, which were later enshrined in the first Constitution of 1972, signaled a clear break from feudalism, authoritarianism, and Islamic nationalism — material, political, and ideological ethos that defined Pakistan. In line with the liberal international human rights framework, the Constitution also guaranteed equal treatment of citizens and protection from non-discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.

The constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination were provided essentially within the framework of Bengali nationalism, which had little desire to accommodate non-Bengali ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples outside the dominant narrative of assimilation and homogenisation. Soon after the independence, a hill peoples’ delegation called on the prime minister and the key architect of the new state, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, demanding regional autonomy and a separate legislature for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The prime minister rejected these claims, advising the delegation to relinquish such “parochial and ethnic aspirations in favour of these being subsumed under a broader notion of nationalism to facilitate national integration”.

The Constituent Assembly debates also reveal how repeated calls of MN Larma for some sort of autonomy for the region were also rejected rather casually. The 1972 Constitution thus declared Bangladesh to be a unitary, independent, and sovereign people’s republic. Any special status for the CHT appeared unrealistic within the unitary framework of the Constitution. The CHT thus lost the status it had as a “non-regulated district” under the CHT Regulation of 1900, the “excluded territories” status it had under the Government of India Act (1935) and the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan, and the status of “tribal area” it had under the 1962 Pakistan constitution. The Constitution also maintained that citizens of Bangladesh are all known as Bangalees (Article 6).

So far as religious minorities are concerned, a series of laws specifically targeted properties belonging to Hindu minorities, who had to migrate to India during the Liberation War. The Vested and Non-resident Property (Administration) Act (the Vested Property Act, 1974) enabled the new government to acquire any land of the “enemies” of the state. The Act in effect maintained the legacy of the Enemy Property Order (1965), which was promulgated during the 1965 war between Pakistan and India with a view to grabbing the lands of the Hindu minority within Pakistan by declaring them “enemy” of the state. The Enemy Property Order (1965) was given legal effect in independent Bangladesh by renaming it the Vested Property Act in 1972. Also, in 1971, the Bangladesh (Vesting of Property and Assets) Order was promulgated for vesting all properties and assets, including the enemy properties, which had previously been vested in Pakistan, in the government of Bangladesh. Against this backdrop, the Vested and Non-resident Property (Administration) Act was enacted in 1974 to repeal the Vested Property Act of 1972. However, the new Act enabled the government to manage properties and assets of non-resident Hindu minorities, who had fled in 1947 and now resided in India. It was not until 2011 that the Act was finally repealed by the Vested Property Return (Amendment) Act.   

From Bengali to Bangladeshi: Nation-building during 1975-1981

The assassination of Sheikh Mujib in a coup d’état in August 1975 and the military rule of Ziaur Rahman that followed, marked a new era of nation-building, which sought to create a new Bangladeshi (as opposed to Bengali) identity premised on a populist notion of Muslim majoritarianism. Unlike the Islamist ideology of Pakistan, Muslim majoritarianism in this new Bangladeshi identity was more about religious symbolism, yet quite damaging for the fragile and not-yet-developed “secular” social fabric.

The 5th amendment to the Constitution in 1979 inserted the Arabic words “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim” and its Bangla meaning “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” in the beginning of the Preamble. Through the same amendment, “secularism” as one of the fundamental principles of the Constitution was also replaced with “faith in Allah”. These changes in the Constitution along with accompanying nationalist political rhetoric appeased the majority and offered the military ruler a popular support base but effectively turned the religious minority into a less-desired community, whose allegiance to the state was constantly questioned.

Although the ideology of Bangladeshi nationalism with its territorial underpinning deviated to some extent from the ethnic-exclusionist Bengali nationalism of the preceding epoch, the situation of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples worsened significantly. Given the military background of the regime, the CHT came to be seen as a threat to national security. The devastating programme of settlement of tens of thousands of poor Bengalis in the CHT was intensified during this period, thereby altering the demographic composition quite significantly. At the time of Indian partition in 1947, the Bengali population in the CHT was 2.5%; it rose to 10% in 1951 and 35% in 1981.

Direct state patronage was also provided to the relatively underdeveloped Bengali bourgeois class to exploit resources in the CHT. From 1979 onwards, the government leased out large consolidated tracts to private entrepreneurs for rubber and other commercial plantations. In 1980, the government allocated 550 plots of 25 acres each to Bangalee businessmen on a trial basis; given increasing demand the size of allocation ultimately went up to 1,000 acres and then 5,000 acres each.

“Development” soon became the umbrella term to address multifaceted concerns of security, resource management, nation-building, and economic prosperity. The claim that the problems of the CHT emanated from the root cause of underdevelopment led to the establishment in 1976 of the CHT Development Board, whose official purpose was “accelerating development” of the area, thereby solving the problem of ethnic tension. The Board was later used primarily for counter-insurgency purposes. In this sense, this era of military rule put in place legal and institutional architecture, which the next military regime utilised to continue the marginalisation of minorities — in the domains of both politics and economy. 

Bangladesh at the crossroads: 1981-1990

The assassination of Ziaur Rahman in May 1981 paved the way for Hussain Muhammad Ershad to take over power in 1983 following another coup d’état. Unlike the previous two regimes, which were premised upon contrasting ideologies, Ershad’s was defined rather by political pragmatism. Building on the previous regime’s populist political agenda and hegemonic governance structures, Ershad not only introduced the 8th amendment to the Constitution declaring Islam as the state religion but also heavily patronised Islamic religious institutions of the most archaic type, although the overall treatment of religious minorities in the country was not markedly different from the previous regime. The institutionalisation of Islam as the state religion, however, further deepened the sense of alienation among religious minorities by turning them to almost second-class citizens of the pseudo Islamic republic.

During this period, the marginalisation of indigenous communities in the CHT intensified in the name of national security and territorial integrity. From 1980 to 1984, as many as 400,000 Bengalis were made to settle in the CHT, and over 50,000 jumma people were reported to have fled to the Indian state of Tripura. The CHT Development Board came under full military control. All major development interventions in the region are designed, managed, and overseen by the Board. During the years of insurgency, most development projects undertaken by the Board were directed towards building necessary infrastructure for expanding the domain of military influence or bribing local hill elites and bringing them into confidence to subvert popular resistance.

In response to state hegemony, armed resistance of the Shanti Bahini, the military wing of Parbattya Chatogram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), also intensified, forcing the Ershad regime to take certain steps towards peace negotiation and regional autonomy. However, it was not until the late 1990s that protracted armed conflicts and bloodshed came to an end in the CHT.

Transition to (fragile) democracy: 1991 —     

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s marked the landslide of liberal values in the form of democracy, human rights, and neoliberal economy. The collapse of the military dictatorship of Ershad in December 1990 following a popular movement for democracy was in many ways an early sign of what the global order would look like and what would be the position of minorities therein.

In the next two decades, the two major political parties — Awami League (AL), led by Sheikh Hasina (daughter of Sheikh Mujib) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia (the widow of Ziaur Rahman) — ruled the country by turn with the exception of 2007-2008 when a non-party caretaker government backed by military was in power. During their rule, both AL and BNP frequently relied on respective political rhetoric from previous eras but in effect both remained quite close to the centre-ground of politics.

Nevertheless, electoral politics in the absence of stable democratic institutions created new avenues for politicising religious minorities as a so-called “vote bank” of AL. Especially, Hindu minorities routinely came under violent attacks by BNP’s local activists after each general election irrespective of the party’s victory or defeat in those elections. It is also the case that on many occasions AL activists, despite the party’s pro-minority rhetoric, vandalised Hindu religious sites and attacked families often in order to grab their land.

Numerous other mob attacks on religious minorities and their religious sites have also been taken place on the accusation of “insulting Islam” by individual members of the minority community. As recently as October 2021, Hindu temples have been vandalised in a coordinated attack in six districts amid Durga puja, one of the most important religious festivals of the Hindu community. These protracted attacks have created an environment of fear and intimidation for the minorities, many of whom have migrated to India.

During BNP’s second term in power (2001-2006), this time as a coalition government involving Jamaat-e-Islami (the party that actively opposed the independence of Bangladesh and its senior leadership committed war crimes in 1971), the country saw an unprecedented rise in religious fundamentalism and terrorism, and with that attacks on religious minorities. While the Hindu community has been the traditional victims of most atrocities directed against minorities since the creation of Pakistan, this period also recorded vile attacks, including bomb attacks, on Christian, Buddhist, and Ahmadiya communities.

When the AL-led coalition returned to power in 2008 with a large mandate, it took up the task of restoring the 1972 Constitution. Accordingly, the 15th Amendment of 2011 restored “secularism” in the Preamble and also introduced an alternative translation to the Arabic words “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim”, i.e. “In the name of the Creator, the Merciful”, to appease religious minorities but not to antagonise Islamist religious groups by removing it altogether.

Similarly, instead of omitting the constitutional recognition of Islam as the state religion, Article 2A was amended to impose an obligation on the state to ensure equal status of and the right to practice and profess other religions. Following the October 2021 attacks against the Hindu community and ensuing nationwide protest, the talk about removing the state-religion clause from the Constitution is back in the air. The desired constitutional amendment is unlikely to ameliorate the situation of the impoverished sections of the religious minorities, who are the primary target of vicious communal attacks, unless broader issues of the political economy of violence are sincerely addressed. However, the change will surely ensure some normative consistency within the Constitution and offer the country an opportunity to reflect on the national “self” image.

This juxtaposition of secularism and state religion in the Constitution, as it stands now, reflects the protracted tension between liberal universalist values and majoritarian ethno-religious politics, which postcolonial states often have to grapple with. Electoral politics and the rise of demagogues, of course, created new challenges for the political accommodation of ethno-religious differences within the statecraft. It is also the case that military rulers of the past epochs too relied on religious dogma in their quest for a popular support base. In this sense, the problem remains mainly with the failure of creating a more tolerant and accommodative national political culture going beyond conventional and politically convenient identity markers. 

So far as indigenous peoples of the CHT are concerned, the historic CHT Peace Accord signed in 1997 brought an end to protracted armed conflict but the Accord has not yet been fully implemented. Various legislation allowing more autonomy to the CHT has also been legally challenged (currently pending before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court) on the grounds of equality and non-discrimination as enshrined in the Constitution. This epitomises how the liberal-individualistic language of human rights within the constitutional architecture can be counterproductive to better accommodation of group rights. The case also reminds us that a constitutional recognition of the special status of the CHT hill people could address the concerns emanating from the conflicting provisions on equality and non-discrimination. This bold move could have eventually helped the state itself to reimagine its own postcolonial identity beyond the template of post-World War Two liberal universalism.

The 15th  amendment to the Constitution offered the government an opportunity to make this happen, but unfortunately the government found it too much of a compromise on the Bengali national identity. To make things worse, the government took the official position that there was no “indigenous people” in Bangladesh and called upon the international community to refer to the hill peoples of the CHT as “ethnic minorities”. 

As the country became more integrated into the global economy during this era, CHT appeared to be more central to national economic development as an important source for natural resources. With relative peace in the region due to the Peace Accord, the tourism industry boomed at the cost of local environment. Exploitation of forest resources has always been an important source of corruption. It is also hardly surprising that the most devastating policy of settling hundreds of thousands of Bengalis from the rest of the country into the CHT — largely to change the demographic composition of the region and subvert separatist activities — was also initially justified by successive military regimes using the language of “development”.

According to the Bangladesh census of 2011, Bengalis constitute the majority in the hill district of Bandarban (56%), while they make up 48% and 40% of the total population in the hill districts of Khagrachari and Rangamati, respectively. Collectively, according to the 2011 census, Bengalis constitute 47% of the total population. Government-sponsored reports in the 1990s suggested that the CHT was geopolitically vital, with its forest and mineral resources and its 147 inhabitants per square mile — compared with 1,567 per square mile in the rest of the country — underscoring that the future of the CHT “should be viewed from a total national perspective”.

The experience of development in the CHT during this period exposes a developmental ideology, which legitimises and glosses over violence towards and marginalisation of already vulnerable minorities to safeguard majoritarian bourgeois interests, the latter being increasingly and more closely tied up with neoliberal modes of exploitation and accumulation at the global stage.

The story of minorities in Bangladesh is intrinsically connected to the story of nation-building itself. The search for the national “self” at various phases of history of this young nation led to various construction and reconstruction of the minority as the “other”. This “otherness” of the minority in turn reflected back on the self-image of the state as it continued to reconcile its nationalist politics with liberal ethos. In this sense, the question of minorities and their protection in Bangladesh cannot be isolated from the reimagination of the state itself in a more humane way. Each building block of the history of Bangladesh is a useful reminder in this regard.●

Mohammad Shahabuddin is Professor of International Law & Human Rights at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, UK. He is the author of Ethnicity and International Law: Histories, Politics and Practices (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Minorities and the Making of Postcolonial States in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2021), and the editor of Bangladesh and International Law (Routledge, 2021).