Partition's ghosts

Interview: Hindus in Bangladesh have faced ethnic cleansing since 1947

Bangladesh’s minorities are suffering because Indian leaders agreed to Partition, says war crimes prosecutor Rana Dasgupta.

Rana Dasgupta is a prosecutor in Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal, which is investigating and trying those accused of perpetrating atrocities, including provoking mass killings, during the country’s liberation movement of 1971. He is also general secretary of the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council, a human rights movement that seeks to unite minorities in that country.

Revisiting the Partition of 1947 during an interview with, Dasgupta said its legacy has been extremely bitter for Bengali Hindus, who have been subjected to ethnic cleansing in three distinct phases over the last 70 years. The divide caused by Partition still persists in Bangladesh, according to Dasgupta, whose analysis should be a lesson to India on the perils of promoting religion-based nationalism.

Rana Dasgupta says Bengali Hindus in Bangladesh faced persecution first during Partition, then during the rule of the Pakistan government, and then again after the killing of the country's first president and freedom fighter Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975.
Rana Dasgupta says Bengali Hindus in Bangladesh faced persecution first during Partition, then during the rule of the Pakistan government, and then again after the killing of the country's first president and freedom fighter Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975.

You were born in Chittagong in 1949, two years after Partition. Why did your parents decide to stay back in what was then East Pakistan and is Bangladesh today?
My grandfather’s sister, Pritilata Waddedar Dasgupta, was a member of the revolutionary group headed by the legendary Surya Sen. This was the group that was involved in the Chittagong armoury raid of 1930 (when the revolutionaries tried to capture the city’s two main armouries in a bid to achieve independence from the British). In 1932, Pritilata led a team that attacked the Pahartali European Club in Chittagong. For three days, Chittagong was cut off from British India. She died in the attack. (It is said she was trapped by the British and consumed cyanide).

Given the family’s patriotic gene, my father and mother stayed behind in East Pakistan because of their love for the motherland. But most of our relatives left East Pakistan for India over the years because of religious persecution and discrimination.

What memories do you have of Partition, the consequences of which continued to unfold for years?
After the Cabinet Mission report of 1946 (dealing with the transfer of power from British to Indian leadership) said the demand for Pakistan was impractical, the Great Calcutta Killings began following the Muslim League’s call for Direct Action on August 16, 1946. The rioting then spread to Noakhali and Chittagong. The younger brother of Pradhir Dasgupta, a homeopathy doctor, and Ranadhir Dasgupta, a leading revolutionary, was murdered. In fact, Ranadhir Dasgupta left East Pakistan. Another revolutionary, Lalmohon Sen, was murdered in Chittagong. Houses, temples and business establishments of Hindus were targeted and there were hundreds of murders.

Mahatma Gandhi visited Noakhali and his presence did help restore normalcy. Is he still remembered for his courageous act in Noakhali and Chittagong?
No, they do not remember his role in the region. Not even the Hindus. This is because the history of that time has not been taught to the nation as a whole. Gandhi’s role in Noakhali is a piece of forgotten history, but he is admired by all in Bangladesh.

What did the creation of Pakistan mean for Bengali Hindus who were living in what was called East Pakistan?
The Bengali Hindus had fought for a united India, not for Pakistan. The creation of Pakistan in 1947 was a psychological defeat for them. After Pakistan’s birth, its leaders carried out ethnic cleansing that began in 1947 and continued till 1971, the year Bangladesh was born.

You studied in Chittagong. So if the ethnic cleansing lasted so long, you must have witnessed it.
The Pakistan government adopted the Enemy Property Act and ousted the minorities from their hearth and home. These properties were handed over to Muslims. Communalism was its weapon of politics. What happened in Pakistan were not riots, which imply two parties fighting each other. In East Pakistan, there was only one party – the government-backed forces – that looted, killed and ousted people. They did this to turn Pakistan into an Islamic country. Their other objective was to reduce the number of Bengali Hindus in East Pakistan.

In 1947, as far as population statistics go, the minorities were 29.7% of the population. In 1971, their numbers came down to 20%. In this sense, Partition politics persisted for many years after 1947. It was not so elsewhere in the subcontinent.

What was your experience of the ethnic cleansing?
I was born in 1949. I am told my grandmother saved me from the rioters. She hid in various areas with me.

As I told you earlier, the cleansing of minorities was a government policy. The Pakistan government confiscated the properties of Bengali Hindus, who were attacked, particularly in rural areas. They were not allowed to enter government services. They were treated as if they were agents of India. When Bangladesh was Pakistan, Hindus were not allowed to preach, propagate and practise their religion freely.

Did your family encounter any of this?
My father was arrested during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. He then worked for a company that exported tea. He was arrested because he was Hindu and suspected to be India’s agent. I was a student of Chittagong Government College then.

How did classmates behave and interact with you?
My schoolmates were of two types. One type hated us as they thought we were agents of India. The other did not believe in communal politics, they were progressives.

Did you have Muslim friends?
I had many Muslim friends; in fact, most of my friends were Muslim. These were students who were involved in Left politics or supported Bengali linguistic nationalism. So we had one group that believed in the two-nation theory and religious nationalism. The other group, which was emerging and becoming stronger with every passing day, subscribed to linguistic nationalism and was opposed to Pakistan.

So within a few years of Pakistan being formed, Bengali linguistic nationalism….
In 1948, Pakistan declared Urdu the state language. It triggered unrest and sparked the language movement of February 21, 1952. Its proponents wanted Bangla to be the state language. On February 21, some protestors were killed by Pakistani troops. This gave a fillip to Bengali nationalism, which was directed against Pakistani Field Marshal and President Ayub Khan.

In 1962, a movement against Ayub Khan was launched to protest the Sharif education report that imposed Urdu on the country and was perceived to be anti-poor. Then on December 27, 1963, the Prophet hair, preserved at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, was reported missing. The Pakistani government took advantage of the incident and used it as a pretext to crush the minorities. Hundreds were killed.

How did Bengali Hindus face the Pakistani government’s onslaught?
Muslims who were in Left politics or aligned with Bengali nationalism stood up for us. They stood between us and the attackers. Many Muslims provided refuge and shelter to Hindus, protecting them from the Pakistani police and rioters. Most of the assailants were non-Bengali; they had come from India, particularly from Bihar. The Pakistani government used the Bihari Muslims against the Hindus. But Bengali Muslims aligned with the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, which believed in communal politics, targeted the Hindus.

Would it be right to say that in Bangladesh, Partition, the two-nation theory and the ensuing violence have continued?
True. Though Bangladesh emerged as a secular nation-state in 1971, after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the country’s first president) in August 1975, the Constitution was changed. The word secularism was deleted. In its place were inserted the Quranic words “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful”. This was done through presidential proclamation No 1 of 1977 by the military dictator General Ziaur Rahman. Subsequently, in May 1988, by amending article 25 of the 1972 Constitution, Bangladesh was made an Islamic country.

Thereafter, the rulers of Bangladesh, once again, undertook ethnic cleansing.

So Bengali Hindus have encountered ethnic cleansing in three phases – once during Partition, then in the 1950s and 1960s when there was a Pakistani government, and for the third time following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Yes. Hindus in Bangladesh have faced ethnic cleansing since 1947. Though the word secularism was re-inserted in the Constitution under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, yet the Quranic phrase – “In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most gracious” – and Islam as state religion remain. The Constitution, therefore, is contradictory. Under military rule, the ethnic cleansing policy of the Pakistani government continued.

Does it still continue?
Yes. The minorities were 20% of the population in 1970, down from 29.7% in 1947, and they are now just 10%, of which Hindus are between 8% and 9%.

So where have the Hindus disappeared?
They have mostly gone to India. This is particularly true of the Bangladesh-India border areas. The partition of British India has failed – it has not checked the growth and spread of communalism. Bangladesh’s minorities are suffering because Indian leaders agreed to Partition, because they pursued wrong policies in 1947.

While it is true that secularism gained ground in Bangladesh and its proponents were the leaders of the Bangladesh liberation movement, yet this policy was reversed following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman. Bangladesh became a mini-Pakistan.

Today, violent extremist groups, inspired by the Taliban and al Qaeda, have become stronger. The Sheikh Hasina government stands for secularism and is undoubtedly trying to strengthen it, but communal forces are preventing her from turning Bangladesh into a completely secular country again.

For instance, Bengali Muslims made up just 1% to 2% of the population in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the rest were aboriginal people. But today, the aboriginal population there is just 49%. They were forced to leave – for instance, the Bengali Chakmas. Their place has been taken by Muslim refugees from Myanmar.

What is life like for people like you who are educated and professionals?
According to our population statistical bureau, the educational attainment levels of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians are as good as Muslims, if not better.

So where do educated Hindus end up?
Over the last seven years or so, government services have been opened up to Hindus. This has happened mostly because of Sheikh Hasina. But there is still discrimination. The representation of religious minorities in Parliament is still far below their population, which in itself has reduced dramatically over the last 70 years.

Nevertheless, for the first time, Bangladesh has a non-Muslim chief justice, Surendra Kumar Sinha. We also now have a handful of government secretaries.

What about the Army?
Induction in the Army has been stepped up, but it is still low.

Why were you chosen as one of the prosecutors in the International Crimes Tribunal, which is investigating and awarding punishment to those convicted of war crimes committed during the Bangladesh liberation war?
I am a lawyer and the government thought I would make a good prosecutor. Also, as you know, I am general secretary of the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council (Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Okiya Parishad). Its president, by the way, is Major General (retired) CR Dutta, who was one of 11 sector commanders during the liberation war.

Since many Hindu Bengalis were persecuted and killed in Bangladesh’s war before 1971, do you think your appointment was aimed at sending a positive signal to religious minorities and healing old wounds?
Yes, very true.

Has punishment given to war criminals helped bridge the divide between Hindus and Muslims?
If the trial continues and the perpetrators of war crimes are punished, then the country’s politics will change. It will strengthen the politics of secularism, which has been undermined by religious fundamentalists since 1975. In Bangladesh, there are anti-1971 (liberation) forces and pro-1971 (liberation) forces. The latter include Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. They represent the secular idea in Bangladesh. The anti-1971 forces comprise Islamists who draw their inspiration from organisations such as the al Qaeda and Taliban.

Did you ever think of leaving Bangladesh?
The insecurity among Hindu Bangladeshis is high. If this insecurity grows, Bangladesh will not have any minorities left, say, in the next two decades.

But have you ever thought of leaving Bangladesh?
No, no, no. I have been imprisoned thrice. I was jailed for a few days in 1962. I was a student then and arrested for participating in the agitation against Ayub Khan. Then in 1968, I was arrested from my house and jailed for several months. I was expelled from my college. I participated in the liberation movement of 1970. In 1977, the police raided my house to arrest me. This was because I was involved in the movement against Army rule. However, I was in a hideout.

Under the Khaleda Zia regime, between 2001 and 2006, two cases were filed against me – one under the anti-terror Act and the other for anti-state activities. I am a freedom fighter. How can I even think of leaving Bangladesh?

Over the last three years, there have been attacks on Muslims in India. What implications do these attacks have for Bangladeshi Hindus?
We are against all types of fundamentalism, extremism and obscurantism. Secularism is and has to be the basis of democracy. In India, however, democracy is rooted deep and there is rule of law. In Bangladesh, democracy has not yet acquired deep roots, nor has the rule of law been institutionalised. But attacks on Muslims in India are used as tools by fundamentalist forces.

Have Bangladeshis forgotten icons such as the poet Rabindranath Tagore and actor Suchitra Sen, who grew up in East Pakistan?
They are remembered and celebrated. So is the actor Uttam Kumar. You must remember that pro-liberation forces are secular. Tagore, Suchitra Sen, Uttam Kumar, Amartya Sen, even former President Pranab Mukherjee’s wife Suvra Mukherjee, who too came from here – people take pride in their achievements.

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