• The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy with a legal system based on English common law and Islamic law. The country shares an ancient Bengali culture and language with India’s West Bengal state that dates back thousands of years.
• Muslims currently comprise 89.5% of the population, Hindus 9.6%, and others (Buddhists and Christians) 0.9%. Hindus constituted nearly 30% of the population in Bangladesh (formerly the East Bengal province of Pakistan) in 1947, when the Indian-subcontinent was partitioned.
• East Bengal province (renamed East Pakistan in 1956) achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971, when it seceded from the Pakistani state, following years of political and cultural repression.
• During the 1971 War of Independence, the Pakistani military conducted a genocidal campaign of violence against ethnic East Bengali civilians and approximately 2 million East Bengalis were killed and 10 million forced to flee to India (mostly Hindus).
• Despite declaring itself a secular, democratic republic in 1971, Bangladesh has witnessed the rapid expansion of Islam in public life and politics, particularly after the election of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies in 2001.
• During election violence in 2001, there were more than 10,000 reported cases of attacks on minorities (mostly Hindus) and more than 500,000 Hindus sought refuge in India.ii
• Although the election of the Awami League led government in 2008 has resulted in a reduction in the number of attacks against Hindus, minorities continue to face institutional and legal discrimination and acts of violence, including rapes, forced conversions, temple attacks, abductions, and land encroachments.
• The U.S. has a number of strategic foreign policy interests in Bangladesh, including counter-terrorism and regional security, economic and trade relations, and promoting democracy and religious freedom.
II. Religious Discrimination and the Legal System
Constitutional Provisions Promoting Islam
• Article 2 proclaims Islam as the official state religion.
• Article 8(1A) states that the fundamental principles of state policy and all actions are rooted in, among other things, faith in Almighty Allah. Section 2 further provides that the principles rooted in Almighty Allah should be “fundamental to the governance of Bangladesh, shall be applied by the State in the making of laws, shall be a guide to the interpretation of the Constitution and of the other laws of Bangladesh, and shall form the basis of the work of the State and of its citizens…”
• Article 25(15) states, “The State shall endeavor to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity.”
The Judicial System and Islamic Law
• The legal system and courts in Bangladesh apply Islamic law to Muslims in cases involving family and personal law.
• The judicial system’s reach is limited in many parts of the country, especially rural areas, where Sharia law injunctions and fatwas (Islamic rulings by religious leaders) are enforced in a wide range of matters through traditional dispute resolution methods. The types of punishments imposed have included whipping; lashing; publicly humiliating women and girls by forcibly cutting their hair or blackening their faces; ostracizing women, girls, and families; and imposing fines.
• In July 2010, a High Court order banned the enforcement of fatwas and Sharia based extrajudicial punishments, but the government has failed to take any credible steps to stop them.
Discriminatory Property Laws
• Initially instituted by the Government of Pakistan in 1965, the Enemy Property Act (EPA) officially sanctioned the mass appropriation of Hindu owned land by designating Hindus in East Pakistan as “enemies of the state.” Following Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Government of Bangladesh continued the inequitable provisions of the EPA through the Vested Property Act (VPA).
• The Government of Bangladesh abolished the VPA in 2001 and passed the Restoration of Vested Property Act to purportedly return previously confiscated properties. The new legislation, however, retained much of the same discriminatory language of the VPA and created several burdensome legal requirements, inhibiting the ability of Hindus to recover their properties.
III. Status of Human Rights
Religious Freedom and Violence Against Minorities
• Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh face widespread persecution and religiously motivated violence. Government and police authorities have done little to protect minorities and are often complicit in acts of violence.
• According to local human rights groups, there were more than 2,023 recorded incidents of violence against Hindus between 2004 and 2010 (based on partial data).
• Temples, festivals, and religious sites are frequently targeted by Muslim extremists and at least 232 Hindu temples have been attacked since 2004 (based on partial data).
• Violence against minority women is used as a weapon of subjugation and Hindu women and young girls frequently face systematic kidnappings, rapes, and forced conversions. For example, there were more than 145 incidents of rape of Hindu women/girls between 2004 and 2010 (based on partial data).x For instance, on March 2010, a 16 year old Hindu girl from Patuakhali District was abducted and gang-raped by at least eight men from the Muslim Jubo Dal (a Muslim youth political organization), brutally attacked, and then robbed of her belongings.
• Hindus and other minorities are politically marginalized and underrepresented in government positions. For example, despite comprising 9.6% of the population, there are only ten Hindu representatives out of 300 in the national Parliament (3.6%).
• The EPA/VPA has resulted in the widespread economic disenfranchisement of the Hindu community and deprived 1.2 million Hindu families (44% of Hindu households) of their land and properties in the territory constituting Bangladesh. Moreover, Hindus have been collectively robbed of 2.2 million acres of land.xiiiAnd after the VPA was abolished in 2001, nearly 200,000 Hindu families have been dispossessed of approximately 122,000 bighas of land (or the equivalent of 195,200,000 square yards).
• Security forces, including the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) Force, have frequently been accused of committing human rights abuses against Bangladeshi citizens, including civilians, journalists, and human rights activists. According to Odhikar, a local human rights group, the RAB has been responsible for approximately 127 extra-judicial killings since its creation in 2004.
• In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of madrassas (Islamic schools) in Bangladesh and increased activity by radical Muslim organizations, including Jamaat-e-Islami
(JeI), an Islamist political party advocating the creation of a theocratic Islamic state.JeI has also been responsible for instigating attacks on non-Muslim minorities. JeI is a region wide organization with branches throughout South Asia and is closely aligned with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
• Islamic militant groups, such as Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Jama’atulMujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), have been responsible for several large-scale terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.
IV. U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives in Bangladesh
Terrorism and Regional Security
• The U.S. has an interest in ensuring that the Bangladeshi government cracks down on Islamic militant groups and radical political parties that carry out acts of terrorism or promote religious violence and extremism. Many of these groups, such as HuJI, enjoy ties with al-Qaeda and have been labeled a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State.xvii
• Preventing regional terrorist groups in South Asia, including Pakistan-based Laskhkar-e-Toiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), from using Bangladesh as an operating base to attack targets in India is vital to maintaining regional stability.
Trade and Investmentxviii
• The U.S. has significant economic interests in Bangladesh and totaled $4.1 billion in goods trade with the country in 2009.
• In 2008, there was $4.2 billion in total trade between the U.S. and Bangladesh and $443 million in U.S. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
Religious Freedom and Democracy
• Strengthening secular and democratic institutions in Bangladesh is critical to creating a stable and democratic Muslim majority country in South Asia.
• Promoting religious freedom and minority rights in Bangladesh is consistent with America’s commitment to human rights and prevents the growth of Islamic extremism in the region.
V. Policy Recommendations
• The Government of Bangladesh must repeal all inequitable provisions in the Restoration of Vested Property Act, 2001 and take concrete steps to return Hindu owned properties previously appropriated under the EPA/VPA.
• Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League must fulfill their election promise to return the country to secularism by removing Articles 2, 8, and 25 from the Constitution.
• The Bangladeshi government must create an independent body to investigate and effectively address all forms of violence and discrimination against minorities.
• The U.S. State Department, which has requested more than $266 million in appropriations for Bangladesh for the 2012 fiscal year, should be required to file an annual report with the House Foreign Affairs Committee or Senate Foreign Relations Committee providing an update on the status of religious freedom and minority rights in Bangladesh.