But, at the time, all parties including Awami League, BNP and the leftist parties opposed the state religion bill.

There was no visible opposition to the bill before it was placed in parliament. Only after the bill was passed they did stage a half-day hartal (strike). That too, according to the media, was a very lax hartal.

There was no visible opposition to the bill before it was placed in parliament. Only after the bill was passed they did stage a half-day hartal (strike). And, according to the media, it was a very lax hartal

When was the Bangladesh Hindu Christian Bouddha Oikya Parishad launched?

After the state religion bill was placed in parliament. There were no razakars or Al-Badr members among the minorities during the liberation struggle. They were indiscriminately victims of the Pakistan army’s genocide, mass rape and mass conversions. Ten million people fled to India as refugees, 90 per cent of whom were of the religious minority. Even after so much sacrifice, we were relegated as state minorities.

Some researchers say the number of members of the minority participating in the Liberation War was proportionately low. They took refuge in India and felt safe there.

Will those researchers be able to tell us in which Muslim villages the genocide took place during 1971? Muslims were killed, their homes were burnt down, they were raped, due to their political position. But Operation Searchlight specifically spoke to uprooting the Hindus, destroying them. The question is, is not the woman who was raped a freedom fighter? Is the person whose home was razed to the ground not a freedom fighter? Are not the victims of genocide freedom fighters?

Many also say that given the number of minority persons in the country, they are proportionately higher in number in jobs and service.

This is false propaganda aimed at driving the minority out of the country as in Pakistan times. Over the last decade, members of the minority have been appointed in the foreign ministry the administration, SSF, the army and the police. The discrimination that existed has been assuaged to an extent. But the minority has not got proportionate appointments and promotions.

Will the Bangladesh Hindu Christian Bouddha Oikya Parishad become a political party?

We do not use religion for politics. The council’s movement is not a religious one. We want our organisation to take the shape of a human rights movement. We have two persons as our ideals – America’s Martin Luther King and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Our main demand for Bangladesh to revert to the constitution of 1972. The ethnic minorities should be recognised as indigenous persons. If equality, human dignity and social justice is established, then there will be no need for this unity council.

There is another organisation that has emerged, the Jatiya Hindu Mahajote. Are they your rivals?

No, they are not our rivals. The main leader of this organisation presented a bouquet of flowers to Ghulam Azam when he was released from house arrest during Jahanara Iman’s movement. He even garlanded Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid when he was made minister. Basically they want to reestablish the two-nation theory. Therein lies their main conflict with us.

You all recently criticised a statement of the foreign minister. The Hindu Mahajote criticised your statement. What happened?

We criticised the foreign minister’s statement, he could have responded. But it was the jote that responded. Their motives should be unearthed.

In an earlier interview with Prothom Alo you had said that the politicians had betrayed the minorities. Do you still maintain that stand?

If politicians kept their word, Bangladesh would still be Bangladesh. Today’s Bangladesh is not Bangabandhu’ Bangladesh. Betrayal began immediately after independence. I used to place Oli Ahad on a pedestal. He did not join Awami League because of the Muslim prefix to its at the time. But after independence he issued a statement calling for Azad Bangla. The well-known leftist leader Abdul Huq wrote to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto asking for arms.

In an interview with Prothom Alo, the leftist writer and politician Badruddin Umar said that there is no communalism entrenched in Bangladesh. Whatever there is, is nothing by politics in the name of religion and a means to attack the homes of the minority.

Bangladesh has social, state, individual, constitutional and administrative communalism. The present constitution is the source of communalism here. The existence of a state religion acts as a source of communalism. That is why they have the courage to launch such attacks.

You all are active in your efforts to establish the rights of the minorities. So why do you not speak out when the government tries to silence the voice of the opposition, opposing views, the civil society and the media? You all do not protest.

We certainly protest. When Prothom Alo’s senior reporter Rozina Islam was arrested, we protested. We take to the streets and protest when people are threatened for their free thinking. The crisis of democracy here is the crisis of confidence in the political parties. Political parties can have differences among themselves, but they shouldn’t differ over fundamental matters of the state. Everyone should be in the same place when it comes to the issue of independence, the fundamental principles of the state and the question of running the state.

The prime minister recently said that incidents in India had repercussions over here too. What is your opinion?

There are slogans in India calling for Hinduism as the state religion. This trend of fundamentalists has been there in India for the past 10 years. It started here after 1975. Not just in India or Bangladesh, but in all the countries of the subcontinent if the political leaders can’t keep religion in its own place and lift the state above all, there will be humanitarian crisis in the offing.

There is a general allegation that you all are overly dependent on Awami League. But there are so many Hindu leaders within BNP.

We are not dependent on the leadership of any particular party. Our dependence is on the fundamental principles of Bangladesh. But when it comes time to vote, then our main concern is whether there will be a return of the Taliban. This concern is not just of the minorities, but of all free thinking and democratic people of the country.

Weren’t ruling party men involved in the recent spate of violence during the Durga Puja festivities?

Many leaders of Awami League and Jubo League were involved. The communal incidents that took place three days during Ershad’s rule, 27 days during BNP’s rule after the 1991 election, and during the five years of BNP-Jamaat rule in 2001-2006, were all state-sponsored. The Shahabuddin Commission report to stop communal repression was published in 2011, but the present government has not implemented it till date. So the question arises as to whether there is a tacit understanding among the political parties on the question of repression of the minorities.

Six former chiefs of the Indian armed forces protested against the hatred against Muslims in India being spread by Hindu organisations there. Can’t the Muslim hatred in India have fallout in Bangladesh?

I read their statements too. We oppose religious fanaticism and communalism no matter where it may be. Just as we want to see India as a secular country, we want to see Bangladesh like that too. Many want to see India, Britain and America as secular countries. But when it comes to the question of Bangladesh, they say that 90 per cent of the population here is Muslim and so there must be a state religion. That is why we demand a reverting to the 1972 constitution.

But the 1972 constitution does have recognition any ethnic population other than Bangalis. It states that all citizens of Bangladesh are Bangalis.

The fifth amendment recognises them as ethnic minorities. We said they should be recognised as indigenous people, but that was not done. This was done by people within the state who want to give rights to religious and ethnic minorities. Before becoming minister they hold rallies under the indigenous banner. Once they become ministers, they claim there are no indigenous communities in Bangladesh.

How many members of the religious minority got their property back after the Vested Property (Return) Act was passed?

According to our records, 162,000 cases were registered. Of these, around 32 to 35 per cent of the cases were settled. But only 7 to 10 per cent actually got their land back.

Did the marginalised and weak among the minorities get their property back or was there discrimination here too?

There definitely is discrimination. The weak are scared of filing cases. It is the same with the hill people in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The calculation is simple. If you can grab someone’s land, it is easy to chase them out of the country. That is why we demanded a law against discrimination. In 2015, the Oikya Parishad put forward a seven-point demand at a gathering in Suhrawardy Udyan. This included a demand for a ministry for minorities, a law to protect minority rights, a law against discrimination, and a minority commission. At the council’s conference on Friday and Saturday too we demanded that the government speedily implement the commitments it made during the 2018 election.

In recent years social media has been used to state attacks on the minorities and burn down their houses in various places. Who do you think are behind all this?

It began in 2011 in Ramu. A person’s Facebook account was used to made instigative remarks, leading to the homes and pagodas of Buddhists to be burnt down in Ramu. In the latest incidents, temples were attacked during Durga Puja in Cumilla. Homes were burned in Pirganj too. In Pirganj it was Awami League and Jubo League. In Choumuhani it was both government and opposition elements. In Salna, the local chairman and members were involved.

You all have alleged that many among the minority community leave the country because of discriminatory policies of the state under the various governments. Does that proclivity continue during the rule of the Awami League government?

Many people of the minority community had to leave the country since 1975. That proclivity has lessened. You go to the villages now and see members of the minority community are making two-storey and three-storey houses. They are doing business. They now have a determination to remain in the country. That is positive. Certain laws and administrative measures during the Awami League rule have given them reassurance.

The attacks on the minorities were not brought to justice during the BNP rule. Nor has anything been done during the Awami League rule. So what’s the difference between the two parties?

There is just one difference. Awami League talks of a non-communal spirit, of implementing the spirit of the Liberation War. BNP does not go anywhere near that. Let BNP declare that Jamaat is not with them.

You say that the politicians did not keep their word. Will they do so in the future?

It is very difficult to believe politicians now. They do not keep their word. But we still want to keep our trust in the present prime minister Sheikh Hasina. She still upholds the ideals of Bangabandhu and the spirit of the Liberation War. Yet again, it is also true that Awami League is gradually going towards becoming Awami Muslim League.

Thank you

Thank you too

* This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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