Indian Catholic News

Violence feared as Bangladesh election looms

More candidates from outside the Muslim majority are expected to help advance reforms.

 
Posters of national election candidates hang from wires as a rickshaw passes through an alley in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Dec. 12. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Dhaka: 

While a rise in the number of ethnic minority candidates running in the upcoming Bangladesh national election has been warmly welcomed, there are also fears of poll-related violence.

The low-lying South Asian nation's Election Commission has announced that 26 candidates from religious and ethnic minority groups are set to seek election to parliament on Dec. 30.

Elections for 300 constituencies are held every five years, with 50 seats reserved for women.

The Grand Alliance, led by the ruling Awami League, has nominated 18 candidates from minority communities and the Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front), an opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has fielded seven minority candidates.

An ethnic Santal tribal leader has registered to run independently.

The candidates include Hindus and Buddhists as well as one Christian and five members of minority indigenous communities.

The current parliament has 16 members from minority groups.

About 90 percent of Bangladesh's more than 160 million people are Muslims, 8 percent are Hindus and the rest belong to other faiths including Buddhism and Christianity.

Apart from majority ethnic Bengalis, about three million people hail from more than 45 indigenous groups.

Rana Dasgupta, secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, noted that longstanding demands for a quota of seats to be reserved seats for minorities had fallen on deaf ears.

However, Dasgupta, a Supreme Court lawyer, welcomed the increased number of minority candidates for the forthcoming election and called on political parties to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected.



Not enough

Dasgupta stressed that just fielding candidates from minorities would not suffice. Rather, there needed to be a practical action plan to advance their welfare.

"We have been crying out for years so that political parties pledge to end direct and indirect abuse of minorities including politically motivated violence, land and property grabbing and discrimination," he said.

"We want to see those pledges included in their electoral manifestos."

Demands include introduction of a special minorities' protection law and a separate ministry to advance their interests as well as a special tribunal and a land commission to deal with land disputes impacting on them.

In a recent speech, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League said she would consider creation of a minority ministry if her party secures re-election on Dec. 30.

Nirmol Rozario, president of Bangladesh Christian Association, says this year's election has triggered unprecedented political activism among Christians. But he noted that only one Christian would be contesting even though more had sought to be nominated by political parties.

"We demanded at least five candidates from the Christian community, but it was unmet," Rozario, a Catholic, told ucanews.com. "Political parties could be more generous to Christians."

However, Rozario said he accepted that there had to date been a lack of preparation among Christians seeking party nomination amid reluctance to engage in politics.

In order to secure nominations and increase their chances of winning, Christians needed to plan far ahead so that parties would see them as attractive candidates, he added.

Jewel Areng, an ethnic Garo and a Catholic, is the only Christian election candidate after having been endorsed by the ruling Awami League.

Areng is the son of Promod Mankin, a veteran Awami League parliamentarian and a former government minister who died in 2016. He won a by-election on an Awami League ticket for the seat that became vacant because of Mankin's death.

"Fielding more candidates from minority groups gives us hope," Rozario said, adding that political parties still needed to be genuinely interested in supporting the introduction of a special ministry and mechanisms for handling land disputes.

Ashoke Barua, president of Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, is skeptical about what will be achieved from having an increased number of candidates from minority groups.

"There have always been more or less lawmakers from minority communities, but we have not seen they do much for rights and protection of minorities except maintaining their party lines," Barua told ucanews.com.

"So, there are doubts if anything would change for minorities even if we see more parliamentarians from minority groups."



Election and violence against minorities

The Awami League, the country's oldest and largest political party, holds itself to be politically center-left and secular.

The party enjoys broad support of minority communities during local and national elections. Thus, minorities draw ire from supporters of the center-right BNP and its Islamist allies, notably Jamaat-e-Islami, which is the largest Islamist political party.

Before and after elections of 1996, 2001, 2008 and 2014, minority communities, especially Hindus, faced violence from BNP-Jamaat supporters for lining up to vote for the Awami League.

In recent years, the Awami League has been wooing radical Islamists to win over conservative rural Muslim electorates, causing consternation among secularists and minorities.

Minority groups have also accused the party of turning a blind eye to violence against minorities by Islamic radicals as well as party supporters.

This year, law enforcers had been more active in seeking to thwart violence against minorities in the lead-up to the Dec. 30 election.

"But there was still apprehension because of a lack of prosecution of people acting violently against minorities," Dasgupta said.

He called on minority communities to refrain from voting for political parties that failed to promise an end to such abuses as well as the fulfilling of wider demands aimed at improving the lot of minority communities.

Source: UCAN

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