The first month of 2014 was a tough one for Hindus in Bangladesh. Violence raged in over two dozen separate Hindu villages across the country, ending in the murder of two men, the rape of at least five women, and the destruction of many homes, temples and businesses. Typically, the attacks involve assailants from outside the villages. They continue a pattern that injured 188 Hindus in 2013.
In this South Asian nation of 153 million, Hindus make up a scant 8.5% of the population. As a minority, they are often singled out for abuse. “It has almost become a norm to attack the Hindus in Bangladesh after the general elections every five years,” Adhir Pal, an elderly Hindu, told national media outlet bdnews24.com. When I visited his village, Malopara, this January, every neighbor I interviewed seemed to think that violent intrusions are a frequent experienced for Hindus in Bangladesh.
It’s easy to conclude that the repeated attacks on Hindus are coming from Muslims, since this group constitutes 89% of all Bangladeshis. But does the religious definition of these groups mean the attacks are motivated by religious differences, or could they be the result of one or more other factors?
As Adhir Pal points out, some violence is linked to national politics. Residents say the attacks in Malopara in January came from local people aligned with Bangladesh’s opposition parties, which includes the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamic fundamentalist ally Jamaat-e-Islami. The attackers, some of whom carried guns, told villagers not to vote for the incumbent Awami League. The Hindu community said their aggressors had correctly identified their allegiance to the ruling party, but since they regard attacks as nearly inevitable, residents say they voted for Awami League anyway. (The party won the January 5 election while the opposition boycotted it and lost parliamentary seats.)
As a slim minority of Bangladesh’s voters, of course, Hindus could not elect any party alone. But while the conflation of politics and religion accounts for some attacks, it doesn’t explain others.
Reports of some altercations describe long-simmering personal resentments coming to a head at minor conflicts over sports matches, wedding plans and the like. But in most attacks, causes are impersonal. In Dinajpur, a district near Bangladesh’s northern border, residents said their attackers were landless peasants who had migrated from India years before and that the attacks were an attempt to scare them into fleeing, leaving their farmland up for grabs. In a country where climate change looms, conflicts over land are not capricious or surprising.
The pressure to grab arable land recalls the preludes to Rwandan genocide of 1994, which was motivated in part by overpopulation. The two conflicts share many underlying factors, most of which are traceable to power shifts after colonialism’s end. What they don’t share, however, is a religious basis. (In Rwanda, the Hutu ethnic majority slaughtered the Tutsi minority, and the Christianity common to both groups wasn’t the issue.)
With all that said, religious differences probably did influence some of the two dozen Bangladeshi villages that saw violence last month. In some localities, Hindu temples and their idols became the focal point of vandalism. The group most commonly fingered as perpetrators for attacks was Jamaat-e-Islami. The Islamist group has been increasingly pushed to the outskirts of Bangladeshi electoral politics, but remains popular—and angry—nationwide.
Ultimately, the multiple causes of anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh point to the complexity of identifying religious motivations for conflict. But they also suggest that conflicts that appear religious may be solved through multiple means—which means the irreducible philosophical differences between faiths need not be a block to peace.
In January, over three dozen organizations held rallies demanding justice and protection for Hindus. Eventually, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister, and even the opposition party leaders joined in. Although the attacks have not yet fully abated, the majority of the country seems to want peace.
First published in the Religion Dispatches, University of South California, USA, February 13, 2014