Dhaka was quiet at Christmas—as Bangladeshis fear traveling because of election-related violence. (photo by
Stephan Uttom Rozario (text and photo)
If it had been any other year, Suman Mondal should have arrived in Dhaka by now, all refreshed and happy from a holiday spent in his hometown. Like most Christian Bangladeshis, Mondal had usually spent Christmas and New Year with family — preferably with as many relatives and friends as possible. But with an election set too close to the holidays, Mondal thought it wise not to leave Dhaka this time around and just stay put.
Bangladesh is set to have its general elections on Jan. 7. “As the elections are coming up, I didn’t think it was safe to go back to my village with my wife and children,” Mondal tells Asia Democracy Chronicles (ADC). “Looking at the past, it can be seen that before and after the elections, various kinds of atrocities were committed on the religious minorities like Hindus and Christians. Some houses were burnt, people were beaten, even to death.”
Yet while he believes he did right and kept his family safe, Mondal is still quite upset. “I have been deprived of the joy of going to our home in the village, playing Christmas songs, decorating the house or giving gifts to relatives, and going to church,” he says.
Bangladesh is a secular state, but is predominantly Muslim. Among its religious minorities, Hindus have the largest number and make up nearly 8 percent of the country’s estimated 169 million population. For years now, they have inevitably come under attack whenever election time nears in the South Asian country. Yet other minorities have become targets as well, among them the country’s 600,000 or so Christians.
Indeed, the wariness among Christians — more than half of whom are Roman Catholics and the rest Protestants — during the holidays was evident not only in the reluctance of many like Mondal to go back to their hometowns. Fairs and various cultural programs usually held during Christmastime were absent as well in many areas.
In Khulna Division in the country’s southwest, the Shimulia Catholic Church still had its Christmas fair, but it was on a distinctly lesser scale. It also decided not to hold its annual cultural program due to security reasons.
“The political situation is bad,” says Shimanto Samadar, a Roman Catholic resident of Shimulia in Khulna’s Jessore district. “We who are religious minorities are unfairly persecuted in the upcoming election. So we did not organize the cultural program this time for our safety.”
“Normally,” continues the 28-year-old father of two, “our Christmas Eve is supposed to end around midnight because Jesus was born in the early hour on Dec. 25. But considering the security of the upcoming election, this time on Dec. 24, the night mass started at 8 p.m. and ended at 9 p.m. Christmas carols were not sung at night either.”
He tells ADC, “We could not celebrate the joy of Christmas, the religious events, or the traditional events this year.”
Archbishop Bejay N.D Cruze, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh, says, “We have seen incidents of attacks on minorities before and after national elections and local elections at various times. As there was a fear that Christmas was ahead of the national elections, Christmas celebrations were somewhat curtailed in some places.”
Election pawns and victims
The non-profit Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) has repeatedly expressed concern about the security of the country’s minority communities every time there are elections. This time is no different, with the Council’s general secretary, Rana Dasgupta, saying there are certain groups that want to create an unstable situation by targeting minorities before the elections. He adds that these groups have but a single goal: to make the country minority-free.
In an interview last year with the Bangladeshi publication Prothom Alo, Dasgupta noted that “certain political parties consider the minorities as sacred deposit while certain political parties deem them dangerous.
“Some people consider us as their vote bank,” he added. “Those who think (about) what the minorities will do other than vote for them also attack minorities after conceding defeat, and many such incidents happened. We do not want to be this pawn in politics. Minorities being (held) hostage in every election must end.”
To be sure even outside of the election period, Christians and other religious minorities in Bangladesh have found themselves under attack. According to a recent report by the human rights organization Law and Arbitration Center, there have been more than 3,500 attacks on religious minorities since 2013, and especially on Hindus.
Some of the violent attacks on Christian targets include the 2001 bombing of a Roman Catholic church in Gopalganj district in south Bangladesh, killing 10 people and injuring 50; the 2016 violent attacks on ethnic Santal Christians by a Muslim mob over a land dispute in the northern Gaibandha district that left three dead and thousands evicted; and the hacking to death allegedly by Islamic extremists of Catholic grocer Sunil Gomes in Natore district, also in 2016.
Yet while many of the instigators in these attacks were Muslim, there have also been those who belonged to other faiths. In 2021, for example, a small Baptist church in a remote hill village in Chittagong Division in the southeast was attacked allegedly by Buddhist mobs.
Safe for whom?
Some observers say that these attacks have gone on and will continue because authorities seem to have little interest in running after the perpetrators. The cases of the 2001 church bombing and the 2016 murder of Gomes, for instance, remain unresolved. More recently, a Christian victim of an assault was even the one who landed behind bars instead of his assailants.
Several weeks ago, a family of Christian converts, among them a four-year-old child, were beaten up by their Muslim neighbors in a remote part of northern Bangladesh. According to the U.K-based Christian charity Open Doors, the young father reported the incident to the police, but his family’s assailants accused him of anti-government activities and slandering the Prophet Muhammad. It was the young man who the police arrested later. He was still in jail as of Dec. 4, 2023, reported Open Doors, an international non-denominational religious group supporting persecuted Christians.
These days, Christians and other religious minorities fear that the elections may see politicians pandering to the majority in an effort to snag as many votes as possible, thereby putting them at risk of more attacks. That Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal declared celebrations to welcome 2024 be kept indoors has only made members of minority communities even more worried and insecure.
“After 6 p.m. on Dec. 31, there is no opportunity to hold any event in open spaces across the country including Dhaka City,” the minister told ADC before New Year’s Eve, citing security concerns. “We will not allow any assembly. Those who will perform (ceremonies) can do it indoors or in a hotel.”
Earlier, Kamal had also requested the public to refrain from using loud whistles, lighting firecrackers, or flying lanterns to celebrate New Year. Police check posts were even supposed to be set up to prevent people from doing these. Not surprisingly, the ban created a negative reaction in the public mind, especially among the youth.
“It is very sad that other events, especially New Year celebrations, will be closed because of the elections,” University student Sudipta Das told ADC.
But the 19-year-old also had this to say: “I think stopping events on the grounds of security is not a solution. Rather it is logical to allow events to take place by increasing the security. If the program has to be closed due to security reasons, what then is the government providing citizens to ensure that they are safe?
Stephan Uttom Rozario is a journalist and photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, covering human rights, minorities, the environment, and other contemporary issues. He also covers stories related to the Catholic Church. Stephan wrote this for Asia Democracy Chronicles.