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She would choke repeatedly as she narrated her gruesome story, desperately trying to keep her pride intact. But soon she couldn't hold back her tears and broke down completely. And the audience present at the Dhaka Press Club on October 20 was palpably affected by 15-year-old Purnima Sheel's description of the gang-rape she was subjected to by those whom she called pro-government bullies.
Purnima was brought to Dhaka by a human rights group from Purba Delua, a remote village in northern Serajganj district, 12 days after she was brutally violated in her backyard. She looked terrified, as did her mother, Bashana Rani, who was sitting next to her at the press club. They still do not know what their fault was or why they were attacked. Some two dozen village toughs came to their house on October 8 and began ransacking the household. They then sighted Purnima, took her to the backyard and gang-raped her as her mother screamed vainly for help.
Purnima's story provides just a glimpse of what had been happening for over three weeks countrywide, ever since the centre-right alliance led by Begum Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (bnp) won a resounding victory over its arch rival, the Awami League of former prime minister Sheikh Hasina, in the October 1 election.
Post-election, as the bnp swept the polls, incidents of violence against the minority community proliferated across Bangladesh. Most observers say Hindus were targeted because of their traditional closeness to the vanquished Awami League. When local Awami stalwarts, fearing reprisals post-election, fled their areas, their political opponents, who had suffered during the Awami rule, quickly found the Hindus easy targets to vent their bottled-up anger on.
It's still unclear who sparked the violence against Hindus. But many feel it could have been the handiwork of criminals masquerading as ruling party supporters. They might have made use of the transition period before the installation of the new government on October 10 to create chaos.
Yet most observers agree that even they were not politically engineered, the new government's ambivalent response to initial reports of atrocities, and its propensity to dismiss the incidents as "fabricated and exaggerated, intended to malign the Khaleda government", has exacerbated the situation. "They should have promptly taken action against the perpetrators and brought them to justice," says senior columnist Nirmal Sen. "Had they done so, the situation would not have deteriorated so fast."
The government's lackadaisical response to the vicious targeting of Hindus only emboldened criminals in many areas. The situation came to such a pass that terrified Hindus, especially women, fled their villages. In one such incident, the entire population in Agoyljhara in southern Barisal fled to Gopalganj, the home district of Sheikh Hasina, for protection.
The attacks have considerably diminished in recent days but Hindus, who comprise about 12 per cent of the country's 130 million people, are still haunted by insecurity and helplessness. This was abundantly clear during last week's Durga Puja, the biggest religious festival of Bengali Hindus. Despite firm government commitment and encouragement to observe the festival with traditional fanfare and joy, the celebrations were largely unostentatious and subdued.
Hindu leaders across Bangladesh held a day-long fast on October 24, aimed at drawing attention to their plight. "We want to live here as respectable citizens just like any Muslim in the country," says Basudev Dhar, a journalist who participated in the fast. Liberal analysts agree that minorities, particularly Hindus, have never been treated fairly in independent Bangladesh. "Hindus here are not considered human beings; they are Hindus," says Muntasir Mamun, a professor of history at Dhaka University. "This is our biggest failure as a nation, which was created to ensure equal rights for every citizen, especially the minority," he adds.
"They've suffered during every regime, including that of the Awami League," points out Prof Serajul Islam Chowdhury, a respected columnist. He, however, hastens to add that the real purpose underlying these attacks is to terrorise Hindus into leaving the country and grabbing their property, just as it happened in the past, irrespective of the party in power.
This may be true but this cocktail of communal hatred and sheer mercenaryism also, simultaneously, underlines the precarious position of the minorities. This wasn't the Bangladesh the founding fathers had conceived and fought for.