With general elections in Bangladesh only months away, top opposition leader and former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia is wooing the minority Hindu community offering sops to it if her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was voted to power.
Notwithstanding BNP's close ties with fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami, Begum Zia paid a visit to the famous Dhakeshwari temple in Dhaka on Wednesday evening -- her maiden visit to a Hindu shrine--and urged the Hindus to extend all-out support to BNP in the coming poll.
Hindus constitute 12 to 13 percent of Bangladesh's 130 million population.
Accusing prime minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, traditionally perceived sympathetic towards Hindus, of grabbing land of temples, cremation grounds and houses of Hindus, Begum Zia was quoted by newspapers as assuring the Hindu community that BNP would stand by them if they are attacked.
The occasion for Begum Zia's visit to Dhakeswari Mandir , the national temple of Hindus, was part of the observance of 20th death anniversary of her husband and Bangladesh's slain president Gen Zia-ur-Rahman. It was her first visit to a temple and this was the first time death anniversary of Zia was held at a mandir in the capital.
Ironically, Begum Zia, who had in 1996 parliamentary elections campaigned that Bangladesh would be part of India if Awami League was voted to power, was quoted as telling the Hindus on Wednesday evening that they "change their attitude once in favour of BNP".
Begum Zia, who had stated in the election campaigns of 1996 that Azan (call for Muslim prayer) would be replaced in Bangladesh by blowing of conchshells if Awami League came to power, was greeted to Dhakeshwari temple in the same traditional Hindu style.
It was during the prime ministership of Begum Zia that around 3000 temples in Bangladesh were damaged, many women raped and properties of Hindus destroyed following the demolition of Babri mosque in India in December 1992.
As a mark of protest, a section of Hindus in Bangladesh did not celebrate their biggest religious festival Durga Puja with traditional pomp and instead restricted it to a symbolic puja ignoring threats from the then ruling party BNP and its frontal outfits, both overtly and covertly.
Nonetheless, Begum Zia continued to accuse her political rivals saying "Hindu community members have been repressed most during the rule of Awami League. BNP is respectful to all religions. If any body attacks, we will protest. If they (Awami League) unleash attacks, inform us and we'll stand beside and protect you as brothers and friends".
Zia said if voted to power, the institutions of Hindus would be further developed and steps taken so that people of all faith, including Hindus, could practise their religion in proper way.
Hindus in Bangladesh had till the other day had a very poor representation in government jobs, especially at the higher echelon. Before Awami League came to power 1996, not a single minority had occupied the post of secretary, the top job in civil bureaucracy. At present, there are five Hindus among of 56 secretaries.
Besides three ministers, including one with cabinet rank, the Hasina government has appointed three minorities as chiefs of diplomatic missions out of about 50 resident missions Bangladesh maintains around the world.
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