Friday, September 18, 2009

All about Jews in Bangladesh

By: Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Amongst South Asian nations, Jewish population in India is above 15,401 while Jewish population in Bangladesh is 175 which is 0.00011 of the total population of the country. Number of Jews in Pakistan is 200, while there is no official record of any Jewish population in Sri Lanka.

Although the number of Jews in Bangladesh is shown to 175 in various information sites, including Wikipedia, according to Bangladeshi scholars, the real number of Jewish population in Bangladesh is above 3,500, while the Jews in Bangladesh are afraid of disclosing their religious identity fearing persecution of the anti-Semitic people.

According to information, fearing religious persecution, Jews in Bangladesh mostly identify themselves as ‘Jehova’s Witness’, while most of the Jews in the country are in textile related business as well as business in grocerries.

There is special congregassion of Bangladeshi Jews on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah. But, according to Bangladeshi scholar and Head of Dhaka University’s Public Administration Department, Professor Dr. Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, Pakistani government grabbed the only Jewish synagogue, which was located in Dhaka and the building is now being used as one of the offices of the government of Bangladesh.

Professor Dr. kalimullah demanded immediate returning of the Jewish synagogue to country’s Jewish population as well stop all forms of repression on Jews in Bangladesh.

There was another Jewish humanitarian group active in the then Pakistan with a huge office at Dhaka’s Purana Paltan area [near Central Post Office]. But, that organization was also forced to seize operations by the Pakistani government and that building has also been grabbed by the government, which presently houses one of the offices of the republic.

Persecution of Jews continue in Bangladesh because of spread of religious hatred, mostly by fanatic Muslim clergies, who term the Jews as ‘enemies of Islam’. They encourage elimination of Jewish population from the country. That is why, although there is Jewish population in Bangladesh, none of the official records will presently show about their existence in the country. Jews were prevented from declaring their religious identity both in the National Identity Card as well as Passports issue by Bangladeshi government.

Bangladeshi continues to hold state policy of demonizing Israel and the country maintains total ban on the Jewish state for decades. Travel by any Bangladeshi citizen to Israel is seen as an offense according to Bangladeshi law.

Meanwhile, persecution of religious minorities in Bangladesh has been harshly criticized in the world by a number of scholars, although the situation is yet to change.

Eminent Indian writer and journalist M J Akbar speaking as keynote speaker at a seminar titled 'Meaning of Minority Politics' organised by Bangladesh Enterprise Institute [BEI] in the city in December 2007, said he was saddened that Bangladesh's birth principle of 'language-centred nationhood' "was incapable of finding a polity." and said stay true to the country's founding principles.

"Out of all the countries in the Muslim world, Bangladesh had the greatest opportunity to build a modern Muslim country," he said, adding that the question of Biharis and the gradual assimilation of Jamaat-e Islami into national politics have to be addressed.

Otherwise the results will be felt long into the future, he added. Akbar disagreed with the dominant view that a minority is a group of people who are demographically outnumbered in a particular area, stressing that the category is based on perceptions. Outlining the history of Bengali Muslims to illustrate his point, he said they were affected the most as a 'minority' in the last century that have transformed their history, and in effect their lives.

In Bangladesh, there is no Committee for minorities in the country to identify the issues facing 20 million minorities. In Bangladesh, being a minority means being a victim of oppression, torture and discrimination.

My submission is that the word minority has its own connotation and definition. By 'minority' today we mean a disadvantaged group of citizens, who are not the privileged ones, at the top, but the under-privileged at the bottom. [Atlantes Magazine, 29th January 1975]. It was thought that the Liberation of Bangladesh marked the end of a chapter of communal politics, opening up newer possibilities for the Hindus and other ethnic minorities and they would be able to play a more effective role in the political process. Minorities had also thought that Bangladesh would put an end to discrimination against them, and their loyalty to the country would no longer be questioned. But in the present-day Bangladeshi the Hindu's loyalty to the state is very much questioned. On the other hand, Bangladeshi state policy considers Jews as ‘Enemies’, which is extremely sordid and unacceptable.

I strongly urge the Bangladeshi government to immediately return the Jewish synagogue to the country’s Jewish population as well allow the Jews in the country to live in peace by openly expressing their religious identity. And good news is, despite series of repressions and persecutions both by the government and religious fanatics, Jewish population in Bangladesh presently is increasing for past several years.

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