In pursuit of its ‘Hindu-centric’ agenda, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is pushing and lobbying with the Awami League as well as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for earmarking a minimum of 30 and a maximum of 50 parliamentary seats where nominees belonging to the minority community could contest elections to the Jatiya Sangshad, scheduled to be held in December.
According to Awami League sources, a few rounds of deliberations between the party’s representatives, including some Hindu leaders, and RSS functionaries in Dhaka over the past two months or so have yielded “positive” results. The top leadership of the Awami League has agreed “in principle” to let Hindu nominees contest in 23 seats across districts where the population of the minority community is between 15-25 percent.
“We would, however, prefer this number to go up to 30 seats,” Awami League sources told the South Asian Monitor. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is keen to put up Hindu nominees, leaders of the minority community, following discussions with RSS functionaries in the Bangladesh capital, are overly “optimistic” that their demand to field a few more candidates would be met.
League sources revealed that Hasina will confabulate with representatives of the Hindu community soon after she returns from her visit to Nepal where heads of government of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries will assemble for the fourth summit meeting of BIMSTEC countries in Kathmandu, beginning August 30.
Speaking to South Asian Monitor on the condition of anonymity, a senior Bangladeshi political researcher said most of the Hindu Awami League MPs are “mired in allegations of corruption and they are not likely to be nominated as candidates this time” while others will not get the ticket because they “too old”. While the Awami League is “trying to spot fresh blood (among Hindus), it may be difficult for the party to pick winnable candidates”, leaving the decision-makers to finally select between “20-22” nominees.
That the RSS is playing a key, though not very publicised, role in propping Hindu politics in Bangladesh was revealed by the South Asian Monitor earlier this month when it reported (on August 3) that an important Sangh functionary close to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a “secret” two-day visit to Dhaka on July 24. The same report revealed that ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power in Delhi, the RSS has assiduously tried to “penetrate” the Hindu community in Bangladesh and has even been instrumental in launching a few outfits that covertly follow and espouse the Hindutva ideology.
It is now learned that the Indian prime minister’s close aide, who held a key office in Gujarat when Modi was the chief minister there, met a section of the Indian High Commission’s senior staff, besides a few top Bangladeshi Hindu leaders, to initiate preliminary discussions on the number of potential candidates from the minority community who could be fielded from certain parliamentary constituencies.
Four days before this RSS functionary’s visit to Dhaka, another Sanghoffice bearer from Assam, Professor Eeshankur Saikia, who heads the Physical Sciences department at the Gauhati University, visited Dhaka and met several Hindu Awami League leaders and cadres at the Indian High Commission and elsewhere in the city. When contacted, Professor Saikia confirmed he was in Dhaka “for a week” and he “did meet” representatives of the minority Hindu community. “The objective of my visit was socio-political,” Professor Saikia said without going into the details of his visit.
The demand by Bangladesh’s Hindu leaders for increasing the number of seats where their nominees intend to contest the parliamentary polls assumes significance, especially because in the 2014 election, which was boycotted by the BNP, candidates from the minority community contested 17 seats (plus one which was won by a Hindu woman), returning about the same number of MPs to the Jatiya Sangshad. Sheikh Hasina’s council of ministers has two Hindu representatives.
Fully aware that she needs the backing and support of the minority Hindus—today more than ever before—early last month Sheikh Hasina showed keen interest in the launch of Sampriti Bangladesh, a platform for progressive Muslim and Hindu intellectuals,which would strive to strengthen and deepen communal harmony and bridge divides and allay suspicions that may exist between the two communities. Bangladesh’s noted cultural personality and thespian Piyush Bandopadhyay is the organisation’s convenor, while Dr Mamun Al Mahtab Swapnil is the secretary. “Sampriti was founded on the express suggestions and advice of Sheikh Hasina,” an Awami League leader said, adding that smaller units of the organisationwouldsoon be formed at the sub-district and village union levels.
While it is still not clear whether the Awami League leadership will accede to the Hindus’ demand for increasing the number of “assured” seats for candidates from the minority community, some of the constituencies where such potential nominees are expected to put up a strong fight are: two each in Gopalganj, Khulna and Maulvibazar and three in Bagerhat, besides other districts such as Sunamganj, Rajshahi, Thakurgaon and Barisal.
Speaking to South Asian Monitor over the phone, Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council general secretary Rana Dasgupta said, “while we have demanded that the Awami League grant us 30 seats, historical precedence suggests this may not be met”. Dasgupta, however, said that “since we continue to persist, we are hopeful” that the Awami League leadership “will consider our demand”. Dasgupta informed that he has met Awami League general secretary Obaidul Qader “thrice” for a “better deal” for the Hindus of Bangladesh and that he has “also met other Bangladeshi political party leaders, including Kamal Hossain, H M Ershad and even BNP’s secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir to consider the Hindus’ demand”.
Admitting that the BNP leadership recently met Hindu representatives and discussed the number of nominees the party could field, party standing committee member Gayashwar Chandra Roy said that “there will be another meeting on August 31 when we gather on the occasion of Janmashthami”. Roy, however, said that “there are not many Hindus who would be able to win elections”. The BNP’s executive committee headed by party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia has 20 Hindu members of whom “four to five have winnable credentials”, Roy said.