- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

CALCUTTA More than 17,000 supporters of the defeated Awami League government in Bangladesh have fled to India in the past two months, the great majority of them Hindus who complain of murder, rape and looting at the hands of fundamentalist Muslims backing the newly elected Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
Some Indian officials say the violence is motivated by politics, not religious differences, and that many of the refugees are simply economically driven migrants seeking relief from the endemic poverty in Bangladesh. But nationalist Hindu parties in India have taken up the cause of the refugees, demanding that the government in New Delhi defend them.
Authorities in Dhaka have offered to welcome back the refugees and to ensure their security, but the promises ring hollow for people like 39-year-old Shefali, who brought her three children from Bhola in southern Bangladesh to stay with a relative in Habra, 25 miles east of Calcutta.
Muslim fundamentalists "raped me and my 10-year-old daughter. Those beasts raped 14 or 15 girls and women in our village. How can I return to that country?" she asked.
"Newspapers reported with our pictures how we were tortured there. Now if we go back, they will lynch us," said the woman, who withheld her full name for fear of reprisals against her husband, who remains in Bangladesh trying to sell the family's property before joining her in India.
Another refugee, Mita Roy, said in the frontier West Bengal town of Thakurnagar that she had fled with her three children as soon as she learned that armed Muslims had attacked her village, Purba Sahera. She paid an "agent" who arranges illegal border crossings to help them get into India.
"I was terribly afraid of my 16-year-old daughter being lifted by them," she said, adding that her 7-year-old son, Loknath, is suffering from high fever and is raving incoherently. A doctor has diagnosed the problem as post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the violence the boy witnessed.
Indian authorities have made light of the dangers. The interior minister, L. K. Advani, said in Parliament last week that Bangladeshis who had crossed into India should go home. He also expressed hope that the Dhaka government would make arrangements for their safety.
The attacks on Hindus, who make up 10 percent of Bangladesh's 130 million population, started as soon as Sheik Hasina handed over power to a caretaker administration in July, before the elections.
Leaders of Bangladesh's anti-fundamentalist groups say the Hindus were targeted by the fundamentalists of the BNP and its allies because they were seen as Awami League voters.
According to Kabir Choudhury of the South Asian Coalition Against Fundamentalism, about 325 Awami League supporters both Hindus and Muslims have been killed in Bangladesh since July. The group says more than 15,000 Hindus and 2,500 Muslim supporters of the Awami League have fled into the east Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura in the last two months.
But Biman Bose, chairman of the Left Front party in communist-ruled West Bengal, where most of the Bangladesh Hindus have taken refuge, maintained that the turmoil is based on politics, not religion.
He said Bangladeshi migrants had been coming to India in search of better economic prospects ever since the nation achieved independence, much as poor Mexicans come to the United States. "There is nothing new in it," he said.
Nevertheless, Hindu nationalist parties like Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh believe the attack on Hindus in Bangladesh was motivated by religion.
"We are not happy at India's weak-kneed response to the problems of the problems of these Hindu refugees," said Y. Raghaballu, national secretary of VHP. "The central government must declare the minorities fleeing persecution in Bangladesh as refugees, not infiltrators. Otherwise it will be a sin against humanity."

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