Christians are cast aside in Bangladesh

DURING BRITISH COLONIAL RULE OF THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT, many ethnic indigenous people migrated to the northern part of East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) starting in the 18th century. They found employment as railroad workers, farmhands, and day laborers. More than two centuries later, some of the ethnic groups embraced Christianity and switched their professions thanks to education. However, most still rely on agriculture and day labor for a living. In some parts of rural northern Bangladesh, these Christians face various forms of social discriminations from Muslim villagers. For example, ethnic minorities are forbidden so sit with Muslims during social gatherings; they are not allowed to use the same plates, glasses, cups, and utensils in restaurants, and they face racial slurs.  

Shiblal Hembrom, 50, is an ethnic Santal Catholic and father of two from the Chanduria area in Tanore, Rajshahi district, where 9,000, mostly Christian, ethnic people live. Shiblal, a farmer and a mondol (village leader) since 2002, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need about the plight of ethnic minorities in the area. 

“My ancestors lived in Godagari, but I moved to this village in Chanduria in 1985, after I got married. My father had become a Catholic in Godagari. I live here with my wife. My son lives in the capital Dhaka with his wife. My daughter has been married off. My son has a low-paying job in a garment factory. There are some 65 Santal families in the village with the total estimated number of villagers, including children, around 300. Except for three families, all are Christians here.

“My ancestors had some landholdings, but they lost everything in Godgari after Muslims took their land. Here in Chanduria, most villagers are landless farmers. Through toiling for years, I have bought a small piece of land in the village.

“This indigenous Santal village is surrounded by Muslim villages and the Christian community has been facing discrimination from Muslims for a long time. Muslims think indigenous people are of a lower class. They don’t like eating and drinking using the same plates, glasses and cups as we do.

A Christian Santal family in Tanore, Bangladesh

“In the marketplace and in restaurants, separate plates, glasses and cups are reserved for ethnic indigenous peoples; Muslims and Hindus won’t use the same utensils as we do. It is the norm in many places where ethnic indigenous people live.

“Once there was a soccer tournament in the village and various teams of ethnic young men participated. At the end of the event, members of a visiting team had their meal in a local restaurant. The Muslim owner at first didn’t realize they were Santals, but later found out. They were confronted, harassed, and forced to pay for new plates, glasses, cups, and utensils as supposedly they had ruined the plates, etc. that were not reserved for them. I also know about incidents involving physical assaults on ethnic people for violating such norms.

“Moreover, when ethnic people go to police and government offices for help, they are often neglected. Since the 1990s, Santals and Muslims have fought over ownership of a pond in our village. The pond is a community property and we have been paying taxes on it. A group of Muslims claimed it and Santals approached police to file a case, but they were refused. Then they petitioned the court and got in touch with the local media. The court ruled in our favor and the pond is now under our control.

“Discrimination and ostracism go against the Constitution of Bangladesh, which grants equal rights and dignity to all citizens. It happens because Muslims from the majority Bengali community consider our community and culture to be inferior. They dislike us because we are mostly poor and live in dilapidated houses. Our poor ancestors used to eat rats, frogs, and wild animals that Muslims see as inedible. Traditionally, Santals rear and eat pigs, and drink haria (rice beer) which are forbidden for Muslims.

A Catholic Santal farmer

“I won’t say all Muslims treat ethnic communities this way, but many still do. The situation has improved thanks to education and awareness, but it is still a reality. The government and NGOs have not done anything to tackle the issue. They must act to bring an end to such abuses and the disrespect of ethnic minorities.”

—Rock Ronald Rozario