A Discussion with Mohammad Rafi, Research and Evaluation Officer, BRAC

With: Mohammad Rafi Berkley Center Profile

July 1, 2014

Background: Mohammad Rafi is a research and evaluation officer at Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). In this conversation with Nathaniel Adams, he discusses periodic episodes of violence against religious minorities over the last two decades, examining the political context and some of the underlying causes. Rafi first began working on issues of violence against religious minorities after the turbulent 2001 elections in Bangladesh during which scores of Hindus were targeted for acts of violence, rape, and looting. He discusses the social and cultural barriers NGOs face when working on the ground in communities, including gender norms, traditional hierarchies, and mistrust. Finally, he touches on the difficulties facing indigenous minority groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which include language barriers and economic exploitation.

How did you first start working on the issues of violence against religious minorities in Bangladesh?

It was in the wake of the 2001 elections. After that election there were a lot of reports of violence against minorities, but it was debated whether some of those reports were being exaggerated. So BRAC asked me to do study looking into the reports. We were initially planning to carry out the study in only a small area, but later decided since the violence wasn’t just concentrated in a particular area, we should expand the scope throughout the country. BRAC has an extensive national network of field offices, so it was very easy. We had the capacity to cover the whole country without lots of investment. We used BRAC staff at the field level to collect data in their catchments. We developed a simple instrument since they are not very experienced in how to collect objective data for research. We kept in mind that the questionnaire should be simple and neutral. We sent it by mail and BRAC staff collected the data on the status of violence in the area.

Who were the questionnaires designed for?

They were for the villagers. The staff knows the community quite well because they often have to visit these households. But we also targeted other households that were not members of BRAC. The questions related to incidents of violence within the area. Though this method we got the picture of the level and type of violence experienced in the whole country. I then collected the newspaper reporting on the violence from almost all the major newspapers we have in the country. We mapped the location of the violence listed and then I tried to match that with the information that I received from the field offices. This is how I triangulated the data. Any information that didn’t match with the newspaper, we didn’t record that as an incident. So, it is a very conservative estimate about the violence.

I chose the areas with high concentrations of incidents of violence and sent my people there to see for themselves and to conduct interviews. These areas were mainly in the southern part of Bangladesh. I also chose some areas which did not have much violence to compare and see why these areas had less violence. Those areas were in Sylhet in the northeastern part of Bangladesh.

Who did you determine were the perpetrators in many of these incidents? Were they organized in groups or was it more at the individual level?

It was both. When it was at the individual level (somebody looting a house or beating someone, for example), it was usually the neighbors. But there were also groups, and they could be very organized in some cases. They would come in trucks into minority areas, to loot or rape. In the cases of the rapes, they would come in the late evening. They went to a certain house where they knew that there were some girls.

Do you see any similarities between that violence and the violence that occurred in 2013?

There are some similarities, but it’s not a carbon copy. It is similar in the style though. In the ‘90s a lot of the violence was election-related and a lot of that happened because of the caretaker government system. We used to have a system in which during the two months of elections, a caretaker government would take over the state and they would run the elections and afterwards they would hand over the government to the party who won the elections. That is a very simple explanation of a complicated process! What happened in reality was that just before the election, the caretaker government usually lost control over the whole of the country. All the instruments we have for maintaining order and peace in the country, like the police department, were not under any real control. They would eventually side with the party that won the elections for their own safety. If they did not side with them, there might be in problem. They might be demoted or transferred into bad areas. So, the whole government machinery shifted to the side of the winning party.

If the political party that won said that certain people should be punished or driven out of the country, the police department wouldn’t say anything. That was the drawback of the caretaker government system. There was a power vacuum and there were no mechanisms that could protect minorities. The losing party could not form an effective resistance against that violence. They were not prepared to protect the minorities at that time. And the local leaders came to Dhaka for their safety. Not only minorities were attacked, but the opposition party was as well. Their hands and their legs were cut and many other terrible things. The difference separating the two major parties, BNP and Awami League, is slim, maybe 4 to 6 percent, let’s say. If we look at the demographic composition of the country in terms of minorities and majorities, the religious minorities form roughly 12 percent of the total population of the country. The minorities always support the Awami League, and are seen as a vote bank. If they could be eliminated or driven out of the country, then the Awami League would not have the upper hand. That is one reason why we had violence after elections: there was a vacuum that gave the party in power a chance to drive rivals out of the country.

What, in your mind, was behind the violence against Buddhists at Ramu in 2012?

I didn’t observe the incidents very closely, but my analysis is that it was an intention to create a destabilizing situation that would inspire the whole country to go against all the minorities.

What has BRAC’s position been on engaging with religious leaders or religious figures to try to lessen this kind of violence? Has there been a consolidated effort to reach out or to engage these communities?

BRAC’s policy in general is to remain neutral on such sensitive issues. But BRAC is so big that it is a challenge to remain neutral in all aspects. It does get involved, intentionally or unintentionally. So, BRAC as an organization really doesn’t have an effective and clear-cut position on that issue. It only really has a policy in specific events that might have a religious dimension like say, if a BRAC school is banned.

If you look at certain BRAC divisions, some have a lot of programs that engage religious leaders, training them and involving them in different BRAC activities. For example during Friday prayer in the mosque, we have something called khutba, which has two parts. One part is from the Qur’an and the other is a talk about peace and happiness in the community, discussing the things happening in the community, both good and bad. The part related to the Qur’an is in Arabic and nobody understands what is said. The other part is usually in Bangla, so people can understand. BRAC is trying to mobilize religious leaders so that their sermons might influence public opinion on different issues. BRAC is training the imams to counter a lot of misconceptions we find commonly in our society, things like polygamy.

Does BRAC work with Islamic Foundation (a government-run entity under the Ministry of Religious Affairs) on that?

No, BRAC has its own training centers. People are invited there to stay and get training. In the field offices much of the training of local leaders is organized by the Human Rights and Legal Services division of BRAC.

The local leaders include the imams, moajims (those who call for the prayers), and those who conduct religious marriage ceremonies. These community opinion leaders are invited. BRAC tries to train them in many everyday legal issues. This is also another way of eliminating traditional beliefs, which in many cases are not correct. For example, verbal divorce is practiced a many villages. Some people say it’s allowed and then another group says it’s not allowed. So, BRAC takes a stand that it is not allowed and tries to convince them, using evidence from the Qur’an.

Do you think that there has been positive change even in terms of public opinion on the rights of religious minorities?

I am hopeful but to be honest I have not seen much progress. Regarding inter-religious relationships and feelings, people in this country have very contradictory behaviors. In general, people in Bangladesh are pretty secular in many ways, as compared to many other Islamic countries. One reason is that Muslims themselves are a minority on the subcontinent. There were only two areas where there was a major conversion to Islam; one is Bengal and the other is Punjab. In the rest of the sub-continent, they have taken up Islam but not on a mass scale. So, in general, people are quite tolerant towards minorities in everyday life, because they understand the experience of being a minority. But once in a while they take a 180-degree turn and they become violent. It is a challenge to understand why this happens. Further, not everybody is tolerant. There are always extremists wanting to take advantage of the situation for personal gain. If minorities leave this country, or if they move to urban areas, somebody will take that social position or that property.

In the feudal zamindar system, Hindus were often landlords. Do you think that history has a role in it?

No. I don’t think that is the largest cause, though perhaps an earlier generation had bad feelings about it. My grandfather had a lot of resentment on the subject. But they are gone. And I don’t know how much has been transferred to later generations.

Some things have been passed down and help to create an impression about Hindus in general. For example, in the days, before 1947, when Muslims would enter the house of a Hindu, after the Muslim left the house, the first thing that they would do is clean. If a Muslim had touched them physically, I mean touched their body, they would take a bath. They usually cleaned their house with water mixed with cow dung. Muslims knew this was happening. So, how did Muslims feel about this? What kind of impression did it give to them? They believed that Hindus considered them inferior. They were seen as polluting the Hindu’s house so much so that they had to clean it with cow-dung. Muslims are essentially considered inferior to cow dung. They cannot have had a very good impression about that practice. Such sentiments are still being transferred to people. I have observed this and have interviewed people and have found that such attitudes persist. It leaves a general impression about Hindus that is not very positive. But even so I do not think that this has played a very big role in recent violence. At the individual level most violence is economic, while most collective violence is political.

What do you think is behind the resistance of local Islamic leaders to the work of NGOs?

To begin with, the NGO concept itself is western. It’s not indigenous here. From the very beginning they were very suspicious about what NGOs are doing, particularly BRAC. There is a belief among some religious leaders that BRAC’s motive is to convert them to Christianity. They might not have actually believed that, but they would spread those rumors so that BRAC couldn’t expand in their area. In terms of BRAC’s relationship with religious leaders now, it is not as hostile. They don’t have as many problems as was the case in the past, but opposition is still a cause for concern. There are many reasons for animosity. One important reason is that there is overlap between religious leaders and elites in the village. NGOs have disturbed the social equilibrium of the society. The NGOs are challenging their domain. Even now under democracy, imagine that there is a village organization that has 14 members and their families behind them. They become a voting power. When the local leaders compete in the election, they are in a position to have a big influence over who will win in the election. Because they form a significant number of voters in the community, these new community groups formed by NGOs intimidate the local leaders.

Also, gender is also a part of the equilibrium. Because many NGO activities are targeting only women, they are changing the gender dynamics. They are taking the women out of the house. Local elites don’t like that because they believe it goes against Islam. They don’t like many women working together, involved in economic activities. That did not used to be part of our culture. You have women once a week going out of the house. The husband comes and asks “where have you been?” and she says “Oh! I went to the NGO meeting,” or “I went to a health forum hosted by this NGO.” “So, have you cooked for me?” “No, I didn’t have time to cook for you.” So, they don’t like this.

I have read that some local religious leaders created their own NGOs or organizations to compete for the civil society space. Have you ever encountered this?

It is happening in a big way, particularly in response to microcredit. They are forming their own cooperatives, which is many ways similar to NGOs activity.They are not registered, but operate on more of a cooperative model. What they have found out is that when they take money from NGOs, they have to take pay lot of interest, at a minimum 12 percent and in fact it is more than that, because there are hidden costs. In a cooperative, everyone donates some money, 5,000 taka or something like that. There are 10 members, and so, say they have a 50,000 taka target. They give that 50,000 taka to one member of the cooperative. He or she invests in some business venture and again after six months or a year they give that money to another member of the cooperative. So in this way they rotate the investments in the cooperative. This is one way they are trying to bypass the NGOs, because in this case they don’t have to pay interest. Most likely the micro-credit program of NGOs will be taken over by them.

I know you have done some work in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Have you interacted with some of the Buddhist leadership there? What is their role in historical conflict there and in the development setting now?

Buddhist leaders were not really the focus of my study. The study that I did was mainly focused on what strategies NGOs and other organizations might take in that particular area. This was to inform a new program. Since I have travelled extensively and stayed there for quite some time in connection with my study, I had many chances to talk to Buddhist leaders, but they are often formal and not very open. Many Marma monks could hardly speak Bangla. They often go to Burma for religious training. I mainly talked about Buddhism. I started to talk about religion because that was the way I could make them talk more with me and then I went on to other issues like community problems.

Did monks seem to know what the problems in the community were?

Not really. The Marma monks that I have met were very focused on religion. The Chakma leaders are a little less serious about the religion compared to the Marmas and they talked more about the problems of the society, particularly land grabbing by Bengalis. That is the big issue, not only with them but with everybody.

There is a lack of unity among the Buddhist community to address these problems. I was speaking with one Marma man (not a monk, but a religious person) and I asked, “What would have happen if Bengalis pulled out of that area?” He said that Chakmas would take the place of the Bengalis. The Chakma are the region’s largest indigenous groups and the Marma are the second largest. That was a very political message, I should say. And so then I tried to look at the relationship between these groups. There are 11 ethnic groups. It is not always very friendly. They have become united against Bengalis, but at the same time they can be very aggressive towards each other.

What did you see as the major development challenges in Chittagong Hill Tracts? How are the challenges different than rest of the country?

One major problem is lack of infrastructure, but that goes both ways. If you don’t have good infrastructure, you can’t develop, but at the same time, when you have good infrastructure Bengalis can get access to their land more easily. That’s the big problem. In fact the leaders of the area do not want the area to have a good road network for this reason.

Middlemen are also a big problem there. Middlemen are always Bengali and they can be very exploitive. Just to give you an example, when villagers come with vegetables from the village to the small Bengali-controlled markets, the Bengalis just sit over there for the whole day. They don’t bargain with them or even talk with them. When the evening comes, they will start talking with them. And they come in at a very low price. They know that the people will have to get back to their village before it is dark and they don’t have any time to bargain. This is how don’t get a fair price for their product. This is one trick they always play. You see, they don’t have any alternative other than selling their products to the Bengalis, who have the upper hand. Also the way NGOs invest or try to help them is often by giving them credit, but they don’t have any decent avenues to invest that money. So, if they take the credit, they face an even bigger problem, because at the end of the week, they have to pay interest on it. They don’t have any profit out of the investment. So, they are in a bigger problem. They really don’t want to get involved in NGO micro-credit schemes. Education programs are okay as are health programs, but the credit program, which could really change their economic condition, is not functioning properly.

Is some mother tongue first education an important approach in the region?

No. Actually I have studied this and around 58 percent want to learn in Bangla. That is a much higher percentage than is the case in indigenous schools we have in the plains. The reason is that if they identify themselves as Bengali, they have a higher probability of getting a job or being employed. That’s an advantage. It’s like English as an advantage for the world now. In the Bangladesh context, Bangla it is advantage. If they don’t know speak Bangla, they can’t get employed, so, they prefer to study in Bangla. They know that the Chakma language will not be major language in Bangladesh. They see that. The situation is really difficult. There are villages which have six languages. How you can have a school with six languages? It is an impossible number, in terms of the cost, in terms of logistics, and teachers; every aspect. Many of the languages don’t yet have a script. The missionaries have tried to develop scripts and have done that for few of the groups, but most of them still don’t have a written script.

I noticed there are a lot of Christian groups working in CHT. Is this ever a source of conflict?

The Christian missionaries are mostly in Bandarban. There are three districts in CHT: Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachari. There are also Islamic missionaries. They are mostly urban-based and cannot penetrate into the communities. They often build religious schools, but when they have religious schools in that area, that itself is a threatening activity. About half of the population in CHT is now Muslim. How are they supposed to feel about it?
They don’t make good impressions, but Christian missionaries often do. Chakma leaders and others have no problems with the Christians. Even the NGOs are having problems in the area, but the Christians often have no problems even though leaders know that the main objective of Christian missionaries is to convert them to Christianity, not really work for their economic welfare. One reason is that the strategies of the Christian missionaries are very different from the Islamic missionaries. They start with hospitals, they start with the every day life to create a base, and after that they talk about religion. And since they have been there for a long time, people have confidence that they are not doing anything harmful to their community and that they don’t want to change their culture. Of course, there are few ethnic groups like the Boum who are a small ethnic group that is now 100 percent Christian. They dress like westerners and a large part of their lifestyle is western.

Would the Buddhist leaders not speak out against missionaries?

No. I think this is partly because of the Buddhist religion itself. The central concept is not to harm others. They honor everyone’s practice and feel that if they opposed the practice then that is just like harming them.

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