Posted on May 4th, 2019

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

Buddhists of Bangladesh are descendants of the earliest Buddhists of the Indian subcontinent and inherit the illustrious Buddhist culture and civilization of ancient India. Buddhism thrived in the greater Bengal region of northeast India from the early 3rd century BCE until the 12th century CE, making the region the last stronghold of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent. In the 5th century CE, or more than 1500 years ago, Fa Hsien the famous Chinese pilgrim visited this region (Tamralipti-West Bengal), and reported on the many well-established Buddhist monasteries in Bengal. In the 7th century CE, Huen-Tsang visited Bengal and reported on the several thousands of Buddhist monks and many hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, some being outstanding seats of learning.


Between 750 CE and 1150 CE, Buddhist civilization reached the pinnacle in the history of Bengal under the guidance of Pala Kings who were devout Buddhists. The Pala Buddhist Empire ushered in a period of stability and prosperity in Bengal. This was the first independent Buddhist dynasty of Bengal. Many temples, monasteries and places of learning equal to universities were built during this time. The Pala Empire can be considered as the golden era of Bengal. Never had the Bengali people reached such heights of power and glory. It was during the Pala period that Bengal became the main centre of Buddhist as well as secular learning in Bengal with the establishment of some of the most ancient universities of the world – Universities such as Vikramshila, Jagadala, Somapura Mahavihara, Shalban, Paharpur, Vickrampuri Mahavihara, and Pandit Vihara, flourished under the patronage of the Pala kings. Palas were responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan and Myanmar.

In 1125 CE, the Sena dynasty who were Hindus invaded and ousted the Pala dynasty which led to the decline of the former Buddhist supremacy in Bengal.  

Buddhists were harassed and killed by the armies of the Sena rulers. Some Sena rulers were instrumental in forcing Buddhists to convert to caste-based Hinduism. Buddhism was subject to serious decline during this period.  Buddhist shrines and places of learning including the universities were neglected.


In the 13th century, Muslim invaders under the leadership of Ikhtiar Uddin Muhammad Bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, defeated the Sena king Lakshman Sena and established Muslim rule in the entire Bengal region. Muslim rule led to widespread harassment and violence against Hindus and Buddhists, and extensive destruction of Buddhist shrines, monasteries and places of learning. Many Buddhist monks were killed and violent means were used to forcibly convert Buddhists and Hindus to Islam. Most Buddhists who survived this onslaught moved to the Chittagong Hill Tract areas in order to escape harassment and violence. This resulted in the general concentration of Buddhists in the Chittagong Hill Tract areas. 


In the 17th century and towards the latter half of the 18th century, the British East India Company was encroaching Bengal and were in control of most of the Bengal region. In late 1760, the British East-India Company established their rule in Bangladesh. The Buddhists who were largely concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tract areas were severely affected by the ‘Great famine in Bengal’ in the 1769-70 period which killed nearly 10 million people among whom were many Buddhists.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 replaced rule by the British East India Company with the direct control of Bengal by the British government. Known as one of the most active provinces in freedom fighting”, Bengal was divided by the British in 1905, for administrative purposes. This resulted in an overwhelmingly Hindu west including present-day Bihar and Orissa and a predominantly Muslim east including Assam, which included the Buddhist occupied Chittagong Hill Tract region. Hindu Bengalese disagreed with the partition saying that it will divide Bengal which is united by language and history. But the Muslims supported partition. In 1912, owing to strong Hindu agitation, the British reunited East and West Bengal. However, Bengal was subject to partition again in 1947. Bengal split into the state of West Bengal of India and a Muslim region of East Bengal under Pakistan, renamed East Pakistan in 1958. East Pakistan later rebelled against Pakistani military rule to become in 1971, the independent Republic of Bangladesh.                                                                                            


Buddhists flourished during the Pala kingdom as the predominant Bengalese population with a highly advanced culture and civilization. The Chittagong Hill Tracts functioned as an independent region dominated by Buddhists until the British period. The Buddhists of the Chittagong region are popularly known as Jumma people or Jumma Buddhists. They form four small indigenous Buddhist communities: Chakma, Marma, Tanchyangya and Chak. Anthropologically they are all Mongolian origin and a peace-loving farming community. Their numbers dwindled substantially during the Sena and British periods of rule and thereafter with the establishment of East Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the present Bangladesh, Buddhists are confined to the south-east part of the country or the Chittagong Hill Tract which is also known as Jumma or Hill. The Chittagong Hill Tracts covers areas comprising the Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban districts of Bangladesh and is flanked by two international borders – on the southeast by Myanmar and on the north by India.

                                                                                                                  AGGRESSION AGAINST BUDDHISTS

Successive Muslim rulers of the former East Pakistan and later Bangladesh were instrumental in undermining and discriminating against the Jumma Buddhist community in the Chittagong Hill Tract. They imposed a tyrannical rule upon these people. Between 1957 and 1963, the then Pakistan government overlooking the opinions and objections of the Jumma Buddhists,  built a massive hydroelectric dam and reservoir in the Chittagong Hill Tract region. The dam and reservoir flooded 54,000 acres of productive farm lands of Jumma Buddhists and resulted in the loss of a further 40% of land belonging to Jumma Buddhist farmers. About 100,000 Jumma Buddhists were adversely affected by this so-called development project. About 40,000 of them had to be moved out of their traditional land as a result of this hydro dam project. Some of these people moved to India and are now living in Arunachal. 


According to Jumma Buddhists, successive governments of Bangladesh were engaged in implementing a policy of ethnic cleansing to eradicate the indigenous Jumma Buddhists. Among the most horrendous acts against Jumma Buddhists in the Chittagong Hill Tract region, was the settling of more than 400,000 Muslims from other areas in ancestral lands of the Jumma Buddhist community. This encroachment of land owned and occupied by Buddhists is said to be continuing a rapid scale even in recent years. This has created a highly volatile situation resulting in constant clashes between the two groups of people. In addition, more than 100,000 military and paramilitary personnel have been stationed in the Chittagong Hill Tract making life insecure and miserable for the Jumma Buddhist community. The region today is crime prone, characterized by arson, killing, rape, land grabbing, and destruction of Buddhist temples, extra-judicial arrest and detentions. Between 1986 to1989 more than 70,000 Jumma Buddhists have fled Bangladesh and sought refuge in the Tripura state of India.


Violence centering on land issues has been going on in this region since 1978, especially since the settling government, of Muslim people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts land traditionally owned by Buddhists. Many Buddhists were harassed and were forced to leave their traditional land.  Owing to continued harassment the Buddhists collectively protested and launched an armed struggle during the early 1980s, demanding full autonomy for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This continued for two decades and an Accord was signed between the Jumma People’s political party of the Buddhists and Bangladesh government in December 1997, to withdraw the new settlers and the military from Chittagong Hill Tract. Expecting a peaceful situation following the Peace Accord, many indigenous people who had fled to refugee camps in India during times of violence, started returning home, only to find their land encroached upon by Muslims. The Buddhists allege that the Accord was not respected by the government.

                                                                                                                      BUDDHIST RIGHTS VIOLATED BY MUSLIMS

Thousands of Jumma Buddhist families who were displaced owing to violence have not been resettled, and the number of poverty-stricken Jumma refugees have increased substantially. Among them are thousands of children who are deprived of their education. Human Rights abuses continue to occur with the military resorting to violence against Buddhists. On 20th April 1999, the military and Muslim settlers attacked the Jumma Buddhists at Babuchara bazaar killing and wounding many Jumma Buddhists. In recent years Muslim extremism and violent tendencies have intensified. According to a Congressional Research Service Report of 2008,  authorities in Bangladesh have expressed concern about the use of madrasas or Islamic religious schools by a network of Islamic activists who were interrogated in connection with several attempted and successful bombing attacks across the country. Several madrasa students were detained in connection with such  investigations (CRS Report January 2008).

In the early part of 2010, the Chittagong Hill Tracts region was rocked by violence, flaring up decades old ethnic-religious tensions, as Muslim settlers set fire to hundreds of homes of indigenous Buddhists resulting in many deaths and many injuries. Thousands of Buddhists have been left homeless. These attacks were meant to forcibly grab land and properties of Buddhists. This violence was committed in the presence of law enforcement officers including soldiers who were Muslims. According to Jumma people, Muslim military personnel have been involved in gross human rights violations with impunity, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts for many years. Many indigenous Buddhist people of affected villages continue to live in hiding, in dense forests and some have abandoned their ancestral land and had moved to other villages and are leading desperate lives. Since 1980 there have been 14 major instances of massacre of thousands of Jumma people by the illegal Bengali Muslim settlers and in co-operation with the law enforce agencies of Bangladesh. Many Buddhists have experienced persecution because of their faith including unwarranted arrest, imprisonment, beating, torture, execution, and also including  confiscation or destruction of property, or the incitement of hatred towards Buddhists.

A Press Release on March 08, 2010, by the CHT-American Jumma People’s Association of the Indigenous Jumma People’s Network, USA, strongly condemns the continuous atrocities and arson to which the indigenous Jumma Buddhist people in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) have been subject to and the illegal Bengali Muslim settlers backed by Bangladesh army personnel who had burnt down houses and public buildings. 

More than 80,000 Jummas have fled across the border to India. Villages have been burnt down completely (,  What these attacks on the indigenous Jumma people reveal is the fact that the government of Bangladesh has failed to change its policy of indiscriminate killings of indigenous Jumma people in order to occupy their lands and implant more illegal plain settlers instead of implementing the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997.

In September 2012, there was a series of attacks by Muslims, on Buddhists and Buddhist sites in Bangladesh. This was referred to as the Ramu Violence, which involved a series of attacks on Buddhists and destruction of many Buddhist shrines, monasteries, and houses of Buddhist inhabitants in the Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong Districts of Bangladesh by local Muslim mobs. An estimated 25,000 Muslims participated in the violence directed at Buddhists. The Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina condemned the anti-Buddhist violence.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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