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Fault lines grow deeper in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi activists join a procession demanding justice for the violence against Hindu communities during Durga Puja festival in Dhaka on October 18, 2021.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

It was early morning on October 13. A young man dialled 999 (Bangladesh’s emergency service number) to inform the police about the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran at a Durga Puja venue at Nanua Dighir Par in Cumilla city under Chattogram division. A photograph showing the Quran placed on the knee of a Hindu deity had gone viral on social media. Within a few minutes, the officer in charge of the Kotwali police station reached the spot in plain clothes. According to different accounts, the officer was alone at that time.

Unknown to the police officer, a man named Foyez Ahmed had gone live on Facebook from the same spot sometime between 7 a.m. and 7.30 a.m., and can be heard saying, “Muslims, wake up.” Soon after the Facebook live chat, young men started congregating at the venue, their numbers increasing by the hour. Sensing trouble, a team of police officers arrived at the spot around 10 a.m. There were efforts to calm down the angry mob, but a few young men demanded that the puja celebrations be stopped immediately. Some of them started hurling stones at the venue around 11 a.m. and by 11.30 a.m., the mandap was vandalised.

Fault lines grow deeper in Bangladesh
 

The man who dialled 999 seeking police support was identified as Ekram Hossain, who lived less than 2 km away from the spot. Foyez was an expatriate who came home from Saudi Arabia a year ago. Both of them were arrested.

But this act quickly spiralled out of control, courtesy social media platforms, and reportedly resulted in several major attacks on Hindu temples and houses belonging to the minority community. It triggered a sense of fear and helplessness among the thousands of Hindus living in Bangladesh. Since October 13, Bangladesh has witnessed a series of targeted attacks on the Hindu communities residing in a number of districts.

Several religious sites, including Hindu temples, puja venues, and over 100 shops and houses, were reportedly attacked since the Cumilla incident. Kurigram, Chandpur, Moulvibazar, Gazipur, Munshiganj, Feni, Noakhali, Lakshmipur, Chattogram, Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar were among the affected areas apart from Cumilla — districts all outside Dhaka and having a mixed population.

 

Puja amidst despair

As the Durga Puja celebrations kicked off this time around among the Hindus in Bangladesh, an annual event in the country whose Constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principles of secularism in practice, there emerged reports of attacks on Hindu religious sites and idols in different parts of the country. They were quickly dubbed as a “massive attack” on the spirit of the country’s communal harmony and secular values.

Bangladesh has a population of over 160 million. According to the 2013 Census, Sunni Muslims constitute 89% of the population and Hindus 10%. The remaining population is predominantly Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has a small number of Shia Muslims, Ahmadiyya Muslims and Biharis.

A week later, police identified a person named Iqbal Hossain, son of Nur Ahmed Alam, after analysing the CCTV footage available to them. Iqbal, 30, allegedly placed the Quran at the puja venue in Cumilla city.

 

On October 21, police arrested Iqbal, an unemployed youth from Cox’s Bazar beach, and sent him to Cumilla for further verification.

In the evening, more video clips collected from the CCTV cameras in various locations emerged, capturing the full picture of Iqbal’s movements and how he reportedly collected the Quran and placed it at the venue. He was also seen sitting with two others at a nearby shrine.

Little is known about Iqbal. Who motivated him to place the Quran in a religious place? What is his political identity, if any? And, who stands to gain by creating instability and destroying religious harmony?

 

Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said it seemed that Iqbal placed the Quran there after being instigated by somebody else. “We will be able to know everything after Iqbal is detained,” he had said before Iqbal’s arrest.

Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad, expressed displeasure and said whenever anyone was arrested in such cases, they were either branded a “vagrant” or declared “mad”. “It is a pre-planned incident. There are others behind it. It is the responsibility of the Government to find them. We want to live happily and with harmony in place,” he told reporters in Chattogram after a meeting with Deputy Minister for Education Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury Nowfel.

Data shared by the Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a local human rights body, give a clearer picture of what has been happening in the country for years now. According to the ASK, as many as 3,710 attacks on the Hindu community took place between January 2013 and September 2021.

 

Vandalism and arson involving the homes, shops and businesses of Hindu families were some of the incidents documented by the ASK. Attacks on Hindu temples and the grabbing of land and properties of those belonging to the minority community were also reported during the same period, according to the ASK report, which is based on news reports published in nine print and online newspapers and its own research. The recent attacks on the Hindu community have not been included in the report.

Minorities frustrated

Minorities rely on the Government to ensure their safety. The recent attacks had left them frustrated.

Moreover, the post-election violence in 2014 was still fresh in the minds of the Hindu community. The 10th parliamentary elections in Bangladesh were held on January 5, 2014, which saw the Awami League returning to power and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina becoming the country’s head for the third term. Violence during this period reportedly left many dead in the country, including many from the Hindu community.

 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Bangladesh authorities should exercise caution and restraint in containing the deadliest spate of sectarian violence in Bangladesh in years. Authorities should take immediate steps to protect the Hindu minorities and prosecute those responsible, including members of law enforcement agencies, for unlawful violence, it added.

“Bangladesh authorities are dealing with an extremely stressful situation that could easily escalate into even more bloodshed, unless law enforcement acts with caution and restraint,” said Brad Adams, Asia director, Human Rights Watch.

“The authorities need to be de-escalating violence, not shooting live ammunition into a crowd.”

Past violence

On September 29 and 30, 2012, an unruly mob reportedly unleashed violence on the Buddhist community in Ramu by spreading a rumour. They set fire to Buddhist temples and houses, vandalising and looting more than 50 houses in Ramu. They also attacked the Mushurikhola crematorium at Khurushkul village in Sadar upazila, Cox’s Bazar, and tried to attack the houses of the Hindus in Kharulia village.

On October 30, 2016, a mob reportedly vandalised around 10 temples and ransacked over 100 houses belonging to the Hindu community in the area over an alleged defamatory Facebook post by a Hindu youth, Rasraj Das, in Nasirnagar upazila at Brahmanbaria.

“The authorities failed to take action against many who were involved in the violence in the past. Look at Ramu and Nasirnagar. History is being repeated,” said a physician from the Hindu community in Cumilla, who wished to remain unnamed.

He said he grew up with many friends who were Muslims. They had gone to school together, played together, attended cultural events together. “We were friends. Religious differences were never an issue. They never even crossed our minds. The Bangladesh we are seeing now is so unfamiliar to me. Where is the security? Where is the administration? Will God accept the oppression and violence unleashed on so many innocent lives?”

The Prime Minister had assured that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. She urged the public to exercise restraint under any provocation and to refrain from spreading or acting on unfounded rumours. Hasina also called upon the public to maintain communal harmony at any cost.

Editorial | Trouble in Bangladesh: On attacks against Hindus

Government leaders had also visited a number of the affected sites and assured the Hindu community of adequate protection and compensation for the damages incurred. Over 70 cases were filed and over 400 people detained in connection with these incidents. The Government said it had taken serious note of the reactions from within and outside the Hindu community. As an immediate measure, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) forces were deployed in 22 districts in the country to aid the civilian administration after the attacks in Cumilla.

Hasina had also asked Awami League leaders and activists across the country to remain watchful and maintain communal harmony. She said Islam did not allow the disgracing of other religions and one had to respect other religions alongside respecting their own.

In a message for New Delhi, she said Bangladesh’s “big” neighbour must be sensitive to the situation. Alluding to the violence against minorities living in India, she said, “They must make sure that nothing is done there [in India] which affects our country and hurts our Hindu community.”

‘Vested quarters’

The Government remained concerned that certain “vested quarters” were carrying out these pre-meditated attacks to gain dubious political mileage, said the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Cars were set alight in Bangladesh’s Noakhali district on October 15, 2021 by a mob during a protest over the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran at a Durga Puja venue.

Cars were set alight in Bangladesh’s Noakhali district on October 15, 2021 by a mob during a protest over the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran at a Durga Puja venue.   | Photo Credit: AFP

 

“It is regrettable that the local elements that had opposed Bangladesh’s Independence 50 year ago are still propagating their toxic narratives to instigate violence, hatred and bigotry. They are trying to undermine Bangladesh’s secular, non-communal and pluralistic credentials in the international context by deliberately targeting one of the biggest religious festivals of the country,” the Ministry said in a statement.

The Government reiterated that communal harmony and peaceful co-existence were the cornerstones of their democratic polity. For centuries, the Ministry said, people from different faiths, ethnicities and religions had been living in this land in peace and harmony.

While the supreme law of the land guaranteed the protection of all its citizens from any kind of discrimination and intolerance, the democratic governance of the country ensured the enjoyment of the fundamental rights of its citizens, irrespective of their religions, beliefs and ethnicity, it said.

The Ministry said the Government of Bangladesh, under the guidance of the Prime Minister, had set an example by advocating the motto, “Each unto his or her religion, festivals are for all.”

Bangladesh was the only country where the major festivals of all religions were observed as public holidays. This year, on the occasion of Durga Puja, the Prime Minister had donated 30 million takas to the Hindu Kalyan Trust for the smooth observance of the festival, the Ministry said.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a centre-right nationalist party that had forged an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which was opposed to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 and ruled the country giving war criminals a place in the Begum Khaleda Zia-led Cabinet in the past, denied its role amidst allegations that BNP-Jamaat men were behind the recent violence on the Hindu community to create instability in the country.

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, while talking to reporters, said the incidents were part of the Awami League’s “evil design” to gain and overcome the challenges of the next election. “We want to make it clear that the BNP always believes in the freedom of all religions and the party has already proved that,” he added.

Worldwide condemnation

Many, including political parties, cultural organisations, university teachers, youth, civil society members, cultural activists, sports personalities and singers, have condemned the attacks. The United Nations, the U.S. and India have also condemned the incidents of violence against the Hindu community in the country.

What was particularly worrying was that the attacks that had left at least six dead and dozens injured, had followed, according to the Government, fake news reports shared over social media. Social media also saw an outpouring of faith and assertion in the ideals of secularism amidst the violence.

Sharing a photograph of the burning houses on his verified Facebook account, Bangladeshi cricketer and politician Mashrafe Bin Mortaza on October 18 wrote, “I saw two defeats today. One is the Bangladesh cricket team, in which I got hurt. And another one is for the whole Bangladesh which has broken the heart. We didn’t want this red and green... May Allah guide us!”

 

UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh Mia Seppo said the recent attacks on Hindus, “fuelled by hate speech” on social media, were against the values of the Constitution and needed to stop.

“We call upon the Government to ensure protection of minorities and an impartial probe,” she said on Monday in a tweet, calling upon all to join hands to strengthen inclusive tolerance in Bangladesh.

The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka also sent their condolences to the families of the victims in the violence. “Freedom of religion is sacrosanct. Everyone must remain steadfast in opposing targeted violence and orchestrated hate, and work to ensure all are able to attend a religious service or celebration without fear of violence because of their faith,” said the Embassy in a statement.

U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R. Miller also tweeted, stating that the U.S. stood with Bangladeshis of all beliefs, further calling on all to preserve diversity, unity and mutual respect.

India also acknowledged the “prompt” steps taken by the Government of Bangladesh with the additional deployment of security forces following the vandalism of Hindu temples and Durga Puja venues. “We note that the Government of Bangladesh has reacted promptly to ensure control of the situation, including the deployment of law enforcement machinery,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told reporters in New Delhi while commenting on the “disturbing reports of untoward incidents” involving the attacks on religious gatherings in Bangladesh.

 

State Minister for Information Murad Hassan said Bangladesh was a secular nation and would return to its 1972 Constitution offered by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the ‘Father of the Nation’. Military dictators had tried to undermine Bangladesh’s core ideal of secularism by declaring Islam to be the state religion, he said.

“We will return to the 1972 Constitution. We will get that Bill passed in Parliament under the leadership of the Prime Minister,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there is anyone in Parliament to oppose it.”

“I am a Hindu, but this is not my identity. I am a citizen of this country. That is my identity. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure safety and security,” said a Hindu devotee who had come to the Dhakeshwari temple during the Durga Puja celebrations.

With tears rolling down her face, she said, “When I am called an Indian dalal [broker], it questions my patriotism. I belong to this country. We did not leave this land in 1947, 1966, 1971 and 2001. Should we be forced to see the situation today?”

Her question is a difficult one to answer as it is also an indictment of the Government’s inability to uphold religious harmony in Bangladesh. The unease that exists now will be put to rest only after law enforcement agencies ensure that exemplary punishment is meted out to those behind the attacks on the secular fabric of the nation.


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 6:35:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/fault-lines-grow-deeper-in-bangladesh/article37131485.ece

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