It may take a long time for Hindus to feel safe again in Bangladesh after the recent mayhem
Never before in recent memory has Bangladesh, a largely secular Muslim-majority nation, seen such widespread violence against the minority community
As Bangladesh reels from a week-long anti-Hindu mayhem during the minority community’s biggest religious festival of Durga Puja, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government as well as the country’s secular forces are hitting back at the communal elements.
Nearly 500 suspected attackers have been arrested under dozens of cases for orchestrating the violence during which Muslim mobs comprising mostly of youths and teenage boys rampaged through temples, puja pandals, Hindu houses and businesses and in one place setting fire to an entire cluster of 67 Hindu fishermen’s houses. The death toll from the carnage has climbed to seven, including two Hindu men.
The violence started on October 13 at a Puja Pandal in the eastern city of Cumilla. As the day was breaking on this sleepy town on the day of Maha Ashtami, the eighth day of the festival, a Muslim teenager called the police emergency number 999 claiming that a copy of the Quran had been kept among the idols in a makeshift puja pandal, which opened for the day’s festivities at 7 am.
A local police official soon arrived and recovered the holy book. Even as he was in the act, another Muslim youth went live on Facebook urging Muslims to protest against the so-called “desecration” of the holy book.
Soon, a few hundred youths gathered before the mandaps. Government officials and public representatives also gathered and police forces were reinforced. But the administration and police failed to stop the slogan-chanting youths from vandalizing the puja mandaps.
The tension then flared up in other parts of the city where attackers vandalized a few more puja mandaps and looted businesses and homes.
In the neighbouring Hajiganj town, another Muslim youth took to Facebook live on the Cumilla incident and soon several hundred Muslims joined him at a protest. The protesters at one stage attacked and vandalized the Laxminarayan Akhra temple and then proceeded to ransack at least 12 more temples and puja mandaps in the town. Starting in the evening, the mayhem continued until after midnight.
From Cumilla to Hajiganj and then in at least 10 districts of Bangladesh, the anti-Hindu violence spread quicker than the law enforcement forces could cope with. It continued even two days after the Hindu devotees bade a painful farewell to goddess Dugra on a subdued Dasahmi.
In the northern town of Pirganj, another Facebook post on ‘hurting religious sentiments’ enraged hundreds of Muslims who then attacked and set fire to the fishermen’s colony.
The violence caught the law enforcement agencies off-guard. They did act, but there are allegations that they were late to arrive at the trouble spots even as those under attack sent repeated SOS through mobile phones. It still remains a mystery why the police and other law enforcement forces acted so lazily as they did.
True, paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh troops were deployed in several affected areas, but this happened only after the damage was done. An intelligence failure is also being blamed for it.
Interestingly, there have also been allegations that some ruling Awami League members also took part in the violence instead of resisting the attackers.
Never before in recent memory has Bangladesh, a largely secular Muslim-majority nation, seen such widespread violence against the minority community which make up less than 10 per cent of the country’s 160 million people.
There have been attacks in the past but never on this scale. The people of the minority community have bitter memories of a Muslim mob attack on a Buddhist monastery at southern Ramu in 2012, attack on Hindu homes in eastern Nasirnagar in 2015 besides scattered attacks on Hindu temples, homes and businesses in different parts of the country. But never during a major festival like Durga Puja.
Why so and why now? And who are the forces behind it? Is it becoming a pattern or were these just just isolated incidents?
Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party has a straight forward answer. It sees the hands of Islamic fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and its bigger ally, Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Begum Khaleda Zia, a former PM and the archrival of Hasina, behind the hate violence. BNP and Jamaat deny vehemently this, saying that it’s a government ploy to intensify government’s crackdown on them before the next general election, due in 2023.
Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Oikya Parishad, sees it differently. In interviews with local media, he blamed the politics of the two major parties for creating an environment allowing anti-Hindu bigots and zealots to carry out orchestrated attacks on the minority community.
“The attacks on religious minorities, their temples, houses and businesses are parts of a blueprint to force them to leave the country,” said Rana.
He said the ideological ancestors of the defeated forces in the Liberation War were behind the attacks.
The religious fundamentalists, who failed to create a country based on religion in 1971, are now out to achieve their goal, he said.
"They are active to create communal unrest and instigating religious sentiment of common people by spreading propaganda via different media,” he said.
He, however, also blamed some elements within Hasina’s party. "It is unfortunate that a majority of the grassroots leaders of the ruling Awami League were also seen joining them in conducting the attacks," he claimed.
Independent observers, however, said that since Hindus are considered a vote bank for Hasina, her party would not get involved in such violence.
Bangladesh, born as a secular nation with support from India in a bloody war against Pakistan in 1971, has always been a natural ally of the secular forces in India and elsewhere. The Awami League believes in secularism and is prepared to fight for this value.
However, in recent years, the party has come under heavy criticism for hobnobbing with softer Islamic forces in order to counter the bigger evils like Jamaat, which directly participated with the Pakistani troops during the 1971 genocide of the Bengalis. The top leaders of the party have already been hanged to death as war criminals.
In dealing with the latest anti-Hindu violence, Hasina has also kept her eye on neighbouring India, warning her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to ensure that the Bangladesh mayhem does not instigate the communal forces in his country.
“Communal forces are attacking the Hindu community of our country,” said Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader sounding a warning that “It can cause problems for our Muslim brothers in India.”
Police in Bangladesh have now been asked by the prime minister to hunt down the perpetrators. Security forces at the ground level have been put on alert.
Awami League, joined by progressive forces, academics, students, civil rights groups, are holding protests against the violence. Yet, it may take a long time for the Hindus to feel that they are really safe in Bangladesh for whose independence they fought along with Muslims and other faiths and laid down their lives. Healing will surely take time. Until then the administration must prevent another wave of attacks.
(The writer is a senior journalist in Bangladesh. Views are personal)