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HomePoliticsWorldHindus in Bangladesh living in fear following mob attacks

Hindus in Bangladesh living in fear following mob attacks

Following Sheikh Hasina's warning to rioters, the violence spread farther in Bangladesh, pushing Hindus into an atmosphere of despondency

As many Hindus do, Bonolata Das had assumed a temple was a safe and sacred place. She was hardly concerned when she let her 21-year-old son, Pranta Chandra Das, a college student, stay inside a temple complex last week in Bangladesh’s south-eastern Noakhali district. But tragedy struck.

A mob of hundreds of Muslims allegedly beat the young man to death inside the temple in the Islamic republic.

“My youngest son was so close to my heart. After his death, I have lost my heart and have lost everything,” Das said, crying inconsolably. Her son was one of several victims of mob lynching that was triggered after false rumours spread that some Hindus had insulted the Qur’an at a special pavilion set up for the annual Hindu religious festival, Durga Puja, in the town of Cumilla.

It turned out later that a Muslim caretaker of the alleged spot of Qur’an desecration had placed a copy of the holy Islamic book deliberately in an objectionable manner in a bid to flare up communal passions among the Muslims of the country.

“It was a pre-planned attack on the Hindu community,” said Achinta Das, the head of the Hindu festival committee in the town of Cumilla. He denied that Hindus would offend a religious text like the Qur’an.

Within hours of the misinformation campaign on social media, hundreds of Muslims went on a rampage, targeting Hindu places of worship in District Cumilla. Before long, the violence spread to other parts of Bangladesh.

Muslims desecrated temples and torched hundreds of houses and businesses belonging to the Hindu minority. They killed seven people and injured many more. arrived late in some troubled spots, opened fire and used tear gas in some of the affected places to contain the raging mob.

Learning about the attack on the temple, which is run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Das and her family frantically searched for her son. They found his body a day later in a nearby pond. The corpse had marks of injuries all over, she said.

“We are scared to go back to our home and afraid of further attack,” Mrs Das told the BBC. “At the moment, I am staying in the temple itself.”

Hindus in Bangladesh living in fear following mob attacks: The attack on ISCKON temple in Noakhali district
The ISCKON Hindu temple in Noakhali was attacked by a Muslim mob [Photo courtesy: Ferdus Joy]

A sizable minority before the partition of India in 1947, Hindus now make less than 9% of Bangladesh’s population of more than 16.5 crore. Though there have been several attacks on religious minorities in the past, community leaders say this is the worst large-scale mob violence against the community in Bangladesh’s history.

A day after the temple attack, Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina Wazed condemned the violence, saying the perpetrators “must be found out”. “We did so in the past and will do it in future as well,” she said. “They must face appropriate punishments.”

Hasina’s assurance to the Hindus rang hollow. Following her warning to mobsters, the violence spread to other parts of Bangladesh, pushing Hindus into an atmosphere of fear and panic. The government did deploy security forces in 22 districts to control the riots at one point, though, following complaints of state complicity in the incidents.

Hindus in Bangladesh living in fear following mob attacks: Hindu woman Nanda Rani from Rangpur District
Nanda Rani and her children hid in a paddy field to escape the mob [Photo courtesy: Ferdus Joy]

Then, about a week after the outbreak of violence, Muslim mobs torched dozens of houses belonging to Hindus in northern Bangladesh after another social media post reportedly alleged that Hindus had been defaming another place held holy by followers of Islam.

“When we heard the mob was coming, I ran with my two young children to save ourselves and we were hiding in a paddy field,” said Nanda Rani, from Birgunj in Rangpur district said. “From there we could see the mob setting fire to our house. It’s totally destroyed. We are now living in tents.”

Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said hundreds of people had been arrested and an investigation had been launched. He told the media that some people had intentionally been spreading “propaganda” by “uploading video footage of many brutal incidents that took place in the country in different times and in the past” in order to mislead others.

Leaders of some Islamist movements issued vacuous statements, saying they were opposed to violence against any minorities. “Those attacking temples should be punished. We all should live in peace and harmony,” said Maulana Mujibur Rahman Hamidi, the vice-chairman of the Bangladesh Khilafat Andolan, an Islamist political party.

In the same breath, Muslim leaders, including Hamidi, publicly called for harsh punishments against those who defamed Islam.

Hindus in Bangladesh living in fear following mob attacks: A scene of attack in District Rangpur
Attackers burned homes in Birgunj, northern Bangladesh [Photo courtesy: Ferdus Joy]

Bangladesh has prided itself on its tolerant credentials especially under the reign of the Awami League, notwithstanding the fact that Sheikh Hasina’s father Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman was involved in the anti-Hindu pogrom on the Direct Action Day called by MA Jinnah in 1946. Officially, the Constitution of Bangladesh stipulates Islam as the state religion, but it upholds the principle of secularism nevertheless.

Analysts say that hardline Islamic groups have gained prominence over the years and the governing Awami League, which has been in power since 2008, had failed to tackle the rising religious intolerance and fundamentalism. “The government has for political expediency compromised with the fundamentalist forces, particularly in the backdrop of a constrained democratic polity,” said economist Debapriya Bhattacharya.

“As a result, fundamentalists have got prominence, recognition and influence,” the economist said.

Hindus in Bangladesh living in fear following mob attacks: An anti-violence protest in Dhaka
There have been protests in Dhaka against the violence [Photo courtesy: Getty Images]

A large section of the news media says that the Indian subcontinent has had a long history of religious violence, dating back to 1947 when India was carved out of India, creating two landmasses of Muslim-majority East and West Pakistan. However, the first instance of a communal riot in this part of the world happened in 690 AD in what is now Gujarat after an initial group of Muslims tried spreading Islam in India, was not resisted in the parts that are now Afghanistan and Pakistan where many had turned Buddhist long ago but faced opposition in areas that are still territories of India, thanks to the local population staying largely Hindu.

In 1971, Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, gained independence from Pakistan after a bloody war. India sent in its troops in support of the Bangladesh of independence after an influx of refugees fleeing from torture by the Pakistan Army in the east put a demographic burden on New Delhi.

The shadow of the two partitions still hangs over southern Asia.

“The attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh have been systematic over the decades,” said Rana Dasgupta, the secretary of the country’s Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Council. “There is an orchestrated attempt to grab Hindu houses and lands in Bangladesh and they are being forced to leave the country,” Dasgupta said.

Hindu community leaders say their population has come down from 30% in 1947 to less than 9% now. Most have fled to neighbouring India.

Hindus in Bangladesh living in fear following mob attacks: Police at a Hindu temple in Dhaka
Armed are protecting some Hindu temples following the violence [Photo courtesy: Getty Images]

Rights campaigners say successive governments in Bangladesh have failed to take prompt action against repeated attacks on religious minorities. “The lack of a proper investigation not only shows a pattern but also complacency when it comes to protecting minorities,” said Saad Hammadi, the South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International. “The communal violence is recurring because of perceived impunity and a lack of effective remedy.”

Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Huq denies that the investigations on the attacks on the minorities were not making any progress. “All those incidents were being investigated. In such cases, it takes a little time. We are trying to speed up the investigation as much as possible,” Huq said.

He rejected the criticism that the government had been appeasing the Islamists. “Any notion of that kind is not correct. We want all members of all religions to live harmoniously.”

Some say that the largely fake news of rising anti-Muslim sentiment across the border in India, under the BJP union and state governments, is partly responsible for triggering anger among Bangladeshi Muslims.

Bhattacharya, mentioned above, plays from both sides. “What’s happening in India — the treatment of religious minorities — is very unfortunate. It is also being used by some as an excuse to persecute the minorities in Bangladesh,” he said.

“But it is the duty of every government to treat their own citizens properly, and to protect their rights and their security,” he said.

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