Communalism

Authorities in Bangladesh Must Own Up to the Attacks Against Minorities

There have been a number of communal attacks across the country, but the state has either been in denial or complicit. Where do people look for justice?

A vandalised temple in Bangladesh. Credit: Twitter

A vandalised temple in Bangladesh. Credit: Twitter

The most recent attacks on Hindu temples in Bangladesh are yet another significant blow to the nation’s morale. It further tarnishes our already sagging spirit. To the outside world we are labelled, once more, as increasingly intolerant and fundamentalist Muslims.

But someone has to take the responsibility for this mayhem. About 100 people have been arrested so far. The OC (officer commanding) of the police station and the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO, meaning the chief executive officer of an upazila or sub-district) have been withdrawn. From what has been investigated by the media, it is becoming clear that the minority Hindus and their places of worship suffered due to internal conflicts between two wings of the Nasirnagar Awami League. Also, it is obvious that the incident was planned.

Tensions rose in the area due to some alleged inflammatory remarks on Facebook about the religion. In order to protest, two “Islamic” organisations sought permission to hold protest meetings. The UNO of Nasrinagar gave permission for “peaceful protests”, thinking tensions would subside if the protest meetings were allowed to proceed. He spoke at both meetings. As a group of mob chanted, “burn, burn,” he had also decided to descend to their level and join them. 

According to reports in Prothom Alo, a popular national newspaper, mobs from the protests charged Hindu temples and houses. The acting OC of Nasrinagar said that of the 32 police officers in the local station, 12 were engaged in the upazila parishad election duties, leaving only 20 police officers available – inadequate, if required, to control a crowd of thousands. The OC had apparently expected that no one would break the peace; hence, he did not bother to call for additional police support. 

Let us examine the reactions of the political representatives from the locality. A.T.M Moniruzzam, the upazila chairman of Nasirnagar, told Prothom Alo, “Tensions started from Saturday. On Sunday, I contacted the OC. He did not respond. Had the police wanted, we collectively could have tried to handle the situation. But the police administration did not do it.” 

The people’s representative complained about the mayhem on Sunday, yet the tensions escalated. The administration and the police have many resources to gather information. But a huge mob had been mobilised and somehow they were not aware of it. 

The upazila chairman also insinuated that he did not get help from the administration. However, where were the sea of party workers of the largest party, the Awami League? Could they not do anything to prevent this? They are usually so eager and energetic when eradicating opposition party members; they are so apt in surveillance that even a bird cannot fly without them noticing it.

From Ramu to Santhia, during all incidents of communal violence, why does the party that claims to be secular remain unresponsive and passive? However, this time we cannot say that it was completely inactive. According to Kaler Kantho, the general secretary of the Chapartala Union, Mohammad Suruz Ali (of Awami League) led a procession to join the protest. He defended his action: “I was only demanded hanging of Roshraj Das to protest against the attack on religious feelings. I did not provoke or incite any communal violence”.

Das, accused of authoring a Facebook post against Masjid al-Haram, the holy site of Muslims, was arrested and in custody, so is demanding his execution not provocative?  

What about high ranking officials? According to Prothom Alo, the local MP and the minister for fisheries and livestock, Muhammed Sayedul Hoque, had not visited the area even after three days. Law minister Anisul Haq, another MP from the area, and the general secretary of the district Awami League, MP Obaidul Muktadir Chowdhury, did not come either. Hoque told Prothom Alo, “The situation is normal there now. I sent the police and the BGB to make the situation normal”. On the attacks on Hindus, he asserted: “Where have you got this information? Apart from a few temples, there were no other attacks”.

To the affected families, denying raids on their houses is like rubbing salts on their wounds. Nasirnagar Awami League’s joint secretary, Mahbubul Alam Hanif, claimed that the party is looking after the affected families. He has pledged to compensate for the damage.

Communal violence is ongoing across the country – in how many instances has compensation been provided? Have any of the incidents been properly investigated and perpetrators brought to justice? How can one compensate for the insult, fear, anxiety and helplessness the Hindu communities are feeling today?

These sort of incidents are not new in Brahmanbaria. Earlier this year, there was chaos around the death of a madrasa student. The place has been boiling with religious tensions, ready to erupt for quite some time. What explanation can the authorities give for leaving minorities unguarded and exposed after knowing about the situation, even watching community tensions escalate?

The same has been observed in Ramu. Strong organising efforts are required to mobilise thousands of people. There is no plausible explanation for inaction of the administration. Were they instructed to remain inactive? This suspicion naturally comes to mind. The main culprit of Santhiya incidents, Mithu, was seen in a procession with the then assistant home minister. 

The second term of the Awami League government has seen a significant increase of violence, attacks, torture and land grab against minorities. Minority communities have been complaining not only about the local thugs but against MPs, ministers and Awami League party leaders, workers and the administration, according to advocate Rana Dasgupta of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christians Unity Council.

We often hear a lot about those making up the mob after communal violence, but rarely do we hear about the ringmasters who orchestrate that violence. The ringmasters do not get as much publicity as the thugs. Those who have carried out such attacks are lowest of the low, no doubt. However, the incidents are not isolated; the attackers, too, are not some disjointed groups of mobs. The mobs’ footprints most certainly lead to people in much higher positions.

After Nasirnagar, there have been attacks in temples in Hobiganj and Gopaljang. It is as though some power is determined to disturb communal harmony. In this intense communal disturbance tale, the accused are Muslims. But which Muslims?

Jessore’s Avaya Nagar, Ramu, Santhiya and Nasrin Nagar – in all incidents the attackers were reportedly brought in from the outside. Some of the local Muslims actually provided shelter to the attacked. A few local youth in Nasirnagar were injured trying to stop the violence and plunder. One of them, Jamaluddin, told BBC Bangla, “I was not thinking about my life then. My brothers, my village, my society – they had done nothing wrong. They were completely innocent people. Why were they ravaged? They had done nothing wrong”. Nilima Datta of the Datta family said, “One Muslim attacked, another Muslim saved us”.

The ringleaders who are behind organising atrocious attacks against Hindus and accusing Muslims are enemies of both Hindus and Muslims. Not all Muslims can be blamed for organised communal violence and a failed administration. The general public is also suffering at the hands of this merciless machinery. Although, even then, why should we fall for the communal violence trap? Why does rumour control our lives, emotions and actions?

The first step in order to foil their game is to respect all religious beliefs and to tackle any isolated provocation through the law. It is very important to remember the following lines from Bangabandhu’s March 7, 1971 speech:

“Enemies have infiltrated;  they will create chaos and conflicts amongst us; they will plunder. In this Bengal all Muslims, Hindus, Bengalis, non-Bengalis, whoever is living here are our brothers. We have the responsibility to protect them; careful, no one should be able to disgrace our reputation.”

Not a one-time thing

To divide people by creating conflicts amongst them is a favourite ploy of the unelected political mafia that is reigning Bangladesh.

In 2013, youth who were against the war criminals were used to corner the religious reactionaries. Then we found the government in an alliance with the Hafezat-e-Isliami. Atheists bloggers, blacklisted by Hafezat and the pro-government Olema League, were mercilessly assassinated with machetes one after another.

That situation completely stopped all divergent cultural practices in our society. Now, it appears that there are concerted efforts to simultaneously terrorise the minority Hindus and to make majority Muslims feel guilty and ashamed.

This politics of division is aptly and equally at play in Chittagong hill tracts (using the settler Bengalis against the indigenous people) and against the sautals of the plain.

Similarly, this strategy is being used to carry out extrajudicial killings in the name of controlling terrorism, whereas the real targets are the opposition and Islamist politicians.

While those attacked are different, the methods used and the source of patronage are one and same. Both the minorities and the majority population are persecuted by the fierce triangle of police-thugs-politicians; we cannot ignore this fact. And this is happening at the moment when protests against establishing a coal-based power plant in Sundarbans are gaining momentum.

The Bangladesh-India joint military exercise was happening at the very moment when communal vandalism was taking place in Nasirnagar and a few other districts.

Indian interest to build the proposed atomic power plant in Ruppur has been reported.

Geopolitics, regional dominance and devastation of the people of Bangladesh are laced in together.

Faruk Wasif is a Bangladeshi journalist and writer. This essay has been translated from the Bengali original.