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“The state has failed to protect minorities”: Bangladeshi Hindus still reeling from Durga Puja pogrom

After being shut for two months, the Radhamadhab Jiu Temple in Chaumuhani, Noakhali, in Bangladesh has reopened for prayers and worships on December 15. The temple had shut down on October 15, after the Islamist attackers vandalized the temple and tore down the murtis; the murtis have since not been replaced.   

“For how long can a temple be left without worship? So the prayers have started. The murtis of the temple were quite expensive. They were brought from Bharat. But now making or procuring new murtis will be time and money consuming,” said Binoy Kishore Roy, convener of the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Parishad, an organization catering to religious minorities of Bangladesh, in Naokhali.

Not only the Radhamadhab Jiu temple but a total of eight temples and seven puja pavilions were targeted in Chaumuhani on the tenth day of Durga Puja. This attack lasted for around three hours. Two ISKCON devotees Jatan Saha and Pranta Chandra Das were also murdered during the attacks.

2021, Anti-Hindu pogrom, Bangladesh

Last year, on the day of Durga Mahashtami, communal unrest broke out in Comilla, with a religious provocative campaign propelled through social media with false claims of the Hindus desecrating the Qur’an at the Nanuar Dighi Puja Mandap.  Miscreants had vandalized several mandaps of the district. It soon spread across 16 districts of Bangladesh (out of total 64 districts) including Noakhali, Chandpur, Laxmipur, Bandarban, Chittagong, Gazipur, Feni, Kurigram, Chapainawabganj, Cox’s Bazar, Moulvibazar, Habiganj, Munshiganj, and Barisal and continued for 5 days. This large scale violence forced the Hindus to conclude the Durga Puja, including the immersion, on the eighth day.

Five people were killed in clashes with police during an attack on a Hindu temple and puja mandap in Hajiganj, Chandpur. On October 17, houses of 25 families of the Hindu community were burnt down in a planned arson attack by enraged Islamists at Majhipara in Pirganj, Rangpur. While destroying Hindu homes, the rioters also looted valuables. The Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council alleges that nine people were killed in the attacks and states that hundreds of temples were ruined.

Though communal attacks on religious minorities are not new in Bangladesh, violence at such a large scale during Durga Puja has not been seen before. Pankaj Bhattacharya, a veteran politician, told Prothom Alo, “It is disgusting to see such communal attacks when the pro-liberation forces are in power.”

Minority leaders have accused law enforcement of failing to prevent the series of attacks. Various sections of the society including members of the minority community have criticised the ruling party Awami League for their inefficiency in thwarting the attacks.

According to the Law and Arbitration Center, a non-governmental human rights organization, 7 people were killed in the riots across 16 districts of Bangladesh between October 13 and 20. There were 72 occurrences of vandalism of puja mandaps, temples and murtis, loot and arson and 8 attacks on Hindu houses. However, the number of casualties and looting is higher than what is claimed here and by the Unity Council.

Iqbal, the main accused who had placed the Quran at the puja mandap, was arrested from Cox’s Bazar on October 21 from the banks of Nanua Dighi in Comilla and is now held at the Comilla Central Jail. 13 cases have been lodged in Comilla regarding the riots and 106 people have been arrested. In Noakhali, 32 cases of vandalism have been registered, 412 people have been recorded as accused and over 9 thousand miscreants are registered as suspects. Till the latest reports, 235 accused have been arrested in Noakhali. 

In the Chandpur district, sources say, the police have registered 11 cases against this violence. 4 police cases were registered in connection with the attack in Jalepalli which includes 1 case of assault, arson and pillaging of the houses of the fishermen and 3 cases under the Digital Security Act. The investigating inspector at the police station, Mahbubur Rahman stated that 72 people were arrested as accused of the arson and loot case, 7 among them had given confessional statements at the court.

Again, on October 16, Hindu houses in Majhipara in Ramnathpur union of Pirganj in Rangpur were attacked, looted and set afire for alleged blasphemy towards Islam, leaving multiple Hindu families hapless and destitute. The village is now being guarded by the police day and night.

Nanda Rani, a resident of the village, said, “Everyone is talking to each other now, be it Hindu or Muslim. We carry with our work, eat, there is no problem now. But the fear in our minds has not gone away.”

Bangladesh Foreign Minister denies attacks

On October 26, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen issued a tone-deaf statement claiming that not a single temple had been burned down or vandalized during the communal violence during the Saradia Durga Puja in Bangladesh. He further stated that six people were killed in religious violence, four out of them were Muslims. “The police had shot them dead when they were trying to set fire to Hindu homes. Out of the two Hindu victims, one of them had a simple death, while another one drowned,” said the minister.

His statement led to massive countrywide protests by various minority organizations. General Secretary of Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Parishad, Rana Dasgupta said, “We are stunned by the Foreign Minister’s statement. This denial is equal to inflicting fresh wounds.”

Judicial enquiry ordered, later suspended

On October 21, Supreme Court lawyers Mintu Chandra Das and Anup Kumar Saha filed a writ petition in the High Court challenging the failure of local authorities in containing the violence in various parts of the country, including six districts, during the Durga Puja. The petition seeks directions for the chief metropolitan or judicial magistrates to investigate the attacks and submit reports to the court.

On October 26, the High Court ruled the preliminary hearing of the writ. The six districts are Comilla, Chandpur, Noakhali, Feni, Chittagong and Rangpur. The High Court order had directed the concerned Chief Metropolitan or Judicial Magistrate to investigate and submit a report to the court within 60 days.

However, the chamber judge suspended the order of the High Court to conduct a judicial inquiry into the attack.

On March 18, 2021, Hindu houses and temples in Noagaon, Shalla, Sunamganj were ransacked and robbed for a Facebook post criticizing a statement of Hefazat leader Mamunul Haque.  The police had also detained Jhumon Das on March 16 for allegedly making the post. Only after 6 months and 12 days of imprisonment could Jhumon be released.

ASK Bangladesh reveals harrowing violence on minorities

According to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) data, 102 Hindu homes were attacked between January to September in 2021. In 2020, 12 Hindu houses were raided and 3 Hindu-owned businesses were wrecked and set ablaze. This apart, 8 Hindu temples and places of worship were ransacked and the murtis inside them vandalized. 61 people were injured in these attacks.

ASK further claims that 3,858 attacks have been made on the religious minorities in Bangladesh since 2013, which include 1,008 incidents of vandalism of temples and places of worship and desecration of murtis.  99 per cent of the victims in such attacks are Hindus.

Mizanur Rahman, the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission has questioned the government’s sincerity in preventing violence on minorities. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he shared, “This time the series of attacks during Pujo is a manifestation of the state’s failure. Those who are running the government have failed in assuring safety to the minorities. Such incidents are recurring because miscreants of the previous attacks were not brought to justice.”

(This article is a translated version of the Bengali article which appeared on Bangladeshi news outlet ‘Prothom Alo’ on 31 December, 2021)

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