By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On October 16, 2021, the body of a Hindu man, Pranto Das (20), was recovered from a pond next to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple at Chaumuhani in Begumganj Upazila (sub-district) in Noakhali District.
On October 15, 2021, a mob of several thousand people stormed into the Bijoya Durga Temple on College Road in Noakhali District and stabbed Jatan Kumar Saha (38), a member of the executive committee of the temple managing committee. Saha later succumbed to his injuries.
On October 13, 2021, three persons were killed and 15 were injured in Police firing in Comilla District, as the Police tried to prevent an unruly mob from demolishing the Nanoya Durga Puja mandap (platform for religious ceremonies) where Hindu women found the Quran on the lap of a statue of Hanuman. The deceased were identified as Babul (28), Al Amin (18) and Yasin Hossain Hridoy (14). One of the injured persons, Shamim (18), died on October 14.
The series of attacks targeting Hindu communities, started in Comilla District on October 13, and gradually spread to at least another 13 Districts, including Bandarban, Chandpur, Chittagong Cox’s Bazar, Dhaka, Gazipur, Kurigram, Lakshmipur, Moulvibazar, Noakhali, Pabna, Rajshahi and Sylhet. Seven persons were killed and another 99 were injured in the violence. At least 20 puja mandaps and numerous idols were defaced and ransacked by unruly mobs.
Earlier, in March 2021, Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI, ‘Protection of Islam’), a Qawmi Madrasa-based radical Islamist group that emerged in 2010, created mayhem in Bangladesh, mostly targeting Hindus. At least 17 people were killed as HeI men clashed with Security Forces (SFs) in different parts of the country, especially in Brahmanbaria District, between March 26 and 28, 2021. The HeI men were on the streets protesting against the two-day visit (March 26-27) of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. Modi was visiting Bangladesh to participate in the celebrations of Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee of independence. HeI’s links with terrorist groups is well established.
The Hindu community is the biggest minority in Bangladesh’s 169 million population, with an estimated population of 12.73 million (8.5 percent). After Partition, the Hindus constituted nearly a quarter of the population of the erstwhile East Pakistan. At the time of the first census in Bangladesh in 1974, the Hindu population had been reduced to 13.5 percent and has been on the decline ever since. According to 2001 Bangladesh population census, the share of the Hindu population had come down to 9.2 per cent and further, down to 8.5 per cent in the 2011 census. The trend is expected to have continued, if not worsened.
Following the recent attacks, the Government and law enforcement agencies have described the incidents as a ‘planned’ bid to destabilize the country. Sohel Mahmud, Additional Superintendent of Police, Chandpur District, asserted, “The attacks were definitely pre-planned.”
Since coming to power in 2009, Sheikh Hasina has controlled Islamist terrorism. Since 2009, 315 Islamist terrorists have been killed and 13,336 have been arrested across the country. The War Crimes (WC) Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, continued thorough all these years. Significantly, there is a strong overlap between the 1971 war crimes’ accused and the Islamist extremist leadership. So far, a total of 125 leaders, including 50 from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI); 27 from the Muslim League; 11 from Nezam-e-Islami; five from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); two each from the Jatiya Party and Peoples Democratic Party; 27 former Razakars; and one former Al-Badr member, have been indicted for war crimes. Of these, verdicts have been delivered against 95 accused, including 69 who have been sentenced to death, and 26 to imprisonment for life. So far, six of the 69 people who were awarded the death sentence have been hanged. 32 others are absconding and another 31 cases are currently pending with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, out of 26 persons who were awarded life sentences, five persons have already died while serving their sentences; 13 were absconding and another eight were lodged in various jails of the country. Verdicts against 30 accused are yet to be delivered.
Action against Islamist radicals has also been taken. At least 25 HeI leaders and 881 activists were arrested from across the country for acts of violence in March 2021. Indeed, in a confessional statement before the Dhaka Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court on April 20, 2021, HeI Assistant Finance Secretary Muhammad Ilias Hamidi admitted that the Islamist outfit’s recent violence was aimed at toppling the Government.
Moreover, HeI’s direct links with terrorist groups have also come to the fore. On April 28, 2021, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal disclosed, “Hefajat sometimes gets stuck in political entanglements and gets involved with identified militants and criminals who always act against the state.” On April 25, 2021, Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Deputy Commissioner Harunor Rashid noted that HeI Joint Secretary General Mamunul Haque had links with the terrorists who carried out the grenade attack on an Awami League rally on August 21, 2004, which resulted in the death of 24 people and injured over 400. He also disclosed that Haque had gone to Pakistan with one of the terrorists, to contact extremist groups there. “He had political ambitions. He had been thinking about grabbing power with the help of Jamaat-e-Islami,” the official added. All these revelations have come to the fore after Mamunul Haque’s arrest from Dhaka city’s Mohammadpur area on April 18, 2021, for his involvement in street violence in March 2021. Further, on April 26, 2021, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police asserted, “We have got evidence on Hefajat’s links with militant outfits.” Similarly, Tohidul Islam, Additional Deputy Commissioner of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit, noted,
A number of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) operatives were holding posts in the Hefajat committee. These operatives are now trying to use the Hefajat banner to fulfil their purpose and carry out subversive activities in the country.
According to an intelligence report, the 249-member HeI central committee, which was dissolved on April 25, 2021, had at least eight leaders who were either former operatives of HuJI-B or had connections with the terrorist formation.
Unsettled by the Government’s actions, these radical groups are making efforts to reassert themselves by engaging in violence. The recent outbreaks are the part of such planned actions.
Indeed, blaming the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) for the recent attacks, Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasan Mahmud stated on October 18, 2021,
BNP-Jamaat is behind all the unrest occurring in the country now. It’s very clear that they are doing it to destabilize the country. However, the government has controlled it with a strong hand. Those who were behind the incidents, have a plan to carry out the incidents throughout the country but failed due to government’s intervention.
Mahmud also urged all democratic and secular forces to resist the miscreants.
Significantly, on October 18, 2021, Police arrested three BNP leaders in connection with a case filed over temple vandalism and violence in Hathazari, Chittagong District, on October 13. They are Fakir Ahmed (60), convener of the Mirsarai municipality unit, Mohammad Zahid Hussain (30), joint convener of the unit, and Nazrul Islam (35), a local BNP leader. On October 21, 2021, JeI leader Mohamad Kamal Uddin Abbasi gave a confessional statement before a court over his involvement in the vandalism at puja mandaps and the clash with the Police in Hajiganj, Chandpur District. In his statement, he also revealed the names of others involved in the incident. JeI leader Abbasi was arrested on October 20, after the Police evaluation of CCTV footage.
So far, 102 cases have been filed in different parts of the country in connection with the attacks between October 13 and 22. As many as 583 people have been arrested over the attacks on puja venues, temples, Hindu homes and businesses, and for spreading rumours on social media amid the Durga Puja, the largest festival of Bengali Hindus.
Meanwhile, demonstrating the Bangladesh Government’s intention of taking the radical Islamist challenge head-on, Bangladesh State Minister for Information Murad Hassan declared, during a press conference on October 15, 2021,
We’ll go back to the constitution of 1972. We’ll get that Bill enacted in Parliament under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s leadership. We’ll soon return to the 1972 secular constitution issued by Bangladesh’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, following independence. This is a non-communal Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a secular country. Everyone will practise their faith here.
Reiterating the Government’s commitment on secularism, on October 19, 2021, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina observed,
We follow the ideals of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman. Bangladesh is a secular country. People of all religions shall live together in Bangladesh. Religion may be personal, but festival is universal. And people in Bangladesh have always celebrated such festivals together.
Islam was made the state religion by a Constitutional amendment during the reign of General H.M. Ershad in 1988. The ruling Awami League enjoys an absolute majority in Parliament, with its coalition accounting for 280 seats in the 300-member House.
Indeed, the attacks on Durga Puja venues, temples and Hindu establishments are part of a planned Islamist conspiracy to embarrass and undermine the Sheikh Hasina Government for taking actions against radicals, more recently against the HeI. This is a dangerous situation, unless the Government moves quickly to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. A strong campaign to intensify the crackdown against Islamists and their leaders is required to root out the radical elements and their underpinning ideology in the country.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management