Since the day of the Ashtami in Durga Puja on 13 October this year, Bangladesh has been boiling with Puja mandaps, Hindu temples, localities and individuals being attacked and women being raped and killed. The violence that erupted after a video went viral of the Holy Quran being defamed at the Durga mandap at Nanua Dighir Par Puja in Comilla city has still not been controlled, despite the assurances and efforts by the government in that country.
Durga puja has been observed peacefully in that locality since 1990 and is equally popular among Hindus and Muslims. As the incidents unfold, it is apparent that the sinister plot was planned and undertaken by some forces that tried to create trouble during the festival and prolong it, adding to the list of atrocities against Hindu minorities time and again. The miscreants took advantage of the night to place the Quran so that trouble erupts.
A 56-second Facebook live video by a youngster early next morning, exhorting viewers to protest against the incident, after another youngster had dialled the police helpline number to report the so-called ‘desecration’, sparked unrest.
Both the youngsters have been arrested but the actual conspirators are yet to be identified and taken to task. Clearly, the Facebook live video was the trigger, and then various social media platforms added fuel to the fire, thus instigating many youth who have since gone on the pillage across the country.
The New Generation & Social Media
As Bangladesh projects its growing economy as a sign of success and tries to move away from a past that saw regular political violence and strikes, these incidents paint a poor picture and bring to sharp focus the fault lines that remain there for religious freedom despite secularism being enshrined in their Constitution. Also, the growth of India-Bangladesh relations in the last decade on almost all fronts will surely be affected.
Ironically, only in June this year, the Global Peace Index ranked Bangladesh as the third-most peaceful country in South Asia.
Although the fire of religious hatred and persecution was lit by pre-Partition players, especially the Muslim League in their demand for a separate country, the ongoing incidents prove that religious hatred still burns red in Bangladesh, making the life of Bengali Hindu minorities miserable. This fire is stoked further by the new generation and social media, oblivious of the common cultural heritage and the teachings of great poets such as Hazrat Shah Jalal and other Sufi saints who worked hard to promote peace and harmony among different communities.
A Shrinking Hindu Population
With only 9% of the current population of Bangladesh counted as Bengali Hindus, these incidents of religious hatred create fear in the minds of minorities and could force the Hindus to convert or come to India as refugees, much against the vision of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. In a study conducted in 2020 by US-based academic Vivek Gumaste on the Hindu population in Bangladesh, it was inferred that in the next 30 years, there would be no Hindus left in Bangladesh.
In the 1930s, the Hindu population of East Bengal was 28%; in the 1950s, the Hindu population of East Pakistan was 22%; now, the Hindu population in Bangladesh is only around 9%.
As is well-known, India-Bangladesh relations, since the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, have been guided by a spirit of friendship and non-interference. Governments in India across the political spectrum have always supported the efforts of the Bangladesh government to improve ties and trade across the border and foster people-to-people cooperation. Even in the current situation, the Indian government has been restrained despite requests from various groups to take up the temple vandalism and killings with the friendly neighbour. The angst around this time has built enough pressure on the Indian government to engage Bangladesh.
It is a well-known fact that many areas close to the border have seen immigration in the past, particularly in Assam, and some of these incidents have been due to religious persecution. These issues also become a thorn in the efforts to bring peace in the northeastern region of India. It is thus important that peace return and the culprits are taken to task in order to instil confidence among the minorities.
The Violence Is Still Raging
There was a time when religious leaders used to organise camps to instigate people to take up weapons, but in today’s world, this task is reduced to just a click on the smartphone, as has been the case this time. The senseless and unabated violence against Hindus and their homes and temples has created enough fear across the country.
From Comilla, Chittagong, Chandpur, and Moulavi Bazar to Rangpur, the fire is raging even after the Puja has ended. The ravaging of temples, including the ISKCON temple in Noakhali, the physical harm to saints, as also the rapes and killings of a minor girl, are shocking.
While the government there has taken tactical steps like shutting down the Internet for some time, it is crucial for them to immediately nip the violence and identify the conspirators. They have to see that social media platforms ensure that their networks are not used for further spread of hatred. Of course, civil society’s efforts to foster peace are important, but they need to be more impactful and sincere.
Durga Puja is one of the few widely celebrated festivals of the Bengali Hindus where religious sentiments, happiness and fun coincide. But this year, it meant something different for the Hindus living in Bangladesh in many places — the violence marred the festival spirit in India as well. Maa Durga has left with a teary eye from Bangladesh this time.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is a commentator on cyber and security issues around north east India. He can be reached @subimal on Twitter. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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