There is a sense that the tragic incident that unfolded in Bhola this week can be overlooked, almost dismissed as yet another isolated incident in a remote corner of the country that cannot possibly inflict any lasting damage on the firmament of religious and communal harmony in Bangladesh. And to that extent, it may be true. In any case, those who lost their lives happened to belong to the majority, and the Hindu lad who found himself as the sacrificial lamb in such a diabolical design was well-protected in police custody. We have seen similar attempts in Ramu in 2012, in Pabna (Sathiya) in 2013, in Brahmanbaria (Nasirnagar) in 2016, in Rangpur (Thakurpara) in 2017 and now in Bhola (Borhanuddin).

Though not always the case, this time the state's agency of control, of law enforcement, acted to protect the minority community, and this was always going to be the test when it comes to deciding on the question of just how strongly we can lay claim to the image of a harmonious society. Although some Hindu houses and temples were damaged, by and large the anger whipped up against them was kept in check.

Yet questions do remain, and we must ask them, if only to honour the memory of the dead. At least four people were killed and dozens injured on October 20 after the police opened fire to disperse hundreds of angry Muslims in Borhanuddin, an upazila of Bhola, the island district in the south, during a protest over an alleged Facebook post insulting the Prophet Muhammad. It is quite as ridiculous as it sounds - four lives lost over something someone wrote on Facebook? And how? Police shooting at crowds? In an age when the first shot fired by the Hong Kong police after months of an ongoing protest makes headline news around the world? Isn't riot control a standard operational requirement for any police force? And if our police force is as adroit as it claims pointing to the work it has done to blunt the terrorist threat in Bangladesh, why is it so hapless when it comes to controlling a mob?

There is much that remains unclear over who made the Facebook posts that were ultimately deemed offensive, and whether there was any hacking at all involved, yet to accord any importance at all to those details is to miss the point. There can be no room for mob violence over anything anyone may have written on social media, period. Just as the instigators in such cases must be traced and brought to book, those who get instigated must be convinced of the error of their ways. There is a case for decoupling social media from the national discourse, given the almost entirely uncensored nature of the content, and the existence of such nefarious elements with almost free rein to sow mischief on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. Lack of education makes for impressionable minds, and just the idea of almost every person and their mother too being on Facebook these days - the great, the good, and everyone else too - and government departments issuing circulars to regulate their employees' use of social media makes it look more important than it is actually. The problem is the horse may already have bolted on this one.

If Facebook posts and ads can be blamed for swaying the results of an election in an advanced society such as the United States, what hope do we have with our poor levels of education, and the vulnerability of our masses to what they consume on the information superhighway, hooked on a platform where the internal architecture is not designed to challenge their tendencies, but rather to drill down on them through quite literally an endless scroll of confirmation bias? It's a question societies are still grappling with in dealing with this new kind of challenge posed by this new kind of public space. And the general wisdom may be to look to other nations (such as the European Union or the United States where regulating social media firms is shaping up to be an important issue in the next presidential election, in the shape of the candidacy of Senator Elizabeth Warren) for our cue.

But there is a case for recognising our own particular vulnerabilities and charting a more immediate and deliberate course. The government has consistently claimed very strong relations with Facebook's management on multiple occasions over the past few years, almost advertising it like some achievement. Their stated aim in pursuing such a foundation has always been to stop the spread of nefarious activity that threatens the security of citizens. One would think that should include those precisely of the nature that has now repeatedly tripped them up in the instances mentioned above, stretching all the way back to Ramu in 2012. They may point to some success in stopping terrorist groups from getting organised, but it is well-known that real terror groups and organisations have long-migrated to other, less prominent, or more secretive platforms. Facebook is the domain of more casual wrongdoing, more disparate bouts of mischief that can add up to become a problem. The question is, for all their ability at staging raids where they take no prisoners and doing so frequently enough to suppress subservient tendencies in the population, are our agencies of law enforcement capable of more nuanced work, that can save the lives of those who are patently not criminal?

Lives less valued

What can be said for or against madrasah student Mahbub, 14, college student Shahin, 23, Mahfuzur Rahman Patwary, 45, and Mizanur Rahman, 40, all of whom were killed after police fired on the crowd that had confined them in a mosque adjoining the local Eidgah on the day things came to a head in Borhanuddin? They are the names of the faceless who perish due to the volatility of their passions, that those cleverer than them prey upon. The police in a statement said that after initially trying to disperse the crowd using shotguns (pellet guns, that scores of the injured suffered from), they were forced to resort to live ammunition upon the orders of a magistrate present at the scene. Videos of the incident circulating on the internet don't exactly bear out the details (one may ask whether the police could have made more effective use of tear gas before resorting to the shotgun even, let alone live ammo) of the statement, except that it is true a mob had gathered. In recent times we have seen how dangerous that can be. Yet the one time the police were present on the scene, they failed to do anything towards preventing loss of life. You are forced to wonder though, just how much of a priority that ever really is for our law enforcement agencies. And that may well be the most damning statement of all.

Borhanuddin upazila police officials said that a message allegedly having derogatory comments against the Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (SM) and his daughter Fatima was sent from a Facebook account of a local Hindu youth named Biplob Chandra Shuvo on early Thursday (October 17) and its screenshots went viral on Friday and Saturday on Facebook.

Police headquarters in a statement on Sunday evening (after the flare-up at the Eidgah), expressing condolence at the deaths and injuries during the incident and confirmed once again that Biplob on Friday evening lodged a general diary alleging that his Facebook account had been hacked. Biplob also informed the officer-in-charge that an unidentified caller had called him demanding money from him - a case of extortion. Using their recently purchased toolkits for tracking down criminals in the digital space, the police tracked down and arrested two Muslim youths - Sharif and Emon - from Patuakhali and Borhanuddin on the same night and took them to the police station for interrogation.


But, the statement said, as tension mounted in the area as the local Muslims started to gather, Biplob was shown detained on Saturday which led the locals to scrap their protest programme at Eidgah Maidan scheduled for Sunday 11am. However, even though the protest programme was officially withdrawn, protesters in groups gathered under the banner of 'Muslim Towhidi Janata' starting from around 9am on the day. They were reportedly chanting slogans for capital punishment for the 'offender' who was accused of posting the comments on Facebook.

The police headquarters' statement said that the Barishal range additional deputy inspector general along with the local UNO and the police superintendent of police went to the spot and talked the people into leaving the venue by describing the initiatives taken by police. As the crowd of local Muslims began to disperse, the statement said, the officials inside the room, when apparently another group, possibly agent provocateurs if the police have their facts right, opened fire on the police. The protesters insist though, that they were unarmed and the videos on social media would seem to support their version, even though police constable Arif, 21, had to be sent to Dhaka by helicopter with bullet injuries on his left chest and hand. That was more likely to have been a case of 'friendly fire'.

It would take till Tuesday, October 22, for anything resembling normalcy to slowly return to Bhola district, amid beefed up security two days after the clash. The tension was reportedly still palpable, although businesses, offices and educational institutions reopened in Bhola Sadar, Borhanuddin and other upazilas, while intra-district traffic returned to regular movement.

As Dhaka Courier went to press this week, a rather puzzling set of developments fed concerns that once again, this would be an incident where law enforcers would fail to establish any sort of clarity over what exactly transpired to lead to the bloodshed we witnessed, even though the blood is on their hands. First it was reported that the Facebook account of Bhola's superintendent of police (SP) had been hacked.This is the same individual against whom protesters had raised demands of removal, for his actions on October 20. Also, plainclothesmen allegedly picked up two relatives of Biplob Chandra Baidya Shuvo, the Hindu youth from whose Facebook profile hateful comments on Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had spread after it was reportedly hacked. This was while Biplob, as well as Emon and Rafsan who were picked up earlier, remained in police custody.

Even more sinister is the fact that police at the time of filing this continue to deny picking up the relatives. Family members told reporters that Bidhan Majumder and Sagar Baidya were picked up by seven to eight plain-clothed DB officers, who arrived in a black vehicle, from their family-owned jewellery shop at Rouder Hat in the upazila's Dularhat area. Bidhan, 35, is married to Biplob's sister Shilpi, and 18-year-old Sagar is a cousin of Biplob from his father's side. But police in Bhola claimed they were not aware of any law enforcement agency picking the two up. It's difficult to understand what to make of it. The fact of the matter is, none of the previous cases, from Ramu to Brahmanbaria, have witnessed a satisfactory resolution with perpetrators being identified and punished. This time, despite the would-be victim acting in time to come under the authorities' guidance, how the aftermath plays out may not be all that different.

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