The anatomy of intolerance

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Image: Collected

On the morning of October 13, the 'maha ashtomi' day of this year’s Durga Puja, the most important religious festival of the Bengali Hindu community, a most unusual thing happened. A copy of the Holy Quran, Islam’s holy book, was spotted at the temporary puja mandap set up by the Darpan Sangha at the northern end of Nanua Dighi, on the lap of Hanuman. It was first spotted by two female devotees who arrived ahead of everyone else. Puja had not even commenced yet for the day.

As the two women, in shock almost, discussed among themselves what was going on, a bystander came up to them and raised the alarm, calling 999 around 7am. This was Ekram Hossain. His call drew an almost immediate response, as the OC of Kotwali police station himself arrived there in plainclothes in barely 15-20 minutes in a CNG and took possession of the Quran.

At around 7:30am, one Foyez Ahmed went live on Facebook from the spot and urged people to wake up and protest the alleged desecration of the Quran by the Hindu devotees. His 56-second live broadcast featured OC Anwarul Azim prominently in the background, holding on to the Holy Book of Islam, was clearly meant to incite viewers, as he narrated how the Quran Sharif had been kept at the feet of an idol to insult Muslims, and he urged them to “wake up”.

As people started sharing Foyez’s live stream, soon groups of young men began to pour into the mandap by 8am. Within an hour, the throng had grown to hundreds of people.

Ward Councillor Emran Bachchu, in the meantime, erected a bamboo fence around the mandap to keep them out.

As the situation started to spiral out of hand, Deputy Commissioner Kamrul Hasan and Superintendent of Police Faruk Ahmed arrived on scene with additional police forces between 10am and 10:30am.

The DC, SP, a local councillor, and several imams of local mosques were trying to calm things down. But a group of six to seven young men, some wearing red sports jerseys, got into a fierce argument with them. They demanded that worshipping be stopped right away, the idols be smashed into pieces, and the marquee pulled down. They chanted: "Bondho Bondho, Puja Bondho [stop the puja]", "Legechhe Re Legechhe, Rokte Agun Legechhe [our blood has been set on fire]".

They kept riling up the mob that started hurling stones at the mandap at around 11am. Meanwhile, the mob grew larger, and by 11:30am, they started vandalising the mandap.

As a fallout of the incident in Cumilla, 500-600 miscreants attacked Shri Trinayani Sangha Raja Lakshmi Narayan Jiur Akhra, Hakimabad Pujamandap in Hajiganj of Chandpur District. When the police tried to stop them, they attacked the police and vandalised five to six mandapas. Fifteen policemen were seriously injured when the miscreants hit them with bricks. Five people lost their lives in this incident when police opened fire on the crowd.

The next day, October 14, 800 to 1000 rioters gathered near the Sri Sri Durga Puja temple in Chayani Union of Begumganj in Noakhali district, aka the ISKCON temple, and started chanting provocative slogans. At one point, they attacked the magistrate, police and BGB patrol in front of the temple. They also vandalised the temple idols and set the temple on fire. One person was killed in the incident and later another body was recovered from the pond – the first such lynchings of Hindus in Bangladesh in decades.

On 18 October, some miscreants carried out arson attacks at the houses of Hindu community members at Boro Karimpur Majhipara village in Pirganj upazila of Rangpur district over a post on social media. The attackers in the area set fire to the houses of 18 families, including a temple in the village.

Besides, attacks and vandalism took place in Pekua and Chakaria police stations of Cox's Bazar district, Zakiganj of Sylhet district, Kulaura and Kamalganj of Moulvibazar district, Nabiganj of Habiganj district and Kashimpur police station of Gazipur metropolis. Seven people lost their lives in all these incidents. Of them, two were Hindus and five Muslims. Fifty policemen were injured while on duty to bring the situation under control.

While incitement was a common thread running through each of these incidents, another was the lackadaisical response of law-enforcers, particularly in the follow-up incidents to Cumilla, by when they should have been on high alert.

The police in charge of security at the vandalised temples in Noakhali's Begumganj left the site as soon as the immersion ceremony of the idols were completed, and did not appear again till the attack was almost over.

The attackers arrived and started vandalising the temples right after police left. In the violence that ensued, one Jatan Saha was beaten to death. The immersion took place before the Juma prayers on Friday at the insistence of the authorities before the tenth day of the Durga Puja was over.

A fact-finding team from Ain o Salish Kendra that had visited Begumganj made these observations. They presented their findings at a press conference at Dhaka Reporters' Unity this week. "The actual attack went on for over an hour and a half but police arrived only towards the end," said Abu Ahmed Faijul Kabir, senior coordinator of advocacy and networking at ASK.

Many victims told ASK that they were unable to reach the police officers in charge of the area.

"Most of those conducting the attacks were young adults or teenagers," said Kabir. "They were chanting and carrying different types of homemade weapons."

During their visit to Chandpur's Hajiganj and Cumilla, ASK team found that victims had repeatedly made complaints using national helpline "999" but to no avail.

"It was due to negligence of the authorities and law enforcement agencies that the attack happened. Though the situation was tense from morning, the law enforcers played a questionable role in preventing the violence," said Kabir.

The organisation listed a total of 18 districts where festival-related violence took place.

At Chandpur's Hajiganj, police opened fire before attempting to disperse the crowd using the riot control mechanism, resulting in five deaths, the organisation found. One of those dead was a 15-year-old.

ASK secretary-general Md Nur Khan Liton said, "This is not only a law enforcement issue. There needs to be a special session at the parliament to discuss the violence and to decide on future steps."

He said the vandalised temples must be rebuilt and there needs to be a public hearing so that people can give their testimonies without fear.

"What we need more than police action is a consensus among all political parties that this kind of incidents cannot happen. It is our civic duty to reinstate trust among the population," said Liton.

A crime looking for a criminal

In Cumilla too, the police response has been criticised not only for the possibly unwitting role played by the AC in the morning, but also then waiting till the vandalisation of the mandap started around 11.30 before calling in additional forces. Once they arrived, policemen opened fire to disperse the crowds. Around 50 people received minor injuries. The DC, SP and the mayor took shelter at a nearby house during that time.

Chase and counter-chase between police and the crowds went on until 4pm. Both Foyez and Ekram were arrested that morning and are now in jail.

Between 12 noon and 2pm, processions from at least 10 areas on the outskirts of Comilla marched to Pubali Chattar, considered the city centre. They fanned across the city and vandalized three temples -- Kalighat Tola, Chanmoyee Kalibari Mandir, Anandamoyee -- and 14 puja mandaps.

Some footage shows the processions being led primarily by youths. They vandalized temples and mandaps while shouting blood-curdling chants.

Achintyo Das Titu, general secretary of Comilla City Puja Udjapan Parishad, said the mayhem started around 11am and lasted till midnight. There were 91 puja mandaps in the city this year.

Ekram Hossain, who dialled 999, lives one and a half kilometres away from the spot, and Foyez Ahmed was an expatriate who came home from Saudi Arabia a year ago. He now owns two shops selling clothes and mobile accessories in Sattar Khan area of Cumilla city. These two played key roles in instigating the violence, and it is being investigated whether their actions were coordinated. What soon became the burning question of the week though, was who put the Quran there?

Footprints of incitement

This task was unexpectedly made more difficult by the discovery that the mandap at Nanua’r Dighi Paar did not have CCTV installed this year. "Given the bonding and harmony between Hindus and Muslims in our area, no CCTV was installed at the mandap. We never thought extra security would be needed. Some people took the opportunity," the supervisor of the mandap said.

This meant the police had to scour through hours of footage from CCTV cameras in the area surrounding area. This must have been extremely tedious, but it did yield results.

Almost a week after the incident, Cumilla police on Wednesday, October 20 identified one Iqbal Hossain, 35, a local resident who the police termed a ‘vagabond’, as the one who took the Holy Quran from a nearby mazaar-mosque complex, and placed it at the mandap. Footage released by police confirmed their findings. Before-and-after images had shown that whoever placed the Quran in Hanuman’s lap had removed his mace, and CCTV footage showed Iqbal walking away from the mandap with it, about an hour after he was captured by another set of cameras leaving the mosque with the Quran. Although there is no actual footage of him entering the mandap, his movements with the Quran in hand and later the mace captured by ten different cameras leave little room for doubt.

Later that morning, Iqbal was also seen as part of the agitating mob that had gathered outside the mandap prior to the mayhem that ensued. This was recorded on a mobile phone camera and the footage is in police possession.

Ekram was arrested late on Thursday night from Cox’s Bazar, At the time of writing, he was being transported to Cumilla. OC Anwarul Azim said police had kept the Holy Quran in their possession as an important piece of evidence.

At a briefing earlier in the day, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal voiced the obvious, that Iqbal was probably instructed by someone to do what he did as part of a larger conspiracy. Indeed, these will be important points of the investigation moving forward. The nature and scale of the violence this time suggested a much more premeditated course that must be brought to light, so that it never happens again.

General secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Christian Buddha Oikya Parishad, Rana Dasgupta, has demanded that the actual planners behind the incident must be identified. He questioned the police’s description of Iqbal as a vagabond, sensing it may have been done to divert attention from the seriousness of the issue:

“How did this vagrant know about the Holy Quran? If he is actually a vagrant, a person off the street, where did he get a new copy of the book, who gave it to him? And the manner in which the Holy Quran was carefully placed before Hanuman, can hardly be the work of a vagrant. This was planned. There are conspirators behind this. It is the responsibility of the state, the administration and the government to find this out.”

A blight on the nation’s image

Indeed, the government must get to the bottom of it all and deliver justice to the aggrieved, as the only way to address the blow that has been delivered to the image of Bangladesh on the international stage.

“Recent attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, fueled by hate speech on social media, are against the values of the Constitution and need to stop,” UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh Mia Seppo said on Monday. “...We call upon all to join hands to strengthen inclusive tolerant Bangladesh.”

Non-government organisation Amnesty International also expressed concern about the attacks. In a statement, the organisation’s South Asia Campaigner Saad Hammadi said that the attacks in Bangladesh are symptomatic of a “growing anti-minority sentiment in the country”.

“Such repeated attacks against individuals, communal violence and destruction of the homes and places of worship of minorities in Bangladesh over the years show that the state has failed in its duty to protect minorities,” Hammadi said.

Amnesty International urged Bangladesh authorities to take urgent steps to protect minorities against such attacks and ensure access to justice.

The United States government also condemned attacks on the minority community in Bangladesh, PTI reported on Tuesday.

“Freedom of religion or belief is a human right,” a spokesperson for the US State Department said. “Every person around the world, regardless of their religious affiliation or belief, should feel safe and supported to celebrate important holidays.”

As the week wore on, multiple protests were held in Dhaka’s Shahbagh, and elsewhere around the country, calling for an end to the violence. Demonstrators at the Dhaka University held banners that urged the police to identify the attackers and take action against them.

“Safety of minorities in the country must be ensured,” one of the banners said. Reports continue to stream in however, of stray incidents of looting of Hindu homes or vandalising temples, from around the country.

The unrest poses a challenge for the Awami League government, which has always portrayed itself as secular and minority-friendly, especially since returning to power in 2009. However, ASK estimates over 3,600 attacks targeting Hindus have taken place in Bangladesh since 2013.

The attacks include vandalism and arson targeting over 550 houses and 440 shops and businesses. More than 1,670 cases of vandalism and arson attacks on Hindu temples, idols and places of worship were also reported during this period, according to ASK.

Eleven members of the Hindu community died in these incidents, and another 862 were injured. Several instances of sexual assault against Hindu women were also reported during this time. Hindu victims of attacks struggle to receive legal recourse from the government, despite promises of reform.

"The past governments didn't allow Hindu victims to file cases when they were attacked. Under the Awami League government, we can file cases, but justice is not served even after filing complaints," Rana Dasgupta recently said, in an interview with the German state broadcaster DW.

The home minister has insisted this time will be different, and that those responsible for the attacks on Hindu homes and temples will be brought to justice.

"All the incidents will be investigated, and the culprits will be brought to justice; none will be spared," he told reporters on Friday. In order to save the dream upon which this nation was built, we certainly hope so.

  • The anatomy of intolerance
  • Puja Attacks
  • Puja Mandaps
  • Minority
  • Durga Puja
  • Hindu-Muslim

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