Religious Violence in Bangladesh
The Hindu Shakta festival of the Durga Puja is dedicated to the goddess Durga. Traditionally, the festival symbolises the ultimate victory of Durga over the wicked shapeshifting demon, Mahishasura, during her ascendancy. This divine defeat is intended to symbolise the triumph of the forces of good over evil, no matter the circumstances. Sadly, the festival which was meant to promote and celebrate benevolence has become the scene of ongoing malevolence against Hindu minorities in Bangladesh and communal hostility in South Asia since mid-October. This violence has been described as Bangladesh’s “worst bouts of communal violence in two decades”.
On October 15 2021, mobs unleashed carnage on Begumganj, a town in Southeastern Bangladesh, following the rapid spread of rumours on social media that the Quran had been desecrated and placed at the feet of the goddess Durga at a pavilion set up for the Shakta festival. The rumours travelled across Bangladesh, as did retaliatory mob violence against the Hindu minority. Within hours of the reports first circulating social media, Islamic hardliners and fundamentalists gathered in mobs, defacing temples, shrines, holy sites, homes, and assaulting celebrants. This violence, like the nation’s current Coronavirus situation, swept across Bangladesh. According to the latest figures, there have been at least 160 casualties, with 80 Hindu temples across Bangladesh defaced. A report by the Hindustan Times confirmed that Bangladeshi Police have charged over 4000 people with charges relating to vandalism, the assault of security personnel, and the obstruction of government duty, with over 400 detained by the police force.
With only 8.5% of Bangladesh's population identifying as Hindu - the majority being Muslim - the current unrest in the nation is a long-running pattern of violence, oppression and bias against the religious minority. Since January 2013, there have been just under 4,000 recorded acts of violence perpetrated against the Hindu minority, according to a human rights organisation based in the country. Communal acts of violence of this magnitude last occurred in October 2016, when anti-Hindu Islamic fundamentalists desecrated 15 Hindu temples near the capital city of Dhaka, 157km away from the sites of the first act of violence in October 2021. In 2016, the homes of over 100 Hindu families were also vandalised. Parallels can be drawn between the events of 2016 and 2021, as the violence in 2016 was also triggered by anti-Islamic rumours shared across Facebook. Interestingly, reports have surfaced that Islamic hard-liners may have purposely utilised social media to provoke the anti-minority violence, with Bangladeshi police reporting that they had arrested two Muslims for criminal mischief with confessed intentions of purposely beginning communal disturbances.
Domestic responses across the nation have varied, with the leader of the social liberal Awami League, Aysha Zaman, placing the blame squarely on “slow responses” by Bangladeshi police. Zaman asserted that "no Hindu...[in her] country is stupid enough to do something like this", insisting that Facebook played a key role in the terrorisation of the Hindu population. This was backed by Achinta Das, Head of the Hindu festival committee in Cumilla, a border town in Eastern Bangladesh where some of the earliest acts of violence took place. Das called the violence a “pre-planned attack”, denying that Hindus would desecrate a text as holy as the Quran. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a day after the attacks began, condemned the violence, emphasising that the perpetrators “must be found”. However, Hasina’s words in support of the Hindu community and attempt to quell violence fell on deaf ears.
Over time, the government of Sheik Hasina has slowed and been routinely lax in its efforts to contain and confront Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh. The government has been accused of “politicising counterterrorism” in a preoccupation with “suppressing” political opposition and dissent. The government’s track record also offers no comfort to the Hindu population. From 2001 to 2006, when the National Party formed and ruled in coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the government was viewed as unforgiving, unsympathetic, and uncaring about the needs, cares or concerns of religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh. Despite its commitments to secularism, the opposition, the Awami League, also have not demonstrated legislative goals or commitments to the protection and conservation of the nation’s Hindu population and, as such, they remain hopeless.
However, this lack of domestic support on all levels felt by Bangladesh’s Hindus has been picked up on an international scale, with a strong response in the form of protests and civil action taking place in support of Bangladeshi peace and safety worldwide. From tens of thousands on the streets of Bangladesh to hundreds in metro Detroit, London and Melbourne. As the violence intensified, Mia Seppo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh, condemned the events in a tweet on October 18. Seppo called on the government to ensure the protection of minorities and to launch an impartial probe into the events, calling on "all to join hands to strengthen an inclusive, tolerant Bangladesh". This was further emphasised by a statement from the United States State Department, which affirmed that every person had the right to be supported and safe regardless of religious affiliations, highlighting that freedom of religion or belief is a human right.
Further, protests around the world were organised by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), across the United States, in Europe, but notably in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in Australia. Protestors took to the streets on October 23 in all three states, with the support of the Hindu Council of Australia. They called for justice and an end to the violence against the Hindu community in Bangladesh. Bhakta Das, a representative of ISKCON Australia, said that the protests on October 23 were simply the beginning and that more would be organised to seek justice. The group is now planning to give a presentation to the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Canberra in order to “seek safety for Hindus”.
Ultimately, whilst Hindus at home in Bangladesh fear for their safety, Bangladeshis and Hindus abroad are attempting to do what their counterparts often cannot - boldly seek justice. Whether or not the Bangladeshi political establishment will succeed in their protection of the Hindu minority or fail once more is yet to be seen, only time will tell.
Liep Gatwech is an enthusiastic writer and a fourth year Monash University student. Liep has a passion for human rights, international affairs and specifically, affairs concerning the developing world, Africa and the African diaspora.