Bangladesh steps up security as violence targets Hindu festival

DHAKA, Bangladesh – Paramilitary forces spread across much of Bangladesh on Friday to help curb the worst community violence in years targeting members of the Hindu minority as they celebrated their biggest annual religious holiday.

At least four people have been confirmed dead and more than 100 injured since Wednesday as violence spread across the country over allegations that a copy of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, has not been respected in a temple in Cumilla, a district southeast of the capital, Dhaka. Authorities shut down mobile internet access in Dhaka for much of the day.

The worst of violence rocked the district of Chandpur, south of Dhaka, where police ran into an angry mob trying to attack a Hindu temple.

Clashes and protests have been reported in at least 10 of the country’s 64 districts, according to local media. Paramilitary forces have been deployed to more than 35 districts to curb the spread of violence on Friday, the last day of a major Hindu festival, the Durga Puja, said Shariful Islam, a spokesperson for the forces.

“A crowd of Muslims went to attack Hindu temples and we sent the police to check the situation,” said Anjana Khan Mojlish, the district magistrate of Chandpur. “The situation was getting worse and the police had no choice but to use firearms, which left three people dead – and all of them are Muslims. ”

Gobinda Chandra Pramanik, secretary general of Bangladesh National Hindu Mahajote, an umbrella group, said at least 17 Hindu temples had been attacked and idols had been vandalized. He also said more than a hundred people were injured.

As a sign that tensions remained high until late Friday, Pramanik said two Hindus were also killed in Noakhali district after a temple burned down. Noakhali police confirmed one death and said they were investigating reports of other victims.

“I have never seen such an incident in my life,” said Shibu Prasad Roy, who was part of the organizing committee of the Durga Puja festival. “At the beginning, 15 to 20 people, aged 14 to 18, came to attack our temple in Cumilla. After that, the number grew to hundreds of people.

The violence in Bangladesh reflects a growing intolerance towards minorities across South Asia. Religious and ethnic minorities, from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, say they have been the victims of a blatant community policy in the service of majority groups.

Bangladesh has seen the emergence of local Muslim extremist groups who have been accused of targeting the country’s secular forces with a wave of assassinations. It has also been vulnerable to cross-border tensions over a surge in community politics in India that has targeted Muslims, including those of Bangladeshi descent.

A visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Dhaka this spring sparked widespread protests against the treatment of Muslims in India. At least 12 protesters were killed when police opened fire on the protest.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Thursday vowed to track down anyone involved in targeting Hindu rallies. But she made it clear that she saw the violence as linked to wider community intolerance across the border.

“This is not the first time that minorities in Bangladesh have been attacked,” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia activist. “Targeting religious sensibilities to fuel community tensions is one of the worst forms of human rights violation. We urge the authorities to thoroughly and impartially investigate the incidents and bring those responsible for the violence to justice through fair trials.

Growing intolerance in Bangladesh, which also targets minorities other than Hindus, has been fueled in part by disinformation spread on social media and exploited for political ends.

As an example, Asif Nazrul, a law professor at Dhaka University, spoke of the latest wave of community violence that targeted the Hindu minority in 2016, in Nasirnagar, which was triggered by a fake Facebook post alleging an insult to Islam by a Hindu. Hundreds of houses belonging to Hindus were set on fire.

Many people accused of being involved in the community violence – including some affiliated with Ms. Hasina’s ruling party – tried to use the attacks as a springboard for their political careers. Ms. Hasina’s party only dropped the nomination of two candidates accused of involvement in the violence after public pressure.

In 2012, a dozen Buddhist temples and monasteries were destroyed by Muslim crowds in Cox’s Bazar, on the country’s southeast coast, after a rumor circulated that a Buddhist insulted the Quran in a Facebook post.

Last November, star cricketer Shakib Al Hasan received a death threat from religious extremists after visiting a Hindu temple in Kolkata, India and participating in a ceremony. Mr. Al Hasan then apologized and declared himself “a proud Muslim”.

Saif Hasnat reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Mujib Mashal from Kavre, Nepal.