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Saturday, November 20, 2021

Chasing an uproar in Bangladesh

Rioters incinerates ISKON temple at Chowmuhani, Noakhali


“To resume regular puja (prayer) for the devotees will take time, as mobsters have desecrated the temples. Only a few priests have the knowledge and wisdom to purify the holy sites.”
An outraged devotee Arun Kanti Saha with the venerated Ram Takur Ashram in Chowmuhani, Noakhali told a post-violence joint civil administration, police and ruling Awami League meeting.
When the Noakhali police chief urged upon the leaders of temple management committees and Hindi leaders, Saha declined to open up the temples for regular prayers for devotees.
The priest and committee members denied removing the debris and restoring the vandalised temples. The temple’s committee was not eager to purify the sacred places which were made unholy by armed hooligans who entered wearing sandals, shoes and deliberately spitting inside the prayer halls for their hate and anger against the Hindus.
Tons of debris of broken glass, smashed furniture, cooking utensils and of course, the vandalised deities have been kept as it is for the visiting civil society teams to witness the rage and fury of the violence.
The district civil and police administrations were desperate to return to normalcy in the towns and devotees are back to regular Puja.
It began after a Facebook post of a photo of a Quran (Holy Scripture of Islam) found on the lap (or feet) of the Hanuman deity at temporary Nanua Digirpar Durga Puja mandap (pavilion for public rituals) on Ashtami (eighth day), 13 October.
Hours later, thousands of Islamic vigilantes and bigots took to the streets in Cumilla, east of the capital Dhaka. The mobsters armed with metal bars, machetes, batons, bamboo sticks and construction hammers were hurled abuses against the Hindu religion and community – addressing them as ‘malayun’ (traitors).
Well, the Sunni Muslim’s faint interpretation of the Quran describes the Hindus [Quran names only Christians, Jews and Pagans] as Kafir’s (who has rejected the tenets of Islam).
Likewise, the Jews and Christens are also bracketed as enemies of Islam.
Middle-aged Achintya Das Tito, is secretary of the Cumilla Mahanagar (metropolitan) Puja Committee was woken up from slumber in the early morning by an officer of a police station.
He rushed to the Nanua Digirpar Puja site and was debriefed on the recovery of a copy of the Quran from the mandap. For safekeeping, the police officer kept the divine book under his armpit.
Moments later the copy of the Quran found at Hanuman deity’s lap or feet and photos of the holy book under the armpit of the officer became viral on Facebook, describing that the Hindus have committed blasphemy and insulted the sentiment of the Muslims. Muslims were urged to protest and punish the Hindus.
After five days the perpetrator was arrested for posting on Facebook. Within a few hours, hundreds of frenzy mobsters ransacked the mandap, smashed the Durga and Hanuman deities. The vigilantes paraded the streets and attacked several temples and business centres owned by Hindus for several hours while the police and administrator remained mute bystanders. Often scores of Islamic evangelists in ‘Waz-Mehfil’ spewed hatred against the Hindus, not to speak of disparagement the Christians, Buddhists and Ahmadiyya Muslims [like in Pakistan, the Mullahs term the sect as a heretic].
Also in the line of fire were the millions of liberal Muslims who remain defenders of secularism, pluralism, freedom of expression, religious freedom and gender equality are bracketed as ‘Murtad’ (apostate). The hate-mongers have millions of followers on their YouTube channels and term the Hindus as enemies of Islam.
Maulana Abdul Awal Khan Chowdhury, National Amir of Ahmadiyya Jamaat, Bangladesh argues that blasphemy was not practised during Prophet Muhammad’s tenure. The Quran prohibits hatred against other religions, faith or ethnicity, Chowdhury said. But Sunni Muslims cite the controversial Sharia law that has sanctioned action against the infidel. Videos by Islamic evangelists vomiting unlimited hate speech were never prosecuted and the channels in YouTube were not blocked by telecom watchdog.
Hardly were they charged under the repressive Digital Security Act, 2018, when thousands of netizens (social media citizens), journalists, opposition and critics were slammed with the draconian cybercrime law and many are languishing in prison.
On 30 October 2016, after a Facebook post attributed to an illiterate Hindu fisherman, hundreds of religious zealots launched a coordinated attack on six villages inhabited by Hindus in Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria. Several  Hindus were often arrested for fake Facebook posts and hurting the feelings of Muslims. Fake posts on social media are often engineered by Islamic bigots backed by masterminds who have a political colour of the ruling party launch sectarian violence.
The phenomenon of the majoritarian Sunni Muslim is to dominate the society, religious minorities and Adivasis (ethnic communities). Besides the Muslims, 12.73 million of the population are Hindus (8.5%), the rest are Buddhists, Christians and ethnic communities.
The Hindus are visible minorities in cities and towns in Bangladesh. In the villages, they are mainly artisans, fisherfolk and traders. The zealot’s soft targets are the temples, Hindu neighbourhoods and their businesses in commercial districts and markets. The onus of the security and welfare of the minorities obviously rests upon the majoritarian. The Muslims take a large slice of the state and politics. Thus, the state governed by the ruling party will have to shield the minorities and provide protection, security and safety.
Several human rights and citizen’s groups, after visiting the recent spate of racial violence in Cumilla, Noakhali, Chandpur, Bhola and Dinajpur, concluded that it was a failure of civil administration, police, political parties (including opposition) and civil society to protect the Hindus.
But Prof Robaet Ferdous of Dhaka University, an outspoken defender of religious freedom after touring the strife-torn areas, differs. “It’s not only the local administration, police and ruling party’s failure to protect the Hindus, but I see the collapse of the society during a national crisis, which contradicts the legacy of the glorious liberation war in 1971 which promised to establish secularism, pluralism and freedom of expression in Bangladesh.” On its 50th independence anniversary Bangladesh transgressed from the pledge, he lamented.
Sangita Ghosh, a filmmaker and defender of secularism said the scars from the wounds of racial hatred will not heal unless the perpetrators are brought to justice. Unfortunately, in 20 years none of the perpetrators was prosecuted for hate crime. The victims never received adequate compensation for breaking their hearts and trusts, she bemoaned.
The sectarian violence has caused a global uproar, including in the international media and has dented the image of Bangladesh. This, rather sadly, comes at a time when the country has made significant strides in economic development, women’s empowerment and gained an international appreciation for achievements in SDG Goals.

First published in the International Affairs Review, 20 November 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist and columnist based in Bangladesh. A media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter: @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

China ‘belting’ Pakistan on the road to debt trap

Gwadar Port in Pakistan occupied Balochistan

The political debacle of the ambitious Gwadar International Port built by the Chinese is yet to be fully operational in Pakistan. It was found that the challenge was unbearable and that the threat perception has increased in the Balochistan province.

The security threat posed by Baloch separatists and armed nationalists demanding the independence of Balochistan has caused a ripple of fear for the future of the Gwadar Port and its connectivity with Central Asia.

Recently, “all-weather friends” China and Pakistan signed a precursor deal to develop the Karachi coastline at the cost of $3.5 billion -- what is being called another debt trap. China’s shift from Gwadar to Karachi has prompted Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan to dub the “jackpot” project “a revolution” in his Tweet to develop Karachi’s coast.

China puts strategy over investment and ignores profits. The Chinese Communist Party’s leadership has shifted from high-risk lending to hedging its bets. China’s President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project seems to have hit a speed bump after reaching Gwadar. In fact, BRI is losing steam. Malaysia has cancelled projects worth $11.58bn. Similarly, Kazakhstan shook their head to say no to a $1.5bn investment, followed by Bolivia, which has turned down projects worth $1bn.

Some countries admit that they have fallen into a debt trap and the mega infrastructure is being colonized, like the $306.7m Hambantota International Port in Sri Lanka built by China in November 2010.

In 2016, a 70% stake of the port was leased to China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CM Port) for 99 years for $1.12bn. The lease has recently been questioned by Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who now wants the port back.

Nearly 35% of the projects are struggling with corruption and protests, while several other countries are contemplating quitting BRI debt trap projects. Many countries where China has offered ambitious BRI proposals could not contemplate where and when they were going to fall into a debt trap. Pakistan is one of them. They know where the trap is. The Sunni Muslim majority nation knows they are falling into China’s debt trap. Despite the debt trap, a strong pro-Chinese lobby promotes Chinese megaprojects, while the politicians have to swallow the Chinese red pills.

The $62bn Gwadar project envisages linking with the persecuted Uyghur Muslims in East Turkistan (now Xinjiang Province) of China, and is being built through disputed territory in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and Balochistan. Balochistan was once an independent country, before Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and its forcible occupation in March 1948.

Recently, China is extremely concerned about the safety and security of its personnel engaged in construction in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, including the Karakoram Highway linking with Gwadar.

Gwadar has been leased to China for 43 years and the prospect of the Chinese navy converting the port as a strategic base will invite greater security issues, as China has a grand plan to expand its maritime presence in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman --  a major global oil trade route.

The United States and its allies in the Gulf reckon China’s hegemony in the Gulf will be a security concern. America thinks the presence of the Chinese navy will provide military backup to Iran’s naval patrol in the Persian Gulf, from yet another Chinese-built Chabahar port in Iran, not far from Gwadar.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 9 November 2021

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of the Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Too little, too late to protect Hindus in sectarian violence

Slain Dilip Das left behind his wife Rupa Das, daughter Priya Das and son Partha Das - Photo: Saleem Samad


Law enforcement’s lack of response during the Cumilla riots lead to greater escalation

Dilip Das, 62, was a commercial washerman for the Sadar Hospital and other clinics in Cumilla. For nearly 30 years, he laundered hospital bed sheets and linens.

When pedestrians rushed Dilip to the emergency department of the hospital, he was not attended to. His family shifted him to the 250-bed government hospital, where again he was left unattended. For six hours, he did not get medical care in Cumilla hospitals. His condition deteriorated as his forehead wound was bleeding.

Dilip’s wife Rupa Das did not expect to hear the tragic news in her life. The sky had fallen on her head. She was not aware that rioters had gone berserk in the city.

At Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the surgeons and physicians struggled for eight days to treat the patient who had gone into a coma from a fatal brain haemorrhage. His daughter Priya Rani Das, 25, said the brain surgeons had twice operated upon him in Dhaka.

She also said that he was struck with full force with a metal bar by Islamic vigilantes, which badly fractured his forehead skull, and he sank into a coma. She dashed from her house at Thana Road, accompanied by Ruma Das, sister of Dilip.

The armed vigilantes had taken positions in the streets and the intersection became dangerous for Hindus to venture out. She and Ruma were desperate to reach the hospital.

The vigilantes, mostly teenagers with machetes, bamboo sticks, and metal bars, threatened them to cut them into pieces. They yelled at her -- how dare they desecrate the Holy Quran?

Ruma told the youths, “You can kill us, but we need to go to the hospital for the emergency treatment of my elder brother.” Rupa had no clue about what had happened at Nanua Dighirpar Puja mandap in the morning when all hell had been let loose in Cumilla.

On that ominous day, Dilip went to Rajeshwari temple in Manoharpur to clean the premises as a volunteer. He told his wife not to cook for him as he would have prasad (religious offering of food) at the temple. At noon, he was walking towards Darogabari Mazar, a tomb of a Sufi saint, to clean the premises. He was caught in the violence near the temple. The vigilantes caught him and, with a metal bar, fractured his skull.

The residents of the city had not experienced such rage in 50 years, since the genocidal campaign by marauding the Pakistan military in March 1971.

While Dilip was fighting for his life in the hospital at Dhaka, the neighbours offered milad and dua mehfil (prayers) in at least two mosques and several Muslim homes for his early recovery. The neighbours mourned his death.

He was adored by thousands for his volunteerism at temples, mosques, and the shrines of Sufi saints. He had respect for all religions, but had given his life to the brutalities of Islamic vigilantes with political clout.

When the mobs and mobsters roamed the towns in Cumilla and Chowmuhani, Noakhali for several hours, the police were squarely blamed for the slow response.

Scores of survivors, Durga Puja committee members, and priests of temples claimed to have called the civil administration, police stations, 999 emergency police helpline, and even ruling Awami League leaders, but unfortunately, nobody responded.

Members of the Human Rights Alliance Bangladesh, Research and Empowerment Organization (REO), and Nipironer Birudhey Shahbag, a sister organization of Gonojagaron Mancho, visited the place and met Achintya Das Tito, secretary of the Cumilla Mahanagar (city) Puja Committee. He was an eyewitness to the desecration of the Nanua Dighirpar Puja. He had frantically called the police chief, the police station, civil administration, and Awami League leaders for help to stop the mayhem.

Their conspicuous silence was questioned by the media, civil society, rights groups, and Hindu leaders.

Interestingly, at one end of the large pond, a stone’s throw away was the home of Cumilla City Mayor Monirul Haque Sakku and, on the other corner, lived ruling party MP AQM Bahauddin Bahar. None came forward for decisive action.

“The desired help never came. It came only then when everything was lost to sectarian violence,” he lamented.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 2 November 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad