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Bangladeshi Hindus targeted by violence demand protection

October 19, 2021

Recent violent attacks against Hindus have reopened old wounds for religious minorities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Rights groups say these attacks often are forgotten by the legal system and go unpunished.

A woman sits next to a burned piece of metal siding
At least 20 homes belonging to minority Hindus were destroyed by arsonists in northern BangladeshImage: bdnews24.com

Last week, several Hindu temples were ransacked during violent protests across Bangladesh that were sparked by video of a Quran being placed at the feet of a Hindu statue during celebrations for the Hindu festival Durga Puja.

The Quran video provoked outrage in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, and hundreds of Muslims protested violently in more than a dozen districts. Houses belonging to Hindus were also attacked, and six people were killed, including two Hindus.

On Monday, followers of the Hindu advocacy group, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, were joined by students and teachers from Dhaka University in blocking a major intersection in the Bangladeshi capital to demand justice.

Several other Hindu groups also joined the peaceful protest at Dhaka's Shahbagh Square. Some Muslim groups also held similar street protests over the "dishonorable" image of the Muslim holy book on a statue of a Hindu god.

A large group of people gather in a hazy street
Hundreds of Muslim protesters took to the streets of Dhaka, clashing with policeImage: bdnews24.com

International rights group Amnesty International has called on the authorities to take urgent steps to protect the members of the minority community against such attacks and ensure access to justice and effective remedies for victims.

Mia Seppo, the UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, has also called upon the Bangladeshi government to ensure the protection of minorities and an impartial probe into the incidents.

Religious unrest poses a challenge to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, which has always portrayed itself as secular and minority-friendly, especially since becoming Bangladesh's ruling party in 2009.

Thousands of attacks documented in recent years

However, the Hindu community in Bangladesh frequently encounters violence. Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a Bangladeshi human rights organization that documents attacks on minority communities, 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 that time, 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.

Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC), told DW that the actual number of attacks could be much higher than what ASK has estimated.

"Although Hindus were also attacked in the 1990s and 2000s, we have been observing a continual pattern of such attacks since 2011, which is alarming," he said.

"We thought the Hindu community would have a better life under the Awami League government, but that didn't happen," he said.

Protesters hold signs with images of injured and killed people
Hindus protested over the weekend, demanding justice for their attacked community membersImage: Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Hindus make up less than 9% of Bangladesh's total population of over 170 million, with 90% of the population Muslim.

Over the past four decades, the percentage of the Hindu population of Bangladesh declined from 13.5% to 8.5%, according to Bangladeshi government data.

Although economic reasons are part of what has spurred Bangladeshi Hindus to move to neighboring India, BHBCUC expert Dasgupta considers security as the main reason why Hindus have left.

"The reason behind the attacks is to drive away minorities from their homes, to minimize the minority population of Bangladesh," he said.

Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh often unpunished

Dasgupta blames religious fundamentalists, particularly the supporters of Bangladesh's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, for attacks on the Hindu community.

However, the party has been largely inactive after many of its leaders were executeda few years ago for war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.

Zunaid Saki, chief coordinator of the left-wing political party Ganasamhati Andolon, told DW the Awami League condemns the attacks, but does little to stop them from happening again.

Saki has visited many locations where attacks against the Hindu community have taken place in recent years.

"The pattern of these attacks is the same: First, something is posted on Facebook and is marked as 'insulting to Islam' by others, and then a group of people attack a particular spot where religious minorities live," he said.

"The ruling Awami League party blames religious fundamentalists after the attack and vows to take action against the culprits. But nothing happens afterward, and nobody gets punished for the attacks," he added.

Hindu minority is under attack

'Little hope' for justice

Rana Dasgupta said 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," he said.

Nina Goswami, the director of ASK, also said that attacks on Hindus are rarely prosecuted.

"Our culture of impunity is a major reason behind it," she told DW.

"Sometimes influential people stop police from filing evidence of the attacks. We have also noticed that investigations weaken over time, and the perpetrators get released at some point without facing any punishment."

Goswami added that she sees little hope of justice for members of the Hindu community.

"Regardless of whichever political party has been in power in Bangladesh, the Hindu community has never received the protection it deserves," she said. "Rather parties tried to use the community for their political interest."

However, Bangladeshi Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan has insisted 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 in Dhaka on Friday.

Correction, October 19, 2021: A previous version of this article misspelled Mia Seppo's name. We apologize for the error.

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DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul