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- Stories of Bengali Hindus
2021 Durga Puja Pogrom in Bangladesh and the Media
On 13 October 2021, on the day of Durgashtami (the eight day of Durga Puja) Hindus in Bangladesh were attacked. The attacks started due to a rumour of the Hindu community allegedly placing a copy of the Islamic holy book Quran near a Hanuman Murti. What followed after those rumours was not unprecedented by any means. Such premeditated mob violence involving thousands of miscreants from the neighborhood are not unheard of, they happen almost every year. However, this attack was different for a couple of reasons: 1) the riots unfurled right before social media and this was being witnessed internationally, 2) the presence of social media in creating both awareness and whitewashing of the anti-Hindu riots happened right before our eyes.
Many Bangladeshi Hindus are well aware that the pogroms against them would always be covered up and the narrative would always be derailed, whether in Bangladesh, India or in the west by entities with vested interests, and Bangladeshi Hindus weren’t wrong this time either. What was unprecedented though, was the fact that these narratives were touted by one of the most well distributed international papers. Highlighting few of the most blatant examples from three different articles:
After a fortnight from the first attacks, an online magazine portal called The Diplomat published an article titled ‘India’s Role in Communal Violence in Bangladesh’ by author Hossain Delwar. Reading through the article, a particularly galvanizing paragraph stood out:
“Given these deep-seated sensitivities, any awful episode that unfolds in one part of the region will echo across borders, and in the long run leads to fatal repercussions. What happened in Bangladesh is thus inextricably linked to regional trends. Most notably, the renewed resurgence of Hinduism in the political domain of neighboring India has been reshaping public narratives and feeding fundamentalist fringes across the South Asian region.”
Here, Delwar suggests that the ‘renewed resurgence of Hinduism in the political domain’ is the reason behind the October 2021 attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh. Delwar also alludes that these attacks are merely ‘fundamentalist fringes’ in the South Asian region, however ‘Hinduism in politics’ is a re-emerging and a ubiquitous force that merely feeds these ‘fundamentalist fringes’.
Just a reminder: the ‘fundamentalist fringes’ in the South Asian region are not fringes but the very foundational doctrines of the political and social framework of Pakistan, and also the state of Bangladesh, which, since its conception in 1972, has been struggling with the image of the “secular legacy of the 1971 Liberation war” vis-à-vis the military regimes and the all-pervasive Islamism at every social and administrative level. Those ‘fundamentalist fringes’ aren’t fringes but very much the mainstream.
The difference is especially striking when even superficially skimming through the Indian and Pakistani constitutions; the most critical piece of literature regarding the Indian constitution and its religious partiality can be trailed to Dr. Pritam Singh’s seminal paper from 2005, titled “Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: Probing Flaws in the Instruments of Governance”. One of Singh’s key arguments were that the inclusion of “Bharat” as one of the names for the country in Article 1 of the Constitution is reflective of the sections in the Constituent Assembly who wanted to evoke a pre-Muslim and pre-British glorious past, which according to Singh must be a clear example of ‘Hindutva’, no matter how cosmetic. The rest of Singh’s paper is about Article 48 which directs the state to prohibit the slaughter of cows and calves. What a shocker in a nation where the majority professes a faith where cows are considered holy and the slaughter of them a desecration. Most other objections merely have to do with the definition of Hindu. That is it.
In contrast, the Constitution of Pakistan proclaims Pakistan as an Islamic Republic and Islam as the state religion, and it contains several provisions stipulating the Pakistani judicature’s compliance with Islamic injunctions of the Quran and the Sunnah. In practice, those policies had led to the exodus of Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities out of Pakistan, both East and West Pakistan. Certain laws, such as the Enemy Property Act had legitimized the grabbing of land from the Hindu minority in particular, and that had an adverse effect on the Hindu population, especially in East Pakistan.
The ruling and the clerical classes of Pakistan have had a policy to incite riots against non-Muslims in the name of defending Islam, for example the 1964 East Pakistan anti-Hindu riots, which were Radio Rwanda-esque; the Pakistan radio and media broadcasted and published article after article how the disappearance of an Islamic relic in Srinagar, Kashmir in India, was an anti-Muslim conspiracy by the Indian state and the 'Hindu extremists'. It was later found out that the relic had been stolen by Muslim Kashmiri men, one of whom had ties to Pakistani government.
Nevertheless, even Pakistani top politicians had joined in fomenting hatred against Hindus, which ultimately resulted in the killings and rapes of 1964 in East Pakistan, which resulted in the exodus of more than 800,000 people, who were mainly Hindus, and among them were also Buddhists and Christians. If those alone are not enough to convince that ‘fundamentalist fringes’ aren’t a fringe or even a reaction to ‘Hinduism in political domain’ but older than the modern South Asian nation states, then nothing else will.
Furthermore, this article basically blamed Hindus for a pogrom against a Hindu minority. Dissecting those particular paragraphs:
“India contributed much to the independence struggle of Bangladesh against Pakistan in 1971. This shared history and the common historical bitterness toward Pakistan brought both countries closer and contributed to the consolidation of their bilateral relationship over the decades on every dynamic [...]
But there is a dark side as well. India in recent times has started to backslide into a blistering path of nationalism fraught with ultra-Hinduism. This has had an undeniable impact on India’s diplomacy by eroding people-to-people trust and sense of togetherness with its Muslim-majority neighbors. The gradual devolution on the part of India into a nationalistic path inflamed by “Hindutva” or “Hindu First” ideology is a clear threat to bilateral relations built on both strong leader ties and people-to-people connections. For example, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, a controversial anti-Muslim law drafted by the current BJP-led government and passed in the Indian Parliament, is a clear demonstration of India’s gradual democratic backsliding and fateful deviation from its long-held secular stance. The act, which offered citizenship to religious minorities fleeing Muslim-majority neighbors, was widely seen as part of a broader BJP agenda to marginalize Muslim minorities living in India. What’s more, the act showed a stunning lack of discernment on India’s part, as New Delhi apparently did not foresee the reactionary developments in the public discourses of its Muslim majority neighbors.” Breaking down the first paragraph of the three, the wording of the line ‘the common historical bitterness’ has a slight undertone of mockery, as in, it is a gross oversimplification of what had transpired between East Pakistan and West Pakistan and how that had almost completely covered up the truth about the 1971 war. Gary J. Bass in his award winning book ‘The Blood Telegram’ discusses the dissent memo on the American policy during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war sent by American Consul General Archer Blood. Diplomat Blood and his staff have described in detail how the Pakistan Army particularly targeted the Hindus, even when the Hindus were not part of any large armed resistance, because the Pakistani government considered the Hindu minority as an Enemy population and the reason behind East Pakistan’s demand for autonomy. This, of course, could not have been further from from the truth as Awami League at the time had Muslim leaders and Muslim support.
Moreover, senior Pakistani officers have admitted in a postwar judicial inquiry that there were verbal instructions to “eliminate the Hindus”. The Inquiry states that the Chief of Army Staff and Chief of General Staff were often noticed asking as to how many Hindus have been killed. One lieutenant colonel testified that Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi, who became the chief martial law administrator in East Pakistan and head of the army’s Eastern Command, asked as to how many Hindus they had killed. The White House was aware, in fact Henry Kissinger was even looking for atrocities committed by ‘East Pakistani secessionists’ (for example Bengali speakers attacking Urdu speaking Bihari Muslims), to generate a moral equivalence that would exonerate President Yahya Khan. This is in stark contrast with what diplomat Blood had said: “We were also harboring, all of us were harboring, Bengalis, mostly Hindu Bengalis, who were trying to flee mostly by taking refuge with our own servants. Our servants would give them refuge. All of us were doing this. I had a message from Washington saying that they had heard we were doing this and to knock it off. I told them we were doing it and would continue to do it. We could not turn these people away. They were not political refugees. They were just poor, very low-class people, mostly Hindus, who were very much afraid that they would be killed solely because they were Hindu.” As a consequence, according to official figures, there were nearly ten million refugees in India. By an official reckoning, nearly 90 percent of the refugees were Hindus. As Gary J. Bass writes, this skew in the figures was an inevitable consequence of the Pakistan Army targeting Hindus in East Pakistan. For Delwar to reduce this painful history, still fresh in the memories of the survivors, by calling it a ‘common historical bitterness’, is insensitive. That, too, is an understatement. The second paragraph talks about how India slipping into a ‘blistering path of nationalism fraught with ultra-Hinduism’ is admonishing India on something which already had happened decades before in the liberated Bangladesh; after the assassination of the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, military generals made a 180 degrees turn in foreign and domestic policies at the end of 1970s. During the era of Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman, Bangladeshi nationalism replaced the previous approach by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. One of the reasons for that was to "give confidence to the ethnic minorities", who had opposed the forcible assimilation policy of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had rejected the recognition of ethnic minorities and urged those ethnic minorities to ‘become Bengalis’. Ziaur Rahman also radically shifted away from the socialist and secularist doctrine when he issued a proclamation to make an amendment to the constitution, thus the phrase "Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim'' ("In the name of Allah, the Merciful") was added in the preamble. He also decreed that the statement “absolute faith in Allah” (part of the Tawhid) be added in articles 8(1) and 8(1A), replacing the commitment to secularism. The ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party that had been Pakistan Army's collaborator and is notorious for committing war crimes, was allowed in politics again during Ziaur Rahman’s rule. It should be noted that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, too, had pardoned quite a few collaborators, at least according to the former leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Ghulam Azam, who had said in an interview that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had declared a general amnesty under which he, among other war criminals, had been forgiven. The establishment subordinates, of course, have attempted to deny this fact, however evidence speaks otherwise of the titular father of the nation. The question is, did Hindus in India riot against Indian Muslims due all of the aforementioned sequence of events after the liberation war in 1971? One can get a whiff from Delwar’s article that the onus of upholding secularism should be on India and Hindus only. The impression of this entire article is that other South Asian nations can freely be constitutionally Islamic states, and whenever violent outbursts against their Hindu minorities transpire, those are solely due to some ‘fringe’ elements, which according to Delwar are merely a consequence of Indian politics. In the following paragraphs, Delwar concludes his article by writing about the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act, a law that would provide a pathway to Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from India’s neighboring countries. Apparently, even the acknowledgement of the fact that refugees, who came from Pakistan and Bangladesh, exist in millions, is regarded as a right wing Hindu nationalist speculation by the author of this article, and surely by many people. The question is, why should amendments in the Indian constitution affect Bangladeshi Muslims in any way? The principle of the Indian state has, for the longest time, been that Indians should have no concern for their co-ethnics or co-religionists outside of India (and probably inside India too). In fact, Gary J. Bass notes how the former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, P. N Haksar, like other ‘Congress mandarins’, insisted that Indians put India itself above any ethnic, regional, or national loyalties. This was Haksar’s response when Bengali Hindus were being targeted by the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators in their campaign of exterminating the Hindu community of East Bengal. In this context, the word ‘mandarin' is a term to describe a person who has a very important job in the government, and who is sometimes considered to be too powerful, i.e civil servants rather than elected officials. If that is expected of India, then why should the same not be expected of other South Asian countries? Why is it that any sort of political development in either Pakistan or Bangladesh should not echo in India? And if or when they do echo in India, why is that considered as ‘Hindu nationalist politicking’, but similar scenarios in Pakistan and Bangladesh are considered as a ‘fundamentalist fringe’ phenomenon? The tone of the entire article hints to the notion that genocidal attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh are completely justified because of India amending its citizenship laws. One also cannot miss the not-so-subtle insinuation, or a veiled threat rather, that Indian bilateral relationship with Bangladesh is under threat due to some amendments to Indian laws. In other words, Hindus of Bangladesh should be quiet about the persecution they face, and India should not react in any way to attacks against Hindu minority in Bangladesh due to the ‘amicable bilateral relationship’. Speaking about veiled threats, an article on this topic by the New York Times is full of them.
The New york Times
An article titled ‘In a Region in Strife, India’s Moral High Ground Erodes’, written by Mujib Mashal, was published after two weeks of genocidal attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh on the holiest time of Durga Puja. According to Mujib Mashal’s biography, he is The New York Times Bureau Chief for South Asia, and he is based out of New Delhi, he covers India and the broad and diverse region around it that includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the island nations of Sri Lanka and Maldives. Previously, he was the paper's senior correspondent in Afghanistan. With such credentials and experience, expectations are naturally high, especially when Mashal’s introduction page itself says that he covers India and the ‘broad and diverse region around it’. The first thing that one can observe when reading the article is the so called "good cop vs. bad cop" - impression; on one hand, Mashal invokes ‘larger-than-life leaders’ like Gandhi and India’s role as the ‘big brother’ that ends sectarian flare-ups through nonviolence and by staying on a moral high ground, and on the other hand Mashal opines that India deviating from its previous ethos is a big mistake that could drive its neighbors and allies to the arms of China. This sounds more like an ultimatum to India. Although Mashal does briefly mention that India’s neighbors, too, subject their minorities to violence, it is quite clear from his article that the burden of remaining secular and tolerant should be on the ‘big brother’ India, and by extension Hindus, all while, presumably, India’s neighbours can remain as the trouble-making ‘little brothers’ who can freely devastate the Hindu population and fully Islamise the regions that were awarded to the Muslims during the independence of India, without being demanded accountability or moral responsibility that is demanded from India. Another paragraph that might pique a well informed reader would be this: “The situation that happened in Bangladesh is empowering the Hindutva politics, and they are trying to exploit it,” said Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, referring to the B.J.P.’s Hindu nationalist ideology. “And at the same time, the Hindutva politics of India is empowering the B.J.P.-type politics in Bangladesh.” If Professor Khan is given the benefit of the doubt, one could think that Professor Khan may have wanted to express his opinion about how communal attacks might get politicised on both sides of the border. However, his last sentence was a slick attempt at whitewashing Bangladesh’s long history of communal politicking, which has led to mass exoduses in the recent past. The above mentioned comparisons of the constitutions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh should be enough to demonstrate how asymmetrical the premise of juxtaposing the situation of minorities in their respective South Asian countries is. Moreover, holding India culpable for anti-Hindu pogroms in Bangladesh and the missing Hindu population is sinister. To many Bangladeshi Hindus, all this is just banal at this point. Speaking about banality, an article by The Print should get an honorary mention.
An article titled ‘Govt, media, opposition — Bangladesh can teach India how to handle hate crimes’, written by Dilip Mandal, who, according to the description provided by The Print, is a former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Despite holding the title of professorship, or at least that is what Professor Mandal’s social media accounts assert, the expectations for this article were low, solely because of the title, which leaves nothing to imagination, unlike Mashal’s article on the New York Times, which has to be given credit for at least attempting to appear neutral by not being too opinionated in the title.
Professor Mandal did not even bother to first recount the background of the riots and the course of events apart from briefly quoting an article published by The Daily Star. In the first paragraph, Mandal writes: “The way Bangladesh responded to the religious violence against Hindu minorities has set a template for all liberal democracies of the world. It did not go for a split-screen debate of both-siderism. The condemnation was unequivocal and universal.” This claim does not stand daylight. Those who follow Bangladeshi mainstream and social media know exactly how far from the truth that is, although Bangladesh is probably benefiting from the free image cleaning by some random Indian columnists, who only ever care about what’s happening in Bangladesh when they need to drive their own political objectives in India.
To elaborate, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the Information Technology Adviser to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, has recently blamed the BNP (Bangladesh National Party) for attacking Hindus in several districts during Durga Puja. He made this allegation on a Facebook status on 27 October, Wednesday night. Wazed Joy wrote “The BNP leadership has continued its campaign against the government by not standing by the Hindu community across the country. It is clear that this incident of violence in Comilla was pre-planned and the mastermind of these incidents is the senior leaders of BNP. Pro-Pakistan political parties and governments have gradually erased the main objectives of Bangladesh's independence.” How on earth can Mandal claim that the ‘condemnation’ was unequivocal and universal then?
Moreover, Wazed Joy gave an impression of caring more about the image of Bangladesh rather than the attacks on Hindus. If that was not enough, Wazed Joy’s status prompted many counter arguments; commentators reminded how the Nasirnagar anti-Hindu pogrom in 2016 was instigated by three local Awami League leaders, Abul Hashem, who was the chairman of Nasirnagar sadar union and deputy secretary of Nasirnagar upazila, Faruq Mia, who was the president of Haripur union unit, and Suruj Mia, who was the president of Chaportola union unit. Of course they were not the only ones who incited the pogrom; Islamist groups Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, Hefazat-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, took part in the violent processions and instigated the attacks along with Awami League, the ruling party. In fact, Khaled Mohiuddin, the head of DW Bangla, led a discussion where Bangladeshi commentators inferred how the government itself nurtures Islamic hardliners.
In fact, it is not humanly possible to conduct such a swiftly orchestrated pogrom, where tens of thousands of people participate in attacks and destructions of Hindus’ places of worship, businesses and homes across the country, without the help of the district administration and the negligence of the local politicians and the law and enforcement. As a matter of fact, it is even tragicomic how Mandal quoted that 450 miscreants had been arrested, though Mandal is not the only Indian reporter to have quoted the same figure. It is a peak moment in the history of yellow journalism when an article has a hyperlink leading to another article, where the figure of 450 arrests is quoted from, which itself says that all of the arrests have been related to ‘spreading rumors on social media’. The very next line says how a young Hindu man had been arrested for ‘uploading posts’. This means that the police had arrested people who had shared posts on social media, but they’ve not arrested the mobs who murdered Jatan Saha, Pranto Chandra Das, Dilip Das and many more Hindus during the October 2021 Bangladesh anti-Hindu riots. Is this the template to the liberal democracies in the world, which Mandal has praised so fervently?
Mandal keeps describing how the ruling party of Bangladesh is exemplary in the following paragraph: “As a ruling party, the Awami League came out in support of communal harmony and coined a slogan that has become quite popular now — “Each unto his or her religion, festivals are for all.” The party also organised harmony rallies and took out peace marches. Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader said that party members will build resistance against communal forces.” After the paragraph, Mandal’s article has embedded tweets by the official Awami League twitter account. How revolutionary! The truth is different from what Mandal tries to claim. According to journalist Anwar Hossein from Comilla, who wrote on Prothom Alo, local political sources have said that Awami League leaders and activists usually always march in alleys and intersections of the city to prevent any opposition program, however those same people were nowhere to be seen on 13 October. There are plenty of columnists, journalists and commentators on mainstream and social media, who offer their commentaries packed with chicanery just for the sake of propagating their own interests. Whether these people understand it or not, the ramifications are not just theoretical; the ultimate price of their irresponsibility is being paid by Bangladeshi Hindus - in blood.
The Right to Development in International Law: The Case of Pakistan by Khurshid Iqbal,
Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: Probing Flaws in the Instruments of Governance by Pritam Singh,
The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass,
Government and Politics in South Asia by Robert C. Oberst, Yogendra K Malik, Charles Kennedy, Ashok Kapur, and Mahendra Lawoti