The occasion couldn’t have been better. It was Jumma Prayer Day. The massive procession began well outside the limits of Hathazari town in Chittagong district. Hundreds of thousands of skull caps bobbed and white kaftan-clad bodies swayed and marched up the road, kicking up plumes of dust amid the crescendo of slogans, calling for “death to Jews” and “spilling blood for Palestine”. The sea of humanity had as many adult men as children. Bearded men stood at intervals, speaking into handheld mikes, exhorting the believers.
Around the same time as these angry men shrieked and clamoured in Hathazari – about 260 km southeast of Dhaka – another crowd of Islamists belong to the Hefazat-e-Islam, after offering Friday prayers, chased and attacked members of the minority Hindu community in Comilla district which in 2021 was the site of pitched and bloody battles when Muslims went on the rampage following alleged desecration of the Quran. The Bangladeshi media labelled the attackers as men belonging to the Juba League and the Chhatra League.
Irrespective of the ruling Awami League’s claims of being a defender of secularism and promoter of Hindu-Muslim amity in Bangladesh, there is now growing evidence of the party’s collusion with Islamist forces across the country. Indeed, parallels are being drawn between two Awami League leaders – Bahauddin Bahar of Comilla and Mohammad Faisal Biplab in Munshiganj – who allegedly stoked attacks against Hindus in the two districts, separated by about 100 kms.
The incidents in Hathazari and Comilla today and the communal attacks and barbs hurled by Biplab against Awami League MP Mrinal Hanti Das in Munshiganj two weeks ago appear to be part of an all-too-familiar pattern in which ruling party local leaders let loose their cadres against the minority community when elections are round the corner.
“The communal cauldron has begun to be stirred by our own party leaders. And the local level leaders who plan and execute such attacks against the Hindus will not be punished by the high command,” a Dhaka-based Awami League leader, who did not wish to be identified, said.
When Northeast News contacted Bahar over phone, the Comilla-6 MP presented himself as not only a practitioner of even-handed justice but also a defender of secularism. “I had only said (on October 12) that alcohol should not be consumed during the Durga Puja festivities. What wrong did I say?” Bahar, who is widely described as “influential” and “powerful”, said.
Soon after alleged Awami League cadres chased and attacked Hindus in Comilla, the Dhaka-based Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (HBCUC) expressed outrage and demanded action against the assailants. A week ago, HBCUC president Rana Dasgupta had made a cryptic comment, saying that the government of the day can, if it wanted, prevent communal attacks against Hindus.
Some may call this premonition, but many among the miniscule minority population themselves do not trust the HBCUC which has often been described as a “lackey” organisaton of the ruling Awami League that only pays lip service to Hindus’ fears and concerns.
On his part, Bahar was all sweet talk – that in the past he had donated (his own) blood to Hindus, that he attends Hindu cremations (as much as Muslim burials) and that during the 2021 communal violence, over the alleged desecration of the Quran, he was “away on Hajj”.
Even as the communal situation is on the boil, an alliance of pro-Awami League Islamist parties is scheduled to hold a countrywide rally on October 21. There is no knowing whether cadres from the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, the Chhatra Shibir, will surreptitiously be part of this rally, but there are fears among Hindu leaders in both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that “things could be allowed to go out of hand”.
Meanwhile, even as a “communal atmosphere” builds up in Bangladesh, beleaguered Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina continues to maintain a stoic silence.