The memories of last year’s communal riots during the Durga Puja festival are still fresh in the minds of many Hindus in Bangladesh. Several steps have been taken to make this festival more peaceful.
Durga Puja, the biggest Hindu festival in Bangladesh, is the busiest time of the year for Anil Krishnapal. Paul, 55, and his team prepare special mandapas and idols for worship in temples during the festival. This year they have received 20 orders.
“First, we make a frame out of wood and bamboo,” says Paul while talking to DW. Then we make the structure of the statue out of grass and attach it to the frame. After that we start the soil work.
“It takes eight days to complete the basic structure and clay work,” he said while showing a row of finished idols. Then we need two more days to dye it.” Paul’s workshop is located in Kamila, a city in southeastern Bangladesh. Where last year during Durga Puja celebrations, a mob of enraged Muslims attacked Hindu temples.
What happened last year?
The footage, which was widely circulated on social media, showed a copy of the Holy Quran being placed on the lap of the Hindu god Hanuman. The video was seen as an insult to Bangladesh’s Muslim majority and sparked hundreds of protests in more than a dozen districts. Protesting Muslims attacked Hindu houses and seven people were killed.
Paul says, “I felt very bad. What else can I say? The idol I had made myself was destroyed. We couldn’t even worship it, isn’t it sad? We worship idols.” expressing, offering offerings to them. But my heart was broken.”
Although it was later discovered that this was a deliberate ploy to inflame religious tensions. In the CCTV footage, a man was seen placing the Quran on the idol in the temple. He was later arrested.
45-year-old Ratna Das, who lives in a Hindu-majority neighborhood, saw incidents of communal violence unfold before her eyes last year. “Our area was the second area to come under attack,” Ratna Das told DW. The young men and women of our neighborhood resisted and protected our temple. Now we have put a gate here to prevent any untoward incident.”
“However, they ransacked other areas,” he added. The main gate of another temple was destroyed. Ornaments, sound boxes, lamps etc. were broken. Many people were also injured.”
Celebrate ‘with fear’
Attacks on Hindus and other religious minorities are not uncommon in Bangladesh. According to the Bangladeshi human rights organization Ain Al-Irish Kendra (ASK), more than 100 Hindu homes had been attacked even before the Durga Puja attacks last year.
Between 2013 and 2021, there were more than 3,500 attacks on Hindus, including 1,678 attacks on temples and vandalism of idols. “But we have not seen such attacks like last year,” Ratna Das said while talking to DW. Even our fathers and forefathers did not see such events in Kamila. That’s why we are a little scared.
Ratna Das’s neighbor, Nippal, said, “My eight-year-old daughter was asking me if there would be a pooja. We know that we will celebrate the festival, but fear that such a situation may not arise again.
This year, Durga Puja will be celebrated in more than 32,000 temples and makeshift temples across Bangladesh. Officials say that they do not expect the same situation as last year to arise. Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asad-ul-Zaman Khan Kamal held meetings with organizers and law enforcement agencies and stressed that security would be increased this year.
Talking to reporters, he said, “I have asked the organizers to install CCTV cameras in all the pooja mandapas. We will deploy sufficient number of police or other law enforcement personnel.”
Bangladesh Police Deputy Inspector General Mohammad Haider Ali Khan told DW, “Since the preparation of the idols has started, we have started taking security measures,” adding, “Our intelligence Departments are gathering information so that we can assess the level of threat and take action accordingly.” The puja organizers, however, are not entirely satisfied with the current situation.
“We want a social system where no religious festival needs police security,” Poddar, a puja committee organizer, told DW. This was the basic meaning of our national freedom. Here you will perform pooja under police protection, it makes no sense.”
Appeal for harmony by Muslim scholars
Meanwhile, Muslim scholars appealed for social harmony before Friday prayers at Dhaka’s main mosque Baitul Mukarram. He said that Islam does not allow hurting “others”.
“Islam says that if people of other religions live with you, they should not be harmed by the actions of Muslims,” said Muhammad Shahidul Islam, a 20-year-old Islamic student, speaking to DW. While doing so, he said that no specific religious values can be imposed on a person of different faith.
His friend Ali Hassan said, “He believes that hatred and fighting are not the solution to any misunderstanding. Our Prophet taught us not to hate anyone.” Meanwhile, the Imam of Baitul Mukarram Mosque demanded appropriate action to prevent crimes against minorities. Hafiz Maulana Mufti Roohul Amin told DW, “The government should ensure that such incidents do not happen again. They should take action.” They should keep an eye on such criminals.
How active is the government?
There is a general perception that Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League got most of the minority votes because it does not lean towards the religious far-right, although Hindu leaders complain that the government has failed to protect them.
Speaking to DW, Poddar said, “It is very disappointing that the culprits have not been punished. Hence, they were encouraged to carry out successive attacks.”
The police had registered at least 52 cases following the Durga Puja attacks last year. They also arrested the main accused and hundreds of others – but the cases are still pending. DIG Khan told DW, “We have submitted the investigation reports of most of the cases in the court. “Some investigations are still going on.”
Shehryar Kabir, a journalist and researcher on communal conflicts in Bangladesh, believes that the government has to be proactive. “We have advised the government to take short-term and long-term measures to make the country safe for religious minorities,” Kabir told DW.
“In the short term, they have to ensure that justice is delivered to the victims by punishing the perpetrators. In the long term, we have appealed to them to form a National Minorities Commission or a law for the protection of minorities.”