A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina | Photo: ANI
A file photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina | Photo: ANI
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The widespread vandalism of Durga Puja celebration sites and reported desecration of idols in Bangladesh is a disturbing but more or less regular feature during the festivities. Compared to other Hindu festivals, Durga Puja is a popular event observed in Bangladesh with as much fervour as it is observed in West Bengal and elsewhere in India. Since Bengali-speaking Hindus constitute the overwhelming majority of the over one crore Hindus in Bangladesh, Durga Puja is practically the unofficial national festival there. Like the regularity of the festivities, the riots and attacks on Hindus have also become an annual feature.

The attacks on Hindu settlements and vandalism have been triggered after a rumour spread that a copy of Quran was allegedly found on an idol in one of the Puja sites. The incident and the following riots, a repeat of past many years, seems to be a page straight out of ‘how to start a riot’ textbook. It is reported that the person who placed the copy of the Quran has been arrested and more than 500 persons have been rounded up and placed under arrest. Soon, charges will be framed. Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal is on record to have said that the ‘authorities have identified the person behind the Comilla incident and will be arrested soon’. There will be more reports of the government’s crackdown on miscreants, arrests, political mediation and subsequent release of culprits, as routinely as the annual riots and frequent attacks on Hindus.

Also read: ‘So many dreams lost in a flash’: Bangladesh cricketer Mortaza condemns attacks on Hindus

Sheikh Hasina brought change

The Awami League government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been in power for over 20 years now. She has steadfastly continued the fight against Islamic hardline groups and radical elements. The political overtones of counter-radicalisation cannot be missed if one were to read between the lines of the political history of Bangladesh since its formation in 1971-72. The first government under the popular leader and frontrunner of the freedom struggle Sheikh Mujibur Rehman projected a secular and liberal (but Islamic in principle) dispensation. Major General Ziaur Rehman, who seized power in the infamous 1975 coup, took the path of Islamic state and did away with the idea of secularism.

For some time, there were genuine apprehensions that the liberation will be a thing of the past and the “new state” will be back in the fold of its erstwhile rulers in Islamabad. But the new political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), prudently kept a safe distance from Pakistan but anchored the government firmly on Islamic principles using it as a political tool against Awami League. Killing of Hindus, dis-housing them in rural areas, vandalising temples and terrorising the minorities continued unabatedly under different regimes in Dhaka ostensibly obligated to radical Islamic pressure groups. In a dangerous turn of events, the situation became a fertile recruiting ground for the dreaded ISI of Pakistan to create new sleeper cells of radical elements to open a terror front against India in the Eastern border.

The Sheikh Hasina government came as a much-needed relief to the local Hindus as well as New Delhi, which was fighting a war against terrorism on two fronts. The resolve to fight Islamic radicalism became the primary objective of the Awami League government both as a dire necessity for political survival and to build bridges with Hindu vote bank.

Also read: Those who vandalised Durga Puja pandals in Bangladesh will be ‘hunted down’, says PM Hasina

Pressure from radical groups

The Islamic radical groups have reportedly been active in recent times increasing their pressure on the Awami League government and seeking to change the rules of political engagements. There were massive protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations in Bangladesh. The decade-old radical Islamic outfit Hefazat-e-Islam (HEI), which led the protests against Modi, has already given a 13-point demands list to the Sheikha Hasina government. These demands would make the Taliban look like greenhorns in radicalism.

In fact, there could be a strong link between the Hefazat-e-Islam and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik of Pakistan, which has been spearheading a movement for a stronger blasphemy law and many other radical Islamic agenda. Political expediency has already resulted in Dhaka watering down its ‘secular’ stand. In 2017, 17 popular stories and poems by non-Muslims and Darwin’s theory of evolution were removed from school curriculum. The statue of a saree-clad woman holding a sword and a scale depicting ‘Lady Justice’ that adorned the Supreme Court building was removed as it was considered “un-Islamic” by the HEI – objection being to both saree and the statue).

Also read: China may have warned Bangladesh against joining Quad, but nobody has invited Dhaka yet

A careful Indian response

In the face of a series of attacks against Hindus, there are bound to be resentment, jingoistic rabble-rousing speeches and acts of bravado and revenge in India. It may even become difficult for political leaders to resist the temptation to jump into the ‘anti-Bangladesh bandwagon’ with a view to reap short-term political dividends. Hindus in Bangladesh as well as the small but strong and determined group of pro-democracy civil society leaders are the best guarantee for an India-friendly neighbour in the East. If they decide to quit, it will be perilous for our security and economic development including the many projects under Look East Act East policy.

While New Delhi should take a strong view of the continued attacks on Hindus and vandalism of Hindu temples and properties in Bangladesh, there is a greater need for engaging with the Sheikh Hasina government and partner with it in its fight against Islamic radical outfits like the Jamaat-e-Islami, HUJI and the HEI. Both New Delhi and Dhaka should work towards strengthening existing counter-terrorism frameworks and devise new technological tools to detect and prevent terror financing, drugs and human trafficking, and illegal border trade including cattle and fire arms smuggling.

The Modi government should immediately step in, use its best diplomatic brains and gears, and tackle the situation judiciously. Protecting the rights of minorities and punishing the culprits are as important as supporting Dhaka in its zero tolerance to radicalism policy.

The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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