The disturbances in Bangladesh around the time of Durga Puja in October 2021 have generated quite a lot of press coverage, dealing primarily with the actual developments that triggered the disturbances and the targeting of the Bengali Hindus there. Some have even pointed out to the steady hemorrhaging of the Hindu population from the country, which has come down from a little over 30% in 1947 to about 14% in 1971 to finally 9% in 2021. Others have pointed out that the Government of Bangladesh have stood firmly behind the persecuted Hindu minority, and have swiftly apprehended the miscreants behind the outrages. What seems to have so far escaped closer scrutiny is how the embers of ‘religious hatred’ keep on burning, and that the possibility of gathering political dividends from stoking such religious antagonism remain promising enough.
The epicentre of the anti-Hindu violence this time round seems to have been the Comilla and Noakhali regions of Bangladesh, two areas with a history of communal pogroms, and also with proportionately lower Hindu presence (below 5% of the population) than the national average of 9%. Curiously, the trouble seems to have begun with the supposed ‘desecration’ of the Holy Qur‘an in a Durga Mandap, sparking off a series of attacks on Hindu temples and houses, damaging property and forcing people to flee their homes, and leaving a handful dead. The Haseena government promptly moved to subdue the disturbances, apprehending within a week most of the suspects involved, including Iqbal Hussain, 30, who put the Quran inside the Durga Mandap. Even more heartening, the attacks and desecration of the Hindu temples and Puja Mandap have been squarely condemned by the Bangladeshi civil society and the intelligentsia.
Even though investigations are still under way, it has begun to appear that the outrages were deliberately started with the intention of triggering widespread communal disturbances, presumably with the aim of driving out the Hindus, in order to grab their land and property – a phenomenon that has characterised the communal disturbances of 1947, 1950, 1964, 1971 and thereafter a series of low-intensity but persistent attacks, especially during the period of military rule in Bangladesh (1975-90), and on a still smaller scale even after that.
The crucial question of course is, whether it is simply an attempt at land-grab from the minorities, true to the historical pattern, or is there more to be read into this? An important detail that stands out is that while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been sincere in her attempts to curb Islamist militancy, political Islam has proven far more resilient and has been gaining strength over the last decade among sections of the population that were hitherto never that far ‘Islamised.’
While this phenomenon remains to be studied up close and objectively, broadening economic disparities within Bangladeshi society continue to be radicalising the poorer sections of the people, and political Islam of the Jamaat-e Islami and other Islamist varieties have gained in appeal as the ‘secularist’ Awami League loses its shine. This has been accompanied by another phenomenon which is even less studied – that, after years of admirable economic development, Bangladeshi economy is entering into a period when the opportunities of further economic expansion are beginning to shrink, precisely at a time when more and more Bangladeshi youth have gained access to good educational facilities and are looking in vain for better economic opportunities than are available.
Such youth, often from urban and propertied families, are getting quickly disgruntled and resorting to the radical alternative of political Islam – of which the Holey Artisan Café killings of Dhaka 2016 happens to be an extreme example. All of this has given political Islam in Bangladesh a degree of acceptability that even Sheikh Hasina has had to be slightly more accommodative towards Islamic sensitivities for the past few years.
The Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with Bangladeshi economy like it has elsewhere in the world, but in Bangladesh it has served to undermine the government considerably more because of its manifest dependence on foreign support to cope with the health crisis itself. Thus, Hasina has never been more vulnerable than at the present, and a well-orchestrated anti-Hindu pogrom would have been the perfect instrument to cause a breach between the Hasina government and its principal friend in the neighbourhood, the Hindu nationalist Modi government.
Except that New Delhi (which is enjoying historically the best relation it has ever had with Bangladesh since 1971) has chosen not to fall for this trap. But progressive weakening of Bangladeshi economy and Islamisation of her body-politic would pose a challenge to the continuation of such relations.
And here, one curious detail about the act of desecration seems to suggest a new factor behind the burning of the communal ember. The ‘desecration’ of the Quran alleged by the rioters involved placing the book at the feet (on the lap, according to other sources) of an idol of Lord Hanuman in the Durga Mandap. For anyone even slightly familiar with the Hindu Bengali tradition of the mother goddess, the presence of the Hanuman statute (associated with the Vaishnava tradition) would appear anomalous to the point of being alien.
Among the targets of the riotous mob after their despoliation of the Durga Mandaps was an ISKCON temple at Noakhali. The ISKCON movement dates back to the 1960s, but are somewhat anomalous to the predominantly Shaiva and Shakti tradition of East Bengal, with a somewhat muted Vaishnavism within the private space of a handful of families. Yet, ISKCON temples have proliferated in Bangladesh over the last decade or so. One explanation of this is that there is a new wave of Vaishnava tradition among the Hindus of East Bengal – but there has not been much indication of this in terms of changing cultural practices, and certainly not to the point of Bengalis venerating the Lord Hanuman, since Bengali Vaishnavism revolves around Krishna, not Ram.
One possibility that suggests itself is that the Bangladeshi Hindus are resorting to new cultural tropes with an eye to tapping into the power of assertive Hindu nationalism from across the frontier for the first time, i.e. this might be an attempt at politicisation of the Hindu identity in Bangladesh for the first time since its creation to resist the crushing ascendancy of political Islam. If this is indeed as it appears, such polarisation of the Hindu constituency in Bangladesh would consolidate the Islamist constituency even further, weakening the secular forces in the country.
Unfortunately, the ember of communal hatred looks destined to burn some time longer and does not augur well for the future of the people of Bangladesh, Hindu or Muslim.
(Kingshuk Chatterjee is Professor in the Department of History, and is a Director at the Centre for Global Studies Kolkata.)