As Durga Puja approaches and the country's Hindu communities prepare themselves to embrace their beloved goddess, the leaders of the Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian Unity Council, a religious minority organisation, are concerned about a possible outbreak of communal strife in the nation.
Bangladesh is a shining example of religious freedom and communal harmony; where people of all religion-caste-tribe-community have long been living peacefully. In this process, groups of people believing in various religious doctrines have shared the uniform culture of Bengal. A bond of brotherhood has developed among all. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, all of whom fought for liberation, forgetting all the differences between religions, castes, and communities, waded through a sea of blood intending to live together in harmony. The entire liberation struggle of the Bengalis under the Pakistan state was solely focused on creating a secular and democratic nation where there would be no place for fanaticism, fundamentalism and violent extremism. But the most unfortunate thing is that even after fifty-plus years of independence, we observe the vested communal quarters attacking the non-communal state.
The United Nations categorizes Bangladesh as a moderate democratic Muslim country. The Muslim population in Bangladesh was over 150.36 million according to the 2022 census which makes Muslims, 91.04 per cent of the population in the country. Of the rest, most of the people are Hindus (8 per cent). Despite having Islam as the state religion, secularism is upheld. The Constitution of Bangladesh declared secularism as a state principle and banned politics in the name of religion. The constitution also states that "the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other faiths and religions". "Freedom of religion" is its basic structure guaranteed by the constitution which calls for equal rights to all its citizens irrespective of their religious affiliation and it also bans discrimination on the grounds of religion in various platforms.
Hindus and Muslims in this country, have been coexisting peacefully for ages, transforming Bangladesh into a non-communal society and polity. The government of Bangladesh followed a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ to militancy and violent extremism which has further enhanced religious and communal harmony and tolerance in the country. The Durga Puja celebrations, considered to be the biggest religious festival of the Bangalee Hindu community, have expanded to every corner of the country. According to Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad, the Puja was celebrated at 32,168 permanent and temporary mandaps across the country in 2022, including 241 in capital Dhaka alone. In 2016, the number was 29,395 including 229 in Dhaka. The increase in the number of puja pandals in Bangladesh has been due to the harmony that Hindus, Muslims and members of other religious groups are enjoying in the country.
Misuse of social media
However, it seems in recent years there has been an evil force at work to stir up trouble and sully the laudable credentials of Bangladesh as a country of communal harmony. Every year, we see reports of sporadic violence and vandalism of idols in the run-up to the religious festivals of minorities that tend to tarnish the image of Bangladesh. At this point, we must acknowledge that Facebook or social media has added a new, very dangerous dimension to the conception and commission of communal violence, which should worry the policymakers. Facebook's involvement in propagating misinformation had the most significant and detrimental role in the spread of violence during the riots in Ramu, Brahmanbaria, and Comilla.
Perpetrators over the years have utilized social media platforms to spread rumors and to mobilize mobs to launch violent attacks on minority groups. In Ramu, Cox's Bazar, Buddhist temples were burnt down in September 2012 when an unknown/fake Facebook user tagged a local Buddhist, Uttam Kumar Barua, on an image of a burning Quran. Angry with this post, a Buddhist temple was set on fire and an attack was launched against the Buddhist community. Similarly, on the morning of October 13, 2021, claims of defamation of the holy Quran surfaced from a Puja mandap in Comilla district, after reports of finding a copy of the Quran at the feet of the idol of a Hindu deity spread on social media sites. In reaction, mobs sparked communal violence against Hindu communities across Bangladesh during the Durga Puja celebration.
No one—not the right wing or left wing, or even the well-known religious groups—supported these heinous attacks. In support of communal harmony, people from all across the country marched out into the streets to raise their voices against the raging communal attacks. Politicians, civil society members, teachers, artists, writers and student activists in different programmes gave out a clear message: bigotry has no place in Bangladesh. More importantly, as part of a countrywide programme, the ruling party staged a rally titled "Sampriti Samabesh (rally for harmony)" and brought out a peace procession in the capital. All this clearly shows the traditional non-communal character of the people of this country.
Spreading rumours and misinformation
There is a complex nexus of social media, rumors, and violence against minorities in Bangladesh as social media has become a key platform for perpetrating rumors, propaganda and misinformation at individual and social levels. Internet instruments such as Facebook are widely used for this purpose. It is worth mentioning that Bangladesh has turned out to be one of the top three countries where people are most active on Facebook. According to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), currently, there are 52.8 million Facebook users in the country. Communal forces and fanatics in the country and their international sponsors have always taken the opportunity to spread rumors and misinformation to vitiate the common people who have no idea of social media engineering and politics.
Although peace is a priority for all religions, there are surely a few political opportunists who put self-interest above all else and try to profit off the public's adoration of religion. Through inciting resentment and animosity against the minority group, the vultures operating behind the scenes want to see violence break out between Muslims and Hindus in the country. A disjointed society is a vulnerable society prone to machinations of internal and external foes. So, the vested groups strive to fish in the murky waters of communal discontent, sowing social conflict and destabilizing society.
Society needs to be on alert
As Durga Puja approaches and the country's Hindu communities prepare themselves to embrace their beloved goddess, the leaders of the Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian Unity Council, a religious minority organisation, are concerned about the possible outbreak of communal strife in the nation. Ahead of the approaching 12th National Assembly elections, they fear the eruption of communal violence during or after the upcoming Durga Puja. So, law enforcement agencies should make every effort to identify and prosecute the vested communal culprits who, with pre-planning, are trying to spread misinformation in international media about the persecution of minorities in Bangladesh. The government is not solely responsible for promoting social cohesion. To address this issue, a whole-of-society strategy is required, rather than only a law-and-order one. Political parties must take Serious and coordinated steps to ensure that communal and anti-liberal ideas are not allowed to take root in party politics.
The attack on communal peace is a national security concern that must not be treated lightly, and everyone involved in this diabolical agenda, regardless of party affiliation, must be dealt with accordingly. Patriotic Bangladeshis must keep their eyes and ears alert in this respect always. They must speak out against communalism, terrorism, and fundamentalism in all of their guises.
(The author is a security and strategic affairs analyst in Dhaka. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)