A weeklong spate of violence targeting Hindus in Muslim-majority Bangladesh has left six people dead while authorities arrested some 450 others, all because of a Facebook post that many Muslims found offensive, but which experts suspect was deliberately aimed at inciting a mob.
Angry crowds have attacked and vandalised Hindu temples, assaulted temple clerics, set Hindu homes ablaze, and clashed with police in many parts of the country since October 13, when a Facebook post included a photo that showed a copy of the Qur’an placed at the knee of a Hindu deity during the Durga Puja festival in the eastern district of Cumilla.
The image went viral and triggered mob violence that escalated over the weekend. Unruly protests reached the capital Dhaka, where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds as the government shut down the internet nationwide to quell the unrest.
The country’s ruling political party has mobilised mass protests to call for peace.
Much of the violence was aimed at the Hindu community, which makes up about 10 percent of the country’s 165 million population.
At least four were killed last Wednesday, when police opened fire on a crowd attacking a Hindu temple in Chittagong, the country's second largest city. On Saturday morning, a man’s body was found near another Hindu temple in the city. An executive member of that Hindu temple, was also attacked and stabbed to death by more than 200 people, local media reported.
Calling for an investigation, Mia Seppo, United Nations resident coordinator in Bangladesh, said on Twitter, “Recent attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, fuelled by hate speech on social media, are against the values of the Constitution and need to stop. We call upon the Government to ensure the protection of minorities and an impartial probe. We call upon all to join hands to strengthen inclusive tolerant Bangladesh.”
Taqbir Huda, coordinator of the rights group Justice for All Now, said the attacks were eerily similar to previous instances of communal unrest in Bangladesh.
“The pattern really suggests that there is a mob that is ever ready to mobilise and attack Hindu homes, and all they require is an ostensible trigger, which usually comes in the form of an inflammatory Facebook post. More often than not, that turns out to be concocted,” Huda told VICE World News.
In a tweet last week, the Bangladesh Hindu Unity Council alleged that the incendiary photos had been staged to “spread rumours of insulting the Qur’an.” While the post went viral, the Bangladesh Hindu Unity Council Twitter account was flagged as fake by the minority rights organisation Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, of which the former claimed to be a member.
Since the escalation of the unrest, the Twitter accounts of the Bangladesh Hindu Unity Council and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Bangladesh have been suspended by Twitter.
Both accounts have been posting images and videos of various incidents of vandalism and attacks across Bangladesh since Friday.
The violence in Dhaka began to escalate on Thursday, when some 10,000 protesters—many of them members of the Islamic Movement of Bangladesh—occupied the city’s streets.
“We ask the government to arrest those who defamed the Qur’an by putting it at the feet of an idol in Cumilla,” said Mosaddek Billah al-Madani, president of the Islamic Movement, adding that protesters demanded “the death sentence” for those responsible for the images.
The violence in Bangladesh triggered protests in other parts of the world, calling for the protection of Hindus in the country. The hashtag #BangladeshiHinduWantSafety trended on Twitter.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Tuesday asked Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan to take immediate action against instigators of the violence against Hindus.
Facebook did not immediately respond to VICE World News’ request for comment. Mob violence has grown increasingly common in Bangladesh over the last decade. The most recent wave of unrest targeting the Hindu community was in 2016 in the Nasirnagar area, also sparked by a Facebook post that appeared to insult Islam.
Around 100 people were injured in the Nasirnagar attacks, while 19 temples and some 300 houses were vandalised.
In 2012, a dozen Buddhist monasteries, shrines and temples were destroyed by mobs in Cox’s Bazar on the country’s southeastern coast, after a rumour circulated that a Buddhist had insulted the Qur’an in a Facebook post.
In 2019, four people were killed in mob violence triggered by yet another Facebook post that stoked tensions between Muslims and Hindus. At the time, Facebook told local media that it was equipped with proactive tools to detect hate speech, rumours, and related content, with a team of 15,000 people employed to review content from around the world.
When similar violent incidents occurred in Sri Lanka in 2018, Facebook apologised for its role in communal riots that erupted after posts on its platform triggered anti-Muslim anger.
Huda, from Justice for All Now, suspects that something other than religious zeal may have also been motivating the violence.
“The mobs who are apparently enraged enough to burn Hindu homes down en masse, nevertheless conveniently have enough composure to loot and pocket the valuables from the targeted homes before setting them on fire,” he said.
“One may wonder whether this is greed driven by rage, or rage driven by greed.”
Follow Kris Thomas on Twitter.