Bangladesh Strengthens Security as Violence Targets Hindu Festival

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Paramilitary forces spread through much of Bangladesh on Friday to help curb the worst communal violence in years targeting members of the Hindu minority as they celebrated their largest annual religious festival.

At least four people have been confirmed to have died and more than 100 others wounded since Wednesday as violence expanded across the country following allegations that a copy of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, was disrespected in a temple in Cumilla, a district southeast of the capital, Dhaka. Authorities shut down mobile internet access in Dhaka for much of the day.

The worst of the violence convulsed Chandpur district, south of Dhaka, where police clashed with an angry mob trying to attack a Hindu temple.

Clashes and protests were reported in at least 10 of the country’s 64 districts, according to local media reports. Paramilitary forces were deployed to more than 35 districts to curb the spread of violence on Friday, the last day of a major Hindu festival, the Durga Puja, said Shariful Islam, a spokesman for the forces.

“A mob of Muslims went to attack Hindu temples and we sent police to control the situation,” said Anjana Khan Mojlish, the district magistrate in Chandpur. “The situation was getting worse and the police had no choice but to use firearms, which killed three — and all of them are Muslims.”

Gobinda Chandra Pramanik, the secretary general of the Bangladesh National Hindu Mahajote, an umbrella group, said at least 17 Hindu temples had been attacked and that idols had been vandalized. He also said that more than a hundred people had been wounded.

In a sign that the tensions remained high late into Friday, Mr. Pramanik said two Hindus were also killed in Noakhali district after a temple had been set afire. The Noakhali police confirmed one death and said they were looking into reports of other casualties.

“I’ve never seen such an incident in my life,” said Shibu Prasad Roy, who was on the organizing committee of the Durga Puja festival. “At first 15 to 20 people, aged between 14 and 18 years old, came to attack our temple in Cumilla. After that, the number increased to hundreds of people.”

The violence in Bangladesh reflects an increasing intolerance toward minorities across South Asia. Religious and ethnic minorities, from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, say they have been the victims of blatant communal politics catering to majority groups.

Bangladesh has seen the emergence of local Muslim extremist groups that have been accused of targeting the country’s secular forces with a wave of assassinations. It has also been vulnerable to cross-border tensions from a rise in communal politics in India that has targeted Muslims, including those of Bangladeshi descent.

A visit by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to Dhaka this spring was met with widespread protests over the treatment of Muslims in India. At least 12 protesters were killed when police opened fire on the demonstration.

Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, on Thursday vowed to hunt down anyone involved in targeting the Hindu gatherings. But she made it clear that she saw the violence as being tied to broader communal intolerance across the border.

“This isn’t the first time that minorities in Bangladesh have come under attack,” said Saad Hammadi, the South Asia campaigner for Amnesty International. “Targeting religious sensitivities to stoke communal tension is one of the worst forms of human rights violation. We urge the authorities to thoroughly and impartially investigate the incidents and bring those responsible for the violence to justice through fair trials.”

The growing intolerance in Bangladesh, which has also targeted minorities other than Hindus, has been partly fueled by misinformation spread on social media and exploited for political gain.

As an example, Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at the University of Dhaka, pointed to the last wave of communal violence that targeted the Hindu minority in 2016, in Nasirnagar, which was sparked by a fake Facebook post alleging an insult to Islam by a Hindu. Hundreds of homes belonging to Hindus were burned down.

Many people accused of involvement in the communal violence — including some with affiliations to Ms. Hasina’s ruling party — tried using the attacks as a springboard for their political careers. Ms. Hasina’s party only dropped the nomination of two candidates accused of involvement in the violence after public pressure.

In 2012, a dozen Buddhist temples and monasteries were destroyed by Muslim mobs in Cox’s Bazar, on the southeast coast of the country, after a rumor circulated that a Buddhist had insulted the Quran in a Facebook post.

Last November, a star cricket player, Shakib Al Hasan, received a death threat from religious extremists after he visited a Hindu temple in Kolkata, India, and participated in a ceremony. Mr. Al Hasan later apologized and declared himself a “proud Muslim.”

Saif Hasnat reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Mujib Mashal from Kavre, Nepal.

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