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Ramu-nization of Bangladesh
This is the best time to review the incidents at Ramu; this is also the worst time to do so. As I write this article, it has just been a month since the night of September 29th, when mobs of religious zealots went on a rampage in Ramu and its adjacent areas. The media coverage has slackened, there has been hue and cry in the blame game between the two major political parties, mass rallies, human chains, round table meetings, statements, citizen visits to Ramu, media exclusives, newspaper columns and talk-shows have all been over by this time. And now tons of promises are blowing in the wind. A little separation, which gives one some time and space to see any incident from a wee distance, has been created. So, this is the best time to think through the mayhem. On the other hand, this is the worst time, because although the duties and promises have all been ‘performed’, neither a single clue of who masterminded and/or who organized the frenzy has been traced out, nor any promise by the government to bring the culprits to visible punishment has been carried out, all except the closing of the OC of Ramu. The whole truth still remains under the ashes. Added to that, the approximately 100 people who have been killed in several riots among the Rakhines and Rohingyas in Myanmar since the 24th of October, has made it difficult to analyze the whole context within the country’s framework.
‘Red Flames in the Dark Sky’
18-year old Omar Faruk and his friend Abdul Muktadir, who are now under detention with the allegation of doctoring a photo derogatory to the holy Qur’an and spreading it among the Muslims of the town, also saw the red flames of fire in the dark sky when they were waiting at the police station with the computer, the one which contained the photo defaming the holy Qur’an – a screenshot of some Uttam Barua’s facebook account where Mr. Barua had been tagged. They were at the police station because around the evening of the 29th, when the frenzy had begun spreading out in town, some policemen came to Faruk’s shop and asked him to go to the police station with the computer. Not only Faruk and Muktadir, thousands of people of Ramu saw those red flames for more than six hours, many of whom also partook in aggravating the flames. No doubt that the whole law enforcement agency saw the flames that burnt 12 pagodas and Buddhist monasteries and over 50 houses for hours that night. The next day, two monasteries and a Hindu temple were vandalized in Patiya upazila of Chittagong, two monasteries were torched in Ukhia and five houses were set ablaze in Teknaf upazila of Cox’s Bazar. Altogether 18 pagodas and monasteries and a Hindu temple had been burnt in this two-day hate-fire.
The damaged temples in Ramu include Progga Mitra Bihar, Uttar Mithachari Bimurta Bhabona Kendra, Ukhia Ghona Jojoba Bihar, Srikul Maitree Bihar, Srikul Natun Bihar, Lal Ching Bihar, Sada Ching Bihar, Mahajan Bihar and Ramu Kendrya Shima Rajbon Bihar in the Meronglua area.
The Buddha statues made of gold are lost forever. Lost forever is the 250-year old monastery, the 100ft high Buddha statue that was under construction, the intrinsic designs of Khadi wood in Sima Bihar, the rare world heritage piece of 12 statues of Buddha on a seat. In the red flames of hatred, the zealots burnt thousands of holy Tripitaks written on palm leaves. Vonte Proggananda Vikkhu of Central Sima Bihar of Ramu laments that the bihars can be rebuilt in the course of time, but how will they get back those 250-year old scripts? For Shreemad Satyapriya Mohathero (83), the loss and pain are even greater. He has lost all faith in his knowledge and understanding of humanity. But what I find even graver is eight-year old Itimoni spending the whole night without food or water in the plantation because she was hiding out of fear that the ‘Muslims’ might kill her. The oath of pluralism this country took at its birth vanishes with Itimoni’s petrifying words. The red flames of fire in the dark sky thus burn the inherent spirit of Bangladesh.
‘Tagged Facebook Photo Frenzy’ or ‘Premeditated Attack’?
There is hardly any doubt that never before in our history have worship places of any religious minority been destroyed in such a grave scale, not even in 1971. However, there are two versions of the probable causes of this communal frenzy against the religious and domestic dwellings of the most peaceful and non-violent people of this land.
Apparently, the tagged photo on Buddhist Uttam Barua’s facebook wall is the cause of all this chaos. Almost all the newspapers and electronic media covered the incidents in this line. Police and witnesses echoed the same statement that after the spread of the news about the Facebook photo through Bluetooth, hundreds of people thronged in the Choumuhuni area of Ramu and staged angry demonstrations around 10pm on the 29th. Chanting slogans ‘Naraye Takbir Allahu Akbar’, ‘Slap the Buddhists with shoes’, ‘Burn them down’, several thousand people on trucks from Gorjonia, Rashidnagar, Jhilongia, Eidgaon, Kochhopia and Rajarkul areas of the upazila swarmed into Choumuhani. The frantic mob then started torching the Buddhist bihars, pagodas and houses around midnight, arson that lasted for over six long hours. This version is quite convincing as it was seen by many that people gathered at the shop of Faruk (18) from early evening to see the alleged photo and that the gathering was getting bigger and more forceful as the time passed. While this convincing story justified that the agitated souls of religious people upon seeing the holy book of Islam disgraced, and the spontaneous attacks on the Buddhist religious shrines and houses, several issues indicate that the truth may not be as simple and straightforward as is it seems on the surface. First and foremost among them is the Daily Star’s confirmation by its investigative reporting team that the alleged pejorative photo of the holy Qur’an tagged on Uttam Barua’s wall was not only doctored, but doctored at Faruk’s very own shop, and his friend Muktadir, who copied the photo and distributed it massively, is an ex-member of Chhatra Shibir (student wing of Jamaat-e-Islam). The photo tagged they distributed was in fact a tampered screenshot of Uttam Barua’s Facebook wall. Here then arises a set of questions: why did they manufacture this photo on a Buddhist person’s Facebook wall and distribute it so massively among the Muslims? Had they been manipulated by another? Who were behind this ploy? If Faruk and Muktadir were at police station at midnight, who initiated the attack? Who arranged the conveyance? Who were the masterminds?
The answers to these questions should be secured through proper investigation, they must not be guessed. One thing is clear, that the masterminds used a faked Facebook page to let all hell loose in Ramu. Furthermore, the way the mob gathered indicates something different than a spontaneous attack. Newspaper reports say, on the evening of the 29th, less than a hundred people at Ramu started the campaign against the Buddhists through processions and rallies. Overnight, the mob grew to around 6,000. A major portion of those who set ablaze and vandalised pagodas and houses were outsiders. According to the local Police personnel and the witnesses, they came from Garjania, Monirjhil, Kawakhop, Ukhiarghona, Chakmarkul, Rajarkul, Omkhali, Joarinala of Cox’s Bazar, and Barolia, Chakdhala and Naikhangchhari of Bandarban. These locations are 4-15km off Ramu upazila headquarters, some are remote hilly places. Locals in most of the areas go to sleep between 8:00pm and 10:00pm. A large number of the attackers were brought in from outside in trucks, pickups and three-wheelers. Thus it was far from a sudden spark of fury.
While the process of gathering is questionable, the modus operandi and use of ammunitions are also alarming. The bihars and pagodas were vandalised and torched, the heads of the Buddha Idols were chopped off or burnt, and the Buddhist houses were burnt but the adjacent Muslim houses remained untouched. The newly appointed home minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir mentioned that there was evidence of gunpowder and petrol in the remains of the Buddhist monasteries and houses. Had the attacks been impulsive manifestations of fury then how they could manage gunpowder is a big question. The home minister is the first person who strongly mentioned on the 30th September that the violence in Ramu centring an anti-Islamic photo on Facebook was a ‘premeditated and deliberate act of communal violence against the minority’. This statement was almost echoed by the National Human Rights Commission Chairman Professor Mizanur Rahman when he dismissed the causation of a mere Facebook photo to this massive incident, and said the violence at Ramu was certainly ‘premeditated, planned and well organised’. Almost all the citizen group who visited the spots claimed that the incidents agreed. Even the BNP team that visited Ramu, led by Barrister Moudud Ahmed, declared the attacks were pre-planned.
The question is: Who planned, with what motive?
As there is no probe committee report available yet, we are still depending on wild guesses based on any available signs, one of such signs is the participants of the attack.
All Parties’ ‘He-men’ were there!
This is for the first time in Bangladesh history, irrespective of political affiliation, local leaders were involved in a communal attack on a minority population. Either they took part in agitating people leading the early processions, or they took part in arson and vandalism themselves, or they did not play the roles they had taken oaths for. The scenario is really perplexing. All the main stream media reported that local leaders of pro-Awami League organisations, BNP leaders including the local MP, madrasa students and common people were either involved or pulled the strings. Witnesses mentioned that a number of Rohingyas were also among the attackers. The involvement of all parties’ leaders can be proved from three small examples (Daily Samakal, 2nd October 2012). A procession that reached Ramu Bazar around 10pm was led by the President of Ramu Awami Motsojibi League, Mr Answerul Haque Bhutto, along with Student League leader Saddam Hossain. Hafez Ahmed, a member of Ulema League, took part in a protest rally and issued provocative statements to incite the attacks.
People were called to gather through loudspeaker announcements in Meronglua village by pro-BNP Union Parishad member Kamal Uddin along with 30 other people. Abul Quasem, local leader of BNP-backed student body Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, was seen in another rally. Again, among the 12 pagodas that were burnt or vandalised in Ramu, five were burnt in Meronglua village of Fatehkharpul Union. The elected chairman of this village is Jamaat-e-Islame-backed Mr Sirajul Islam Bhutto. Four pagodas were burnt in Joariyanala Union, whose chairman is BNP aligned. Home Minister alleged that the local BNP lawmaker Lutfor Rahman had fuelled the violence, saying the MP “used the people who went there to stage protests against the photo. He instigated them to launch an attack and kill the Buddhists”. Even the president of Ramu Press Club, Nurul Islam Salim, joined another rally at Chaumuhuni station, witnesses said.
Many say a procession had come out of the Kawmi madrasa, Jama’aetul Ulum Al Islamia of Ramu central mosque, to join a rally of vandals. Habib Ullah, a teacher of this madrasa, confessed that they joined a procession and confirmed that nine teachers and 70 students of the madrasa had joined the demonstration, though he did not see any derogatory picture of Quran, but joined the agitation just hearing about it. Rather than one political Islamist party to blame, as we had seen in past communal violence incidents, local leaders of almost all the major political parties are visible in this incident.
The scenario gets even more complex when we read in newspaper reports that Nazibul Islam, officer-in-charge of Ramu Police Station, instead of taking instantaneous action to ensure security of Buddhists, was seen on the stage of a rally that night blurting provocative comments like: “I am a Muslim. I also should have joined the procession. But I am serving the law. I too am pained. Uttam will be arrested.” (Inam Ahmed and Julfikar Ali Manik, 3rd October, The Daily Star). The role of the whole law enforcing agency and intelligence branch is now questionable and thus questionable is the government’s efficiency.
‘Our Intelligence Branch Knew Everything’!
Quite logical is the statement of the National Human Rights Commission chair Professor Mizanur Rahman that our intelligence branch knew everything about this pre-planned and premeditated violence. The intelligence branch should know about this kind of preparations, particularly given that the rallies of marauding mobs were so visible! Why did they not alarm the local and national administration? And if the Home Minister also believes that the attack was premeditated, the home ministry should take full responsibility. It is not only the OC of Ramu, whose inaction lead to utter devastation, is to be blamed for such a massive attack. Inaction and inefficiency of the whole administration and the intelligence branch should be investigated. How can an area full of police, BDR and RAB, allow a six-hour long attack to take place and not intervene? It is clear that the government has failed this time. Government’s failure is again evident when we see that just after the visit of the home minister and the industrial minister on the 30th of September, the mobs again set ablaze pagodas and temples in those areas. Did the local administration not obey the orders of the minister? If the government fails to answer these questions, then the situation is even fatal. In that case the question is who run the local administration there? Many citizen organisations and human rights organisations demanded a judicial probe committee to investigate the arson attack in Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong. The police’s impotence in Ramu-Ukhiya-Teknaf-Patiya has been challenged at Supreme Court. Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua in the petition sought a directive from the HC to summon the deputy commissioner (DC) and superintendent of police of Cox’s Bazar and officer-in-charge of Ramu Police Station before it to explain their roles regarding the incident.
‘Ramu’ Did Not Happen in a Day!
The attack on pagodas and homes of Buddhists in Ramu is not an isolated incident. Such communal violence had taken place in Satkhira, Chirir Bandar in Dinajpur, Ukhia, Hathazari and Pathorghata in Chittagong and Rangamati this year. Violence in those places and in Ramu is part of a chain. If we look at the timeframe, we see most of the incidents take place when Muslims are emotionally dazed due to some international tension. In this case, the Muslims were traumatised due to the Youtube video. If we look sincerely into those incidents, we can see a common pattern:
- Most of the incidents take place late at night;
- The reasons have always been declared as the defamation of Islam or Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). We can remember the attack in Satkhira, the allegation was staging the drama ‘Hujur Kebla’ by noted litterateur Abul Mansur Ahmed, which has been a text for many years in degree level Bengali literature course in National University. But the attackers spread the message that the drama defamed the character of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
- None of the government officials, law enforcement bodies have the slightest clue before the attack. The law enforcement agency people agitated the attackers and did not allow the fire-brigade to perform its duty in Satkhira. There also were allegations against the local MP of delivering provocative speeches to attack on Hindus.
- These areas are politically Jamaat-e-Islam dominated. Local MPs may be from AL or BNP, but are Jamaat inclined.
- The attack has the pattern of the ‘series bombing’ during the BNP-Jamaat regime in 2001-2006, with wave after wave of attacks.
- The attacks obviously follow a periodic pattern, the attacks taking place in a time span of two-three months.
- Somehow the miscreants get an idea that the government has zero visibility of policing around those affected areas. One can see, the many of the attackers are not local. They have been briefed and brought in from neighbourhood of the attacking points.
- Attacks are happening mainly in border areas, which might have some political-economic aspect. If the attacked people flee to the neighbouring country, the benefit is doubled, because firstly, the property of the minorities is up for grabs, which is an ancient way to accumulate primary capital; and secondly, the new residents can be utilized as “vote-banks”.
In each of the cases, there was no visible government attempt to bring the criminals to justice as NHRC Chairman Mizanur Rahman said, “And I want to ask what the government has done against the criminals who were involved in those incidents of violence.” (3rd October, The Daily Star).
In the post-election violence of 2001, many a Hindu women were raped. The areas where the minority people were factors for voting, we saw planned attacks there. Far from bringing the culprits to justice, the then government did not even confess to the repression. Though the main responsibility of those communal attacks is borne by BNP and Jamaat, Awami League did not stand by the Hindus that time. Also the civil society and human rights organisation could not make any visible pressure to compel the BNP-Jamaat government to take any action against the culprits. Rather many of those repressors and rapists have been accommodated in the vote-based power politics. The state and power politics have compelled us to forget those pains and to live with the reminiscence.
Though Bangladesh was born with the oath of being a multi-religious and multi-ethnic state with one of its main ethos being a secular state, the country has shifted its position by two amendments – the 5th and the 8th. President Ziaur Rahman redefined the constitution in 1977 and placed Bismillahir Rahman-ur-Rahim instead of Secularism in the constitution, which stated the supreme confidence and faith on almighty Allah as the base of all actions. Within the period of 1976 and 1979, he withdrew the ban on religion based political parties with several executive orders. Next, Lieutenant General Hossain Mohammad Ershad declared Islam as the state religion in 1988. Thus, the religion based politics did not only get the legitimacy, it has been established both constitutionally and politically. On the other hand, religion has been the main basis of taking any decision in the public sphere. The socialisation of fundamentalism thus prioritised Islam over other religions and this process has been so deep rooted that any form of oppression can be imposed on anybody terming any of their actions derogatory to Islam. This might be the reason why repression had taken place on the Hindu community in Satkhira, where the educational drama ‘Hujure Kebla’ was declared “anti-Islamic”, and on the Buddhist community, due to an imaginary Facebook photo derogatory to Islam.
This kind of intolerance to other faiths and ethnic people have neither been admitted nor challenged so far by the governments, rather the tendency all along has been cover up the incidents as if nothing had happened. This mammoth attack in Ramu-Ukhia-Teknaf-Patiya is the cumulative effect of those ‘inactions’. Now the question is, how will we remember and treat the communal violence on the Buddhist bihars and dwellings?
A Known Compromise, A Known Darkness
When we expected a national consensus and unity to restore the image of Bangladesh as a peace-loving pluralistic country, when we expected a united stand beside the Buddhist and other religious minorities to regain their faith and confidence as the citizens of Bangladesh, our two major political parties are playing the nasty blame game in full swing.
The game started when the newly appointed home minister met the press on his returning to Dhaka after visiting the attacked areas. The minister alleged local BNP lawmaker Lutfor Rahman had fuelled the violence. The BNP secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul, fired back accusing the ruling party’s involvement, followed by the BNP chairperson echoing the same – ‘AL men behind Ramu incident’, in a huge rally in Hobiganj. Then again Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blamed the local BNP lawmaker for September 29 when she was visiting the affected area. But the PM did not stop there, adding “The opposition leader knows everything about the attacks.” She once again blamed the local BNP lawmaker for “fanning communal violence” in Ramu on 11th October. Khaleda again demanded credible probing into the incidents.
This pattern of blame is a known form of compromise to fleece your own failure, own party men’s involvement and to keep busy people’s minds so that the perpetrators can hide themselves. Both the political parties are now under prey of communal forces for their voting politics. They have many local, national, international voting equations, which demand some or much compromise with the fanatic psyche of religious extremism. This compromise indicates that a neutral and honest probe to this ferocious incident would be difficult.
What makes the situation even more bothersome is the presence of a large number of Rohingyas in the affected areas for the last 20 years. A score of witnesses confirmed the obvious participation of Rohingyas in the processions followed by arson and vandalism on 29th September night in Ramu. The tension and recent killing in the Rakhine state that started on 24th of October and left around 100 people killed – these elements are ready to generate a newer concern for our security issue. Led by Shuddhananda Mahathero, president of Bangladesh Buddha Kristi Prachar Sangha, the Buddhist delegation submitted the report of their own investigation to the prime minister. They said they had found three motives behind the mayhem and the foremost among them is making the Rohingya issue more complicated.
At this point, a neutral judicial probe committee investigation is vital. But the home minister dismissed the probability of any judicial probe, rather he informed that an administrative probe committee will investigate the matter. The administration, which failed to protect the heinous attack in Ramu, will investigate and compile the report on which the government will take action. Many reported that the people who took part in the angry processions and vandalism were seen at the PM’s meeting, as well as with BNP’s visiting team to Ramu. This is the unholy compromise that deepens the known darkness. The results are indiscreet probes that pose new threats to the Buddhist community. Several government probe teams are working and they are taking statements of witnesses. With the way the government bodies are conducting probes, it will no longer be a secret who is testifying against whom. A sense of insecurity is increasing among the Buddhists as some of them have already been warned by Muslim neighbours not to disclose the names. So, the whole probe process may turned to be a further wave of torture and insecurity for them. It is then quite logical that the probe committees will not know very much about the real culprits. Any failure to unearth the masterminds of this mammoth attack and bring them to visible punishment may lead the country to gradual ‘Ramunization’ of Bangladesh.
“Please save my future generation! Please!”
Shreemad Satyapriya Mohathero (83) pleaded to his countrymen to save the future generation. With the country shifting from a pluralist multi-religious, multi-ethnic country to a mono-religious country with Islam as the state religion, what would our future generation learn about the diversity of cultures that we have inherited over thousands of years? One of the reasons why fanatic forces try to demolish the symbols of culture and heritage is to erase the memory of pluralism from the future generations because as long those symbols are prevailing, people nourish those in their collective memory and keep the feeling of diversified cultural heritage within themselves. These symbols are disturbing for any extremist group. In recent incidents we see groups of young people, even teenagers, being involved in the frenzied mob to arson or vandalise different faiths’ religious establishments and dwellings. Reports show that most of the attackers who wreaked mayhem on Ramu’s Buddhist community from Saturday evening to early Sunday were aged between 14 and 22. The same was the case in Satkhira, where the majority of attackers were aged between 14 to 24. What is their future? Who will save them?