Bangladesh information minister Muhammad Hasan Mahmud on Saturday sought to drive home the point that over two crore Hindus in his country were safe under Sheikh Hasina’s rule and referred to the recent Durga Puja festival that had passed without “any incident” of violence on the minority community.
“There are about two crore Hindus in Bangladesh. This year, there were over 33,000 Durga Puja pandals in the country.... Our Prime Minister (Hasina) had asked Awami League leaders to keep a watch on puja pandals to ensure there was no wrongdoing,” Mahmud, a senior member of the Hasina cabinet, told a news conference at Calcutta Press Club.
This year’s Durga Puja celebrations in Bangladesh were under the scanner in India as at least five Hindus had been killed and hundreds injured in communal violence during the biggest festival of the community in the neighbouring country in 2021. As several incidents of attacks on places of worship of minority communities by unidentified people were reported from across the country, it had become a political issue in India as several right wing Hindu outfits had put pressure on the Narendra Modi government at the Centre to take the matter up with Hasina.
Multiple sources in Bangladesh said Hasina’s Awami League government had mobilised a multi-layer security arrangements, including CCTVs, at all panalds, this year as it didn’t want any repeat of 2021’s violent incidents.
“The total number of pujas this time were more than the last year and the Hindu community celebrated it with fanfare and festivity,” said Mahmud.
That Durga Puja went off peacefully was corroborated by the Bangladesh Puja Celebration Parishad, an apex body of puja organisers, which thanked Hasina for the peaceful completion of the festival after the immersion of idols on Bijaya Dashami.
Rana Dasgupta, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, told this correspondent over phone that the minister was right in his claims about the peaceful completion of the puja festivities.
He, however, flagged a few concerns of the minority communities in Bangladesh and urged the Hasina government to deliver on some of the promises she had made before the last general elections in 2018 to ensure that the minority community feels safe not only on the five days of Puja but also through the year.
“The Awami League had promised to set up a minority commission besides enacting a law to address the problem of discrimination that the members of the minority community face in our country... There were also some pledges to ensure the rights of the tribals in the hilly areas and in the plains. The AL leadership was supposed to look into our demand for a minorities affairs ministry in the country like what India has,” said Dasgupta, who stressed that this year’s Puja proved that the government could ensure safety of the minorities if it was serious about it.
“The promises made before the last elections, however, have remained on paper... We are more than one year away from the next general election and we are regularly organising movements to press for our demands,” he added.
The rights of the minorities has always been a politically sensitive issue in Bangladesh — more so at a time attacks on Muslims in India have become a regular feature. Opposition parties in the country, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, have used the attacks in India to play the religious fundamentalist card.
“There are radical forces, supported by the BNP and Jamaat and their allies.… Their main politics is anti-India and anti-Hindu,” said Mahmud.
Referring to last year’s violence, which began at Comilla following some provocative Facebook posts, the Bangaldesh minister said the police in his country investigated the matter and arrested the people behind the incident, which was apparently aimed creating religious disharmony.
“The investigations revealed that all these were planned.… And our government did everything to nab the miscreants and punish them. All these measures played a role in ensuring peaceful Puja this year,” Mahmud said.
The Bangladeshi politician, who is also the joint general secretary of the ruling Awami League, was in the city to inaugurate the biggest ever Bangladeshi film festival in Calcutta. The festival opened on Saturday with Hawa, a film by Mejbaur Rahman Sumon and featuring famous actor Chanchal Chowdhury in the lead.
The show drew large crowds at Nandan. The minister also took part at a programme organised by the Indo-Bangla Press Club, a fledgling organisation of journalists working for Bangladeshi media outlets in India.