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China, Pakistan, and violence in Bangladesh

The biggest-ever attacks on the Hindu minority in Bangladesh has deep, though not only, strategic implications.

A Durga Puja pandal destroyed by Islamists in Bangladesh in October 2021.

That the incident that seems to have triggered the violence in Bangladesh with mobs of Islamists attacking Hindu places of worship is concocted is easy to see. Apparently, it started with a viral image or video of ‘desecration’ of the Koran shown at the altar of the Hindu god Hanuman. This was supposedly from a Durga Puja pandal or makeshift worship place in the biggest autumnal festival of Bengali Hindus, the Durga Puja.

Only this celebration and worship has nothing to do with Hanuman. There is, and never has been, any Hanuman figurine in Durga Puja in its around six-hundred-year history. The worship entirely revolves around the goddess, Durga, and her family. The main theme is the victory of the goddess against the evil, represented by a shape-shifting asura (roughly translated as demon) Mahishasura.

So, the entire premise seems fraudulent.

On the basis of such a suspect ‘incident’, which went ‘viral’, Islamist mobs attacked Hindu temples and pandals in numerous areas of Bangladesh, including the newly inaugurated ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple. At least four people are dead, and many others injured.

Though such incidents have happened sporadically in the past, this was the biggest attack ever on Durga Puja, the most important annual religious festival of Bengali Hindus, ever in Bangladesh. Hindus make up about 10 per cent of the population, and the name of the country’s capital, Dhaka, comes from grand old Durga temple, the Dhakeswari temple.

All this has a history and a context. Islamist influence has been growing in Bangladesh though the government has consistently taken stringent measures to fight it, including dismantling Islamist organizations, and even sentencing to death leaders of such organisations who are accused of violence.

One of the most notorious cases was that of the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and its infamous leader Siddique ul-Islam or popularly known as Bangla Bhai. The Al Qaeda-affiliated organization was dismantled after a range of killings by it in the mid-2000s, and Siddique ul-Islam hung in March 2007.

A more persistent problem has been through an organization called Jamaat-e-Islami, which has branches in India and Pakistan even today. But the Jamaat in Bangladesh has a diabolical history. The Jamaat was created by the Muslim theologian Abul Ala Maududi in 1941 in India. This organization was a strong opponent of the partition of the subcontinent when the British left, but once it was divided into India and Pakistan, it played a leading role in converting Pakistan into an Islamic State where the state would have a religion, Islam. The Jamaat in Bangladesh has always answered to higher powers in Pakistan, and it fiercely fought the Bangladeshi independence movement in 1971, siding with the oppressive Pakistan army. In fact, the group’s people committed terrible war crimes of murder and rape against Bangladeshis fighting for freedom from Pakistan before independence in 1971 (which was supported by India).

The founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had written a secular constitution for the country. This was overturned when he was assassinated with most of his family in a military coup. Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister of Bangladesh, is a surviving daughter of Mujibur Rahman. Between 2010-16, Hasina held trials of key Jamaat leaders who led the violence during the independence movement – four top leaders were hung to death for their role in the slaughter where around 3 million died, 200,000 women were raped, and 10 million fled their homes.

Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh also has a long history. The Pakistani Army with the Jamaat supporters destroyed one of the most important temples in Bangladesh, the 19th century Ramna Kali Mandir. Since then, the community has faced sporadic attacks, including, in 2016, death threats to the presiding monk of the Ramakrishna Mission. Also in 2016, a professor from Dhaka University showed through his research that such was the rate of exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh, due to constant attacks from Islamists, that in about three decades there might not be any Hindu left in Bangladesh.

Attacks on temples and Durga Pujas have also happened before but nothing in the scale that it happened this year. Reports have several Hindu villages burnt down have also come in. An ISKCON temple inaugurated in summer was also attacked, and a young monk murdered.

The Bangladesh government has stated that the violence was caused by members of the Jamaat, and its youth wing the Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, which, the suggestion always is, answers to powers in Pakistan. Dipu Moni, the former foreign minister of Bangladesh, and the sitting education minister, widely considered the most powerful politician in the country after Prime Minister Hasina, has said, without naming names, “These attacks were pre planned. It is very evident that foreign players are trying to conspire against us…” Hasina has pledged to hunt down the culprits.

Pakistan is a critical ally of China which is deadlocked with India in the high Himalayas in the Ladakh region with low-key sporadic skirmishes still going on, and no breakthrough in sight.

Further, even though China has had a major role in recent years in development projects in Bangladesh, off-late there has been significant friction. Reports of ill-treatment and non-payment to Bangladeshi workers have caused ill-will in the construction of the Padma Bridge Rail Link Project which connects Dhaka and Jessore. Similar incidents have happened in the recent past at power plants and sewage treatments plants at Chittagong and Dhaka.

Bangladesh also rebuffed ‘suggestions’ from China in recent years not to engage with the Quad, the grouping of four Indian Ocean powers, the US, Australia, India, and Japan.

So, who would benefit from such violence in Bangladesh which has a direct impact on the ties between the two countries? Well, it is forgotten today but Jamaat-e-Islami has old ties not only with Pakistan, but with China. In 2009, the Pakistani version of the Jamaat signed an MoU of sorts with the Chinese Communist Party to impart Islamic education in China.

What happened afterwards is a bit unclear but suffice it to say that the Jamaat in Pakistan or, for that matter, Bangladesh, doesn’t really ever protest Chinese atrocities against Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province which has drawn global opprobrium.

If ties between India and Bangladesh go downhill, the strategic advantage to both Pakistan and China would be huge as one more theatre of action would thus be opened against India, and the encirclement would become tighter.

For now, the Indian government has chosen to remain relatively quiet, no doubt understanding the games at play. But this situation is likely to get more volatile as Islamist ideology has seeped deep within Bangladeshi society.

The game-changer would be if, as a prominent Bangladeshi politician and junior Information Minister Murad Hassan has suggested, Bangladesh reverts to a secular constitution. If this happens, one of the key triggers would have been these latest incidents of mass violence. Such a transformation would take away the state framework used by extremists to justify their jihadist activities.

That could well be the start of a new Bangladesh.


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