Updated: March 29, 2021 11:02 AM GMT
Supporters of Hefajat-e-Islam protest in Dhaka as part of a nationwide strike on March 28. (Photo: Piyas Biswas)
A Catholic Church official in Bangladesh has denounced violence that left at least 12 dead and scores injured in clashes between Islamist protesters and police over the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Muslim-majority country.
Modi visited Bangladesh on March 26-27 to attend the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding leader, and to mark the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.
Islamic hardliners led by Hefajat-e-Islam and left-wing political groups had opposed Modi’s visit, accusing him and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of being anti-Muslim.
They claimed Modi, the former chief minister of Gujarat state, was a mastermind of an anti-Muslim riot that killed over 2,000 Muslims and accused him of appeasing Hindu extremist groups that abuse and kill Muslims and of attempting to degrade Indian Muslims with a controversial citizenship amendment law.
While the ruling Awami League government’s heavy-handed response to anti-Modi protests was successful in driving away leftist groups, Hefajat supported reacted violently in various parts of Bangladesh.
On March 26, hundreds of Hefajat supporters stormed and vandalized Hathazari police station in Chittagong district. In response, police opened fire, leaving four dead.
On the same day, clashes between Hefajat supporters, policemen and ruling party activists at Baitul Mukarram National Mosque in capital Dhaka left dozens injured including at least 10 journalists.
In Brahmanbaria district, thousands of Hefajat followers attacked a railway station, damaged a train and vandalized several government offices on March 27. Six people were killed when police opened fire.
Angered by the deaths, Hefajat called for a nationwide strike on March 28 that saw thousands of supporters blockade roads, vandalize vehicles and shops and engage in violence with police, leaving another two people dead, according to media reports.
“The killing of people by shooting is an extreme violation of human rights and no one can accept it. We condemn violence and demand the government probe the deaths and ensure the upholding of human rights,” Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Bangladeshi bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, told UCA News.
As people were opposing Modi’s visit, the government should have either canceled the visit or convinced people that what happens in India was their own business, he said.
“The problem is there are strong feelings that Bangladeshi authorities are keen on putting India’s interests first for good relations and that is the cause of the anger against Modi,” Father Gomes added.
A police officer from Brahmanbaria told UCA News that Hefajat supporters wreaked havoc in the area.
“They attacked police stations, government libraries, even a railway station, and trains were set on fire. An awful situation arose. The police had no option but to shoot in self-defense. The protesters also attacked the police and at least 20-25 policeman were injured,” he said.
Hefajat leaders alleged the police attacked their peaceful rallies and demanded justice and compensation for the killings.
“Hefajat-e-Islam thinks that Narendra Modi is the head of a communal government that is anti-Muslim and an enemy of Islam. It was unacceptable that he was invited as a guest in our Muslim-majority country,” said the group’s Dhaka publicity secretary Ehasanul Haque.
He claimed that hundreds of Hefajat supporters were injured and detained by police in addition to the killings.
“We had earlier demanded not to bring Narendra Modi but the government did not listen. We were protesting peacefully but the police shot at us. If they do not release those who have been detained, we will go into a strict movement,” Haque said.
Hefajat called for a nationwide prayer gathering and protest rallies on March 29.
Meanwhile, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan warned that tough action would be taken against further violence and anarchy.
“I request you to stop now or the government will be forced to take stern action,” Khan said on March 28.
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