Deadly communal violence has broken out in Bangladesh after allegations of the desecration of an Islamic holy book led to several Hindu temples being attacked and police opening fire on a crowd, leaving at least four people dead.
The government deployed paramilitary troops to 22 districts after religious tensions and violence broke out in the city of Cumilla on Wednesday.
It was sparked by videos and allegations that spread across social media that a Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, had been placed on the knee of a statue of the Hindu god Hanuman, in a shrine set up for the Hindu holy festival of Durga Puja.
Mobs of more than 500 people gathered in Cumilla and neighbouring districts over the alleged blasphemy. About 10 Hindu temples and shrines were attacked and vandalised by the crowds, who threw stones and smashed statues of the Hindu goddess Durga.
In Cumilla, police shot teargas and fired on the crowds. At least three people died at the scene and another later died of their injuries. Dozens, including several police officers, were injured.
On Friday, the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina promised severe action in response. “The incidents in Cumilla are being thoroughly investigated,” said Hasina. Nobody will be spared. It doesn’t matter which religion they belong to. They will be hunted down and punished.”
Md Faridul Haque Khan, the state minister for religious affairs, said the incident involving the Qur’an would be investigated but added that communal harmony should be protected and urged people not to take the law into their own hands.
Obaidul Quader, a minister with the ruling Awami League government, visited a Hindu shrine in the aftermath of the violence. He said that “fanatic elements” were responsible for the attacks on the Hindu religious festival, adding that the government would “not let them proceed with their evil design”.
The Bangladesh Hindu Unity Council said in a tweet that it “could not publish” what had happened over the past 24 hours, but stated that “the Hindus of Bangladesh saw the real faces of some people. We don’t know what will happen in the future. But the Hindus of Bangladesh will never forget Durga Puja in 2021”.
Hindu religious leaders alleged that the attacks were part of a conspiracy to attack the Hindu community of Bangladesh. Hindus make up 10% of the Muslim-majority country.
In August, four Hindu temples were attacked in the country’s Khulna district and in March, during a visit by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, hardline Islamist groups attacked Hindu shrines.
The incident on Thursday prompted outrage in neighbouring Hindu-majority India. On Thursday, Indian government spokesperson Arindam Bagchi described the incident as “disturbing” and said officials were in communication with the Bangladesh authorities about the attacks.