Like many Hindus, Bonolata Das believed that a temple was a safe and sacred place.
She wasn’t worried when last week she allowed her 21-year-old son, Pranta Chandra Das, a university student, to stay in a temple complex in the Noakhali district of southeastern Bangladesh.
But the tragedy struck. He would have been beaten to death there by hundreds of religious fundamentalists in the Muslim-majority nation.
“My youngest son was so close to my heart. After his death, I lost my heart and I lost everything,” said Ms. Das, crying inconsolably.
Her son was the victim of mob violence that began after rumors spread that the Koran had been insulted in a special pavilion set up for the annual Hindu religious festival, Durga Puja, in the city of Comilla.
Within hours of the rumor spreading on social media, hundreds of Muslim fundamentalists went on a rampage targeting Hindu religious pavilions in Comilla. Soon, the violence spread to other parts of Bangladesh. Temples were desecrated and hundreds of houses and businesses of the Hindu minority were set on fire. Seven people, including two Hindus, were killed and many more were injured in days of violence. Police opened fire and used tear gas at several points to contain the angry crowd.
Upon learning of the temple attack, run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Ms. Das and her family frantically searched for her son. His body was found the next day in a nearby pond. He was marred by injuries, he said.
“We are afraid to go home and we are afraid of further attacks,” Ms Das told the BBC. “At the moment, I am in the temple itself.”
Hindus make up less than 9% of Bangladesh’s over 165 million inhabitants. Although there have been several attacks on religious minorities in the past, community leaders say this is the worst large-scale mass violence against the community in the country’s history.
“It was a planned attack on the Hindu community,” said Achinta Das, the head of the Hindu festival committee in the city of Comilla. He denied that Hindus would offend a religious text like the Koran.
The day after the attack on the temple, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina condemned the violence, saying the perpetrators “must be discovered”.
“We have done this in the past and we will do it in the future as well,” he said. “They face adequate punishments.”
Despite his warning, the violence has spread to other parts of Bangladesh, sparking fear and panic among members of the minority community. At one point, the government had to deploy security forces in 22 districts to control the riots.
Almost a week after the violence began, dozens of Hindu homes were set on fire in northern Bangladesh after another social media post alleged that Hindus were slandering the Islamic holy site.
“When we heard the crowd was coming, I ran with my two small children to save us and we hid in a paddy field,” Nanda Rani, from Birgunj in the Rangpur district, told the BBC. “From there we could see the crowd setting fire to our house. It is completely destroyed. Now we live in tents.”
Bangladesh’s interior minister, Asaduzzaman Khan, said hundreds of people were arrested and an investigation was launched. He told reporters that people were intentionally spreading “propaganda” by “uploading footage of many brutal incidents that occurred in the country at different times and in the past” in order to mislead others.
The leaders of the Islamist movements have spoken out against violence against any minority.
“Attacks on temples should be punished. All of us should live in peace and harmony,” said Maulana Mujibur Rahman Amidi, vice president of Bangladesh Khilafat Andolan, an Islamist political party.
But Muslim leaders, including Mr. Amidi, have also publicly called for harsh punishments against those who slander Islam.
Bangladesh has been proud of its secular credentials since it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971. Although the constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, it also upholds the principle of secularism.
But analysts point out that hardline Islamist groups have gained prominence over the years and that the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2008, has failed to counter growing religious intolerance and fundamentalism.
“The government has for political expediency compromised with fundamentalist forces, particularly against the backdrop of constrained democratic politics,” said Debapriya Bhattacharya, a prominent economist.
“As a result, the fundamentalists have had prominence, recognition and influence,” he said.
The subcontinent has a long history of religious violence, dating back to 1947, when British India was carved into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.
In 1971 Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, gained independence from Pakistan after a bloody war. India sent its troops in support of Bangladesh’s war of independence.
The shadow of division still looms over South Asia.
“Attacks on the Hindu community in Bangladesh have been systematic over the decades,” said Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of the country’s Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Council.
“There is an orchestrated attempt to seize Hindu houses and land in Bangladesh and they are forced to leave the country.”
Hindu community leaders say their population has dropped from 30% in 1947 to less than 9% today. Most fled to neighboring India.
Rights activists insist successive governments have failed to take timely action against repeated attacks on religious minorities.
“The lack of proper investigation shows not only a pattern, but complacency when it comes to protecting minorities,” said Saad Hammadi, South Asia activist for Amnesty International. “Community violence is recurrent due to perceived impunity and the lack of an effective remedy.”
Bangladeshi law minister Anisul Huq denied that investigations into attacks on minorities are not making progress.
“All these incidents have been investigated. In these cases, it takes some time. We are trying to speed up the investigation as much as possible,” Huq told the BBC.
He also rejected criticism that the government was appeasing Islamists. “Any notion of this kind is incorrect. We want all members of all religions to live in harmony.”
Some say the growing anti-Muslim sentiment across the border in India, under the Hindu nationalist party BJP, is partly responsible for sparking anger among Bangladesh’s hardline Muslims. The BJP has fueled fear of immigration from Bangladesh, causing anger in Dhaka, and Hindu extremists in India have called for the deportation of immigrants to Bangladesh.
“What is happening in India – the treatment of religious minorities – is very unpleasant. It is also being used by some as an excuse to persecute minorities in Bangladesh,” said Bhattacharya, the economist.
“But it is the duty of every government to properly treat its citizens and protect their rights and security,” he said.
Salman Saeed in Dhaka contributed to this report.
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