Nursing the wounds still painfully fresh from the deadly communal attacks a year ago, Hindus in Bangladesh are celebrating Durga Puja. But the long shadow of the atrocities against them still hangs over their biggest festival with the perpetrators nowhere close to being tried.
More than a hundred cases filed over deadly attacks on Puja pavilions, temples, Hindu households and businesses in many parts of the country in 2021 are still in limbo. In some cases, the suspects are yet to be indicted and the accused are roaming free on bail while investigations in some other cases are still pending.
Although leaders of Hindu communities hoped the culprits would be brought to justice before the festival began this year, none of the 124 cases over the attacks in four metropolitan cities and 28 districts has made any progress.
The Police Bureau of Investigation or PBI, which received 26 cases for investigation filed across eight districts, said 128 of 172 arrestees in those cases were out on bail while the suspects in only 14 of those cases were indicted.
Last year, the joy and celebrations of Durga Puja were marred by an incident at Nanuar Dighir Par in Cumilla following rumours spread online that the Quran had been desecrated at a Puja venue, igniting the atrocities against the Hindus.
Md Shafiqul Islam, the commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, said the risk of communal violence has remained persistent even as the Hindus were preparing for the festival this time. Police have bolstered security around the temples and Puja venues across Bangladesh.
Braving the fear and frustration, the Hindus of Bangladesh joined the festival that started on Saturday at 32,168 puja venues up and down the country. The number of visitors to the temples this year is expected to rise with a decline in COVID -19 cases and no particular health restrictions in place.
Achintya Das Titu, general secretary of Cumilla Durga Puja Celebration Council, believes last year’s violence was a “stray incident”.
“The incident last year turned our happiness into sorrows. This year the law enforcers assured us we could celebrate safely. Although the Hindu community is not scared, the wound from last year's incident has not healed," he said.
Noor Khan Liton, executive director of legal rights group Ain O Salish Kendra, said delaying trial for such important public cases embolden criminals and make them feel safer about the government’s action against them.
“A speedy trial is necessary," he said, "to prevent a repeat of such incidents.”
The chargesheet in most of the cases has been submitted, said Deputy Inspector General Ali Ahmed Khan, but declined to provide any more information.
But police took measures to ensure security during Durga Puja, keeping last year's incidents in mind, he said.
On Oct 13, 2021, rumours over the Quran being demeaned at the Puja venue in Cumilla spread like wildfire and triggered grave consequences in the form of atrocities against Hindus in Chandpur, Noakhali, Lakshmipur, Chattogram, Bandarban, Feni, Gazipur, Kurigram, Chapainawabganj, Moulvibazar, Cox’s Bazar, Munshiganj, Habiganj, and Barishal, among other districts.
Hindu temples were attacked, while their homes and shops were torched. At least eight died in clashes with the law enforcers who went to the scene to save the Hindus.
According to the Police Headquarters, as many as 1,559 people were named in the cases over the attacks. Also, another 20,000 unidentified suspects were accused. Police arrested 986 people of them but most are now out on bail.
The attacks were intense in Cumilla, Chandpur and Noakhali. More than 400 suspects were arrested in 56 cases in those three districts with most of them granted bail later.
At least 107 suspects were arrested in 13 cases in Cumilla, where the communal violence originated. Most of them are out on bail now, but key suspect Iqbal Hossain is in jail.
Investigation into two cases was at the final stage, said Abdul Mannan, the district's superintendent of police. They would submit the reports to the court soon, he said.
The Criminal Investigation Department of police is investigating seven cases filed in Cumilla and the PBI submitted the charges in one of the four cases it is investigating.
Special Police Superintendent Mohammad Zakir Hossain of CID said they submitted charge sheets in five cases where 104 suspects were named.
In another case, the investigation was complete but it was not recorded properly following the rules. Zakir said they appealed to the home ministry for steps to clear the legal hurdles to submit the charges.
The communal atrocities spilled over into Chandpur where the district police looked into five of the 11 cases lodged over violence and death.
SP Milon Mahmud said they submitted charge sheets in those cases to a court following the investigation.
Of the other six cases, CID and the PBI are in charge of investigating three each. The PBI submitted a charge sheet in one of the cases.
In Noakhali, as many as 32 cases were started over clashes, vandalism and assault.
SP Shahidul Islam said they already submitted a charge sheet in nine of the 10 cases they are in charge of while the investigation into the other case is almost complete.
The CID and the PBI are looking into 11 cases each in the district. The PBI sent through the chargesheet in nine of those cases to the court.
The PBI is in charge of investigating as many as 26 cases filed across eight districts -- Cumilla, Noakhali, Chandpur, Moulvibazar, Chattogram, Cox’s Bazar, Bandarban and Bagerhat.
It wrapped up the investigation into 14 of the cases, and submitted charge sheets and a final report, according to Additional IGP Banaj Kumar Majumder, the chief of the unit.
HEIGHTENED SECURITY IN CUMILLA TEMPLES
Achintya said he was made president of the managing committee of a temporary pavilion in Nanuar Dighir Par. He hopes that the devotees will overcome fear to come together during the festival this time.
With the district administration and police backing them, the Puja organisers put their heart into preparing for the celebration.
Cumilla City Corporation areas and 17 Upazilas of the district are celebrating the festival across 794 pavilions. Preparations included several meetings with people of all religions.
Deputy Commissioner Md Kamrul Hasan said the temples were equipped with CCTV cameras and police and Ansar were deployed at every pavilion. “We are hoping that the Puja will finally be celebrated in a festive atmosphere.”
The chief puja venue in Chattogram, JM Sen Hall, was also attacked last year. Hillol Sen Ujjal, general secretary of Chattogram Puja Celebration Council, was hoping for a peaceful and disciplined festival this year with the government’s help though most of the suspects from last year’s atrocities were out on bail.
[Writing in English by Sabrina Karim Murshed and Syed Mahmud Onindo; Editing by Biswadip Das]