Proud of their country's tradition of tolerance and religious co-existence, people in communities across Bangladesh have formed citizen's committees to prevent attacks.
With religious and political tensions boiling over in Bangladesh during recent weeks, members of the country's minority faiths -- including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians – have found themselves vulnerable to attack by hardline Islamists. Several incidents have been reported, including the torching of homes and temples, and several deaths.
The assaults against minorities have, however, provoked a strong reaction from most Bangladeshis, who are proud of their country's tradition of tolerance and co-existence. Citizens have banded together to support religious harmony and to thwart violence against their neighbours who practice different faiths.
"Our local leaders assembled to form committees to stop any type of religious violence," said Feroz Ahmed Jewel, a councillor of Sherpur upazila in Bogra district. "The local people responded positively by guarding the temples and houses of the Hindu community."
The residents took these actions after hearing reports that 50 Hindu homes were destroyed in another district, Noakhali, he told Khabar South Asia. Sherpur, he added proudly, has been free of religious violence ever since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971.
Gavinda Kumar Bagchhi, a Hindu community leader, lauded his fellow citizens' efforts. "People even kept vigil on the temples at night after saying their prayers in the mosques," he told Khabar.
In Akkelpur upazila of Joypurhat District, meanwhile, three people were killed – allegedly by Islamist extremists. The community responded by forming a 41-member citizen's community tasked with deterring violence.
"We travelled from union to union (clusters of villages) seeking local people's support to maintain peace and tranquillity in the respective localities," Anwarul Haque Bablu, chairman of the committee, said.
Local people guarded the approach roads to the villages to thwart any attacks from outside, he told Khabar.
Dhaka steps in to help
News of such initiatives taken by communities has prompted the central government to follow suit. On March 8th, the authorities launched a drive to form community action groups across Bangladesh, and the response has been tremendous.
"We have already formed the committees at the district, upazila, and the union levels to counter violence and attacks on anyone," Rajbari district deputy commissioner Hasanuzzaman Kallol told Khabar. "The people's response is overwhelming; they want harmony and peaceful co-existence of all faiths."
Religious minorities constitute around 10% of Bangladesh's population. Many, particularly Hindus, were targeted for abuse and killing by hardline Islamists and opponents of independence during the liberation war in 1971.
With militants now staging violent protests against the secular state, members of the minority communities fear they could once again be singled out.
Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Oikya Parishad, an association representing the minorities, says that four Hindus have been murdered since violence flared up following the death sentence handed to a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, on February 28th, while 2,000 houses and 100 temples have been vandalised in 31 districts.
Tensions over war crimes trials
Alleged war criminals, currently on trial for their role in the 1971 atrocities, face charges that include murdering and raping of minority Hindus, seizing their properties, and forcing them to convert to Islam. A number of Hindus have testified in court against Jamaat leaders who have been implicated in such crimes.
Rana Dasgupta, chairman of the Oikya Parishad, told Khabar that activists from Jamaat and its student wing, Chhatra Shibir, would take out their rage on minorities if party leaders are convicted and sentenced to death. Government intervention is needed to protect the vulnerable, he added.
"If the government and the political parties stand by the people, who are largely non-communal, we hope the move (to community mobilisation) will reverse the ominous trend," Dasgupta said.