Violence marred the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s declaration of independence Friday with at least five people killed and dozens injured in clashes between police, pro-government activists and people protesting the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The anti-Modi protesters in Dhaka, Chittagong and other places included supporters of Islamic groups and leftist organizations, both of which accuse the leader of Hindu-majority India of discriminating against Muslims.
Four people were killed in Chittagong as thousands of protesters clashed with police, said Md. Alauddin Talukder, assistant sub-inspector of the police post at Chittagong Medical College Hospital.
“Four persons who were critically injured in a clash with the police in Hathazari were taken to Chittagong Medical College hospital. The doctors declared them dead,” Talukder told BenarNews.
“Three of them were students, while the other person was a local businessman.”
Elsewhere in the country, another death was reported during an anti-Modi protest in Brahmanbaria district, officials said.
Hardline Islamic group Hefazat-e-Islam said those who died in Chittagong were members of the group.
“Four of our workers were killed in police firing. Besides, 10 to 12 workers were also seriously injured,” Maulana Azizul Islam, the organizing secretary of the Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, told BenarNews.
“After the jumma prayers [Friday prayers], we took out a peaceful procession. The police shot at the procession without any provocation.”
Witnesses told BenarNews that thousands of students from the Hathazari madrassa emerged from campus after Friday prayers and began protesting Modi’s arrival in Dhaka.
They blocked the Chittagong-Khagrachhari highway and went on a rampage in government offices, Md. Mosi Uddowla Reza, an additional superintendent of police in Chittagong, told BenarNews over the phone.
The protesters also set the local land office on fire and attacked the Hathazari police station, prompting officers to open fire.
“Police fired in self-defense,” Reza said.
In Dhaka, around 60 people were injured in clashes with police at Dhaka’s Baitul Mokarram National Mosque, where anti-Modi protests broke out after Friday prayers.
Hundreds of worshipers came out of the mosque chanting anti-Modi slogans, prompting activists with the ruling Awami League and its front organizations to counter the protesters, according to witnesses. In the ensuing violence, police were attacked as well.
Police lobbed tear-gas canisters to disperse the angry crowd and the feuding groups. The clash continued for a couple of hours.
“Sixty injured people took treatment at the emergency wing of Dhaka Medical College Hospital. In the afternoon, more Huzurs [people with a madrassa education] came to receive treatment,” Md. Sakhawat, a security person who was on-duty at the emergency ward, told BenarNews.
“The activists of the nearby Anandabazar neighborhood attacked the injured persons and drove them out of the hospital. The policeman in charge of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital police outpost and two on-duty constables were also beaten up by ruling party members.”
‘India’s riotous, communal Prime Minister’
Protests against Modi’s visit began last week in Dhaka, with demonstrators demanding that Bangladesh withdraw its invitation to Modi.
Earlier this week, Hefazat-e-Islam activists held a press conference in Dhaka with the group’s leader, Mamunul Islam, saying there would be no violence if the government abided with its demand to cancel its invitation to Modi for the national festivities.
“At the golden jubilee celebration of Bangladesh’s independence and the celebration of Mujib Year, we should not host anyone whom the people of this country do not want to see, or whose presence would hurt the country’s people,” Junaid Al Habib, president of the Dhaka unit of Hefazat-e-Islam.
“We have this position because Narendra Modi is known globally as anti-Muslim.”
On Friday, the group announced it would continue protests on Saturday, the second and final day of Modi’s visit.
Leftist student groups last week issued a statement criticizing Modi.
“Inviting India’s riotous, communal Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the golden jubilee of independence is against the spirit of the liberation war,” the statement said, according to a local publication New Age.
“Our rulers call India our friend, but the BSF is often shooting and killing our people on Bangladesh-India border,” the leftist group said, referring to India’s Border Security Force.
Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state during communal riots in 2002. He was accused of complicity during the anti-Muslim riots, but was acquitted of all charges in 2013 due to lack of evidence.
More than 40 Bangladeshis were killed by the BSF from last year, according to local human rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra.
And as many as 1,185 Bangladeshis were shot dead by the Indian border police between 2000 and 2019, according to Odhikar, another Bangladeshi rights advocacy group.
Obaidul Quader, minister of Road Transport and Bridges in the Awami League government, criticized the protesters.
“Those opposed to the visit of Narendra Modi have been trying to fish in the troubled water. They are anti-liberation forces,” Quader told journalists in Dhaka on Friday.
“We are grateful to India and the Indian people for the support they extended during our war of independence in in 1971. Bangladesh and India maintain excellent bilateral relations.”
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (right) greets her Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, March 26, 2021. [AFP]
India ‘inextricably linked to Bangladesh’s birth’
Modi arrived in Dhaka mid-morning on Friday for a two-day visit on the invitation of the Bangladesh government to celebrate 50 years of the country’s declaration of independence.
Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s father – declared independence from what was then known as West Pakistan on March 26, 1971, after which the country fought a bloody war and won freedom in December that year.
India provided crucial military and diplomatic support to Bangladesh guerrillas during the war.
Hasina received Modi at the airport in Dhaka. It was the Indian leader’s first foreign trip since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After his arrival, Modi attended a special event organized as part of the 10-day celebrations to mark the jubilee.
“I salute the brave soldiers of the Indian Army who stood with the brothers and sisters of Bangladesh in muktijuddo,” Modi said, referring to the 1971 war, according to the state-run Press Trust of India.
He also spoke about the challenges both countries faced from terrorism.
“We must remember that we’ve similar opportunities in fields of trade and commerce, but at the same time, we’ve similar threats like terrorism. The ideas and powers behind such types of inhumane acts are still active. We must remain vigilant and united to counter them,” he said.
Hasina also spoke at the event and said India and Bangladesh have special ties.
“India is inextricably linked to Bangladesh’s birth. …The neighboring country helped our freedom fighters with training, arms, and ammunition,” Hasina said.
On Saturday, before returning to India, Modi is scheduled to travel to Orakandi village in Gopalganj district to worship at a temple of the Matua Hindu community. He also plans to worship at a Hindu temple in Satkhira district.