Tuesday, October 19 2021

Dive In


While flirtatious, they were not overtly sexual, but were deemed to be inappropriate.

That’s a Microsoft spokesperson commenting on emails propositioning a female employee—sent by then board chairman Bill Gates in 2007. Company executives had to intervene and tell him to stop. He didn’t deny the exchanges and “told the executives in hindsight it wasn’t a good idea.” Gates’ spokesman, however, calls the report “false, recycled rumors.” Wall Street Journal story is paywalled, but you can read the details over at Associated Press.

Big Story

A Durga Puja furore in Bangladesh

The TLDR: This year’s festivities ended in widespread anti-Hindu violence—sparked by a rumour shared on social media. And the flames of communal anger show no signs of abating. Here’s a short explainer on the chain of events. 


Some quick background

Around 9% of Bangladesh’s 160 million population is Hindu. It has a long history of anti-minority violence—which has been increasing in recent years thanks to the rise of Islamic groups and the popularity of Facebook. Extremist groups have also targeted secular leaders in a wave of assassinations. And anti-Muslim violence in India often spills over, triggering hate on the other side of the border:


  • The early 90s were marked by multiple attacks on Hindus due to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. In one incident, 5,000 men with rods and bamboo sticks tried to storm Dhaka National Stadium during an India-Bangladesh cricket match.
  • In 2012, a dozen Buddhist temples and monasteries were destroyed by Muslim mobs in Cox’s Bazar—again sparked by Facebook rumours of blasphemy.
  • A Facebook post also triggered the last big wave of anti-Hindu violence in 2016—when hundreds of homes belonging to Hindus were burned down.
  • Most recently, PM Modi’s visit to Dhaka in 2021 triggered angry protests—and hundreds of members of a hardline Islamist group attacked Hindu temples and a train.


Data to note: According to local rights groups, there have been 3,679 attacks on Hindus between January 2013 and September this year. These include 1,678 cases of vandalism and arson attacks on Hindu places of worship—and attacks on 559 houses and 442 shops.


Ok, what happened this time?

The trigger was a photo/video shared on Facebook that allegedly shows a Quran placed on a Hanuman idol in a temple in the district of Cumilla. 


Local officials claim that members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islam deliberately planted the holy book:


“The miscreants took some pictures of this and ran away. Within a few hours, using Facebook, the propaganda spread like wildfire with the provocative pictures.”


A timeline of violence:  Here’s what happened over the past week:


  • On Thursday, 500-strong mobs attacked 10 Hindu temples in Cumilla and neighbouring districts. This included an ISKCON temple where a devotee was killed. The police had to intervene with tear gas and rubber bullets.
  • A Durga puja organiser said: “I’ve never seen such an incident in my life. At first 15 to 20 people, aged between 14 and 18 years old, came to attack our temple in Cumilla. After that, the number increased to hundreds of people.”
  • On Friday and Saturday, more than 80 puja pandals were attacked, with about 150 Hindus injured and two killed. Paramilitary forces were deployed to prevent the attacks, and at least three Muslims were killed in the confrontation.
  • Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena promised: “Nobody will be spared. It doesn’t matter which religion they belong to. They will be hunted down and punished.”
  • On Saturday, 10,000 protesters—many of them carrying banners of Islamist political parties—took to the streets outside the main mosque of the capital, Dhaka. They chanted slogans such as “Down with the enemies of the Islam” and “Hang the culprits.”
  • By Monday, at least 60 homes of Hindus were attacked—and 20 were set on fire.
  • The police have arrested 4000 people in connection with the violence so far. 
  • The Bangladesh home minister has called the attacks on the pandals “a motivated act instigated by a vested group”—but isn’t naming names.


Meanwhile, across the border: The BJP is citing the violence to argue for the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Bengal—a move fiercely opposed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.


A mysterious social media angle: Many Indian news outlets—and international ones like The Guardian—have extensively quoted outraged tweets from a verified handle called  Bangladesh Hindu Unity Council (@UnityCouncilBD). It has been continuously sharing images of vandalism and violence, and tweeting things like: 


“We cannot publish in a tweet what has happened in the last 24 hours. 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.”


And it claims to be the Twitter handle of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council. But an investigation by the fact-checking site NewsChecker reveals it may be fake. The council’s members say: 


“We do not have any Twitter page. The page in reference does not belong to us. We have contacted our local authorities regarding the same and have filed a legal complaint against it.”


And the Twitter handle is very popular with BJP supporters and rightwing commentators. So there may be plenty of social media fakery happening on all sides—all of it designed to fan anger and outrage. 


Point to note: We don’t know much about NewsChecker either. 

The bottomline: Once again, this is a story about the unchecked power of Facebook—which profits from hate at the expense of the most vulnerable communities.


Reading list

The coverage on this story is pretty scattered. The Guardian and New York Times have good overviews. Lokmat has the best reporting on the incident that triggered the violence. You can read the original NewsChecker investigation on the Hindu council handle. Indian Express has a good background piece on the tradition of Durga Puja in Bangladesh. India Today has an opinionated piece on the most prominent Hindu who fled East Bengal—Jogendra Nath Mandal, Pakistan’s first law and labour minister.

Headlines that matter

Koalas are getting vaccinated

Australia has rolled out a vaccination campaign to protect the furry creatures from chlamydia. The sexually transmitted disease is common in humans, but causes bladder infections, blindness and infertility in koalas—and can be spread from moms to their babies. And it is spreading widely amongst the 330,000 koalas left in Australia. (CNN)

Two things to see

One: Fab India released its Diwali collection called ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’—which has now attracted the angry attention of the likes of BJP leader Tejasvi Surya, who tweeted

“Deepavali is not [Jashn]-e-Riwaaz. This deliberate attempt of abrahamisation of Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu attires, must be called out. And brands like @FabindiaNews must face economic costs for such deliberate misadventures.” 

The brand has since taken down the campaign from its YouTube channel and social media. But you can watch it here.


Two: On a happier note, hundreds of naked people covered in only white paint posed for an unusual art project in Israel. Photographer Spencer Tunick’s project is aimed at raising awareness of the environmental crisis affecting the Dead Sea—which is shrinking by a metre every year. Watch The Guardian report here.


In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • The Wildlife Photographer of the year awards 


A list of intriguing things

  • The first ever Balloon World Cup
  • A Bosnian man’s monument of love for his wife
  • A puffer jacket stuffed with disposable masks
  • A radical vision to tackle climate change and resource scarcity in future cities

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