This story is brought to you in arrangement with ‘Stories of Bengali Hindus’- an initiative started by descendants of East Bengali Hindu survivors of genocides who have come together to document their past – be it the genocides, culture, traditions, dialects, memories and all their stories so that they never remain forgotten.
On the 2nd April, 2022, Lata Samaddar, a Hindu woman and a lecturer in the Department of Theater and Media Studies at Tejgaon College in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was verbally harassed and almost ran over by a Police vehicle by police officer Nazmul Tarek for wearing a bindi (the red dotted ornament on the forehead). The incident took place between 8:20 am and 8:30 am while the victim was crossing the junction at Farmgate towards Tejgaon College.
Lata told how she was walking towards the college when suddenly a middle aged looking man with a beard questioned her why she was wearing bindi. Additionally, that man hurled such profanities, that Lata even felt ashamed to retell her husband what exact words this man had directed at her. Lata turned to see and noticed that the man was sitting on a Police motorbike and wearing the Police uniform. According to Lata’s testimony ^1, the kind of tone this officer had used when he questioned Lata about her bindi was vulgar. After the officer had thrown profanities, he looked greedily at Lata and tried to ride over her, managing to ride his bike over her feet.
Lata told Prothomalo how people nearby were observing this incident but nobody came to help her, perhaps in the fear of repercussions from the law and order. There was a traffic police nearby to whom Lata went to and that officer told Lata to lodge a complaint to the Police. After the incident, Lata limped her way to her department and broke into tears. “If this is the situation after 50 years of independence, it is unacceptable. We have to wonder where we are. I am a Hindu, wearing a bindi is normal. Previously, few people had made bad comments about my shakha-pola (conch-shell bangles worn by married Hindu women in Bengal), but that did not matter much. But this time was different, because those profanities were thrown by a police officer in his uniform.”
After the incident later went ‘viral’ in Bangladesh due to feminists and free thinkers trending the topic on social media and wearing the bindi in solidarity, the issue went all the way to the Bangladeshi Parliament. Member of Parliament Subarna Mustafa from the ruling party said, “It is a very hateful incident against women, regardless of party affiliation^2. We have heard of ‘eve-teasing’, in which even talented boys indulge in when they tease girls at schools. That situation is now very much under control. However, when I see someone in the country’s law enforcement eve-teasing, it’s a huge shame.” Mustafa continued, “which law says that a woman cannot wear a bindi? This is not a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist matter […]”
The police officer was suspended, the parliament spoke, the people supported the victim. Case closed. This is how hate crimes against Hindus and the aftermath to them are always presented, whether they are true or not. Whether that is in the Bangladeshi media, the Indian media or the Western media. While most people are focused on the social media stints of free thinkers sporting a bindi on their foreheads, or perhaps watching how the politicians are blaming each other, much like after the gangrape of the 12-year-old Hindu girl Purnima Rani Shil back in 2001, there is an aspect that is always ‘forgotten’ ^3. The statement of MP Mustafa in the Parliament of Bangladesh follows the typical pattern of how hate crimes against Hindus in Bangladesh are perpetually whitewashed. Attacks on Hindus are always, without exception, labeled as a political issue, law and order problem, or general misogyny. The statement by MP Mustafa, although probably well intended, was problematic in many ways. Firstly, the statement did not acknowledge the fact that the bindi has deep roots in the sacred scriptures of Hindus. Second, the statement did not take into account the history of sexualised violence against Hindu women solely because of their religious identity.
Lata Samaddar mentioned how she has previously gotten harassed for wearing her shakhas, her marital symbols, which are specific to Hindus. This time Lata got harassed for wearing a bindi. The common denominator here is that Lata got attacked for her outward appearance, that is, wearing her religious and cultural attire that made her visibly recognisable as a Hindu woman. This recent attack against Lata is one of the countless attacks on hindu women who get recognised by their appearance, and it is also a part of the long history of fetishisation of Hindu women, and verbal and physical attacks on Hindu women for wearing shakha-pola, sindoor (vermilion) and the bindi.
In order to substantiate this assertion, let us examine some cases from recent history to this day. One of the witness statements of the Noakhali Genocide of 1946, a state sanctioned genocide of the Hindu minority of the Noakhali district in British India (currently in Bangladesh), tell how Hindu women were attacked especially for the outwardly visible markers that are exclusive to Hindus.
“The local Muslim population either actively or tacitly participated in these acts. Muslim women in the affected areas, at times, displayed their covert support. When Hindu women sometimes rushed into neighboring Muslim homes in a state of panic, it was the women of the [Muslim] households who removed the vermilion mark and broke the conch-shell bangles. This was, however, not out of any altruistic motive of hiding their [Hindu women’s] identity from their [Hindus] attackers. N.K Bose narrated the experience of a girl who had told Gandhiji [Mohandas K. Gandhi] about how the ladies in a Muslim household asked her to become like one of them.” ^4
After the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the Muslim majority East Bengal went to Pakistan. A sizable Hindu minority population was now at the mercy of Pakistan. Several successions of anti-Hindu pogroms took place in the 1950s and the 1960s, and there are many examples from that time period alone. For instance, an account from Keshab Mandal, a native of Chila, Khulna, and a survivor of the 1964 East Pakistan anti-Hindu genocide, told how his house was attacked by a Muslim mob on January 5, 1964. He had taken shelter in the paddy fields, while many Hindu families tried to seek refuge in their Muslim neighbours’ houses. Mandal told how Hindus were given shelter, only to be told by the Muslim families that the Hindu women were to go to separate rooms. Then the Hindu women were ordered to break their shakhas and wipe off their sindoor, which they did in fear of their lives. The statement on a sad note: “then all of them were ravished brutally”.^5
A lot happened politically after the state sponsored genocide of Hindus in East Pakistan in 1964. The 1965 Indo-Pakistani War happened, the economic exploitation by West Pakistan continued in East Pakistan which prompted Sheikh Mujibur ‘Mujib’ Rahman, who became the head of the Awami Muslim League after the death of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in 1963, into further prominence. Mujib dropped the word ‘Muslim’ from Awami Muslim League and went to Lahore to present his 6-point plan, which suggested autonomy from West Pakistan. At that time, Mujib obtained great support from Bengali speaking Muslims and the Hindu minority population as well. In this same time period, many educated, free thinker East Pakistani Muslim women began to wear bindi as a political expression to differentiate themselves from West Pakistan. For this, Hindus were made to pay a heavy price as the Pakistani establishment systematically targeted Hindus for extermination, as West Pakistan believed that Hindus had “corrupted” East Pakistan’s Muslims to break Pakistan.^6
The Pakistani campaign of hatred led to the genocidal rape against women in East Pakistan. A very sad example of this campaign of hatred is the case of Ferdousi Priyabhashini, a Bengali Muslim lady from Khulna, who was repeatedly gangraped by Pakistani soldiers in their cantonment. Priyabhashini told how the Pakistani soldiers had accused her of being a Hindu and an Indian spy just because she had worn a bindi and saree.^7 The fact that 1971 was not just a Liberation War of Bangladesh, but also a genocide of Hindus is not even acknowledged to this day.
After the brutal war, Bangladesh gained its independence. However, even after gaining independence, the Hindu minority population, many of whom were sent back to independent Bangladesh from refugee camps in India by Indira Gandhi’s orders^8, found themselves yet again in a state of insecurity. Several nation-wide anti-Hindu pogroms have taken place in the 50 years of independence. There are countless accounts, documented and undocumented, from Hindu women, who have told that they have been harassed and attacked by the majority community of Bangladesh, just for wearing shakha-pola, sindoor and bindi. During the 2021 Durga Puja country-wide violences and pogrom against Hindus, which started from a rumour that Hindus had disrespected the Islamic Holy Book Quran by placing it near the Murti (the embodiment) of God Hanuman, there were survivor accounts from women who had told that they are scared for their lives for ever wearing the shakha-pola, sindoor and anything else, that would make them visibly recognisable as Hindus, in public.^9
The attacks against Hindu women based on their outwardly recognisable religious and cultural attire (shakha-pola, sindoor and bindi) has not been restricted to only Bangladesh, but also it has happened in Bangladesh’s neighbouring country Myanmar, more particularly in the state of Rakhine, where Rohingya Muslim ‘militants’ had, according to Amnesty’s reports, massacred up to 99 Hindu men, women and children in 2017.^10 The Hindu survivors had told how they were forced to remove their shakha-pola and sindoor before being forced to convert to Islam.^11 There is a history of genocidal violence against Hindu women for wearing their religious & cultural attire. There’s also a history of denying that Hindu women were attacked due to their religious identity. In Bangladesh, attacks on Hindus are often claimed as ‘political attacks’ (much like in the 2001 Purnima Rani Shil case), and no further discussion is allowed in the mainstream. One of the definitions of Hinduphobia or Hindumisia is using or enacting symbols and actions that evoke historical attacks on Hindu society (for example iconoclasm, cow slaughter, etc.) in contemporary discourse to intimidate Hindus.^12 Hindu women have historically been attacked for their appearance, for example wearing the bindi, sindoor, and other visible markers that makes Hindu women outwardly recognisable. Therefore what happened in Dhaka to Lata Samaddar and the reactions to it are both part of genocidal hatred and erasure against Hindus
- Dinesh Chandra Sinha, 1946 The Great Calcutta Killings & Noakhali Genocide, pg. 240
- Recurrent Exodus of Minorities from East Pakistan and Disturbances in India: A Report to THE INDIAN COMMISSION OF JURISTS by its Committee of Enquiry 1965, pg. 85
- Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, pg. 365
- Yasmin Saikia, Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh : Remembering 1971, pg. 134
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication)