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Religious violence flares up in India and Bangladesh

Police clash with devotees outside a mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Oct. 15. (Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP)

NEW DELHI — Attacks against religious minorities are flaring up on both sides of a porous, hilly border separating India and Bangladesh, raising the prospect of swelling violence between Hindus and Muslims after Bangladesh was rocked by one of its worst bouts of communal strife in years.

In Panisagar town in Tripura, a remote Indian state hugging the Bangladesh border, more than 3,000 Hindu activists held a protest Tuesday night that quickly erupted into violence, said Soubik Dey, a local police official. A mosque and several homes were attacked, forcing Muslim residents to flee. Dey said that no deaths were reported and that the town is now “under control” with a heavy police presence.

Muslim leaders in Tripura say the Tuesday rally was the latest in a string of revenge attacks targeting their community this month in response to events in Bangladesh, where Muslims have targeted Hindus, who make up a tenth of the population.

After an Oct. 13 post spread on social media claiming Hindus were desecrating the Koran, a Muslim mob attacked the small Hindu community in the town of Cumilla as it celebrated the Durga Puja, a major religious festival. At least seven people, including two Hindus, died in the ensuing chaos that engulfed several cities across Bangladesh, prompting condemnation from Indian officials and appeals for unity from Bangladesh’s leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The fresh violence now spilling into India is yet another reminder of the internal divisions that haunt South Asia more than seven decades after the region’s borders were drawn along religious lines. The partition of India in 1947 saw millions of Hindus flee to modern-day India and millions of Muslims to Pakistan and what is today known as Bangladesh. But countless others remained rooted as minorities in each country, enduring persecution and bouts of violence, which observers fear is becoming increasingly normalized.

Across the region today, “the dominant political forces of our time want to see a conclusion of the logic of 1947,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a prominent Indian political scientist, who noted that Islamists are in the ascendancy in Pakistan and Bangladesh, while India has seen Hindu nationalism become the dominant ideology.

Those who espouse religious intolerance in each country, Mehta added, “are feeding off one another.”

The violence in Tripura erupted this week at huge gatherings organized by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a 6 million-strong right-wing organization best known for its role in one of the most controversial events in modern Indian history, the 1992 storming and razing of the centuries-old Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya.

Munwar Ali, a local resident who works in an Islamic seminary in northern Tripura, said hundreds of VHP members launched into anti-Muslim chants Tuesday evening before ransacking a mosque. Local residents and police stopped the mob from attacking a second mosque but could not prevent several homes and shops from being torched.

A VHP spokesman in Tripura, Purna Chandra Mandal, denied that the group’s members had gathered to exact revenge. “Our intention was not to attack any mosque,” he said. “It was a rally against atrocities in Bangladesh.”

Mufti Tayebur Rahman, president of the Jamiat Ulama, a Muslim organization in Tripura, blamed the police and local government officials for allowing the right-wing groups to gather.

“They should’ve been alert,” he said. “We want to say we are not Bangladeshis. We are Indians. We have lived with our Hindu brethren peacefully and harmoniously forever here.”

In recent weeks, many on both sides of the border raised the possibility that the communal attacks were abetted — if not outright orchestrated — by groups seeking political gain.

Officials from Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party, which favors secularism, have hit out at what they called a divisive campaign by their opponents to turn their country into a “Taliban state and Islamic republic.” Hasina, for her part, vowed to “hunt down” the perpetrators and dispatched ministers to visit Hindu families who were affected. Bangladeshi police said this week that they have arrested 13 people, including a local cleric, for their alleged role in the anti-Hindu attacks.

But so far in India, national leaders — and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party with ties to the VHP — have been more reticent.

As trouble began brewing in Tripura this week, the influential Indian Express newspaper nudged the BJP government to rein in the region’s right-wing extremists and follow Hasina’s lead in sounding a note of unity.

“The Sheikh Hasina government has been quick to reach out to the Hindu community after the Durga Puja violence,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “There’s a lesson here for leaders across the border as well.”

Mehta, the political scientist, said that it was difficult to predict whether the violence would spread in Tripura but that it would be determined by political will.

“If the state decides to stop violence, it can stop it,” he said.

Sadiq Naqvi contributed to this report.

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