Hefazate Islam Bangladesh, like any other non-political social and cultural organisation, claims to be a people’s platform to articulate the concerns of religious issues. According to the organisation, its aims are to take into consideration socio-economic, cultural, religious and political matters that affect values and practices of Islam. Moreover, protecting the rights of the Muslim people and promoting social dialogue to dispel prejudices that affect community harmony and relations are also their objectives.
Instigated by some bloggers and activists that mobilised at the Shahbag movement, the organisation, since 19th February 2013, has been protesting against the vulgar, humiliating, insulting and provocative remarks in the social media sites and blogs against Islam, Allah and his Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (pbuh). In some cases the Prophet was portrayed as a pornographic character, which infuriated the people of all walks of life. There was a directive from the High Court to the government to take measures to prevent such blogs and defamatory comments, that not only provoke religious intolerance but jeopardise public order. This is an obligation of the government under Article 39 of the Constitution. Unfortunately the Government took no action on this.
As a response to the Government’s inactions and its tacit support to the bloggers, Hefazate Islam came up with an elaborate 13 point demand and assembled peacefully to articulate their cause on 6th April 2013. Since then they have organised a series of meetings in different districts, peacefully and without any violence, despite provocations from the law enforcement agencies and armed Awami League activists. All these meetings, religiously termed ‘Shane Risalat’ by the Hefazat were attended by thousands of people. The Government’s inaction; insensitivity to the humiliated feelings of people; the unending instigation from a section of the bloggers gathered at Shahbag against them calling them ‘fundamentalist’ and tagging Hefazat as another front of Jamat-e-Islam; have further deteriorated the situation. Initial protests to restraint the bloggers and demands to stop defamatory publications against Islam, Allah and his Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (pbuh) slowly grew into a massive social and religious movement culminating into the last fateful programme to ‘siege’ Dhaka on 5th May 2013. This has perhaps fundamentally changed the social, political and cultural architecture in Bangladesh with regard to religion and exposed the threshold of tolerance from both secularists and Islamists. It has also drastically reduced the government’s ability to govern without violence. In accordance to their plan, Hefazate Islam Bangladesh activists started to move into Dhaka from all parts of the country from 4th May 2013 and gathered at all six entrance routes to Dhaka; creating a blockade, from dawn on 5th May 2013. At noon, with the permission of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), activists entered Dhaka and started moving towards Baitul Mukarram Mosque in order to attend an event of Doa (Prayers) that was supposed to be lead by Allama Ahmad Shafi, the Amir of Hefazate Islam. They were allowed to assemble and hold their programme at Dhaka’s Shapla Chottor, in the Motijheel area from 3:00 pm till evening. However activists of Hefazate Islam were attacked by the ruling party Awami League activists at various places while they were on their way towards Shapla Chottor. Awami League cadres used lethal arms such as pistols and guns to attack the Hefazat activists, who used the Gulistan road near the Awami League party office to reach Shapla Chottor.
The police at that time aided the Awami League activists in attacking the Hefazat activists. Hundreds of Hefazat activists were left injured while three were killed in firing by the police and supporters and activists of the government party. In return, in order to protect themselves, Hefazat activists threw bricks at them. Then at around 3:00 pm they started their programme and their leaders’ spoke of their demands and other related concerns while the media, including international ones, broadcasted the mass rally of thousands of people. Meanwhile the Secretary General of Awami League, Sayed Ashraful Islam, at a press conference, threatened Hefazate Islam and ordered them to end the meeting and leave Dhaka immediately. At the same time, the main opposition political party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) focused on the fact that it was a democratic right of the Hefazat members to state their 13-point demand and therefore morally supported their right to assemble and articulate their cause. The leaders and activists of Hefazate Islam became more determined and resilient due to attacks on them at various times on the way towards Motijheel, where many were injured and three were killed by the Awami League activists supported by the law enforcement agencies. However, the Hefazat activists kept waiting for their leader Allama Ahmad Shafi to join the rally at Shapla Chottor and give them further orders. They planned to continue remaining there till then.
Speeches by the Hefazate Islam leaders continued beyond sunset, but eventually stopped at around 8:00 pm right before the Esha prayers. From 8:30 pm, the police got into clashes with Hefazat activists around Motijheel Police Station. At one point, the police started using fire arms and according to a witness (wanting to remain anonymous), seven people lost their lives. Hefazate Islam leaders used the megaphones to request members of the law enforcement agencies not to open fire. However at around 11:00 pm, the situation was brought under control. Activists/members remained where they were and thought of spending the night there on the roads, where many used their panjabis to cover bags or sandals as pillows and prepared to sleep. Many continued in ‘Zikir’
Police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB); Armed Police Battalion (APB); and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) members prepared to attack in three groups. The combined force planned to move in towards Shapla Chottor’s main stage on 6th May, through three routes – Dainik Bangla route, Fakirapul route and the route crossing the Bangladesh Bank. However they decided not to use the Ram Krishna (R K) Mission path to carry out the operation. Tear gas, bullets and sound grenades were to be used and it was planned that the unharmed and injured would use the R K Mission road in order to exit the area, eventually leaving Dhaka.
The electricity was intentionally turned off at Motijheel and its surrounding areas to darken the place on 6th May 2013 at around 12:30 am. Megaphone lines were cut off as well. Allegedly almost 10 thousand members of the combined forces attacked the unarmed Hefazat activists who were asleep in the dark at around 2.15 am on 6th May. Bullets, tear gas, sound grenades and boiling water were used on the Hefazat supporters and activists at Shapla Chottor. The operation by the combined forces had three names – the police called it ‘Operation Shapla’, the RAB named the operation ‘Operation Flash Out’ and it was ‘Operation Capture Shapla’ according to BGB. On 6th May 2013, police, as the complainant, filed six cases at Motijheel Police Station, 12 at Paltan Station and one at Ramna. On 7th May 2013, four more cases were filed at Paltan Police Station. Cases were filed against 1862 people, along with an unidentified number of around 133,500 as being accused in the matter. The list gave the law enforcement agencies an opportunity to misuse their power against the civilian population, violating human rights.
To ensure that the incident of 6th May did not go on air, the broadcasting of Islamic Television and Diganta Television was stopped at 2:30 am and 4:27 am respectively. These two channels are still barred from airing, due to the fact that they are owned or supported by the Opposition.
It was known to the government that the Hefazate Islam had brought adolescents and children from madrassas to the mass rally of 5th May. The presence of children at political rallies is also found in government and opposition party programmes. Despite this knowledge, brutality of the attack did not spare the children. Some of the pro-Hefazat adolescent and children at the rally could not be found after the law enforcement crackdown of 6th May 2013. Some allegedly lost their lives. Ananya Sultana from Mohammadpur, Dhaka informed Odhikar that her maternal cousin Md. Saidul Bari (17) was killed by pro Awami League activists when he went to join the Hefazate Islam movement. She mentioned that on 7th May 2013 at around 3:00 pm, Saidul’s body was found in the Islami Bank Hospital at Motijheel.
Although the government initially claimed that no one was killed, videos uploaded all over the social media show that it was indeed a fierce and indiscriminate attack of unarmed Hefazate Islam activists that led to many deaths. At one point the government mentioned that along with two pedestrians and a policeman, a total of 11 died on 5th May. A Hefazate Islam member (who wishes to be anonymous) stated that he was informed of 202 deaths and around 2500 persons missing. Fact finding of Odhikar has, to date, found the names of 61 people who were killed and many more injured. However, actual numbers are very difficult to ascertain in the present repressive political situation. The international media, Aljazeera, reported that 50 people were killed. To see the video please click on:
Please also find a video link from social media Hefazate islam
It was learnt that many people who were being treated at various hospitals in Dhaka for injuries from attacks by the combined forces, returned home after primary treatment. Five people among those who were severely injured died at various local hospitals. Many minors joined Hefazate Islam’s rally, most of who were students of Qawami Madrassas. They come from non-affluent backgrounds. A significant number of such students were orphans, who were not provided with any sort of help by the government. These minors were unprotected in the attack by the combined forces on 6th May 2013. During fact finding it was learnt that hardly anything was being done to search for the orphans. The number of missing orphans remains unknown.
Considering the circumstance, it is very difficult to know exactly how many people were killed and where the bodies were taken. Odhikar prepared this fact finding report on a primary basis by carrying out its own fact finding missions. The number of deaths mentioned here only confirms and highlights the identities of people killed that night.