The Ahmadiyyas are a messianic movement founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who himself was born fifty years earlier in the small village of Qadian (hence "Qadiani" or "Kadiyani") in the Punjab, then under British India. In 1889, Ahmad declared that he had received divine revelation authorising him to accept the baya'ah, or allegiance of the faithful. In 1891, he claimed to be the expected mahdi or messiah of the latter days, the "Awaited One" of the Abrahamic faiths, and the messiah foretold by the Prophet Mohammed.

Ahmad described his teachings, incorporating both Sufic and orthodox Islamic, Hindu, and Christian elements, as an attempt to revitalise Islam in the face of the British Raj, the proselytising of Protestant Christianity, and a resurgent Hinduism. Thus, Ahmad conceived the community as a revivalist movement within Islam and not as a new religion.

Members of the Ahmadiyya community ("Ahmadis") profess to be Muslims. They contend that Ahmad meant to revive the true spirit and message of Islam that the Prophet Mohammed introduced and preached. Virtually all mainstream Muslim sects believe that Ahmad proclaimed himself as a prophet, thereby rejecting a fundamental tenet of Islam: Khatme Nabuwat, or the "finality of prophethood"- that the Prophet Mohammed was the last in the line of prophets leading back through Jesus, Moses and all the way back to Adam.

Ahmadis respond that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a non-law-bearing 'prophet subordinate' in status to Prophet Mohammed; he came to illuminate and reform Islam, as predicted by Prophet Mohammed. For Ahmad and his followers however, the Arabic Khatme Nabuwat does not refer to the finality of prophethood in a literal sense-that is, to prophethood's chronological cessation-but rather to its culmination and exemplification in Mohammed (peace be upon him). Ahmadis believe that "finality" in a metaphoric sense carries much more spiritual significance.

The exact size of the Ahmadiyya community worldwide is unclear, though there are significant concentrations in India, Pakistan, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Gambia.

Ahmadis have lived in what is present-day Bangladesh since the early 1900s. Roughly 100,000 Ahmadis live in Bangladesh today, according to Human Rights Watch. For much of these 120 years, any resentment towards the Ahmadiyya community turning to violence has been by-and-large sporadic - almost unheard of till the 1990s. A group of hardliners mostly belonging to the more toxic elements of the Waz crowd, with a natural affinity to the promise of Pakistan as an ideal abode for the Muslims of this region, has always harboured an unhealthy hatred, but again, they have mostly behaved themselves.

And so even though the 2nd Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan, passed in 1974, went to the extent of giving the state the authority to define what makes a 'Muslim', only so that it could declare the Ahmadis 'non-Muslim', no such movement to similarly spite the Ahmadis living in Bangladesh has ever materialised, or captured any mainstream political support.

Meanwhile things kept getting worse for the community in Pakistan. Not satisfied with the 2nd Amendment's provisions, President Zia-ul-Haq passed an anti-Ahmadiyya ordinance during his reign - in hindsight regarded by many as the period during which the country went off the rails, precisely by indulging the bigots. The ordinance actively restricted the freedom of religion for Ahmadis. According to this law, Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslim or "pose as Muslims". Doing so is punishable by three years in prison even today. So much for the age of self-identification.

First, they came for the books

Before the events of last Friday, probably the biggest blow the Ahmadiyya community in Bangladesh suffered was back in 2004. That is when the government, at the time an alliance of the BNP and Jamaat e Islami, a movement out of Deoband (in present day Uttar Pradesh, India) that sought to establish itself as the pre-eminent voice of Muslims in all three successor states to the British Raj, banned the publication, sale, distribution and preservation of all books and booklets on Islam published by the Ahmadiyya in Bangladesh.

A Home Ministry statement at the time said the ban "was imposed in view of objectionable materials in such publications that hurt or might hurt the sentiments of the majority Muslim population of Bangladesh".

The ban was believed by many to be the first step towards declaring the 100,000 Ahmadiyyas in Bangladesh non-Muslim. That however, failed to materialise in the remaining two years of the BNP-Jamaat government, and following the entirely new paradigm into which the country emerged post-2009, the Ahmadiyyas were largely forgotten. Which was at least marginally better than being persecuted. In the years to come, the prominence of Jamaat as a voice for Muslims would gradually dwindle in a swirl of cases filed for acts committed during the Liberation War of 1971 - most of its top leaders would either be hanged, or die in prison. A High Court ruling would even see it stripped of its registration with the Election Commission, rendering it ineligible to participate in elections - although this it has tried to skirt in various ways.

With Jamaat no longer at the forefront, the reins of the anti-Ahmadiyya movement would be taken up by Hefazat e Islam - a group that emerged into the mainstream of Bangladesh's politics in 2013. With no prior record in politics, it would stake its claim with an infamous 13-point charter of demands, mostly retrogressive 'pie in the sky' demands that were not worth the paper they were written on. Banning the Ahmadiyyas, or rather declaring them as 'non-Muslims' featured quite prominently on the list, and its late leader, the geriatric Ahmed Shafi, spewed all kinds of toxic bile against the community during his last years on earth.

Hefazat's fortunes have swung wildly under the present Awami League-led dispensation in Bangladesh. While it has never managed the sort of reach that Jamaat managed during its peak, it has on the other hand somehow kept playing ball with the AL government, winning some concessions here and there. Shafi apparently was able to establish a working relationship with the prime minister, and that was very, very important. Sheikh Hasina is a pretty pious woman herself, and even when Hefazat was clearly overstepping its boundaries, it seemed they and their leaders in particular could always count on some leeway.

That all came to an end, pretty much, in March of 2021, the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence that was doubling up as the centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Some prominent Hefazat leaders, more from their own individual platforms than the institution's, chose to protest the attendance of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, of the Hindu hardline Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The irony here is that those who did were probably emboldened by recent history that showed the AL to be quite accommodating of Hefazat - possibly as a doorway to shut out any resurgence of Jamaat. But for whatever reason, the government didn't take this perceived insult of such an important state guest lightly.

The police clampdown on the protests was swift and without much by way of mercy. Scores of Hefazat leaders ended up in jail, and continue to languish in prison even to this day. And Hefazat, now led by Junaid Babunagari - no friend of the Awami League - has never been able to quite recover. With election year politics hotting up though, all sorts of rumours swirl about some backdoor dealing going on - even though today, Hefazat would be negotiating from an infinitely weaker position than they were in 2020.

What happened on March 3?

On Friday, March 3, the Ahmadiyyas were set to commence their annual meet in Ahmednagar, a town in Panchagarh district, way up north. This, the 98th Salna Jalsa of the community, would get underway that morning despite some prior threats. In the afternoon though, after Jumma prayers, a protest march against the event moved towards Ahmednagar. As police obstructed them at Panchagarh Chowrangi intersection, the men started throwing brickbats at the law enforcers, according to reports. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas shells to disperse them, witnesses said.

When the dust settled, two young men turned up dead - one of them was an Ahmadiyya who had been assigned as a volunteer to work to protect the community from any attack. and scores sustained injuries in the clash. Some journalists covering the violence were among the injured. Shops in Panchagarh town were closed early as violence induced panic among people.

The angry mob of mainstream Muslims also looted around 20 houses belonging to the Ahmadiyya community in Ahmednagar. The Ahmadiyya devotees, who had gathered to attend their scheduled event, were seen going back to their respective destinations on Saturday morning after the event was suspended for an indefinite period on Friday night - in a sense this meant the bigots had won. They had achieved their objective of having the Jalsa scrapped - and that is what will survive as a stain on society.

Yet the burning question remains- who was behind it? Who had planned this? It simply defies belief that there was a spontaneous movement of pious Sunnis. One narrative has tried to establish that the administration had erred by allowing the Jalsa, as it represented a change in the status quo - meaning to say the Jalsa represented a newly active or emboldened Ahmadiyya community, and that drew a reaction from God-fearing Muslims. But it is simply not true.

The community has always held its annual Jalsa - remember this was the 98th. Last year, around the same time, they had their 97th, at the same location. That had been held up for two years due to the Covid restrictions. The 96th was held in 2019. So much for the status quo.

Almost one week after the violence, the police admitted that the attack was carried out in a planned manner by a trained group, probably with the aim to destabilise the country. We are no fans of the 'conspiracy against the state' narrative. But there are indeed groups that can draw an advantage politically out of the country experiencing instability. The existentially threatened Jamaat e Islami, not even allowed to take part in elections under the AL, is certainly one of them.

Following the incident, the activity on Jamaat's old Twitter account, Basherkella, has struck some observers as suspicious.

Since Friday's violence, at least eight tweets were posted from the Basherkella account with "police brutality" and "boycott Qadiani (Ahmadiyya)" in the hashtags.

Calling these tweets a "hate campaign" against the Ahmadiyyas, Amanur Rahman, a university graduate from the community, said that the social media platform is being used to "instigate further attacks".

Amanur said that it was even more shocking that such "vitriol" against a minority community was being peddled from an account that has been verified by Twitter.

According to Amanur, "All these tweets asking people to boycott our community and false portrayal of police action is a clear attempt to glorify the attackers and justify the attack."

One of the tweets from the verified Basherkella account lists some renowned local brands, calling them "Qadiani owned" and asks all to boycott their products.

Another tweet condemns law enforcers: "Taking the Qadianis' side, Awami-backed police opened fire on anti-Qadiani protest."

Shared since March 3, these tweets have been retweeted and interacted with quite massively by followers of the account. But objectively, we find there is not enough there. The concurrent tweets seem more excited about the prospect of socking it to the 'Qadianis', than truly conspiratorial in any way.

Community condemns police

The Ahmadiyya community issued a statement denouncing the violent attack on the 98th Annual Convention of the Ahmadiyya Community in Bangladesh, which was being held in the town of Ahmednagar.

According to the official statement, "a mob of religious fanatics incited by extremist clerics attacked this convention and vandalised, burnt and looted several dozen homes and shops belonging to Ahmadis", and "during the attack, Jahid Hasan, a 25-year-old man, was beaten to death while trying to protect the convention venue".

Below is the rest of the statement in full. Although the police have been painted as working for the Ahmadiyyas on the day of the attacks, clearly the community does not see it that way. And the eventual cancellation of the Jalsa lends credence to their view. Below is the rest of the statement in full:

A mob of religious fanatics incited by extremist clerics attacked the convention and vandalised, burnt and looted several dozen homes and shops belonging to Ahmadis.

During the attack, Jahid Hasan, a 25-year-old man, was beaten to death while trying to protect the convention grounds. Four other people were taken to hospital in serious condition, and several dozen were less seriously injured. It is particularly tragic that the attack took place in broad daylight, in the face of police inaction. Several homes were burned to the ground. The day before the attack, several homes had been vandalised and set on fire by youths. They had also desecrated a grave and vandalised the tombstone of senior members of the community.

Despite assurances from the Commissioner and the District Superintendent of Police that the necessary measures would be taken to ensure the security of the Annual Convention, the Police remained silent and lenient during most of the attack.

We again request your kind support in demanding the Government of Bangladesh to enforce freedom of religion and safeguard human rights. Pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Government of Bangladesh to arrest each and every culprit who has been fuelling hatred and inciting violence, resulting in this brutal attack and murder, and to bring them to justice urgently.

The fact is that incidents of religious persecution against Muslim Ahmadis residing in Bangladesh have only increased, instigated by non-state actors. The government and law enforcement agencies are failing to protect members of the Ahmadiyya Community and to curb incitement to hatred. This persecution shows the utter disregard for the rights of our Community in Bangladesh, whose members live with a deep sense of insecurity.

As we have recalled on other occasions, on 13 July 2021, UN human rights experts expressed their deep concern at the lack of attention to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Ahmadiyya Community around the world and called on the international community to redouble its efforts to end the persecution of Ahmadis.

We strongly urge the international community to hold the Government of Bangladesh accountable, to provide effective protection and freedom of religious practice to the Ahmadis, and to take strong legal action to bring the masterminds and perpetrators of these ruthless attacks to justice; and to bring the implementation of its laws and practices in line with international standards, as set out in Article 20, Article 2 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Articles 25 and 26.

Can law enforcers crack it?

The response on behalf of the law enforcers was slow and stilted to begin with, perhaps almost out of habit. In the week almost since the attack, police gradually appeared to be getting it. Getting the urgency of nipping things like this in the bud, before they grow into the monsters that can swallow perfectly educated and progressive societies whole. Bigots on the ascendancy can be very hard to shake.

"It was a planned incident. Gunpowder and petrol were used to set the fire. Law enforcers discharged duty cautiously to avoid any fatalities during the incident," said Panchagarh Superintendent of Police (SP) SM Sirajul Huda, referred to in the community's statement, at a press briefing in his office on Thursday, almost a week after the first incidents of vandalism and looting took place on the eve of the Jalsa.

The SP said that if the law enforcers had taken sterner action, the extent of fatalities would have increased and the incident would have spread across the country.

More than 8,000 members of Ahmadiyya were attending the annual jalsa. The attack was launched by some 7,000-8,000 from all corners. During the incident, 170 members of police, 64 of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and five platoons of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) were on duty, he added.

In the days following the attack, 165 people were arrested in 13 cases filed with Panchagarh Sadar and Boda police stations over the incident, said the SP. Four of the cases were filed by police under the Special Powers Act and one under the Digital Security Act. As many as 10,000-11,000 unnamed people are among the accused, he said, adding that process was underway to file more cases.

"We have sufficient video and CCTV footage and still images of the incident. The accused are being detained by scrutinising this and based on detective information," he said.

Speaking of detectives, the fact that the disruption was allowed to occur can only represent a massive intelligence failure on the part of the administration. The kind of organised attack the SP himself is describing should be impossible to pull off in a sleepy part of the country like Panchagarh, without some level of involvement from agencies of the state. Were they misled on its scale or ambition? Were they unmoved out of prior, longstanding biases? Did they underestimate the gravity of the issues? These questions may never be answered. The best we can hope for, is that they never arise again.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts