By JULHAS ALAM
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — At least four people were killed and scores injured in violent protests Friday set off by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in Bangladesh to celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence.
The casualties happened after students from a prominent madrasa or Islamic school and members of an Islamist group clashed with police in the northeastern district of Chattogram.
Alauddin Talukder, a police official at the Chattogram Medical College Hospital, told reporters that five people with injuries were taken to the hospital and four of them died during treatment. Further details could not be confirmed immediately.
Local media reported that members of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam, which has a network of Islamic schools, attacked government structures, including a police station and a land office, at Hathazari area in Chattogram before police took action.
At Dhaka’s main mosque, clashes broke out between groups of demonstrators and police dispersed the crowd by using tear gas and rubber bullets — injuring scores of people, officials and witnesses said.
Modi’s two-day visit, his first abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began, will include commemorating 100 years since the birth of Bangladeshi independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Hasina, a key partner for India in maintaining regional stability, welcomed Modi at the airport on Friday morning.
Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party of stoking religious polarization in India and discriminating against minorities, particularly Muslims. In recent weeks, demonstrators in Bangladesh have urged the Indian leader not to visit and chanted anti-India and anti-Modi slogans. They also have criticized Hasina for inviting him.
Outside the Baitul Mokarram mosque, hundreds of protesters had gathered by the afternoon. Witnesses said clashes started after one faction of protesters began waving their shoes as a sign of disrespect to Modi, and another group tried to stop them.
Local media said the protesters who tried to stop the shoe-waving are aligned with the ruling Awami League party. The party criticized the other protest faction for attempting to create chaos in the country during Modi’s visit.
Local TV showed protesters throwing stones at the police, who were heavily present on the streets near the mosque. Somoy TV reported that at least 40 people were injured, including journalists, and were taken to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital for treatment.
Abdul Mazid, a businessman who joined the prayer, told The Associated Press that he was trapped in the mosque after trying to flee when violence erupted during the prayer.
“I had a feeling that something was going to happen. I am still inside the mosque,” he said by phone. “There is huge violence, I can see from here.”
A police official said members of several Islamist groups had joined the protests, but it was not immediately clear which groups they were representing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. He declined to give any figures for how many people were injured.
While Modi’s trip is mainly focused on Bangladesh’s anniversary celebrations, the visit also has a political agenda at home, as voting begins Saturday in several state-level elections, including West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh.
With an eye on galvanizing Hindu support in the key battleground state, Modi is set to visit a Hindu temple outside Dhaka that’s sacred to the Matua community back in West Bengal. The Matua sect’s vote is expected to determine the winner of at least seven seats in a close race for control of the state assembly.
Modi, in a tweet late Thursday ahead of his trip, said the two countries share a vital relationship.
“Our partnership with Bangladesh is an important pillar of our Neighborhood First policy, and we are committed to further deepen and diversify it. We will continue to support Bangladesh’s remarkable development journey, under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s dynamic leadership,” he said.
Two factions of protestors clash after Friday prayers at Baitul Mokarram mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, March 26, 2021. Witnesses said violent clashes broke out after one faction of protesters began waving their shoes as a sign of disrespect to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and another group tried to stop them. Local media said the protesters who tried to stop the shoe-waving are aligned with the ruling Awami League party. The party criticized the other protest faction for attempting to create chaos in the country during Modi’s visit. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)