The victim had converted from Hinduism to Islam in a remote tribal region where ethnic insurgency continues to smoulder in light of Bangladesh's majoritarian politics.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a sparsely populated hilly region of Southern Bangladesh, is no stranger to violence. Tainted by the remnants of a decades-long insurgency, this particular region has witnessed countless political, ethnic and petty murders.
However, one murder that occurred on June 18 in the Rowangchhari subdistrict of Bandarban district of the CHT deserves special attention as for the first time, an ethnic Tripura man was killed because he, along with his family, had been converted to Islam, according to local accounts.
The law enforcers of the South Asian nation, where Islam is the majoritarian religion, haven’t yet confirmed the motive behind this extraordinary murder but people familiar with the complex politico-religious metric of the CHT see the killing as a “religiously charged one.”
The incident has sparked multiple protest rallies mostly by Muslim clerics and Islamist groups, who demand the guilty to be punished.
Bangladesh’s social media space also got flooded with many posts calling the deceased—Omar Faruk — a 'shaheed', or martyr.
The motive behind the murder
Towhid Kabir, the officer-in-charge of Rowanchhari police station told TRT World that they are still investigating the murder.
“The place where the murder took place is a very remote one. There is no way you can reach there by motorized vehicle. You need to hike for 18 hours. This is the month of monsoon, so heavy rains impede our investigations,” said Kabir.
Kabir however said they are suspecting the members of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) behind this murder. “PCJSS has some sort of control over the area where the murder took place. So, we are suspecting their members,” he said.
PCJSS, an armed group of ethnic minorities, is responsible for the active insurgency in the CHT region since the late 70s. The successive Bangladesh governments, instead of dealing with them politically, viewed the crisis through a security prism and responded by trying to modify the demographic structure of the region in favour of the majority Bengali population.
This caused distrust between the communities. Violent clashes between the Bengali Muslim and the ethnic minority people, most of whom practise Buddhism and Hinduism, became the norm. Even after the historic CHT peace accord in 1997, peace in the region seemed distant.
Bangladeshi journalist Nazmul Ahasan, who grew up in the CHT as a Bengali, told TRT World that the PCJSS and its leader, the famed Santu Larma, have long voiced concerns about the “Islamization” of the ethnic communities.
“The group, as well as the ethnic communities in general, long forcefully— and at times, violently — resisted romantic relationship or marriages between an ethnic woman and a Bengali Muslim man,” he said.
Such an attitude was viewed in the context of ethnic groups fearing to lose their culture and heritage, he added.
Ahsan said although Christianity has also taken root in some areas of the CHT, the ethnic minorities are more concerned about the spread of Islam “because of its status as the majority religion.”
Conversion and preaching activities
Faruk, 50, originally hails from the Tripura tribe of Bangladesh. His name was Purnendu Tripura. Traditionally, over 90 percent of the Tripura tribe in Bangladesh practice the Hindu religion while the rest are mostly converted Christians.
According to Parbotto News, a local news portal of the CHT, Faruk converted to Islam after attending a session of Tablig-Jamaat (Islamic society of preachers) in Bandarban. He then started giving “Dawah” (The act of inviting or calling people to embrace Islam) to the people of his village.
Among 38 families of his village, five embraced Islam because of his Dawah.
“This preaching of Islam by Faruk among the Tripura tribe was not well received by the members of the PCJSS,” said Mehedi Hasan Palash, the editor of the Parbotto News, “Faruk received multiple threats from them to stop preaching,” he added.
Instead of putting a halt to his religious activities, Faruk in his village established a small mosque and continued preaching.
On the night of June 18, an armed group came to Faruk’s house, brandished guns and killed him at point-blank range.
“We talked with Faruk’s family members and they told us that Faruk was apprehensive of such an incident beforehand. He said his life was in danger and he might be killed because of his preaching activities,” said Palash, who is also the chairman of CHT Research Foundation—a non-profit research organization.
Palash said it’s pretty evident that the “armed group” belongs to PCJSS as they have control over the area where Frauk used to reside.
“In such remote parts of the hills, the local government barely has any control and insurgent groups like PCJSS have lots of influence,” Palash added.
Mojibur Rahman, President of Parbotto Chattagram Nagorik Parishad—a civil society group—told TRT World, the murder of Faruk is alarming.
“Faruk was not a member of any political party. He was a simple man who embraced Islam and tried to preach its teaching among his tribesmen. It’s very alarming that in a country where over 90 percent population is Muslim, a converted Muslim is killed for his religious belief,” he said.