Terror reigned. Sahapara village in Dighalia union of Narail's Lohagara upazila was held hostage on Friday night. A family went into hiding in their own house. They were not alone. Several other Hindu families in the village did the same too.
An angry Muslim mob came at their door and then invaded their house. Looters came too, and set everything on fire. The cause? A Facebook post by an 18-year-old local resident which allegedly insulted Islam – Bangladesh's predominant religion.
Nearly 300 families live in Digholia village. Many of the Hindu families fled following the attack. And for those who remained, they stood in the charred skeleton of their homes on Saturday morning.
Sounds like the Bangladesh you know? Perhaps. Has there been an uptick in communal violence in the country?
"We have noted of late that there has been an increase in this type of incidents. We were particularly troubled by the incidents that happened in October last year. There is definitely a disturbing trend that we see," said Shafqat Munir, head of Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research at Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies.
Condemnation, silence, condemnation
In between October 2021 communal violence during Durga Puja week, 2016 Nasirnagar and 2012 Ramu there remain too many cases of intolerance and attacks that have traumatised Bangladesh's minorities, particularly the Hindu families.
What usually follows communal violence in Bangladesh is the rightful condemnation from the intellectuals, the fumbling of the law enforcement agencies, the promise of justice and retribution and the miserable state of the victim families. And, of course, discussions and criticism of our poor state of affairs.
The pattern, by now, is well-established. And until another incident takes place, we fall silent again.
Also what follows is the swifter arrests of the person who allegedly made "derogatory" social media post against Islam than the arrests of perpatrators who injure and terrorise people, vandalise, loot and rancack village homes.
"A way to prevent escalation and communal violence [such as what happened in Narail] is to arrest the person who made the post on social media. Take the person in police custody," said a top official in the law enforcement, requesting anonymity.
In fact there have been several cases of derogatory comments that hurt religious sentiments on social media in Bangladesh following former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma's comments, he said, "but those incidents did not surface or escalate, because swift arrests were made. And then elected representatives, social leaders were involved to resolve the tension and speak to the arrestee."
A way to mitigate high-stakes, emotional and volatile situations, explained the official.
The cases filed following Ramu 2012 and Nasirnagar 2016 – two of the largest spates of communal violence before last year – did not amount to much. "The police have submitted the charge sheet. However, the trial is yet to start," informed the official.
How responsible is social media?
The Narail incident follows the template of a spate of incidents in the last decade where communal violence was triggered by an alleged Facebook post.
The law enforcement official, however, is not ready to blame social media alone.
"I am speaking of 20 years back, even then we saw extremism, a range of intolerance or this kind of behaviour, so it is not correct to pin this on social media alone," he said, adding that certain forms of local religious gatherings can also play a role in inciting violence towards minorities.
The police official pointed out that not everyone who takes part in the communal violence and attacks is religious. This is not to defend the attackers but to explain "even the non-religious, hooked on drugs would go out and join the mob."
Not everyone had even seen the post, perhaps just heard about it, but it is the mob mentality and intolerance that drive so many people to resort to violence, the official added.
But the role that social media plays in Bangladesh and the spread of disinformation, however, cannot be denied.
"My organisation has worked a lot on fake news and disinformation, and I can say we still have a serious lack of understanding on how to counter it in the digital space," said Munir.
"You would see that the majority who take part in the violence are young people," said Munir, "two things are immediately needed. A cyber hygiene awareness: the youth needs to learn how to consume the news in the digital space. Secondly, they need greater understanding of communities and other faith groups."
We reached out to Meta, Facebook's parent company, and asked what policies or steps the company has taken to address the spread of misinformation in Bangla to counter such incidents?
"Our work to keep people safe is especially important in places where there are existing social tensions. We are aware of the situation in Bangladesh and have taken immediate actions against harmful content, including attempts to spread hate, incite violence or harass others.
We are also working with independent third-party fact checkers and local experts to debunk misinformation on our services in both English and Bangla," said a Meta spokesperson.
Breaking out of the vicious cycle
Who is to be held responsible or accountable: the social media platform for failing to monitor the spread of misinformation? Law enforcement authorities for failing to bring participants in the mob attacks to justice or or the society at large?
"The responsibility has to be a collective one because all the actors that you have listed are actually responsible in some way or the other," replied Munir.
Munir noted how a spike in anti-Muslim sentiment or communal violence in neighbouring countries - such as India and Myanmar - in the recent years "has an effect on us."
"Bangladesh has a good track record of greater communal harmony in the region compared to others,"said Munir, "and this is why we are concerned by this trend."
According to Munir, while the long-term solution is to build social awareness and understanding, "immediate interfaith /inter community dialogue - under the initiative of the UNO/local chairman - should be organised to bring people together. Start with the affected communities. And this can be later scaled up to district and national level."
Munir also said that the role of the law enforcement agencies is crucial. And they need to prove that such acts of violence will not be tolerated by meting out punishment as swiftly as possible to the perpetrators.
It is of utmost importance that "these actions are community-driven and community-led" to prove effective and prevent communal violence in the future, explained Munir, "there is a need to build greater social resilience."
Otherwise, we will keep finding ourselves standing in front of charred houses and lives.