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'How can we not grieve?': Hindus in Michigan protest violence in Bangladesh

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Warren — As a child in Shelby Township, Geetika Guha was always confused when she had to explain to someone that although she was Hindu, she hailed from Bangladesh, not India. 

Guha, 21, and a psychology student at Wayne State University, said that Hindus were being forced into silence because of the assumption people make that everyone in Bangladesh is a Muslim.

She said she thought it was part of the reason the recent wave of violence in Bangladesh, that began on Oct. 15 and has left several Hindus dead and saw the desecration of holy sites, has gone unchecked. 

At a Sunday afternoon protest denouncing these attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh, Guha joined dozens of members of the Hindu community in Michigan, along with religious and community leaders and a Democratic state representative.

Rally-goers stand alongside Michigan Kalibari on Nine Mile Road in Warren on Sunday, October 24, 2021.

People lined up outside Michigan Kalibari, a Hindu temple on Nine Mile Road, holding their signs  as cars sped past them and drizzle turned to rain. Speakers lamented the violence, some referring to their family members who were in the country trying to evade the attacks. 

"I have relatives who are scared to go outside, who are being forced to stay at home ... because they're going to be killed," said Guha. "... They're not allowed to post anything because they are scared of their house getting burned down, of getting tortured."

Nonviolence was a recurring theme in the speeches, with people like Narayanaswamy "Nasy" Sankagiri of the Hindu Community Relations Council highlighting what they described as the importance of peaceful engagement in countering religious violence. 

"We feel that the entire world is our family," said Sankagiri. "And while our own Hindu families are bleeding halfway across the world, how can we not grieve?"

Sankagiri encouraged Hindu community members in Michigan and the rest of the country to share their experiences with the media and call on their elected officials to address the violence. 

"We need to be heard," he said. "We have a message of peace. We have a message of pluralism. We have a message of unity."

Rally-goers pray while gathering along Nine Mile Road.

The protest echoed large demonstrations that have erupted in the capital, Dhaka, and other parts of the country since radical Islamist groups attacked and destroyed more than 200 festival sites in 27 districts, according to Michigan Kalibari, desecrating Hindu deities and burning Hindu homes and villages.

This followed an image circulating online showing a Quran, the Muslim holy book, placed at the feet of a Hindu deity during the community's largest religious festival, Durga Puja, which was perceived as an insult to the country's Muslim majority, according to the Associated Press. 

Reports of casualties differ, with Michigan Kalibari saying at least eight Hindus were killed and local media reporting six as of Oct. 18. The Associated Press could not independently confirm the figures, but reported that local media downplayed coverage of the violence, apparently under governmental pressure. 

Hindus are a minority of about 9% in Bangladesh, which has a population of around 161 million. 

"We deserve to live," said Guha. "Hindus deserve to live, and I think that we are doing a great job coming together today representing our faith."

Shyama Holder, president of Michigan Kalibari, speaks to rally-goers

Shyama Haldar, president of Michigan Kalibari, said he organized the protest to shed light on the plight of Hindus in Bangladesh and call on the United States and international human rights organizations to put pressure on Bangladesh to secure Hindus' rights. 

"(We want) to ensure safety and security of Hindus in Bangladesh and work towards long-term solutions to make Hindus survive and prosper in Bangladesh as free citizens," he said. 

State Rep. Padma Kuppa, D-Troy, spoke at the protest as well, noting that as the first Hindu member of the state Legislature, news of the crisis in Bangladesh had a profound effect on her. She said she wanted to stand in solidarity, despite not being able to directly help the situation as a state representative. 

"We feel very strongly when anywhere in the world there is violence against a particular person because of their identity," said Kuppa. "Particularly temples and people who are worshipping who have faith in nonviolence." 

People gather to show support for Bangladeshi Hindus who were attacked while celebrating the holy festival of Durga Puja in the Bangladesh capital city of Dharka.

Sukla Doshi, 72, is a volunteer at the Bharatiya Temple in Troy and at Bichitra Inc., a Bengali association in Metro Detroit.

She has been in the United States for 52 years, having moved to the country after her parents ended up in Calcutta, India, after the 1947 Partition of India. She said she still has close relatives in Bangladesh. 

"It absolutely breaks my heart to hear," said Doshi. "And I feel so worried about their safety."