Police arrest key suspect Shahidul Islam Swadhin, a local UP member
A dispute over a Jalmahal (leased waterbody) was one of the key reasons behind the attack on Hindu homes in Sunamganj’s Shalla Upazila, police said after the prime suspect, Shahidul Islam Swadhin, was arrested.
A Union Parishad (UP) member, Swadhin was held in neighbouring Moulvibazar district in the early hours of Saturday, Special Superintendent Khaled Uz Zaman of the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) told the media in Sylhet.
“Swadhin was named as the prime suspect in one of the two cases filed over the attack. Important information has been gleaned from him during initial interrogation, which includes the issue of the Jalmahal. However, the local police will cross check that as part of its investigation,” the Sylhet PBI chief said while addressing a press conference.
Swadhin was handed over to Shalla police later in the day.
On Wednesday, supporters of the radical group Hefazat-e Islam attacked and vandalized Hindu homes in Noagaon village in Shalla, alleging that Islam had been insulted in a Facebook post critical of their leader Mamunul Haque.
Two cases were filed with Shalla Police Station over the incident. One of them was by police against 1,500 unidentified people while the other case, which named Swadhin as an instigator, was filed by local Habibpur UP Chairman Vivekananda Majumder.
So far, 30 arrests have been made over the attack, according to Shalla police OC Nazmul Haque.
Swadhin resides in Nachni village of Dirai upazila. A member of the Taral Union Parishad of the upazila, he is also the president of the local ward Jubo League.
‘Attackers came from Nachni’
Locals claimed that most of the attackers were from Nachni village, where Swadhin resides.
The Facebook post of a Hindu man allegedly criticizing the speech of Hefazat’s Mamunul Haque was used as a cover, according to them.
On Monday, Hefazat chief Junaid Babunagari, Joint Secretary-General Mamunul and other central leaders attended a conference in Derai Upazila organized by the radical Islamic group.
A Hindu villager posted comments on Facebook criticizing Haque's speech at the conference, police said following the attacks on Wednesday.
Swadhin has a long-standing dispute with residents of Noagaon village over the Guchhakhai Jalmahal, Dulal Hossain, a member of Derai’s Sharmangal Union Parishad, told Dhaka Tribune.
“He leased the Jalmahal in Noagaon from the government for six years and used to dry it out for fishing, which led the locals to start a case against him,” he said.
The dispute emerged when the local UP chairman did not allow Swadhin to dry out the Jalmahal this year so that the water could be used for Boro rice farming, according to Dulal.
“Swadhin then got himself involved in the protest over the Facebook post,” he added.
Noagaon resident Bishwarup Chandra Das, who is a member of the local Habibpur Union Parishad, said the local administration has had to step in to resolve the dispute in the past.
“Swadhin was barred from drying out the Jalmahal by officials,” he said, adding Swadhin was spotted among the attackers by local women.
Rivalry between local politicians?
Meanwhile, local residents also hinted that the feud between local Awami League leaders might have fuelled the assault on the religious minority.
Following the attack on Hindu homes, several pictures of the Hefazat conference emerged on social media, which showed several leaders of the ruling party’s Dirai unit attending the conference.
Derai Mayor Biswajit Roy, who also serves as the general secretary of Awami League’s local unit, was seen on the stage in those pictures. One of them also showed Biswajit addressing the conference.
Leaders of the ruling party have been at loggerheads over securing the party’s tickets at the recently-held municipality polls, said locals who asked not to be named.
The attackers vandalized 60 to 70 Hindu homes in Noagaon village on Wednesday before law enforcers from Shalla and Dirai police stations brought the situation under control.
Police said at the time that a young local Hindu man’s post criticizing the remarks of Hefazat leader Mamunul had fuelled the attack.
Mamunul’s supporters marched on the area on Tuesday night, accusing the Hindu man of hurting religious sentiments, according to Shalla police OC Nazmul Haque. The Hindu man was detained the same night to calm the Hefazat supporters, according to the police officer
The next morning, thousands of Mamunul’s followers from Kashipur, Nachni, Chandipur and other villages inhabited by Muslims attacked Noagaon village with sticks and locally made weapons.
They ransacked Hindu homes and looted valuables after the residents fled the village, the OC said.