DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the Bangladeshi capital on Friday to join the celebrations marking the country’s 50th anniversary.
His visit sparked violent protests at Dhaka’s main mosque that were dispersed by police with tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring dozens of people, after clashes broke out between groups of protesters, officials and witnesses said.
Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu nationalist party of stoking religious polarization in India and discriminating against minorities, particularly Muslims.
Modi’s two-day visit, the first abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began last year, will include the commemoration of 100 years since the birth of Bangladesh’s independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of the current first. Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Hasina, India’s key partner in maintaining regional stability, welcomed Modi at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on Friday morning.
By Friday afternoon, hundreds of protesters had gathered in front of the Baitul Mokarram mosque. Witnesses said violent clashes broke out after a faction of protesters started waving their shoes in disrespect for Modi, and another group tried to stop them.
Local media said that the protesters who tried to stop the movement of the shoes are aligned with the ruling Awami League party. The party criticized the other protest faction for trying to create chaos in the country during Modi’s visit.
Local television showed the protesters throwing stones at the police, who were very present in the streets near the mosque. Somoy TV reported that at least 40 people were injured, including journalists, and were taken to 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 broke out during the prayer.
“I had a feeling that something was going to happen. I’m still inside the mosque, ”he said by phone. “There is great violence, I can see from here.”
A police officer said that members of various Islamist groups had joined the protests, but it was not immediately clear which groups they represented. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations. He declined to give figures on how many people were injured.
While Modi’s trip is primarily focused on Bangladesh’s anniversary celebrations, the visit also has a political agenda at home, as voting begins on Saturday in various state-level elections, including West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh.
With an eye toward galvanizing Hindu support in the key state of the battlefield, Modi will visit a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Dhaka that is sacred to the Matua community in West Bengal. The vote of the Matua sect 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 Thursday night before 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 deepening and diversifying it further. We will continue to support Bangladesh’s remarkable development journey, under the dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, ”he said.
In recent weeks, protesters urged the Indian leader not to come to Bangladesh and chanted anti-India and anti-Modi slogans. Student protesters called Modi “the butcher of Gujarat.” Others carried signs that read “Return Modi, Return India” and “Return Modi Killer.”
Modi was chief minister in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, when riots between Hindus and Muslims left more than 1,000 dead. Accusations that the authorities allowed and even encouraged the bloodshed have long followed Modi, who has repeatedly denied any role. India’s Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him.
The protesters also criticized Hasina for inviting Modi, saying the two countries have many unresolved disputes. Protesters accuse Modi and his Hindu nationalist party of discriminating against Muslims, as a controversial 2019 amendment. to the citizenship law.
They have also criticized the killings of Bangladeshis by Indian border guards. India says such victims occur when Bangladeshis are involved in cross-border smuggling and attempt to cross the border illegally.