Violent protests broke out Friday in Bangladesh over the removal of a controversial justice statue deemed “un-Islamic” by religious hardliners from outside the Supreme Court, a move its creator said marked a victory for Islamists.
Police fired tear gas and water cannons to try to disperse hundreds of secular demonstrators who came out to protest the statue’s removal, which they see as a sign of creeping Islamization in the officially secular country.
The sculpture of a blindfolded, sari-clad woman holding scales had been in place for less than six months when authorities removed it early Friday under pressure from hardliners who said it was based on the Greek goddess of justice.
Its creator Mrinal Haque choked back tears as he oversaw the removal, saying it felt like “clearing a dead body”.
“Even my mother’s death did not make me so grief-stricken,” Haque told AFP.
He said the authorities had “bowed to the Hefazat (-e-Islam),” referring to the hardline Islamist group that held months of mass protests demanding the statue be destroyed and replaced with a Koran.
After its removal, protests broke out on the court premises and at the Dhaka University campus, a traditional secular bastion.
“Four people were detained for questioning as they broke a barricade. The protesters have also vandalised several cars,” deputy commissioner of Dhaka police Maruf Hossain Sorder told AFP.
An AFP photographer at the scene saw police fire rubber bullets as well as tear gas and water cannon.
“It is a betrayal of the people. The depressing thing is that the government is using it as a political tool,” secular activist Imran Sarkar told AFP.
There was no official comment from the court or the government, but the attorney general said the removal had been discussed in the court on Thursday.
“It was a decision of the court,” he told AFP.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who leads the secular Awami League party, initially remained at a distance from the row.
But she broke her silence last month to describe the statue as “ridiculous” after inviting top Islamist leaders to her residence.
“I don’t like it myself. It’s being called a Greek statue, but how did a Greek statue get here?” she said.
Sculptor Haque rejected that claim.
“It is a piece of sculpture of a Bengali woman wearing a traditional sari, blouse, petticoat and bangles,” he said.
Analysts said Hasina’s stand on the statue was part of her efforts to woo the Islamists and the country’s conservative rural electorate ahead of the general election, expected to be held sometime next year.
Conservative Bangladesh has experienced increasing tensions between hardliners and secularists in recent years, suffering a spate of killings of atheist bloggers, religious minorities and foreigners.
Hefazat held a thanks-giving march after Friday prayers outside the country’s largest mosque on Friday.
“We thanked the prime minister for removal of the statue of a Greek goddess from the Supreme Court premises,” one of its spokesmen Fazlul Karim Kashemi told AFP.