Fake news about “human sacrifices” for the Padma Bridge leads to violence in Bangladesh

The Padma Bridge is a multipurpose road-rail bridge across the mighty Padma River under construction in Bangladesh. Image by Afzal Hossain via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

The Padma Bridge is a multipurpose road-rail bridge across the mighty Padma River under construction in Bangladesh. Image by Afzal Hossain via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

The completion of a 6.1km long bridge across the Padma River, which will link the southwest region of Bangladesh to the northern and eastern regions, is projected for December 2020. Many are hoping that the new Padma Bridge will change the economic landscape of southwestern Bangladesh.

However, in the backdrop of all of this economic promise is a fake news story about the Padma Bridge which has already led to eight arrests and two deaths. 

Fake news around human sacrifices causes a stir

Fake rumors that claimed the Padma Bridge needed “human heads” for its completion spread quickly on social media:

There is a new rumor in town. Some stoned people are spreading lies that 100,000 human heads are required to complete the Padma bridge. This is a lie and is completely baseless. Don't pay heed to these rumors.

The rumors have already turned deadly. There have been reports of two deaths in Mohammadpur area of Dhaka and in Ashuganj, Bramhonbaria after mobs suspected them of snatching children as sacrifices for the construction of the bridge. In a few other cases, suspected child snatchers were beaten up in other parts of the country. In a statement to the press the Police super of Laxmipur district told:

যাদেরকে ‘ছেলে ধরা’ সন্দেহে আটক করা হচ্ছে পরবর্তীতে জিজ্ঞাসাবাদে দেখা যায় তারা কেউ মানসিক রোগী বা কেউ ভিখারী। ‘ছেলে ধরা’ খবরটি একটি নিছক গুজব।

Those who were beaten up and we have held for the allegation of child-snatching, are either mental-patient or homeless persons. The “child-snatching” claim is just a rumor.

According to Section 25 of the Digital Security Act 2018, a person may face up to three years in jail or BDT 300,000 (USD 3,550) in fines or both for spreading rumors in electronic form. So far, eight people have been detained across Bangladesh for spreading these rumors on Facebook.

An old rumor revisited

Allegedly, some are basing these rumors on a 2015 article which says that workers from the Chinese construction company contracted to build the bridge sacrificed animals (goats and cows) in the initial phases of the project. According to the Chinese worker's belief, animal sacrifices can please God and serious accidents can be averted. Some are sharing the images of the animal sacrifice as the blood of humans and stories of beheading small children for the bridge.

Versions of this kind of story are nothing new in Bangladesh. There is an old myth that human heads are needed as a sacrifice during any major construction. Facebook user HR Sanvi Ahmed remembers a similar rumor from his childhood during the construction of the Kanchpur Bridge during the late 1970s:

স্কুলে পড়তাম তখন। এক বিকেলে ৪/৫ জন বন্ধু মিলে খুব চিন্তিত। কাঁচপুর ব্রিজ তৈরি হচ্ছে। এখন ব্রিজের জোড়া শক্তপোক্ত করতে মানুষের হাড় প্রয়োজন। যেটা সবসময়ই লাগে বড়বড় সেতু বানাতে। প্রায় ৫০০ মানুষের হাড়। আর এই হাড় সংগ্রহের জন্য মূলত শিশুদেরকেই টার্গেট করা হচ্ছে। স্কুলেস্কুলে কাফনের সাদা কাপড়সহ চিঠি যাচ্ছে। আমাদের স্কুলেও চিঠি এসেছে। শিক্ষকরা প্রতিদিন ২/১ জন করে পাঠিয়ে দিচ্ছে বাচ্চাদেরকে সেতুওয়ালাদের কাছে। এমতাবস্থায় খুব চিন্তিত আমরা। খেলাধুলা বাদ দিয়ে চিন্তা করছি। আমাদেরকেও কিনা পাঠিয়ে দেয়! রাতে ঘুম বন্ধ হয়ে গিয়েছিলো। ছোট মাথা, অনেক বড় দুঃশ্চিন্তা।

I was a school student then. My friends used to discuss the under construction Kanchpur Bridge. Allegedly human bones were required to make the joints of the bridge strong. At least 500 human bones were required for a bridge this big. Human children were being targeted and claims were being sent to the schools. Our school also received such a letter. The teachers are sending 1 or 2 children to the Bridge construction workers. We were pretty worried and scared. If we were also sent. We could not sleep at night. So many worries in our little heads!

Similar rumors surfaced during the construction of the Shah Amanat Bridge over the Karnaphuli river in Chittagong in 2010.

Human sacrifices appear in ancient Hindu mythology. In many ancient texts, it was said that human heads were severed to please the demons before erecting a bridge over a mountain stream. Five thousand years ago Narboli (human sacrifice) was practiced among the Pundra civilization to please the Goddess of agriculture.

Ramsagor lake in Dinazpur District of Bangladesh was completed in 1750. The legend goes that initially there was no water and when Prince Ramnath sacrificed his life in this lake, it was filled with water. Image by Selim Khondokar. CC BY- 4.0

In an interview with the BBC, Susmita Chakrabarti, the professor of the Folklore Department of Rajshahi University pointed towards the myths.

প্রত্যন্ত অঞ্চলের মানুষ পূর্বপুরুষদের কাছ থেকে যেসব গল্প শুনে আসে, কোনো ধরণের যাচাই ছাড়া সেগুলো বিশ্বাস করার প্রবণতার কারণেই এই প্রযুক্তির যুগেও সেসব গল্প সত্যি বলে দৃঢ়ভাবে বিশ্বাস করে।

People are used to these myths carried down from generations to generations. So they fall for such rumors without verifying, even if in this age of technology.

As the Bangladeshi government tries to contain the spread of this story, it has said that they will take stern action against those who are sharing the rumors:

Please beware of the people who are sharing the rumor that human heads are needed for the Padma Bridge. Police are arresting them already.

The Bridge authority published a statement on 9 July 2019 which rejected the sacrifice rumors and claimed they were spread by “vested quarters”, asking the public to ignore such a baseless story.

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