ISSSP Reflections No. 44, June 06, 2016
Author: Sourina Bej
The string of blogger deaths in Bangladesh, since August 6 2015, has raised several questions. What picture does the attack on a small group of writers paint? What is the response of the government to these attacks? Is secular identity of Bangladesh under siege?
Who are the attacked and attackers?
Targeted in public place under broad daylight, hacked with machetes on the head or neck ensuring immediate death and roughly one victim every month; the pattern in the target killings of secular bloggers, liberal academicians and activists in Bangladesh is striking. Dhaka is riffed with conspiracy theories over the killings and government’s handling of them. Washiqur Rahman, who was killed in March on his way to work, used only a pen name for his blog. Yet the attackers identified and located his home. It is not only the writers but also the publishers who are killed. After the death of Avijit Roy, founder of Mukto Mon, his publisher was hunted down in his office.
The number of deaths may be small but it has heavily jolted the ‘still wounded’ memories of many from the closing days of liberation war. In 1971, around 200 writers, professors and secular-minded intellectuals were abducted from their homes by al-Badr supported by Jamaat-e-Islami party. Jamaat-e-Islami has been accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army to stifle the liberation warriors.
In 2008, as Awami League established a war-crimes tribunal and executed a senior Jamaat leader Mohammad Kamaruzzaman couple of years later, Jamaat launched a violent protest. The trials dictated popular support and captured the imagination of urban, middle-class youth who advocated the hanging. The line of secular, liberal values and public justice blurred as bottled-up religious nationalism slowly overwhelmed a section of Islamists.
On May 2010, along with the protest against the trials, a simultaneous voice rose demanding the hanging of atheist bloggers and secular activists. It echoed dissatisfaction between the Islamists and Liberals.
Hefajat-e-Islam, a banner combining several religious fundamentalist groups, published a list of 84 bloggers accusing them of blasphemy. Five bloggers, whose name appears in the hit list, have been killed in a month’s gap earlier last year.
Bangladesh has been witnessing attacks on free speech, which escalated under the military rule but no one common person was targeted for their different beliefs or their sexual expressions until now. In the initial stages of the freedom movement, political parties had liberty to organise and the press could still publish with fewer censorships. Bengali nationalism, socialism, communism of various hues – all found expression in print with a mix of agnostic, atheist, socialist, and liberal discussions. With the onslaught of Pakistani military, newspapers were closed and journalists killed. After Bangladesh won independence new publications emerged and freedom of speech was ungagged, but even that space was unstable, falling prey to one-party rule and dictatorships.
In 2007, Bangladesh saw its own cartoon crisis. Alpin, the cartoon magazine associated with the daily Prothom Alo, was shut down and the editor knelt before the imam of the main mosque in Dhaka. The cartoonist, Arifur Rahman, was jailed. Consequently, the government banned the Eid supplement of Shaptahik 2000 for carrying a personal essay by Daud Haider who had been exiled in mid-70s for blasphemy.
New age technology fuelled newer means of expression. With blogging, several atheists and liberal thinkers found a platform to criticise the acts of intolerance propagated by a section of Wahabi-influenced fundamental groups. The young zestful bloggers, incensed by crimes committed in the name of Islam worldwide, have rejected (this sect) their religion with sharp offensive words. The repercussions to these blogs have are not been a counter blog post or rallies but now violent deaths and threats.
Government in a limbo?
Bangladeshi police suspect Ansarullah Bangla Team, a domestic militant group, of the murders. Eight members of the group were convicted last year for the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider. The Bangladesh police department, but last week, has concluded that the spurt in killings coincide with the hanging of the war criminal hinting at the groups (in this case Jammat) dissatisfied with the trial to be behind the murder. However, the families of the victim tell a different tale. Rafida Ahmed, wife and eye witness for the murder of Avijit Roy, said her statement is yet to be recorded.
Prime Minister Sheik Hasina was flanked for condemning the bloggers for their posts instead off stepping up the investigation to nab the culprits. The situation worsened when Awami League government’s adviser asked the bloggers’ to refrain from writing foul about Prophet Muhammad as it might be blamed on the government’s secularism business. The inability to ensure a relief from fear to voice opinion has placed the party in a limbo. Simultaneously the party’s secular ideology came under siege ever since it failed to lift the clause declaring Islam as state religion of Bangladesh. The controversy over Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006 has done little to save the beleaguered party. BNP-Jammat maintains an equivocal silence on the death and is criticizing the government for using the trials as weapon to punish the opposition.
An attack on secularism?
Bangladesh is a secular country in principal. Its secularism doesn’t essentially mean absence of religion from public space but coexistence of plural religions, sects without affecting the other. The attack on the bloggers and liberal academicians hints at a dichotomy in the expression of the country’s pluralistic religious identities.
Islam, the dominant religion in Bangladesh, has been regionally informed. The Bengali vision of Islam forges the conscious of the nation and it transcends the differences among many Muslim sects. Extreme Jamaat-e-Islami party, Tablighi to Sufism speak the same Bengali language and the people pride in their Bangla ethnicity, its liberal values.
Induced by this liberal value, a section of people in Bangladesh especially its academicians, activists or now bloggers have remained vocal and critical in their social endeavour. The bloggers have denounced the extremist expression of Islam as parochial and have called it not their own Islam. Infuriated by the foul and extreme expression of the bloggers, the killers have drawn swords. But the hacking of university professor in Rajshahi and LGBT editor reveals that the killings are not restricted to bloggers but has also extended to liberal activists who may or may not have a view on religion. The secular template can be distorted if the diverse opinion is not respected and caught in between the extreme voices.
About the Author
Ms. Sourina Bej is pursuing M.A. in International Studies at Stella Maris College, Chennai. Views are personal.