Beginning from January 2013, when Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger survived a stabbing attack near his office to the fatal attack on liberal blogger Nazimuddin Samad in April 2016, and later in July the broader Gulshan cafe attack — which saw the massacre of over 20 people — the spate of killings of secular bloggers and journalists by radical Islamists is charting a new course for Bangladesh. Not only has the government been forced to officially accept the presence of terrorist outfits in the country and take concrete action against them, people too have begun to realise the price of silence in the face of such a threat.
The killing of secular bloggers is a heinously orchestrated attempt to force Bangladesh to veer from liberalism, prosperity and, above all, sanity. No doubt, political and hence all other problems have been festering for a long time. But things came to a head when, in February 2013, in reaction to the right-wing violence against the ongoing war criminal trials, the secular Shahbag movement (Gonojagoron) emerged in Dhaka and spread swiftly cross Bangladesh.
Blogger Rajib Haidar, an active participant of the Shahbag movement, was hacked to death by a group of radical Muslims. The motive seemed to nip the Shahbag movement in the bud before it could grow into a political force big enough to counter right-wing pressure on the government. Rajib Haidar had been an atheist blogger for a limited audience for quite some time, but to justify his killing and silence the majority, Amar Desh a right-wing newspaper of Bangladesh published his blogs, exposing them to a wider audience.
The killing of secularists is an orchestrated attempt by religious radicals to force Bangladeshi society to abandon liberalism. The government may finally be waking up
His gruesome death became instrumental in widening the political and religious schism across Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s condolence to Rajib’s bereaved family was just the fuel needed by the right-wing opposition to tag her government as being anti-Islamic. It was no coincidence that right afterwards we saw the emergence of a group called Hifazat-i-Islam, with the explicit aim to counter the secular wave of Shahbag. Religious groups, and especially Hifazat-i-Islam, have since been trying to silence all other voices for being ‘anti’-Islam.
It is not difficult to understand how the situation spiralled. In the aftermath of Rajib’s killing, Hifazat-i-Islam was hailed as the saviour of religion, forcing many leading Shahbag supporters to distance themselves from the latter movement. Heightened religiosity also forced the Hasina government on the backfoot. Worst of all, words like ‘blogger’ and ‘secularism’ became synonymous with atheism, even if it was out of fear of right-wing retribution. As blogger and science writer Imteaz Ahmed said, “In a country where the government is not properly elected by its people, sometimes such governments try to use religious views and sentiments to secure power. During the killing of bloggers, not only was the government reluctant to take action, it even tried to take advantage of the situation. We have seen similar activities during military governments in our country. Such policies only aggravate the country’s social values and indices and further jeopardise the whole nation.”
The situation started to distort the socio-political fabric of Bangladesh with a slant towards retrograde change. To counter the demonstrations and counter-strikes of Hifazat-i-Islam in Dhaka, security forces were compelled to neutralise all sorts of gatherings in the capital, thus shutting down all space for liberal and cultural expression. Naturally religious groups came out the winner. Public propensity to favour even the most distorted versions of religion over logical thought ensured that while those of a secular bent were forced to run out of Dhaka, the right-wing groups continued to roam around freely.
As the ‘saviour’ of religion, Hifazat-i-Islam subsequently came up with a 13-point agenda, one of which was to demand the government to enforce the veil on women and ban them from work and study. Cornered, the Hasina government went for negotiations and compromised by gifting land and other concessions to Hifazat-i-Islam. This leniency encouraged the overnight growth of all kinds of right-wing militant outfits, and even some criminal groups disguised as the upholders of religion. Bloggers of all genres became a target; one hacking after the other forced most of them underground. In the absence of space for alternate thought, the narrative that ‘all bloggers are non-believers’ took root. Any writer, thinker or columnist who disagreed with this narrative was shoved under the ‘blogger’ umbrella, along with any freedom of speech.
Rajib’s killing was the lynchpin of forced change in Bangladesh; its effects felt all the way from politics to society. Several blogger killings later, the government introduced the controversial cyber law. With the facade to curb the right to criticise religion, this law also penalises government criticism, equally serving the interests of both the right-wingers and the ‘centrist’ party in power. Afraid to be left behind in the power game, major political parties jumped in the race to prove themselves worthy of upholding the mantle of religion. It’s not surprising then that Bangladesh society under duress started following suit. Attacks on minorities and intellectuals then began in Bangladesh. Although the ideological echo of this problem is perhaps louder than the actual depth of religious ferocity, most crimes committed in the name of religion remain unpunished for fear of a right-wing backlash.
After Rajib Haidar, blogger Avijit Roy was killed and his wife Bonya Ahmed seriously injured in February 2015 near the Dhaka Ekushe Book Fair premises. That attack near one of the most literary of Bangladesh events is an example of how far the militants are willing to go to destroy the very basis of Bengali culture and society. Avijit Roy was a scientist and a liberal thinker. His blog ‘Mukto-Mona’ (Free-thinker) carried a wide range of his work in science, theology and literature. The world condemned his killing but with Khaleda Zia’s opposition and right-wing parties waiting to pounce, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once again failed to take a strong stance and no sympathy for Avijit was allocated. “With the government trying to please Hifazat-i-Islam because of its vote bank, we haven’t seen any justice for the killings of bloggers and writers,” says blogger and journalist Biplob Rehman.
Emboldened by this silence, militants killed blogger Oyasiqur Rahman Babu a month later. This time, however, a transgender passerby was able to catch one of the killers red-handed. Interrogation revealed that the killers were members of a home-grown militant group with links to Jamaat-i-Islami’s student wing. Although the braveness of a transgender delivered what law enforcers could not, it too was in vain. Society remained silent and the government took no action. So militants took these killings up a notch. They started attacking and killing bloggers in their own homes, leaving behind chopped-off heads as their signature. Ananta Bijoy Das on May 12, 2015, Niladri Chattopadhyay Niloy on August 7 the same year, and Nazimuddin Samad on April 6 the following year, were all killed mercilessly by religious militants.
We all know such things never stop by themselves. Just like the boy who cried wolf because he didn’t think he would be attacked, the good Muslims of Bangladesh believed those deaths would not enter their homes. But just like the wolf who did attack, the recent café massacre in Gulshan in Dhaka and the attack during Eid prayers in Sholakia only indicates that people of other faiths, publishers, teachers and Sufi singers — in fact anyone choosing to stand strong — became the new targets.
Planned or not, the fact is that the serial killing of bloggers has opened the passageway for terrorists, militants and extremists in Bangladesh to stake their de-facto claim over state and society. The apologists have actually ended up inviting the snake into their own garden. But this is not the end of the story. The Gulshan café attack has been an eye-opener for the government as well as the silent masses. Targeted anti-terror operations have begun across the country and while it can be argued that international pressure forced the government into waking up, the people of Bangladesh, always looking for an enemy to rally against, are also stepping out of their homes for peaceful demonstrations against religious extremism. Thousands of students, teachers and employees formed human chains against terrorism throughout the streets of Bangladesh on July 31, 2016, demanding a non-communal and fearless life. They have finally found the right target after three long years of bloodshed.
The writer is a journalist and an educator.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 28th, 2016