Islamist zealotry choking liberty in Bangladesh

Why have Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League Government failed to stop the targeted killings by Islamists of a certain persuasion?

ByKanchan Gupta
Islamist zealotry choking liberty in Bangladesh
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Those in the media and among the intelligentsia outraging over the targeted killing of bloggers, writers, professors and activists, who were not necessarily atheists but avowedly secular, in Bangladesh are likely missing the wood for the trees. This murderous assault on free thought and free speech, without which liberty is rendered a hoax, is not of recent origin, just as there’s nothing new about the hounding of Hindus in Bangladesh. More than a fifth of the population in 1951, Hindus are now less than a tenth; this decimation did not happen overnight. The plight of Buddhists and Christians is no better.

Much as we may argue that Bangladesh epitomises the triumph of cultural nationalism over Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s spurious Muslim nationalism that fetched him a moth-eaten Islamic State whose hate-filled remnant is now in danger of devouring itself, facts point to the contrary. The spirit of 1971 was no doubt overwhelmingly, jubilantly, secular, but it died soon after the Liberation War. It did not even last till Mujibur Rahman’s assassination on August 15, 1975.

Secularism was indeed enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh by Mujib as one of its founding principles. It was knocked off and Islam declared as the state religion by Mujib’s successors who were Army dictators. In a sense, they mirrored Gen Zia ul-Haq’s Islamist zealotry. The Army has since returned to the barracks and secularism has been re-enshrined in the Constitution, but that’s a sham. A secular republic with Islam as the state religion is a myth.

So to rage and weep over the perceived rise of virulent Islamism in Bangladesh is, frankly, meaningless. Sonar Bangla, as Bangladesh’s national anthem describes the country, has always been a verdant green, literally and metaphorically. This would be confirmed by the most casual reading of history— we tend to gloss over discomfiting realities that do not fit into the commentariat’s dominant liberal discourse and perception.

The shedding of pretences began early in the life of Bangladesh as an independent country when Daud Haider, then a young poet given to radical hyperbole, had the mullahs baying for his blood. His crime? He had questioned the existence of a god who abandons humankind when it needs him the most. Daud was bundled into a plane that dumped him, penniless and with no more than the clothes on his back, in Calcutta. That was on May 22, 1974.

In 1984 Gen Ershad, the then military ruler of Bangladesh, wanted Daud extradited. The Government of India just wanted him out. Gunter Grass, who was visiting Calcutta, arranged for Daud to travel to Berlin where he has been living in exile since 1985. His pitiful appeals for permission to visit Bangladesh have been spurned by Sheikh Hasina repeatedly.

Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja happened much later in 1993. She has been more fortunate in finding refuge in India, unlike others who fled, or were forced to leave, Bangladesh to save their lives from Islamist fury. Humayun Azad’s name comes to mind. I am also reminded of how Bangladesh’s Censor Board blocked Tareque Masud’s Matir Moina (Clay Bird), a film on the Liberation War, lest it upset the mullahs and their foot soldiers.

My father, who spent his boyhood near Dhaka, once told me how Muslim children in his class, if asked what’s their favourite fruit, would not mention either the local mango or jackfruit, both available in abundance and popular among Bengalis, but promptly reply ‘Iraqer Khazur‘ (dates of Iraq). I recall reading a similar story recounted by Nirad C Chaudhuri; others have penned it too. We can therefore presume that it was a prevalent choice, an option exercised by faith and not preference.

Three score and ten years later, Iraq has been atomised, almost, by the newly risen Islamic State. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Islamic State loyalists and admirers who subscribe to its ideology of death and destruction, pop up here, there and everywhere. It’s not surprising that the Islamic State should have claimed to have killed most of the bloggers, writers, professors, activists, foreigners and kafirs like Hindus, Shias and Sufis in Bangladesh. The other two claimants are Ansar-al-Islam and Ansarullah Bangla Team, both affiliated to Al Qaeda. After all, as Sheikh Hasina’s Ministers keep pointing out, Bangladesh is a “90 per cent Muslim country.”

The brutal killing of well-known writer and blogger Avijit Roy, founder of Mukto-Mona and an atheist known for his trenchant criticism of Islamic fanaticism, on February 26, 2015 at Dhaka University caught the world’s attention. His wife Bonya Ahmed narrowly escaped death. Yet, this targeted killing was not the first; it followed several other attacks. On January 15, 2013, Asif Mohiuddin, a “militant atheist” was stabbed in Dhaka. The same night Ahmed Rajib Haider, also an atheist and a popular young blogger, one of the organisers of the Shahbag Movement, was murdered in Dhaka. There was an attack on Sunnyur Rahman, anti-Jamaat activist on March 7, 2013. Shafiul Islam, professor of sociology at Rajshahi University, was killed on November 15, 2014. His killers said he was ‘punished’ for prohibiting the hijab and the burqa, both of which have largely replaced the Bengali sari, in his department.

After Avijit Roy’s grisly murder, the targeted killings have gathered pace. On March 30, 2015, activist blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman was killed in Dhaka. He was known for campaigning against “irrational religious beliefs”. Ananta Bijoy Das, an atheist writer who blogged on Mukto-Mona, was killed on May 12 in Sylhet. Niladri Chattopadhyay Niloy, better known as Niloy Neel, a blogger at Mukto-Mona, was killed on August 7, 2015. Roy’s publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, was killed on October 31, 2015. Nazimuddin Samad, an activist who was promoting secularism in Bangladesh, was shot dead on April 6, 2016. Rezaul Karim Siddique, professor of English at Rajshahi University, was killed on April 23, 2016. The latest killings, apart from that of a Hindu tailor, a Hindu priest, a Sufi leader and Shias praying in a mosque, are those of Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Tanay Majumder, gay rights activists. They were hacked to death on April 25, 2016.

Early last year Islamists had circulated a hit list of 84 people who they said “deserved to die” for their utterances and writings. Many on the list have gone into hiding. Some have sought and secured shelter in Canada and Europe. But that does not mean they are safe. “We will hunt you down wherever you are,” is the chilling message to them. Imran Sarkar, a blogger on the run, recently told BBC that he received a death threat from Europe. Which only goes to show that the killers in Bangladesh have external linkages.

A scrutiny of the profiles of the dead men (as well as those on the hit list) would show they had three things in common. Most of them were atheists; all of them were critical of Islamism and its attendant manifestations; and, they had defied the pronounced shift towards Islamisation of Bangladeshi society and polity. Barring a few arrests, the killers remain at large. The Government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina refuses to acknowledge that it has a problem and, more important, Bangladesh faces a frightening future unless the slide into radical Islam is halted.

Ironically, Sheikh Hasina has been relentless in bringing Mujib’s assassins and the collaborators of 1971 to trial. Mujib’s killers have been executed. Four collaborators of 1971, including three senior functionaries of Jamaat-e-Islami, have been sent to the gallows for war crimes. The Supreme Court has just upheld the death sentence given to Motiur Rahman Nizami, the Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami. Bringing the Razakars to book is really about defanging the Jamaat.

As a consequence, a confusing picture has emerged that raises the question: why have Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League Government failed to stop the targeted killings by Islamists of a certain persuasion (or persuasions) while ruthlessly punishing Islamists of a particular hue? Are the whispered allegations of the Awami League Government going easy on the killers, many of whom have been identified, then true? Is what we are seeing a considered decision to pander to one set of Islamists while going after another lot? If there is any substance to this widely held view then Bangladesh is in for tough times, cruel days.

The BBC asked blogger Imran Sarkar, who moves from safe shelter to safe shelter, never spending more than a couple of nights at the same place, whether he is afraid. Sarkar replied that he was “not frightened” for his personal safety. “I am frightened”, he said, “for my country. Not for my individual security but for my national security.”

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