Free thinking in Bangladesh is equivalent to tightrope walking in the recent years, with cases of bloggers and publishers being hacked to death brutally in public. On the 7th of April, Nizamuddin Samad, a postgraduate student at Jagannath College in Dhaka was attacked with machetes and shot at when he was returning home from the university by a group of three or four people. He is the sixth secularist writer or blogger to be killed in Dhaka within a span of 14 months. The student community took to the streets of Dhaka following the murder and staged protests against the silencing of free-thinkers. Nizamuddin wrote extensively on issues like the punishment of war criminals, religious fundamentalism, rights of women and other socio-religious and socio-political issues in Bangladesh.
Protesters condemning the murder of Nizamuddin Samad in Dhaka.
Ansar-al-Islam, the Bangladesh wing of al Qaeda in the subcontinent or AQIS has claimed responsibility for the murder. Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan with his desperate attempt at neutrality gave a clear indication that the fundamentalists are appeased by a section of the government. Condemning the brutalities inflicted on writers, he stated that no-one has the right to attack religious leaders in the country. According to a blogger named Cherbak (name changed for security), majority of the intellectuals, artists and scholars are keen on saving their necks, steering clear of troubles. Cherbak has been forced to flee from his country after being threatened repeatedly.
Bangladesh has never been tolerant of avant-garde writers and thinkers. Over the years, renowned writers like Taslima Nasrin, Shamsur Rahman or Humayun Azad have been threatened by dogmatic adherents of Islam. The bloggers and social activists played a decisive role in the Shahbag protests in 2013, demanding the death penalty of Abdul Quader Molla, a war criminal of the Bangladeshi War of Independence. The Jamaat-e-Islami party, of which Quader Molla was a member condemned the death sentence and began to launch attacks on the ‘adversaries of Islam’. The aggression and discontent snowballed into a mass killing spree in course of time.
In February 2013, when the Shahbag protests had reached its high, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was butchered near his residence in Dhaka. In the same year, Anasarullah Bangla Team, a group which is held responsible for the serial murders declared a hit-list of 84 bloggers who stand for secular politics. Writer and blogger Avijit Roy was stabbed to death on his way back home from a book fair in Dhaka in February 2015. Avijit was the founder of a blog called ‘mukto-mona’ which acts as a platform for expressing opinions on social, political and religious issues. Roy had been receiving threats and warnings from the Islamic fundamentalists since his birth as a critique of religious dogma and fanaticism. A citizen of The United States, Roy braved the threats and attended the book fair in Bangladesh, only to be a victim of blood-thirsty extremists. His wife Rafid Ahmed Banya survived her injuries and on being asked why secularists are repeatedly targeted in Bangladesh, she put the blame on the popular credo in Bangladesh, where criticizing Islam can get someone killed.
In March 2015, yet another blogger Oyasiqur Rahman was killed in a similar fashion. Oyasiqur expressed his apathy towards irrational religious practices in his writings. Ananta Bijoy Das, who wrote blogs on Avijit’s Mukto-Mona was hacked to death in Sylhet in May 2015. Niladri Chatterjee, a blogger who wrote under the pen-name Niloy Neel was stabbed in his own flat in Dhaka on the 6th of August 2015.
Till date, the Bangladesh government has only succeeded in issuing a death penalty for two students who were complicit in the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider. With the machete-wielding tyrants roaming scot-free, the government has failed to track them down and reinstate safety and security in the country. A country that grew out of her people’s passion and reverence for the native language, the question of fundamental rights in Bangladesh has never ceased to be problematic. The constitution of Bangladesh defines Islam as the state religion despite the fact that the country has a sizeable Hindu minority. Ironically, the constitution also includes a clause which promises to safeguard the ‘principles of secularism’. The Sheikh Hasina government has been criticized of appeasing the fundamentalists for electoral benefits. Freedom of speech is in the process of dying in Bangladesh, where violence and brutality reign supreme. In this country ravaged by religion, even the wind bears the stench of blood.
WRITTEN BY: Samyabrata Das