By S. Binodkumar Singh*
Disturbingly, since the beginning of the 2016, nine intellectuals/activists/secularists/ alleged ‘apostates’/ ‘blasphemers’ have been killed across Bangladesh by suspected Islamist terrorists. The incidents of killing are as follows:
On April 30, 2016, a Hindu tailor, identified as Nikhil Joardar (50), was hacked to death at his tailoring shop in the Dubail area under Gopalpur upazila (sub-District) of Tangail District. On April 25, 2016, Xulhaz Mannan (35), editor of Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first ever Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) magazine; and his friend Samir Mahbub Tonoy (25) were hacked to death in their flat in the Kalabagan area in Dhaka city, the national capital. Before that, on April 23, 2016, A.S.M. Rezaul Karim Siddiquee (58), a Professor of English at Rajshahi University, was killed with sharp weapons while he was waiting for University transport at the Battola intersection in Rajshahi city. On April 6, 2016, Nazimuddin Samad (28), a blogger and an activist of Gonojagoron Mancha (People’s Resurgence Platform), who used to campaign for secularism on Facebook and was critical of radical Islamists, was killed by suspected Islamist terrorists in Old Dhaka city’s Sutrapur area. Again, on March 22, 2016, Hossain Ali (65), a freedom fighter who converted to Christianity from Islam 17 years ago, was hacked to death with sharp weapons while he was walking on the road beside his house in the Garialpara area of Kurigram District. March 14, 2016: Abdul Razzaq (45), a homoeopathic medicine practitioner and follower of the Shia form of Islam for over 20 years, was hacked to death with sharp weapons while he was heading back to his village in Jhenaidah District. While on February 21, 2016, Jogeswar Dasadhikari (50), a Hindu priest at Sri Sri Shonto Gaurio Temple in Debiganj upazila (sub-District) of Panchagarh District was killed by slitting his throat, on January 7, 2016, Chhamir Uddin Mandal (85), a homoeopathy doctor who had converted to Christianity in 1993 was killed inside his dispensary in Jhenaidah District.
Significantly, out of the nine murders in 2016, Islamic State claimed responsibility for six, including the murders of Nikhil Joardar, A.S.M. Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, Hossain Ali, Abdul Razzaq, Jogeswar Dasadhikari and Chhamir Uddin Mandal. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Islam (Sword of Islam), the purported Bangladesh branch of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed ‘credit’ for the twin murders of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy; and Nazimuddin Samad.
Six secular bloggers and publishers had been hacked to death by Islamist extremists in 2015 for their alleged position ‘against Islam’. They were Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rehman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Neel, Faisal Arifin and Mashiur Rahman. Three pirs (revered religious instructors, usually of Sufi orientation) and one attendant were also killed by Islamist extremists in 2015, for their ‘deviant’ religious ideology. The pirs killed included Muhammad Khijir Khan, Hazrat Moulana Mohammad Salahuddin Khan Bishal and Rahmat Ullah. Bangladesh was also stunned by the killing of two foreign nationals in 2015, including Japanese national Hoshi Kunio on October 6 in Rangpur District and an Italian charity worker, Cesare Tavella on September 28 in Dhaka city. The Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT, Volunteers of Allah Bangla Team), a purported affiliate of al-Qaeda, claimed the killing of all six bloggers while Islamic State claimed the killing of two foreigners. The rest of the killings remained unclaimed.
In 2014, four persons were killed under similar circumstances. Ansar al-Islam claimed all the killings. 12 persons had been killed in 2013, when the trend of targeting secularists took an alarming turn since after the Shahbagh Movement of February 2013, which sought the death penalty for War Criminals of the 1971 genocide, most of whom were linked with the Islamist extremist formations. In an almost immediate reaction, on February 15, 2013, Ahmed Rajeeb Haider, an activist of Gonojagoron Mancha and secular blogger was hacked to death in front of his house in Pallabi, Dhaka city. The ABT had claimed responsibility for the killing.
In fact, the killing of intellectuals, ‘unbelievers’ and ‘deviants’ can be traced back to the genocide of 1971 when the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and its terrorist activists in groups such as Al-Shams and Al-Badar were involved in the systematic slaughter of nationalist intellectuals, activists, writers and academics in Bangladesh. However, the current cycle of Islamist terrorist violence against critics of Islam and ‘deviants’ escalated after February 5, 2013, when the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2) set up on March 22, 2012, to speed up the War Crimes (WC) Trials, handed down life sentence to JeI Assistant Secretary General Abdul Quader Mollah, for crimes committed during the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. In the aftermath of the ICT’s verdict, a massive spontaneous protest erupted at a busy road junction in Shabagh, in the capital Dhaka. Over subsequent weeks, this “Shahbagh Movement” brought together secular political activists, women’s organizations, students, and religious minorities, all of whom called for the execution of all those responsible for the atrocities in 1971. Since then, terrorist attacks on so-called “atheists” have been accelerated in Bangladesh.
Initially, purportedly secular and atheist bloggers and writers were targeted, but the terrorists now appear to be widening the net. University Professor Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, killed on April 23, 2016, was not an atheist, but was involved with cultural activities which many hardline groups condemned as un-Islamic. Similarly, the killing of a gay rights activist and his friend in Dhaka city the day after the Professor was murdered is seen as further evidence that the terrorists are broadening their list of targets.
Principally, three terror formations have taken responsibility for the recent killings – ABT, Ansar al-Islam, and Islamic State. However, at the present juncture, no evidence of any transfer of resources, personnel or capabilities from Islamic State to the Bangladeshi groups purportedly acting in its name. The Bangladesh government has, in fact, denied any Islamic State presence in the country, and has blamed opposition parties for engineering the kilings. Accusing the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) clique of carrying out killings such as the Kalabagan double-murder, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on April 25, 2016, observed, “Everybody knows who were behind such killings. The BNP-Jamaat nexus has been engaged in such secret and heinous murders to destabilise the country. Having failed in their movement to foil the election, they’ve started secret killings. It’s not a matter of law and order… when the country is moving forward, such killings are being carried out in a planned way just to destabilise the country.” Similarly, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, while responding to a question in Parliament on April 25, 2016, without naming the opposition noted that a “vested quarter” is conspiring to destabilize the country by killing people, including bloggers and university teachers.
Indeed, the Hasina-led government has succeeded in minimizing the threat from Islamist terrorism since assuming power in 2009. Nevertheless, extremist religious formations opposing the government continue with their campaigns of harassment. While strong action by state agencies continues, it has at least occasionally been undermined by some unfortunate statements intended to appease the radical sections of society. Thus, on April 14, 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed observed, “We perform our religious rituals. But why should we tolerate anyone writing filthy words against our religion? I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our Prophet or other religions. I hope no one would write such filthy words.” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan on April 10, 2016, had similarly stated, “The bloggers, they should control their writing. Our country is a secular state… I want to say that people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything to hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders.”
Further, despite the lengthening list of victims, the police have made little progress relating to the investigations in any of these cases. Only in one case – the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajeeb Haider in 2013 – has a conviction been secured; no one has been punished for any of the other killings. Merely blaming the opposition parties and admonishing those who are fighting with the radicals with the ‘might of the pen’ may create more trouble in foreseeable future, unless effective investigations, prosecutions and enforcement action bring the extremist elements in Bangladesh to account.
*Dr. S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate at the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]