Bangladesh’s Liberal Democracy At Stake – Analysis


By Rupak Bhattacharjee*

Islamist violence does not seem to abate in Bangladesh. In a horrific attack on October 31, a 43 year-old publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipan, was hacked to death in central Dhaka’s Shahbag area, the hub of publishers and writers and it is also near the venue of the historic Shahbag Movement. In another terrifying attack on the same day at a another publishing house, three people—its owner Ahmedur Rashd Choudhury Tutul, writer Ranadipam Basu and blogger Tareque Rahim were grievously injured.

The country is currently facing a sharp rise in Islamist violence with four ‘atheist’ bloggers brutally murdered this year. In the last six weeks, Bangladesh has also been rocked by the killing of two foreign development workers and bombing of Dhaka’s main Shiite mosque resulting in the death of two people. Reports suggest that one more publisher named Farid Ahmed, who owns “Somoy Prakashan”, received death threat from anas obscure group called Al-Ahrar just a day after Dipan’s murder. Ahmed was told that he had committed “enough sins” by publishing books of atheist writers and deserves death punishment.

The latest violent assaults were meticulously planned by Islamic hardliners to silence the ‘secular-rationalist’ voices of Bangladesh. The two publication houses—“Jagriti Prokashoni” and “Suddhaswar”, owned by deceased Dipan and wounded Tutul, respectively, are known for bringing-out titles delving deep into Bangladesh’s secular-nationalist ideals and threats posed by growing Islamic radicalisation of the country. Both Dipan and Tutul were close to slain writer-blogger Avijit Roy and had published a number of his books.

Meanwhile, Ansar-al-Islam, an affiliate of al-Quida in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks, dubbing the victims “atheists” and “blasphemers”. The jihadi group considers the publishers “worse” than atheist writers as they help propagating blasphemous ideas. It has reportedly released a “hit list” of targets that includes writers, poets, intellectuals, newspaper or magazine editors, reporters and actors. Thus, Bangladesh is likely to witness more bloodshed and turmoil in the coming weeks.

The unabated violence targeting the secular forces has evoked strong reactions from a large segment of the Bangladeshi society—publishers, writers, teachers, student organisations and cultural activists. They demonstrated in Dhaka and elsewhere condemning killing and attack on writers and publishers and demanding punishment for the perpetrators. The online activists, bloggers and prominent civil society members blamed the Awami League (AL) government’s apparent inaction for the sudden rise in Islamist violence.

The AL government’s reluctance to turn the tide of Islamic radicalisation in Bangladesh has become the dominating feature of Dhaka’s political discourse these days. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan’s terming of the grisly murder of Faisal Dipan as an “isolated incident” and his observation that similar attack does occur in other countries have further infuriated the country’s civil society, especially the intelligentsia. While participating in a protest rally, the Dhaka University professors asked the incumbent home minister to resign for his failure to prevent systemic killing of free thinkers.

The AL government insists that the overall law and order situation of the country is “good” and considers the rising attack on secular-nationalist groups as the handiwork of the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami—the epicentre of religious extremism in the country. However, many Bangladeshi political observers are not ready to buy these ‘convictions’ of the ruling party.

The slow pace of investigations into the killing of four bloggers, numerous violent assaults on journalists, writers, online activists and eminent persons belonging to religious and ethnic minority communities are alienating the country’s civil society from the Sheikh Hasina government which hardly misses an opportunity to wax eloquence on its secular credentials. It may be noted that like Avijit, Dipan too was son of a retired university professor. The seemingly unending lethal attacks on the family members of university professors who form the bedrock of the Bangladeshi intelligentsia is a matter of serious concern in the context of the future of the country’s hard earned democracy.

The Islamic fanatics’ relentless attacks on bloggers, writers and publishers highlights rising religious intolerance and diminishing space for freedom of thought and expression in Bangladesh. Besides, these acts clearly manifest the widening of ideological schism between the secular-nationalists and orthodox religious groups and growing polarisation of the polity. Taking advantage of this deepening ideological cleavage within Bangladesh, the dreaded international terror groups like al-Quida and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been making forays into this politically volatile South Asian nation.

The country’s independent thinkers and writers are currently passing through a turbulent phase. According to the recent reports, scores of writers, online activists and journalists are hesitant to publish their work which may draw the Islamists’ attention. The bloggers’, whose names appeared in the hit-list of 84 “atheists”, are living in a state of fear. Most of them are receiving death threats on social networking sites with disturbing regularity. The online activists and writers claim that they have been confronting “Facebook terrorism” for the past several months. Fearing for their lives, many of them have either fled Bangladesh or sought asylum in Western countries.

It appears that the sheer barbarity displayed by the Islamic militants in annihilating their ‘ideological foes’ has made even the most vocal sections of the Bangladeshi society jittery. The rightist BNP, which is looking for a comeback to power, has remained totally silent on the issue of secular writers’ killing, apprehending adverse reaction from the Islamist Jamaat—its old political ally.

The attitude of the ruling AL is not encouraging either. The government has been criticised by many for not preventing such ghastly attacks on the freedom of expression and secularism from taking place in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi intelligentsia believes that the AL government lacks the political will needed to address the security concerns of the nation’s many activists and writers for the fear of being branded as “atheist” by its detractors. But the government’s ambivalence has undoubtedly emboldened the religious extremists to pursue their extermination campaign with ruthless determination.

In a highly politicised society like Bangladesh the possibility of the Islamist parties, most notably Jamaat, covertly supporting such attacks and killings or taking mileage out of them cannot be ruled out completely. The AL leaders have noted on several of occasions that the vicious assaults on secular writers are politically designed to destabilise the country. But strangely enough, the major political parties avoid addressing the question of religion’s role in the polity, calling it sensitive and sentimental.

Both the AL and BNP have been engrossed in a bitter political rivalry ignoring the increasing religious intolerance in the country. Such misplaced priority of the two power contenders has indirectly facilitated Islamic militants’ diabolic plans to wipe out the outspoken critics of religious fundamentalism one by one from the soil of Bangladesh.

Considering the gravity of the prevailing situation, it is imperative that the Hasina government initiates comprehensive measures to contain Islamic radicalisation of the society. The AL government can not lower the guard as proliferation of jihadi activities poses direct threat to peace, security, democracy and secular ethos of the Bengali nation.

*Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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