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Bangladesh: Hacking Free Thinking To Death – Analysis

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By Smruti S. Pattanaik

On 12 May 2015, Bangladesh witnessed the murder of the third blogger in less than a month. The three killed so far are part of a list of 84 liberals that Bangladeshi fundamentalists have identified for elimination. The latest victim was Anant Bijoy Das, a blogger and the organiser of Sylhet city’s Gonojagoron Mancha – a liberal platform that emerged during the Shahbag movement. Das was a contributor to a local publication Jukti. He had also contributed to Mukto-mona, which was founded by the US born Avijit Roy. Roy too was earlier hacked to death in a similar fashion on 26 February 2015 for his criticism of Islam and for highlighting certain prejudices associated with that religion. Subsequently, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman, who was critical of religion and had posted on his Facebook page — “I am Avijit, words cannot be killed” after Roy’s killing— was also hacked to death in broad daylight on 30 March. Whereas in the case of Rahman’s killing the culprits were caught red handed by passers-by, there has not been any progress in Avijit’s case except for the arrest of a suspect, Farabi Shafiur Rahman, a fundamentalist who had issued a threat to Avijit but who is yet to be charged.

Recurring Attacks

Though these three cases in less than three months demonstrate a pattern, the killing of individuals engaging in ‘riddah or irtidad’ (apostasy) and “tauheen-e-risalat” (blasphemy) by fundamentalists in not new:

  • Poet Shamsur Rahman was targeted in 1999 by the Harakat ul Jihadi Islami (HuJi) for his writings.
  • Writer Taslima Nasreen, well-known author of “Lajja”, was hounded out of the country.
  • Writer Humayun Azad was attacked for his satirical novel ‘Pak Saar Jamin’ in 2004.
  • Rajib Haider, a blogger, was hacked to death in front of his house in 2013 for posts that were considered offensive to Islam and its Prophet.
  • Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed in 2013 for similar postings in various websites.
  • Professor Shafiul Islam of Rajshahi University was hacked to death in November 2014 for banning students from wearing the full-face veil in his class room and examination hall.

The Ansarullah Bangla Team 2 (ABT 2), which claimed responsibility for the killing of Professor Islam, wrote on its website that “Our Mujahideens have today murdered an apostate who had prohibited female students from wearing veils in his department and the classrooms.” Similar postings have appeared after the killings of Avijit and Ananta. Avijit’s killing was initially claimed by the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). But almost a month later, the Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for his murder. Thereupon, the twitter account of ABT 8 asked journalists to “Use#AQIS while reporting about the killing. Don’t use Ansar Bangla 8 again.” More on this later.

Political Silence

Bangladesh continues to be caught in an identity trap. The religious, linguistic and secular facets of its identity often come into conflict with one another. The fact that it is a Muslim majority country makes the task of political parties espousing secularism difficult. Electoral politics prevent them from taking a clear stance on the place of religion given the historical context of the country’s evolution. This ambiguity is reflected in the constitution, which professes secularism on one hand and acknowledges Islam as the state religion on the other. Therefore, even while participating in the Shahbag movement, a majority of Bangladeshis disapproved of what was being written in various blogs at the peak of the movement. Subsequent killings only reveal that fundamentalists were waiting to resurface and capitalise on the people’s anger against such bloggers.

The hacking of the three bloggers in full public view attests to the fact that Islamists are growing bolder by the day. Avijit was killed near a crowded footpath inside Dhaka University Campus during a book fair and in the presence of the police. Both Washiqur and Ananta were killed in broad day light. What is surprising is that the responses of the government and opposition parties have been rather muted. There has been no strong condemnation of these heinous killings. There were no protests or hartals to arrest the killers. Civil society groups could only organise a candle light march; and only token protests were organised by the Ganajagaran Mancha. Both the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have been cautious about not getting dragged into the controversy and into the fight between self-confessed atheists and self-defined believers. The Islamic political parties term anyone who criticises them and Islam as atheists or apostates who deserve to be killed (wajib-ul-qatl).

The Ganajagaran Mancha was formed as a platform for liberal secularist elements during the Shahbag movement. The anti-Islam blogs that appeared in the aftermath of this movement fuelled and fanned public anger. Conservative elements who were looking for an opportunity to register their political presence capitalised on popular anger to create a counter movement that caught the ruling party in a trap. The Ulemas and students of Hathazari madrassas that formed the core of Hefajat Islami, which was supported by Jamaat and the BNP, emerged as a counter force in the process by neatly dividing society into believers and non-believers. Panicked by the agenda of the Islamists, which ranged from the demand for a blasphemy law to implementation of the Sharia, the Hasina government blocked several blogs and arrested bloggers under the newly passed Information Technology Act. After jumping in to protect Islam from the blasphemers, the government now finds it impossible to take action against their murderers or even adopt measures to promote a culture of tolerance.

Reason for the Fundamentalist Revival

Three issues need to be flagged to understand the creeping culture of intolerance in Bangladesh. First, while the government has taken measures to control the activities of various militant Islamist groups, it has been unusually soft in its handling of the newly emergent vigilante groups, which could well morph into radical political outfits if they go unpunished for their unlawful acts. Thus, the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Hizbut Tahir have all been banned and counter-terrorism actions have been directed against these groups and their local allies. But at the same time, the government has been conspicuously inactive against vigilante groups such as the ABT, which claim that they are protecting Islam from blasphemers. The government’s reluctance to condemn the acts of the latter groups highlights the complexity of the issue.

Sheikh Hasina’s son Sajib Wajid Joy, who is also an adviser on Information and Communication Technology Affairs, even defended the government’s and the prime minister’s silence by stating that “the political situation in Bangladesh is too volatile for her to comment publicly” and that the government was “walking a fine line” and would “not want to be seen as atheists”. He further added that because the opposition plays the “religion-card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly…”1. For its part, the BNP exploited the opportunity by criticising the government for not protecting Avijit instead of the fundamentalists for killing him.

Second, the fundamentalist landscape remains diffuse. ABT-8 appears to be a fictitious name for ABT. Because, for previous killings, ABT-2 had claimed responsibility. But it could also mean that Ansarullah Bangladesh has various cells operating in specific geographical areas and the numerical connotes a particular cell. In the Washiqur Rahman case, neither of the two killers was even aware of Rahman’s “offending” blog nor did they know how to even operate a Facebook account. Yet, both believed or were made to believe that it was their pious duty to kill Rahman in the name of Islam for his Facebook post. It seems that there is an apex team within ABT that is internet savvy, which prowls in cyber space to first identify targets and then eliminate them through willing faithfuls.

Third, Bangladesh’s political space has become intensely polarised especially after Jamaat office bearer Abdul Qader Molla made a “V” sign for victory when he was given a life sentence in February 2013. Fearing that the Awami League may have reached a political compromise with the Jamaat keeping in view the forthcoming elections, students and youth spontaneously took to the street demanding accountability in war crimes. This, in essence, was what the Shahbag movement was all about. Some of them took to cyber space to campaign against Islam and posted blasphemous remarks against its prophet, thus dividing the society in the middle. Later, when Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, one of the senior leaders of the Jamaat Islami, was sentenced to death on 28 March 2013, the Islamists, who were looking for an opportunity to mobilise a counter force for Shahbag, took to the street. A morphed picture of Sayeedi appearing in the moon, which symbolised that he was a representative of Allah, was also circulated in cyber space. This resulted in massive violence in which more than 100 people were killed.

Where is Bangladesh headed?

The liberal space is shrinking in Bangladesh because of many reasons: governmental apathy and inaction; the gradual erosion of the state structure through the politics of patronage; the undermining of the judiciary; restrictions on and persecution of the media; and the playing of the politics of religion. There is a strong likelihood that radicals may continue to target free-thinkers who are taking to cyber space for expressing their opinion. The Islamists are regaining lost ground by occupying the grey area between the so-called believers and non-believers.

But democracy can only be sustained through the propagation of liberal values like freedom of dissent. It is the prerogative of the state to decide when this liberty degenerates into licence. Therefore, it is the state and not the Islamists who can decide the quantum of punishment, if any, to be delivered. But with both political parties eager to placate Islamists and hesitant to condemn the perpetrators of crimes in the name of Islam, Bangladesh is slowly and surely moving towards a perilous future that threatens the foundational values on which the liberation war was fought and the state founded.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

1. See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2015/may/11/situation-too-volatile-comment-avijit-murder#sthash.jBzUBkZR.dpuf-

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/BangladeshHackingFreeThinkingtoDeath_spattanaik_210515.html

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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