Rumana Hashem asks how the horrors of mob killing — including many unreported incidents — is destroying the social fabric of Bangladesh
Today marks the first anniversary of secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das, by four religious extremists on his way to office in the morning of 12 May 2015 in Sylhet, northeast Bangladesh. Ananta was murdered just hours after he posted online that “No one with a free mind can limit themselves within the walls of narrow-mindedness”. He was the third secular blogger killed last year.
An entire year has passed and no action to prosecute the perpetrators for this killing has been taken, other than arresting a couple of low rank Islamists without any apparent connection. While the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a notorious paramilitary “security” force, claimed to have arrested a regional commander of an extremist group Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in Dhaka last year, there is little or no evidence of real action to prosecute Ananta Bijoy Das’s murder. In this it is similar to most of the murders in this killing spree.
In the meantime, the nation of Bangladesh and the world have witnessed vicious murder of online activist Niladri Chatterjee, known as Niloy Neel, at his home in front of his wife, Asha Mone; the fierce murder of secular and harmonious publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipan; machete attacks on three others on the same day; the killing of a Police Officer in the same week; two brutal killings of devotees; the censorship of books in Ekushey Book Fair; the arbitrary arrest and torture of a secular writer; killing of an online activist by youths shouting “Allahu Akbar”; the slaughtering of a peace-loving Professor; and the double murder of LGBT rights activists. Despite worldwide outrage and protests across Bangladesh, the continuum of vicious killings grows under a blasphemy law, the ICT Act section 57, which silences believers of freedom of expression and free speech in Bangladesh.
Thus, waking up at four o’ clock in the morning with the horrific news of appalling murders of freethinkers and culture-minded citizens in the hands of fanatics at home is not a new phenomenon for many Diaspora Bangladeshis for the last few years. The grim events that began in early 2013 turned out as a systematic terror attack on all secularists in Bangladesh. Regardless of atheist, non-atheist, activist, blogger, academic, devotee, left and liberal writers, students, University teacher, publisher, LGBT rights activists, of Muslim and Hindu background, every freethinker and believer of secularism has been living under blasphemy and death threats in a so called independent nation state, called Bangladesh. The year 2015 was a nightmare, and the year 2016 has brought the multiple murders of peaceful activists and academics, living in a supposedly secular state.
Last month, the nation of Bangladesh has witnessed at least five murders, associated with hate crimes and religious violence. The month of April began with a tragic coal-shooting that left five people shot-dead in an anti-coal protest in Bashkhali, a location in southeast Bangladesh, which outraged the entire nation and shocked the international communities. When the nation was focused on Bashkhali-tragedy, a Gonojagoron Monch activist in the capital city needed to be killed, brutally, by organised assailants that did not only shock the nation but also diverted attention from Bashkhali to Dhaka, overnight. On Saturday the 23rd April, my mobile beeped at four a.m. GMT to wake me up with a shocking message that assailants were able to cut the throat of a peace-loving Professor at brought day light in the publicly accessible street in Rajshahi, a town was previously known as relatively secular and progressive in unprivileged north Bangladesh. Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique was killed one day after Friday when a Hindu-devotee was murdered at Tungipara. Then we have heard about three more brutal murders, including the double-murders of two harmonious LGBT rights activists and a retired prison guard who were killed in similar violent fashion by organised fanatics within two days in the capital city.
As if this is not enough, a report in the daily Kaler Kontho revealed that there were nearly 1500 murders in the last four months that went uncovered by national and international media. The published report shows that there were 307 killings in the month of March 2016 alone. The media, like almost everyone, it seems, is obsessed with hierarchy and so many people are just not recognised. Wicked murders, such as, the killing of Abdur Razzak, a fish farmer whose body was recovered this Tuesday in early morning from the railway station near Yasinpur in Natore, is frequently committed and went unnoticed. The report in Kaler Kontho refers to Bangladeshi sociologists, psychologists, human rights activists and criminologists who believed that these killings are penalty of a culture of violence, and feeding back to regenerate a culture of impunity. While the newspaper is hesitant to spell out, under the current situation of freedom of expression and restrictions on media reporting, these hundreds of killings are related to militarism, hate crimes and religious violence. The content of the report indicates that the murders happened because of lack of democracy in general. The media report also shows that these murders are resultant from arbitrary laws and blasphemy act which operate in different forms to serve different purposes of the various power holders.
This is happening in a country for which many of our fathers and uncles fought by ignoring families and personal life, for months. Our fathers have fought to free Bangladesh from the hostility of far rights and military in 1971. As a generation of war survivors, I ought to think how meaningless the fight of liberation has become under a regime, called, ‘pro-liberation’ Awami League. The daily Kaler Kantho has confused us by not mentioning the exact methods of how the hundreds of killings mentioned in the report were committed. The report seemed to suggest that we do not need to separate out the religious violence from those occurred by state security personnel and in domestic violence. But I say, we ought to identify the means, brutality and purpose of each killing if we believe in democracy of any kind. Although there are many killings that went unnoticed and unrecognised by the national and international media. Of those that were covered by media, at least five brutal murders in the month of April were committed by religious extremists to serve certain group of power holders, which demands full attention. These latest killings are wicked acts of connected – home-grown fanatics who may or may not be wearing labels of Ansarullah, Ansar-Al Islam, Jamaat-e-Islami or ISIS. While different weapons were used for and patterns of killings varied in the latest murders, it is difficult to say if the killers belong to the same group of Jihadis.
Nonetheless, they are the fundamentalists and religious fanatics. There is hardly any ground to believe that these are random or disconnected crimes other than organised attacks on civic-minded and secular people who did not belong to any mainstream political party. Our commonly raised question is what did the authority do to prevent such organised hate crimes across the country? How is this possible that government is unable to ensure security of people? Should we think that this regime is unable to control the state? It is not just Bangladeshis but also the entire world has witnessed how a government of a supposedly democratic and secular nation joined hands in silencing freethinkers and non-believers. While extremists were slaughtering humans and cutting throats of freethinkers, the government was busy putting the blame on either Jamaat-e-Islami or the victims, letting the real criminals walk free by enacting blasphemy Act 57. Under this law, extremists could cut anybody’s throats and run without being watched – let alone charged.
It was only in late 2015, following the vicious murder of publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan and an organised attack on three other atheist writers and publishers that the nation seemed to have come across an understanding that under the current law anybody could be slaughtered by extremists regardless of how humble and kind one is in terms of sensibility in an offensive culture. It was the first time that the Minister of Home Affairs looked slightly concerned or serious. Likewise, the deputy Minister of Law stated that government would take step to prevent such brutal killings from happening in the name of religion. Despite vague pledge, the blasphemy Act 57 remained active and applied frequently in the name of peace and respect to the offended society and a nation-state which embraced blasphemy law as a way to silence freethinkers. All that the nation has witnessed since the murder of Dipan include a fierce murder of a Police Officer in the same week, two brutal killings of devotees, ruthless censorship of books in Ekushey Book Fair, arbitrary arrest and torture of non-believer writer, killing of an online activist with Allahu Akbar slogan, the slaughtering of a peace-loving Professor, and double murder of LGBT rights activists. The brutality of the killings is as vicious as to unspeaking in each case.
Yet most appalling is that of the attitude of government and the response of those responsible authorities who should have acted promptly to prevent these heinous crimes. Instead of admitting the failure to ensure security of and justice to people, the government chose to play that very old trick and persists the same meta-narrative. That is, the ‘Jamaat-Shibir gangs’ are behind the murders, that a peace-loving Professor was killed to put the government into dilemma, that this is all about reprisal for the war crime tribunals. When assailants were able to cut the throat of a peace-loving Professor at brought day light in the publicly accessible street – after the world has witnessed the nightmare of systematic attacks on secularists in Bangladesh – the Home Minister appeared as usual to term the murders ‘random incidents’. On 25 April 2016, just hours before the double-murder of harmonious LGBT rights activists in their very own flat in a busy town in the capital city, the Home Minister went as far as to comment that the murder of Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique and the retired security guard are merely ‘random incidents’. We do not know what our Minister would do if his loved ones faced the same fate as those slain freethinkers or those killed in cross fire.
While Islamic State claims responsibility for the killing of our Professor, government rules out international terror links by suggesting that Bangladesh intelligence is fully aware of who are behind these crimes. This may sound hopeful. But question arises why would then CID struggle to identify the fanatics who were capable of slaughtering a teacher at brought day light in the street? How is it possible for the Jamaat-BNP ally to commit such brutal murders in the presence of a government in an independent state? These later questions were never fully addressed by government officials. Rather, government enforced blasphemy Act 57 which silenced many pro-liberation people who could have helped to identify the perpetrators and rebuild the nation. The government is hesitant to form an independent investigation team to identify the groups and network providing for the heinous crimes. Notably, the police and security services under this regime fail to make any real hollow in the extremist networks behind organised-heinous attacks for years.
It seems that crime against secular citizens would commit, torture would continue, atrocity and silencing of people by religious fanatics would persist, brutal murder would be embraced by enacting blasphemy law, well-known network of criminals would be safeguarded and freedom of expression would be denied as past few years. Bangladesh’s Home Minister appreciates that the network of Jihadis is a ‘home-grown extremist’ grouping which has been growing. This argument that the network of war collaborators including Jamaat-Shibir may be actively involved in the silencing of secularists across the nation is the one that needs attention. We should question how is our Minister so sure that the Jamaat-e-Islami and the ‘home-grown-extremists’ do not have any connection with Islamic State? The leader and a convicted war criminal, Chowdhury Mueenuddin, is one of those who were suspected to have involvement in ISIS by secularists in 2014. Hence, it would be no surprise if the so called ‘home-grown extremists’ serve as a branch of ISIS so as to destroy secular space in independent Bangladesh.
There is no doubt that an evil fundamentalist network is growing fast across the country, and committing vicious crimes being based in Bangladesh. This network is growing under the current regime – a government that enacted blasphemy act 57 and blames the victims letting the criminals walk free. Under this Act, the network of extremists can be safely growing in Bangladesh as is given a sense of security that they can carry out killings with impunity. The attitude of government has given birth of too many Jihadists in a state which stemmed from secularist ideology. It is the obsessive religious-Right that is being supported and given centre stage in the state by a misogynist regime who struggled to reconcile its opposition to war-crime with the need to stand up to reactionary Islamism and blasphemy acts. It is time that the government woke up to the heinous hate crimes and an attack on humanity that is posed by religious rights. It is possible to rebuild a secular state only if the government will recognise its responsibility to identify the network of fanatics and prosecute the criminals, including those that hide under the banner of pro-liberation.
Rumana Hashem is a Bangladeshi-born feminist-sociologist and a post-doctoral researcher, currently based in the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging in the UK. She has researched and published on ethnic cleansing and gendered violence, social movements for freedom of expression, and on secularism and the rise of hate crimes in Bangladesh. She is best known for grassroots organising and community activism in women’s rights, minority rights, worker’s rights and environmental movements.