Published on EPW March 21, 2015 vol l no 12 11
The daylight murder of Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka on 26 February reflects the culture of fear and intolerance that has built up in the country over the last few decades. As a result, the middle ground between the extremes has disappeared.
Returning home with your wife, from a book fair where you have been signing autographs, seems a peaceful enough activity. It was in the heart of the university area, and it was not late. The footpath next to Ramna Park, where the 1971 surrender document had been signed, was full of people. Shahbagh Police Thana was nearby, and a police barricade designed to keep visitors to the mela safe, was only a few yards away. Hardly the scene crime stories are made of.
On Thursday the 26 February 2015, days before the Ekushey Boi Mela (book fair) was ending, Avijit Roy, founder of the popular blog Mukto Mona (free thinker) and his blogger wife Rafida Ahmed Bonna, had been to the fair where they had autographed books. They were returning home at around 9:30 pm in a cycle rickshaw, a common mode of transport in Dhaka. The couple had only just left the fair, when attackers emerged from the crowd, dragged them out of the rickshaw, hacked them with machetes and disappeared into the crowd again, leaving the bloodied murder instruments on the pavement. It happened near the Shahid Raju sculpture outside the Teacher Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University. The doctors at nearby Dhaka Medical College pronounced Avijit dead about an hour later. Bonna was seriously injured and lost a finger. The police recovered the bloodied machetes and the missing part of the finger at the site.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), known for their ‘crossfire’ killings have announced the arrest of Farabi Shafi ur Rahman in connection with Roy’s death. According to State Minister for Home Affairs, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, another person has also been arrested in connection with the murder of Avijit. Farabi had made death threats to Avijit on Facebook and Twitter, saying “It’s a holy duty of Bangalee Muslims to kill Avijit.” He had earlier been jailed for ties to the extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamist group. He had also been arrested in 2013 for social media comments that supported the murder of Rajib Haider but had been released on bail.
Avijit Roy was a mechanical engineer. He had a master’s and PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the National University of Singapore. His father, Ajit Roy is a retired professor of physics and a recipient of the prestigious Ekushey Padak. A US citizen, Avijit lived in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and daughter Trisha Ahmed. The couple maintained an active interest in their native Bangladesh. Roy was a passionate supporter of free expression and wore his heart on his sleeve, openly declaring he was an atheist and coordinating international protests against government censorship and the imprisonment of fellow bloggers. The couple used their site as a receptacle for free thinkers, humanists and atheists. Avijit and Bonna had come to Dhaka on 16 February 2015.
The murder had taken place close to where another prominent freethinker, Humayun Azad, had been murdered in broad daylight in 2004. He too had been on his way back from Boi Mela. After another prominent blogger, Rajib Haider, had been assassinated in 2013 after a similar death threat, and a second blogger, Asif Mohiuddin, narrowly survived a further attempt, the government’s surprising response was to lock up the surviving blogger, despite doctors certifying that living in prison conditions could be lifethreatening for Asif. Extremists who had protested the viewpoint of the atheists needed to be appeased. Political expediency always came first.
The murder had obviously been well rehearsed. The police who were watching apparently thought it was a scuffle and decided not to intervene. Such scuffles are generally amongst cadres of the ruling party, often involving ‘transactional’ conflicts. Higher-ups are generally involved and the police know better than to interfere. Others who were nearby, did nothing either. The culture of fear that has crept into the Bangladeshi psyche has resulted in their natural instincts being curbed. They fear the mastaans that rule the streets. Knowing that the police will not protect them also makes them more vulnerable. Why get caught up in such matters?
Culture of Fear
The culture of fear has wider implications too. With ‘crossfires’ and ‘disappearances’ being tacitly supported by the government; with high ranking politicians and other law enforcement authorities endorsing ‘shoot to kill’ policies; with dissenters of any form feeling the full weight of the judiciary and the executive weighing down on them; with prominent politicians of all parties reduced to becoming sycophants and servile followers, the only ones empowered are the law enforcers themselves. Top-ranking police officers have openly stated “we have brought this government to power.” Clearly they feel (and act) that it is time for payback. The government used and abused them when times were rough, as accounts are being drawn up; it is ‘quid pro quo’ time.
The opposition is not free from such culture. The blatant attacks on the public, some real, some planted, have killed and maimed far too many people. While the remarkable resilience of the Bangladeshi people, which has allowed the nation to function, has to be admired, the toll the violence is taking on all aspects of public life cannot be ignored. Unable to demonstrate any constructive plan for public engagement, the opposition has been reduced to the much-overused back-to-back hartals, which has effectively become a spent force as traffic jams during hartals testify. The unrest still affects business, and more importantly takes lives, but this ‘power at all cost’ approach by the politicians has created the wider malaise in public behaviour. Getting on with one’s life appears to be all that people are capable of. Standing up for another, looking out for the greater good, working towards a better nation, is no longer on anyone’s agenda. A disenchanted youth have no leaders to look up to. Joining the political cadre, or leaving for foreign lands, appears to be the most attractive option.
It is with this lens that the attack on Avijit Roy has to be viewed. It is the weakness; rather almost complete absence of political ideology that has created space for extremist parties. The extremists are well funded, better organised and more motivated than the larger parties that have little to offer besides rhetoric, political patronage and the profits that might bring. Student politics has had a glorious past in Bangladesh. The language movement, the liberation movement, and most of the progressive trends in our culture have evolved from dedicated visionary movements that had emerged through student politics. University student elections are a thing of the past. Senate elections are a mere rubber stamp. The major political parties themselves have never swayed from internal dictatorial rule. It is within such entrenched environments that free thinkers like Avijit Roy have tried to create space. They have questioned the status quo, looked for alternatives, pointed to stark injustice.
Their atheist tag made them easy targets for fundamentalists, but only because no robust structure existed for supporting free thinkers. No major party was prepared to recognise the intrinsic merit of the critique that these bloggers presented. No entity was prepared to implement a single constructive action that could bring about the changes they advocated. When the Mukto Mona blog that Roy had founded was nominated for the best blog in the Best of Blogs (BOBs) award in 2014 in Berlin, there was no congratulatory nod from the establishment. As a jury member, I was surprised that a nation that is so jingoistic about the smallest wins by its citizens was so conspicuously silent about this international recognition.
Despite being the third largest Muslim state in the world (after Indonesia and Pakistan; India has more Muslims than Bangladesh, but is not a Muslim state), Bangladesh has been significantly different in its religious outlook. Secularism was one of the pillars of its constitution and everyday practice and rituals draw enormously from Hindu culture. Saudi Arabia only recognised the country after the assassination, in 1975, of its founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is argued that the death of Mujib opened up the gates to greater Islamisation.
President Ziaur Rahman who took over had made three changes to the constitution in 1977, removing secularism being the principal one, moving the country more towards an Islamic state. General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, in trying to consolidate power, completed the process, making Islam the state religion in 1988. The Awami League has promised a return to the 1972 constitution but the phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim brought in as part of Zia’s amendment remains in the preamble. No politician wants to make too many waves. Other geopolitical forces were also at play. The birth of Bangladesh relied heavily on the support of India and Russia. The US, in accordance with its Cold War policy, also used Islam as a bulwark in its fight against communism. Not only did it support Pakistan in 1971, despite the clear knowledge of its genocidal acts, but also gave tacit support to the shift towards Islam in the 1980s as it preferred pro-Western Islamists to pro-communist social democrats. The Bangladeshi Islamists found themselves on the other end of the fence to the US only after its clear support for Israel and India after the dissolution of the Cold War, and later after 9/11 when Islam was more clearly defined as an enemy. By then, much of the damage had been done.
The trial of the war criminals of 1971, introduced another complication. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) is a tribunal set up in 2009 to investigate and prosecute suspects for the genocide committed in 1971 by the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators, Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams.
As part of its election manifesto, the Awami League, had pledged to establish the tribunals in response to long-standing calls for trying war criminals. Though the Pakistanis who had committed the crimes were beyond reach, the first indictments against local collaborators were issued in 2010.
The trial itself led to complications. While the nation was mostly united in wanting the criminals to be tried, there were those who opposed capital punishment, which was the popular choice. There was also the concern that in the haste to try the perpetrators, shortcuts to the legal procedures could undermine the credibility of the trials, thereby jeopardising the court itself. Such concern was interpreted as a leaning towards the Islamists. In a deeply-polarised space, the middle ground had quickly eroded. While the accused were clearly seen as being guilty by the general public, the fact that some collaborators had changed colour and were now part of the ruling coalition worried others. But this was not a time for such subtleties. The battle lines had again been drawn. Jamaat-e-Islami bore the brunt of the trials. The refusal to issue a death sentence to one of the accused led to such large resistance through the Shahbagh movement, that the government felt it had to reverse the judgment and found creative ways to do so. Few spoke out. It was not the right time to raise questions about the rule of law.
Islamic Forces Galvanised
The trials galvanised the Islamic forces and a new entity, Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh, formed out of thin air in 2010 and soon made its presence felt, through violent action in Chittagong. They popped up again in 2013 and arranged a march to Dhaka to challenge the Shahbagh movement. Their 13-point demands included: execution of so-called atheist bloggers; demand of blasphemy law; ban on the mixing of men and women in public; and declaring the Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslim.
Successive violent actions by Hefajate-Islam in April and May 2013 caused mayhem. Many were killed on both government and extremist sides. While Hefajat actions were clearly unlawful, government actions were also questionable. Although plastered over, this remains a sore ready to burst.
Bangladeshi politics has many twists and turns. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in its last tenure had wanted to ensure its return to power by manufacturing over 11 million voters. It was clear to the Awami League that even the presence of a caretaker government would not ensure a fair election. Therefore it took to the streets, yet again bringing the nation to the brink of civil war. A military-backed caretaker government was eventually put in place (largely by the same Western nations that espoused democratic values). It was formed outside the constitutional provisions. It quashed fundamental civil rights, extended its tenure from 90 days to two years and reluctantly left, due to sustained public pressure at the end of its self-extended tenure. Many believe that the return of the Awami League to power was made through generous Indian support and with the clear understanding that the irregularities during the ‘caretaker’ rule would not be penalised. Such impunity has become a hallmark of the special form of democracy prevalent in Bangladesh.
Despite having vigorously campaigned for a caretaker government, once the Awami League realised that the caretaker system could not assure its continued rule, it decided to change the goalposts and used its absolute majority in Parliament to abolish the caretaker form of government. The BNP boycotted the election, but the Awami League went ahead anyway. This time it was the BNP’s turn to cry foul. While there was some moral validity to the BNP’s abstention, tactically it was left stranded by the onesided election. When it realised protestations would have little effect, it went on an agitation programme. With tables turned, it was now the Awami League, in almost copycat fashion, that unleashed the full force of the security forces upon the opposition, placing Khaleda Zia under virtual house arrest, incarcerating thousands of opposition workers, while continuing its suppression through extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The BNP on the other hand, had run out of ideas, and failed to put up a genuine resistance. With its workers on the run, many of its leaders arrested, it remained for the Jamaat to provide the muscle.
The Awami League was playing hardball and in no mood to take prisoners. The middle ground had long disappeared, the executive and the judiciary all had their marching orders and the rules were unambiguous. Only one person called the shots. With the weight of the establishment on one side and a hit and run opposition in the other, the Avijits of Bangladesh were caught in the middle. The only choice they had was to choose by whom they would be killed. As is apt for his name, by remaining unbowed, Avijit chose to live on.