Why Worry that Bangladesh has Ignored All Recent Blogger Deaths?

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Two months after the murder of Bangladeshi blogger Ananta Bijoy Das on May 12, 2015, the Bangladeshi government remains mum on addressing the issue. This silence comes despite enormous international shock over the crime committed upon the outspoken blogger, human rights activist, and writer at Mukto Mona, a secular Bangladeshi website that had been founded by Avijit Roy- another blogger who had been slain just earlier this year.

Ananta Das, courtesy Facebook.

Das, whose murder is the fourth in a series of blogger related deaths in Bangladesh in the past two years, was on his way to work at a bank in Sylhet, when he was chased by extremists carrying machetes. His death is exemplary of the kinds of prejudices played by systematic suppression of the economically disadvantaged in Bangladesh. Mere days before his murder, he had been rejected a visa at the Swedish Embassy in Bangladesh, to attend and speak at a conference hosted by Swedish PEN. While the literary community, with the likes of Margaret Atwood and Michael Augustin, joined in condemning the events, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina refrained from even commenting on the recent events.

While freedom of speech is promised by the country’s constitution, the word “blogger” has become synonymous with “blasphemers,” and Das’s death follows that of bloggers Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy- each hacked to death in broad daylight by extremists parading wrongly under the banner of Islam.

MOUNTING FUNDAMENTALISM

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2012 highlights how Islamic fundamentalist groups in the country reportedly gave the country’s leaders 84 names of blogger targets in the nation.

In such a political climate, what is the scope of democracy, when freedom of speech is purged so strongly and actively by faceless thugs. Isn’t it at once a symbol of the guerrilla warfare that has overtaken the country’s streets, as a result of opposition to the witchhunt propagated by the War Crimes Tribunal, which proposes to investigate war crimes pertaining to 1971, but without regard to present day abominations.

In a world where the edges of acceptable literature may be perceived to be promoted by blogs,  websites such as Mukto-Mona provide an unparalleled space in the political vacuum of Bangladeshi free thought, one where the internet became a refuge to discuss the secular political thoughts and beliefs of those who are on the ground.

While visiting my family in Bangladesh in August 2005, during summer break from college, I remember my family’s collective when 467 bombs went off all over the country. The result was the ominous announcement of a right-wing militia group in the country.

Yet, what is troubling is that while protesters take to the streets, the absolute silence on behalf of the Bangladeshi government, in addressing these current deaths, and in fact, the onslaught of violent demonstrations all through 2013, makes it clear to the innocent bystander that, secularity is fast becoming equated with something vulgar by the country’s institutional bureaucracy, and moreover, it is a threat that is so “blasphemous,” that silence is the only answer to a mounting problem- that the deaths of these bloggers could have been avoided.

_82926770_027153140-1Rafia Ahmed, Courtesy Reuters.

In recent days, I have been encouraged by the youth of Bangladesh taking to the streets in multiple attempts to counter the extreme police apathy on Bangladesh’s streets, when groups of women were sexually assaulted at the Ramna Park celebrations on April 14. In the same week that Ananta Das was murdered, the police were busy beating up protesters in neighbouring city Dhaka. Protesters marching in solidarity for women who were assaulted- protesters who chanted “Words cannot be killed.” As was the case of protecting feminine virtue, the police had a similar response to the Das death protestors: they beat up the protestors.

By going into one extreme or another, the Bangladeshi right wing perpetually uses the word blasphemers, inflated with “bloggers,” to curtail and sidestep their own transgressions, while vilifying honest and logical thinkers. In this case, the police has failed to protect those who need their protection, and have done so at the behest of upholding absolutely nothing- no democracy is protected, and no one is better off, as a result of the negligence perpetuated by those in control of the brute forces- whether they be on the side of the religious extremists, or the police officers perpetuating institutionalized violence, or both.

To assume that this Bangladeshi blogger should have his death be desecrated, is to accept that there is no space for religious freedom in Bangladesh.

Avijit Roy, courtesy of Facebook.

Rafia Ahmed, whose husband Avijit Roy was murdered in front of her this February, and who also lost a thumb in the fighting that followed, says, “This was well planned, choreographed — a global act of terrorism. But what almost bothers me more is that no one from the Bangladesh government has reached out to me. It’s as if I don’t exist, and they are afraid of the extremists. Is Bangladesh going to be the next Pakistan or Afghanistan?”

WHY THESE DEATHS ARE TRULY TROUBLING

Bloggers tell you the truth as it is, and at this moment, the risk of Bangladesh becoming another failed Islamic state is more than troubling- it could very well be a reality. Bloggers are important because unlike structured newspapers in Bangladesh which pay homage to either one of Bangladesh’s political parties, they are not usually filtered by the politics of the publications they write for. They are not censored by government sponsored news channels. And in Bangladesh, they put their lives at risk to tell you how horrifying the turns towards fundamentalist politics in the country actually is.

As someone who has repeatedly had my secular beliefs questioned with the intonation that I should shut up if I want to live, I found blogging to be the release in a context where I had no other avenue to be honest about how I feel.  I’ve had people writing and thanking me for this honesty, and yet, I have been banned from religious Facebook groups because my articles were “controversial,” and I reached a point in mid-2013, when for ten days in the country, I could only access my website through a proxy server.

Bloggers help further the conversations that occur on the fringe. They do this because they are willing to risk their status to have conversations that no one else is even able to speak about.

The truth is, the future of Bangladesh’s secular politics is dwindling, in no short part because of the refusal of the ruling political powers to hold free and fair elections, or the international community, in allowing the mock non-elections for the Prime Ministerial seat, to slide. Worse is that in the recent mayoral elections of 2015, polling booths closed at 10.37 AM in Dhaka, mere hours after they even opened.

In this climate of political suppression and extreme institutionalized complacency, an attack on a blogger is an attack on the scope of free speech, and the Bangladeshi government should be held accountable for their gross violations in upholding freedom of speech.

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Raad Rahman
Raad hails from Bangladesh via way of the Indian Himalayas. As a writer, Raad draws on her extensive experience as a children's rights and communications expert. She has lived and worked in six countries across three continents. Raad's writing regularly appears in international media outlets, including UNICEF, Global Voices Online, and Al Jazeera. Raad is the founder and publisher of popular blog Wonder Sonder, She has authored two novels, Framed Butterflies (2005), and Behind Closed Doors (2002), and is currently at work on her third novel. Her work has been translated into five languages. In 2013 Harvard's Kennedy School named her as an Emerging Leader, in recognition of her innovative approaches to addressing human rights issues worldwide. You can follow her on Twitter @rad_rahman

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