Bangladesh under Blasphemy Law: Witnessing Horror in Father’s Dream Land

By: Rumana Hashem

Waking up at four o’ clock in the morning to 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 to be 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, harmonious LGBT rights activists, of Muslim and Hindu background, every free thinker and believer of secularism has been living under blasphemy and death threats in a so called independent nation-state, namely Bangladesh. The year 2015 was a nightmare while the year 2016 takes us to even more disturbing episodes of double-murders of harmonious rights activists in residence in a supposedly secular state.

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 broad day light in the publicly accessible street in Rajshahi, a town was previously known as relatively secular and progressive, in north Bangladesh.  Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique was killed one day after Friday when a Hindu-devotee was murdered at Tungipara.  Additionally 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 was 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. 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, are frequently committed and go unnoticed. This is happening in a country for which many of our fathers and uncles fought by ignoring families and personal life for months, to free Bangladesh from the hostility of the far right and the 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.

We do not yet know the exact methods of how the hundreds of killings mentioned in the daily Kaler Kantho were committed though there is little doubt that at least five brutal murders were committed by religious extremists in the month of April. 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, these are rather organised attacks on civic-minded and secular people who do not belong to any mainstream political party. Our commonly raised question is what are the authorities doing 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 free-thinkers and non-believers. While extremists were slaughtering humans and cutting throats of free-thinkers, 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 pledges, the blasphemy Act 57 remained active and is applied frequently in the name of peace and respect to the offended society and a nation-state which embraced blasphemy 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 at the 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 murders of LGBT rights activists. The brutality of the killings is as vicious as unspeakable in each case.

Yet, the most appalling elements in this on-going tragedy are the attitude of government and the response of the 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 choses to play a 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 of war crime tribunal. When assailants were able to cut the throat of a peace-loving Professor at broad 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 uninformed as to call the murders as ‘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 don’t 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 the question arises why then would the CID struggle to identify the fanatics who were capable of slaughtering a teacher at broad day light in the street? How is it possible for the Jamaat-BNP allies to commit such brutal murders in the presence of a government in an independent state? These questions were never fully addressed by government officials. Rather, the 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 be committed, torture would continue, atrocity and silencing of people by religious fanatics would persist, brutal murder would be embraced by enacting blasphemy laws, well-known network of criminals would be safeguarded, and freedom of expression would be denied as it has been in past few years. Despite strong protest nationally and internationally, the misogynist policy of government enacted the blasphemy Act 57 which has been frequently applied to suppress voices and blame victims in the name of peace and respect to the offended society. Bangladesh’s Home Minister appreciates, however, that the network of Jihadis is a ‘home-grown extremist’ grouping which has been growing under the Awami League regime. 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. Indeed, the Jamaat-e-Islami leader and a convicted war criminal, Chowdhury Mueenuddin, is one of those who were found in direct involvement in ISIS in 2014.  Hence, it would be no surprise if the ‘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 that 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 and pro-Awami League civil society 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 wake 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 anti-racist grassroots organising and community activism in women’s rights, minority rights, worker’s rights and environmental movements. 

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