Blogging for secularism

Blogging for secularism

A number of bloggers have been killed in Bangladesh in recent times for apparently trying to protect the cause of secularism. In a country where domestic politics is sharply polarised, these bloggers played an important role in mobilising public opinion in favour of war crime trials which is an effort to marginalise Islamist forces and prosecute their leaders for the crimes committed against the Bangladeshi population during its liberation war. In this continuing struggle between religious radicalism and secularism, it is the bloggers who have been targeted by the radicals, and unfortunately the state has found it difficult to come out openly to their defence.

The killings of bloggers began with the death of Rajib Haider of the Gano Jagaran Manch in February 2013. Subsequently, Abhijit Roy, a US naturalised citizen of Bangla-deshi origin, who was also the moderator of blogging site Mukto-Mona (free mind) was killed in February this year. His killing was followed by that of Washiqur Rahman in Dhaka in March. Rahman used a pen name and never used his photograph, still Islamists were able to track and kill him.

The latest to fall victim to Islamist violence has been Anant Bijoy Das who was attacked by masked men with machetes in Sylhet. Das was also writing blogs for Abhijit Roy’s blogging website and was a local organiser of the Gano Jagaran Manch. Meanwhile, the Islamists have also threatened Ananya Azad son of author Humayun Azad and Monir Hussain who is hiding in Dhaka.

The Gano Jagaran Manch had come into being as a result of the protest movement that had started in the wake of life imprisonment given to the Jamaat leader Abdul Quader
Mollah. The protestors were demanding his hanging. Subsequently, they also demanded a change in law so that it could be enabled to prosecute and ban organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. The government agreed to the demand of protestors and Abdul Quader Mollah was hanged and suitable changes were made in law to prosecute organisations involved in the war crime.

This protest movement reignited the liberation war spirit among the Bangladeshi population, a large section of which was born after its creation in 1971. These people, who had not seen the liberation war, suddenly became familiar with the sacrifices made by Mukti-Jodhas (freedom fighters) of Bangladesh and the atrocities committed by Jamaat and its ilk. This not only created a sudden upsurge in favour of secular forces of Bangladesh, but also  put Islamists and Jamaat on defensive.

In a sharply divided society like Bangladesh, the sudden rise in popularity of the Gano Jagaran Manch was not liked by the Islamist forces, who came together under the banner of Hifazat-e-Islam. Most of the followers of Hifazat–e-Islam are madarsa students and the organisation is headquartered in Hathzari of Chittagong. It carried out two protest marches in Dhaka and even tried to topple Sheikh Hasina government.

Hifazat-e-Islam also tried to deal with the Gano Jagaran Manch and the upsurge in liberation war spirit at the ideological level. They termed the protestors, who had gathered at the Shahbagh, as atheists.

In a Muslim-majority society it was the easiest way to discredit any secular and democratic movement. Though a large majority of people participating in the Shahbagh movement were followers of Islam, their opponents chose to target a few bloggers for their alleged blasphemous posts and to create fissures in the movement.

The group released a list of 84 bloggers who they wanted to eliminate. They started this with elimination of Rajib Haider. Since then a number of bloggers have been killed. In fact, these killings have been claimed by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and also by the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). However, the killers who have been arrested are members of the ABT. Actually, there is no contradiction in these claims as the ABT claims loyalty to al-Qaeda.

The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in Bangladesh is concerned with the killings of bloggers. However, it is finding it hard to openly condemn these killings. Siding with bloggers would give an impression that the Awami League government is a government of atheists, whereas this is an impression that the government would like to avoid because it can be exploited by the opposition in no time. In local elections held after the Shahbagh movement, it was seen that cadres of Hifazat-e-Islam went door to door with Quran in their hand and asked people to swear that they would vote against the atheists.

Naturally, the government has been careful in dealing with the killers, keeping in view its
political implications. However, on request of the police and law enforcement agencies, the Bangladesh government has now banned the Ansarullah Bangla Team suspected to be involved in the killing of bloggers. The government of Bangladesh may be guarded in taking action against the killers of the bloggers, but its long-term secular orientation seems intact.

(The writer is associate fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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