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Writing from the margins in Bangladesh

Written by Ikhtisad Ahmed.

The freedoms of speech and expression are the easiest to deride and subvert. Should a view deviate from the perceived wisdom of the masses – dictated by those in power – it is quickly marginalised, especially if it speaks uncomfortable truths. Hence common sense, empathy, rationalism and advocating equality are often labelled radical thinking derogatorily, and “liberal” is a term that has been irreversibly poisoned. There remain places in this world where the price for having the audacity to write is much higher than being painted a fool or made an object of ridicule.

India is currently governed by a party that, having breathed life into the dying embers of extremism of the Hindu nationalist variety, is determined to fuel the flames. Views incongruent with broadly defined “traditional values” are banned. Vigilantes who punish wrongdoers are celebrated publicly and privately by the ruling class instead of being censured, even when punishment takes the shape of violence and murder. Nestled within the outline of India is Bangladesh, the eighth most-populated country in the world. The country has seen two heads of state and government assassinated, the first of whom was the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a plethora of coups, and politicians forever searching for the Holy Grail of autocracy in its forty-four-year existence. Having gained its independence while the shadow of the Cold War engulfed the world, Bangladesh has never been free from foreign intervention in governance. Its leaders, real, erstwhile and aspiring, have willingly acquiesced to the whims of global and regional powers in exchange for thirty pieces of silver and a hollow crown. One such manoeuvre saw Islam introduced into the political sphere by despots desperate to cling to power, notably by the first two military dictators, Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Predictably, fundamentalism has grown, encouraged by third world realpolitik.

Being a writer at present is akin to walking a tightrope the breadth of a hair over a patch of land that is perennially on a knife’s edge. On one side of both rope and knife lies Islamic fundamentalism, on the other state oppression. The only sure way to keep one’s balance is self-censorship and silence, for any word can be construed as a misstep. The penalty for such occurrences is death at the hands of extremists or imprisonment at the hands of the authorities. The latter stems from the Bangladeshi constitution granting freedoms of speech and expression under Article 39, “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of security of State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality”. Therefore, not absolute freedoms, as they ought to be, with enough legal ambiguity to allow oppression from the government. The euphemistically named Information and Communication Technology Act, amended in 2013 to make it more draconian, has taken advantage of this, especially the dreaded section 57 provisions for “[p]unishment for publishing fake, obscene or defaming information in electronic form”. Adilur Rahman Khan of the human rights NGO Odhikar, aspirant satirical lyricist Tonmoy Mollik, and bloggers Asif Mohiuddin, Subrata Adhikaro Shuvo, Moshiur Rahman Biplob and Rasel Parvez are amongst those who have fallen prey to this statute since 2013.

The fundamentalists behave as they do all over the world. Spurred on by an unshakeable belief of moral authority granted by a higher power, they take offence as they please and dispense their proprietary brand of violent judgement to further their case for a place in heaven. The myth that this may be a convenient stereotype needs to be dispelled: the rare suspects that have been apprehended have testified to this effect. They have further attested to the fact that extremists do not counter with reason or eloquence because they do not have knowledge of the offensive articulations, save for knowing beyond doubt that they were offensive. They are not to blame for the blurring of the lines between radicalism and religion, however – that ignominy is the reserve of the populace, including the section of it comprised of self-proclaimed liberals. The conversations that ensue after each murder in the Muslim-majority country are the same, and, against all reason, collectively justify people being killed for words, just enough to allow the deplorable, inhuman acts to be repeated.

The murder of blogger Rajib Haider by fundamentalists on 15 February 2013 sparked the present-day adverse conditions. Following Haider’s murder, the aforementioned selected bloggers were judged to have been insensitive or blasphemous towards Islam and arrested. The previous year, respected journalists Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi were stabbed to death on 11 February 2012. It is not clear whether these were motivated by religion, but the couple worked on and with minorities. Regardless of the motive, theirs too are unsolved murders that have hindered the cause of free speech and expression. Suppression of these undeniable rights by people quoting scripture is, regrettably, not new to Bangladesh either. Sheikh Belaluddin and Gautam Das, journalists who wrote about growing Islamic extremism and discrimination against religious and indigenous minorities were murdered in February and November of 2005. The cases remain open, despite a member of Islamic Chhatra Shibir – the student-wing of Jamaat-e-Islami that was part of the then governing coalition – claiming responsibility for the attack on the former that injured three other journalists. Extremists attempted to assassinate reputable writer Humayun Azad on 27 February 2004. He succumbed to the injuries sustained on 11 August 2004, but there have been no arrests, trials or convictions. Earlier this year, on 31 October, a series of attacks on Bangladeshi bloggers and publishers, resulting in the fatality of Faisal Abedin Deepan, has made it very clear that these are not isolated, spontaneous incidents.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina knows the pain of loss better than most. She has lived with it since the slaughter of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and her entire family except one sister, on 15 August 1975. Her promise to bring the murderers of Haider to justice had the honesty of someone who deeply empathised with his family, whom she was visiting to offer her condolences and grieve with in person. Two years later, Bangladesh still awaits fulfilment of that promise, as it does the one of a Shonar Bangla (“Golden Bengal”) made by the prime minister’s father forty-four years ago. What exists instead are blasphemy laws dating back to 1890, a remnant of the British imperial penal code, that denounce hurting religious sentiment as a criminal offence. In India, writers are organising against bigotry, Hindu fundamentalism and state oppression. In Bangladesh, Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chakrabarti are four rationalist writers using online and print platforms who have been killed this year. Hit lists containing further names have been released. Every time a writer falls, the already constricted space for intelligent conversation is restricted even more. Contrary to the lie of the famous picture attributed to Banksy of a pencil being broken only to give rise to two, the pens of writers are shackled.

University of Nottingham alumnus Ikhtisad Ahmed is a human rights lawyer turned writer from Bangladesh. Absurdism, justice, equality, politics and existentialism are recurring themes in his work as he seeks to give a voice to the oppressed, the marginalised and the forgotten. This article forms part of a Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice special issue on Bangladesh. Image credit: CC by Naquib Hossain/Flickr.

Published inAsia and PacificSocial Justice

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