Bangladesh is fast becoming a dangerous place for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It is turning into a notorious hotbed of jihadi terrorism patronised by an assortment of well funded fundamentalist groups enjoying a global reach.
The once secular, liberal and forward looking Bangladesh, known for its vibrant and accommodative Bengali ethos, is rapidly turning into a notorious hotbed of jihadi terrorism patronised by an assortment of well funded fundamentalist groups enjoying a global reach. With the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League Government lacking the political will to stand up to the growing challenge of fanatical religious outfits, deadly and shocking attacks on bloggers, thinkers, intellectuals and social activists have become the order of the day in this thickly populated South Asian country. Not surprisingly then, well known Bengali writer, Taslima Nasreen, known for her firm stand against the forces of religious fundamentalism, has driven home the point that people have given up expectations that Hasina would act against radical fundamentalist groups that continues to hold Bangladesh to ransom. The dominant view in the intellectual and political circles of Dacca is that with a view to buttress her fast eroding political base Hasina may not be willing to offend the extremist religious sentiments in the country. It is an irony of history that, Bangladesh which owes its origin to bloody and violent fight against forces of religious fanaticism, is now being held hostage by Islamic extremists. Indeed the growing ascendancy of fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh militates against the spirit of Liberation War led by Bangabandhu Sheik Mujibur Rahaman.
As it is, a series of deadly and dastardly attacks on Bangladeshi writers and intellectuals in Dacca in late October this year by hard core Islamists has left the entire country stunned.To begin with, Faisal Arefin Depan, who owns a publishing house Jagriti Prakshan which brought out the slain atheist writer Avijit Roy’s work, Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith) was done to death by a group of well armed extremists. The same group of attackers also hacked three other secular intellectuals in the capital city of Dacca. Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, whose publishing house Shuddasha Proka-shani brought out Avijit’s Roy book Shunya Theke Mahabishwa (From Zero to Great Universe) along with bloggers Ranadipam Basu and Tareq Rahim were severely injured in the attack mounted by the machete wielding extremists. A group identifying itself as Ansar-al-Islam—a local edition of al-Qaeda—has claimed responsibility for the incident. Angry protesters in the country have blamed the government’s apathy and impunity for the unchecked attacks on writers and bloggers. Significantly, the well- known atheist blogger Avijit Roy was done to death by well armed Islamic radicals in February this year. Incidentally, the spate of bloody attacks on Bangladeshi intellectuals known for their staunch liberal views began with the killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider in February 2013.
However, the most disturbing dimension to the rising surge of religious extremism in Bangladesh is the bomb attack on the members Shia community reported in October which left two dead and over 80 injured. This sectarian violence points out to the building up of Pakistan like situation where Shias are systematically and repeatedly attacked by the extremist religious groups. And as in Pakistan so in Bangladesh too Sufi shrines would be the next soft target of fundamentalist groups. The Pakistani spy agency, Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), which has a well entrenched presence in Bangladesh, could very easily egg on the local Islamic jihadists to eliminate symbols of accommodative and tolerant Sufi tradition in Bangladesh.
Indeed, the spirit of the Liberation War that this erstwhile province of Pakistan fought to emerge as an independent Bengali homeland is now under siege with extremist religious groups attacking those associated with Shahbag movement supported by thinkers, bloggers, atheists and intellectual who are all for freeing Bangladesh from the influence of radical Islamic strain.
Shahbag movement continues to campaign for capital punishment for Islamic radicals who collaborated with Pak occupation Army and indulged in a large scale killing of intellectuals, politicians and social activities in the pre-independent Bangladesh. But unfortunately little progress has been made in pinning down the culprits responsible for recent killings of bloggers and intellectuals in Bangladesh. In this context, Imran H Sarker, Head of the Bloggers and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh says that Bangladesh is fast becoming a dangerous place for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. “With the lack of political commitment today, we are being killed one by one. It is as if we are fighting the same evil forces we fought against in 1971,” observes Sarker.
Among other prominent bloggers hacked to death by jihadists in Bangladesh include Niloy Chakrabarti who was known by his pen name Niloy Neel, Washiqur Rahman Babu and Ananta Bijoy Das. Though some arrests have been made in connection with the attacks on bloggers, no breakthrough could be achieved in zeroing in on the forces responsible for the continuing attacks on those fighting against the forces of fundamentalism.
There is a concern in Bangladesh over a section of intellectuals and professionals lending a supporting hand to the extremist elements in the country. For instance, in August this year Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had arrested three Supreme Court lawyers for allegedly passing a huge fund to a new Islamist militant group in the southern port city Chittagong. According to RAB sources they were arrested for providing a fund of 10.8-million Taka (Bangladeshi Currency) to a new militant group called Shaheed Hamza Brigade in Chittagong. This radical Islamic outfit is known to be founded by students of an Islamic seminary in Chittagong with a view to free Muslims from the forces of oppression.
Not long back intelligence agencies of Bharat had stumbled upon explosive information suggesting the involvement of Sudipto Sen, Chairman of the Saradha Group, which was in the eye of a storm for the mutli crore chit fund scam, in funding Islamic extremists in Bangladesh to fan opposition to Awami League government. It was said that the Islamic extremist groups would convert the Bharateeya Rupee made available by Sudipto Sen to Bangladeshi Taka and European currencies and smuggle them across the border.
Against this backdrop, the Bharateeya Government should put in place a stringent security mechanism to not only prevent the illegal, one way flow of illegal Bengali immigrants into Eastern India but also end the money laundering scam—with Bangladesh at the centre—involving big wigs in West Bengal and other parts of the country. The menace of jihadi extremism can be substantially minimised by stopping the flow of funds to religious fundamentalist groups.
Radhakrishna Rao (The writer is a freelance columnist)