One of the less savoury episodes in our family lore has to do with a machete. A distant relative who owned huge tracts of land in east Bengal (now Bangladesh) was so cruel, so tyrannical that one day a distraught ryot (small peasant), went at him with his trusty implement and almost hacked his zamindar’s left shoulder off. With an oppressor’s natural resilience reinforced with his riches, my relative survived; the peasant did not. An object lesson in the dual purposes the humble machete can be put to: a handy tool to clear bamboo groves and ripening rice fields and, if need be, a murderous weapon too.
Those who need it as a tool in their daily lives turn to it as a weapon only out of sheer desperation, because it is the only option left to them to get revenge if not redress. History is replete with examples of the lowly machete being transformed from a utilitarian to a martial instrument to record anger and despair: By the Santhals against the British in 1855, by Brazilians during the War of the Ragamuffins in the 1830s, by the Cubans in the 1890s, against the advancing US Marines in Haiti, Nicaragua and other places in Latin America in the last century. Remember the 2010 neo-exploitation film Machete, set in the US itself, with the Chicano anti-hero organising a popular revolt against the white-dominated power structure of Texas? Not a great film, granted, but nevertheless drawing attention to the machete as a powerful symbol of popular revolt.
No longer. These days the machete is more a weapon of terror, especially for terrorists with limited resources. The five men who carried out the attack in Dhaka’s upscale Holey Artisan Cafe, reports Praveen Swami of the Indian Express, “shared a single Kalashnikov lookalike to pose for photographs that were circulated online by Islamic State,” identified by the “distinctive scratch-like markings visible above its trigger”. Five beaming youngsters taking turns to be photographed, sharing that one cheap, China-made assault gun, “basically a kind of airgun version of the Kalashnikov, with the look of the original, but not the lethality,” amongst them. “In most terrorist attacks around the world, the attackers have used assault weapons, such as the Kalashnikov AK47 and its variants, or the Armalite 15,” says security expert Swami.
But in Holey Artisan the terrorists had to make do with this lone Kalashnikov and a modest assortment of explosives which were used to frighten the inmates and repel the initial assault by the police. But the bulk of the gruesome murders of the hapless diners was carried out with machetes and knives. Even though the closest these spoilt, rich brats are likely to have come to a machete in their earlier lives was when they saw their servants prise open a green coconut or cut down plump jackfruits from overladen trees. Ditto, the Eid day attack at Kishoreganj, a short distance from Dhaka.
But then, blades are considerably cheaper than bullets. Apparently, even the “the low-cost .22LR cartridge” that the poor-man’s Kalashnikov uses was not in adequate supply at Holey Artisan. Islamic State may have claimed their grisly deeds as their own but they were certainly tardy about footing the bill. Apparently, that is Islamic State's latest strategy. Create chaos any which way believers are told, with whatever resources at your disposal. Hence the machete and its overuse in Bangladesh, a rural country already familiar with such sharp instruments. Witness the foiled attack at Kishoreganj where explosives soon gave way to “sharp instruments”.
Even the 1971 war of liberation had seen the machete being wielded with fearsome results by the Razakars and other pro-Pakistani militia. That is how Abdul Kader Molla (who went on to become assistant general secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami) earned his nickname of the ‘butcher of Mirpur’. It was his life imprisonment instead of death sentence that set in motion the chain of events that culminated in the iconic Shahbag protests and let loose the dogs of terrorism in Bangladesh.
The bloggers and online activists who made the Shahbag movement so widely known soon became the targets of the fundamentalist forces and it was not long before they began to be picked off, one by one, often in the open, and the weapon of choice was primarily the machete. When Rafida Ahmed Bonya was asked to give the 2015 Voltaire Lecture of the British Humanist Association, she appropriately titled it Fighting Machetes with Pens. Bonya’s husband Avijit Roy was one of the first victims of the Islamic terror now running riot in Bangladesh, stabbed repeatedly with machetes on a crowded road in front of Dhaka’s National Book Fair. Bonya herself was badly wounded, one of her thumbs almost sliced off.
It is cruel, what the machete can do. It also reflects a mindset that is without any mercy, any pity, seething with righteous indignation, ready to descend to any depths for the chosen cause. No wonder it became the horrifying symbol of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s where it was used to mow down hundreds and thousands of ethnic Tutsis.
The medieval frame of mind the indiscriminate use of the machete indicates is in sharp contrast to the eagerness the terrorists at Holey Artisan displayed to see their actions amplified on social media. According to news reports based on accounts of hostages who have lived to tell the tale, “After killing the patrons, they asked the staff to turn on the restaurant’s wireless network. Then they used customers’ telephones to post images of the bodies on the internet.” Images that were dutifully posted on the worldwide net by Amaq news agency, affiliated with Islamic State.
True, machetes are no match to the superior firepower all states possess. That is how all machete-dependent rebellions have been suppressed in history. Even in Dhaka, “Had we been certain that the terrorists were so lightly armed, we would probably have ordered the assault far earlier, and perhaps lives could have been saved. However, that was not a call which we could take casually, with so many lives at stake,” a Bangladeshi police officer told the Indian Express. But who will tame the minds that wield the machetes? It is a dark, remorseless world that the terrorists roam. There seems little hope that they can be made to see the light and lay down their machetes.