Bangladesh blogger death: Government cannot escape responsibility, says women's rights activist Shireen Huq

The hacking to death of Nazimuddin Samad, the sixth secular Bangladeshi blogger to be murdered in the last 14 months, has no doubt been carried out by religious fanatics but the government also cannot wash its hands off the responsibility for the killing, feels Shireen Huq of NariPokkho, a women's rights organisation in Bangladesh.

Samad, 28, was vocal against radical Islam and used social media to regularly post feminist and atheist criticism of the religion. A student of the state-run Jagannath University, Samad was returning home after his classes on Thursday night when he was waylaid near Old Dhaka's Sutrapur area by machete-wielding assailants. They slashed at him and then pumped a bullet into his head, just to be sure.

Samad was an activist of Bangladesh's Gonojagoron Moncho (platform for popular uprising), a social movement that began in Dhaka's Shahbag Square in February 2013, calling for the death penalty for those found guilty of war crimes committed in 1971. The organisation also seeks to resist the politics of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party

On his Facebook page, Samad was regularly critical of both the Jamaat and the BNP, but he also didn't spare the ruling Awami League, criticising the failings of the current government. His last post, in fact, implied that Sheikh Hasina's party will fall if it did not make swift changes, writing (in Bengali): “The situation of the country, the deterioration of law and order is an indication that maybe you cannot stay long in power.”

Shireen Huq. Image courtesy: Facebook/Shireen Huq

Shireen Huq. Image courtesy: Facebook/Shireen Huq

The breakdown of the law and order in Bangladesh, which Samad pointed out before he was killed, and the total lack of trust between the citizens and the state are issues that cropped up repeatedly during Firstpost's conversation with Huq as she blamed the government for tolerating the intolerance. Huq says that by its inaction and apathy, the state has made it easier for acts of violence to take place.

"The murder of Samad is a targeted killing," she says. "It is very much a planned attack as were the ones before. The most worrying part is that there are groups organised, armed, motivated by hatred and ready to kill anyone for their belief...However, this also represents a certain level of intolerance that is being tolerated by the government. So far, none of the murder cases have been solved. There have been a few face-saver arrests, but none of the perpetrators of the heinous killings have so far been brought to book. That sends a very poor signal," says Huq.

"Instead of a thorough probe and trial, what we have seen in the contrary is less-than-satisfactory response from the government," says the founder-member of NariPokkho, the organization that is fighting for human rights, ending of violence against women and a number of other issues ever since it was formed in 1983.

Even as Bangladesh sees unprecedented, bloody attacks on secular bloggers and activists who are vocal against religious fundamentalism, war crimes, minority issues, corruption and injustice against women, the government prefers to look the other way, sometimes even blaming the Bangladeshi writers instead.

"We have very senior and responsible members of the government turning against the bloggers themselves, saying that the writers should refrain from expressing their opinions which run contrary to the view of the majority, thereby implying that if they continue to do so, they stand the risk of exposing themselves to more attacks. As if violence is inevitable if you don't fall in line."
This, says Huq, is a dangerous line of thought, one that seeks to justify violence and shrinks the space for dissent in a democracy.

"This opinion from the top, that attacks are inevitable if you do not conform, is unfortunately seeping through into the society. The space for people with different views or dissenting views is becoming even smaller. When you have senior government functionaries making statements like that, then you are sending a message to the people that these bloggers are wrongdoers. And that is deeply worrying," pauses Huq. "People who have dissenting views are caught between the proverbial devil and the deep sea," she adds.

"On the one hand you have the state clamping down on people with divergent opinion in various ways; increasing number of disappearances, for instance, in which state agencies are found to be directly involved and you have contempt laws being used injudiciously. The whole general atmosphere of intolerance is being nurtured and spread by the intolerance of the government," says the human rights activist.

"And on the other hand, of course, you have the religious fanatics who are ready to kill for their faith."

Huq believes the deaths could be stopped if the police do their job. Which sadly, she says, they are not.

"Widespread corruption is a factor and our police force is no exception. One of the reasons why people are not surprised at the lack of arrests or prosecution is that there is so much corruption. On the whole, the wheeling and dealing around crimes has become commonplace."

"It is of course no surprise that the law-keepers would be corrupted in a country where senior politicians are accused of corruption at the highest level."

Though there have been reports in the international media about the presence of ISIS behind the murders, Huq says there is no dearth of fanatics in Bangladesh to kill the secular bloggers.
"Whether there is an Islamic State connection is not, I don't know. Our government has repeatedly denied such reports. But whether or not it is Islamic State, the fact remains that these are organised killings, not spur-of-the-moment crimes.

"And sadly, the government is not doing enough to prevent it. It is not sending a strong enough message that there must be space for differing views in democracy, space for different beliefs and equal rights for minorities. This is partly because the government is exercising the same kind of intolerance towards political rivals or civil society criticism."

The Constitution of Bangladesh was amended in 1988 to make Islam a state religion though a subsequent amendment in 2011 has reinstated secularism as a fundamental principle. Huq believes this is a contradiction.

"Islam was introduced as a state religion 17 years after Independence as the 8th Constitutional amendment. In the 15th amendment which took place in 2011 — when present ruling party Awami League enjoyed a majority in Parliament — secularism was reinstated as a principle but Islam remained as the state religion. This immediately gave rise to a conflict. You cannot have a secular state and then keep a faith as the state religion. Although we were the first people to go to court against this Constitutional amendment, over the years I personally don't think the status as the state religion has made much of a difference in the practice of Islam," she said.

"But where it has made a difference is introduce a notion of unequal citizenship. And that can lend a degree of license to people who may think that it is right to attack people of other religion and that they have the moral authority. The killing of bloggers are being done by extremists. Having Islam as the state religion doesn't necessarily lead to such attacks; its effect, if any, is less dramatic. But it certainly encourages daily discrimination and makes the minorities more vulnerable to appropriation of properties or desecration of their places of worship."

Huq feels that there has been a late increase in social conservatism in Bangladesh. In her area of work, she has also witnessed a spike in attack against women.

"The number of attacks on women, and of gangrapes, appear to have definitely gone up. Since the Nirbhaya case in Delhi, there have been reports of women being raped in moving buses in Bangladesh as well. The media recently reported the rape and murder of a young woman in a military cantonment area. Though government announced quoting forensic report says that there was no sexual violation. Nobody is prepared to believe this, there is a complete breakdown of trust between citizens and the state."

"Therefore the killings of bloggers, while a distinct phenomenon, must be contextualised within the larger state of lawlessness and violence with impunity that Bangladesh is witnessing," says Huq.

Updated Date: Apr 08, 2016 20:00 PM

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