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Blogger deaths: what's really going on in Bangladesh

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 22 June 2015, 15:02 IST
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The flashpoint

  • Three bloggers with secular views have been killed in Bangladesh in three months: Avijit Roy, Wasiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das
  • Jihadi outfits are mushrooming in Bangladesh. Several have claimed responsibility.
  • Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has not dared to condemn the deaths publicly. Her son says the situation is too volatile for the prime minister to take a stand.

The backdrop

  • There are two main players in Bangladeshi politics: the secular Awami League and the pro-Jamat, pro-Pakistan Bangladesh NationalParty (BNP).
  • Sheikh Hasina\'s Awami League won the 2014 general elections. Khaleeda Zia\'s BNP boycotted them.
  • BNP now claims the Hasina government is invalid and wants fresh elections.
  • Hasina has responded with harsh laws and a massive crackdown. 14,000 BNP workers have been jailed. Others have disappeared.
  • Dissent is crushed.

The outcome

  • The tussle between the two leaders has become a playground for jihadist groups.
  • There\'s no one to counter them: civil society has been silenced.

Potential solutions

  • Fresh elections. And a dialogue between the two main political parties.

Why it matters for India

  • The Burdwan blast in West Bengal is proof that jihadist groups are spilling over.

Who is killing bloggers in Bangladesh? An outfit called Ansarullah Bangla Team has owned up to the gruesome murder of a secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das, hacked to death in Sylhet on 12 May. So has Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), through the site of another jihadi outfit called Ansar Al Islam Bangladesh.

This year already three Bangladeshi bloggers have been killed - beginning with Bangladeshi-American scholar Avijit Roy, hacked to death on 26 February as he walked back from a book-fair in Dhaka.

It took the AQIS nearly four months to claim that murder. It has been quicker to claim responsibility for the subsequent murder of another blogger, Wasiqur Rahman in Dhaka on 30 May. And now, of Ananta Bijoy Das.

In 2014, Reporters without Borders claimed that a group called the Defenders of Islam in Bangladesh had published a hit-list of 84 bloggers with secular views. Nine of them have been murdered up to now.

Someone seems to be going through that list meticulously.

The war of the ladies

It is the growth of jihadist ideology in Bangladesh which has resulted in a spate of violence against those holding secular views. The Ansarullah Bangla Team and Ansar Al Islam Bangladesh are just two of the many splinter jihadi groups who subscribe to the AQIS ideology. The resurgence of these extremist forces is the result of the increasingly dysfunctional politics of Bangladesh.

There used to be only two broad positions in Bangladeshi politics represented by the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The Awami League wore a secular hat and stood for an inclusive, secular and Bengali language based Bangladeshi identity. Although secularism is a nod towards the founding principles of the nation, it is also a tactical position the Awami League takes to attract the Hindu and Buddhist vote.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led currently by Begum Khalida Zia, was a party born in a military cantonment and continues to be a party of retired generals, diplomats, civil servants and businessmen. Except for the pocket-boroughs of some leaders, it has no cadre to speak of at the ground level.

Although it has a fair share of those who fought in the Liberation war of 1971, its opponents say it represents the remnants of pro-Pakistan ideology in Bangladesh. Perhaps it gets this epithet because of its political alliance with the communal and traditionally pro-Pakistan, Jamat-e-Islami. The BNP's vote share is such that unless it takes the help of the Jamat-e-Islami, it cannot hope to defeat the Awami League.

Playground of jihadis

The Jamat was opposed to the formation of Bangladesh and its leaders collaborated with the Pakistan Army against the Liberation War. They formed militias to help Pakistan - perpetrating gruesome violence against fellow Bengalis. These are the people who are being tried and hanged on the orders of the International War Crimes Tribunal set up by the Sheikh Hasina government.

Today, Sheikh Hasina leads a majority government with 234 out of the 300 seats in the Jatiyo Sangsad (National Assembly). However she won 154 of those seats without contest as the main Opposition party - the BNP - had boycotted the polls in 2014.

The Opposition argues that, in effect, more than half of the Jatiyo Sangsad is unrepresentative and has been demanding fresh, free and inclusive elections under a caretaker government. Sheikh Hasina has refused to concede the demand and intends to stay for a full five-year term.

The two ladies at the helm of the Awami League and the BNP,are loath to allow any quarter to the other. By virtue of being in power, the Awami League holds the advantage.

Many BNP leaders have mysteriously disappeared (presumed dead). And ever since the BNP launched a nationwide protest against the government in January this year, nearly 14,000 party workers have been jailed.It is estimated that a significant proportion of the 150 people killed in the clashes since January are BNP activists.

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With virtually no political Opposition in the legislature,dissenting views are increasingly absent even outside it. Civil society groups and the media, especially broadcast media, have been brought under the control of the government by enacting harsh laws. The squeezing of the middle ground in politics is being exploited by radical Islamists, extremists and terrorists.

Extremist organisations like Hizbut Tahrir are openly calling for the downfall of what they term the "Hasina-Khalida regime."Bracketing the two mainstream parties together, Hizb ut Tahrir is calling for replacing the democratic system with a Caliphate.

Silent government, silent society

With other terrorist and extremist groups also using the opportunity to regroup and become active, the atmosphere in Bangladesh is suffocating. The failure of civil society to vociferously protest these ideological killings is an indication of the direction in which Bangladesh is headed - a passive society afraid to speak up for fear of the extremists.

Those who were expected to come out in the streets have not done so. Even social media is polarised with a section virtually supporting the murderers. This was the not the Bangladesh that its founding fathers had imagined and fought for.

The spot where Avijit Roy was hacked to death in February. Photo: Getty/Zakir Hossain Chowdhary

The muted reaction of the State administration is also disturbing. Rafid Ahmad, wife of the slain blogger Avijit Roy who lost her left thumb in the machete attack on her husband, told Reuters recently: "...what almost bothers me more is that no one from the Bangladesh government has reached out to me. It's as if I don't exist, and they are afraid of the extremists. Is Bangladesh going to be the next Pakistan or Afghanistan?"

It turns out that Prime Minister Hasina had only offered private condolences to the family and her son Sajeeb Wajed's explanation for not reaching out officially to the family was that the political situation inBangladesh was too volatile for a public statement from the Prime Minister!

A return to a more tolerant public sphere safe for secular speech - including blogs - will remain unlikely unless the political sphere becomes more open.

'What almost troubles me more is that the government didn't reach out to me. It's as if I don't exist,' says Avijit Roy's wife

For that there has to be a dialogue between the two mainstream political parties; the Hasina government has to see that the problem with the Opposition is a political one - not a law and order issue. The situation can be resolved by going back to the people for a new mandate sooner rather than later.

Implications for India

Unless there is a consensus between the two parties on the conduct of elections and on the institutional arrangements that will guarantee it, Bangladesh is unlikely to stabilise and this will also impact its neighbours.

The Burdwan blasts in India showed that Bangladeshi extremists are already operating beyond their national boundaries. The situation could get much worse if India's eastern neighbour becomes a conduit for recruits for the Islamic State.

First published: 22 June 2015, 15:02 IST
 
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.

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