Bangladesh in the present year has seen a seething attack on its right to free speech and expression by the extremist group, allegedly Ansarullah Bangla Team, in which 4 bloggers namely –Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Chakraborty have been killed.
These are not the first instances of such attacks on secular bloggers as the same began way back in 2013. It becomes important to trace the events from 2010 so as to have a holistic understanding of what really triggered these killings. In 2010, the incumbent Sheikh Hasina led secular government, Awami League, established a War Crime Tribunal to investigate the war crimes of the 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan. In February, 2013 Abdul Quader Molla, a member of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami Party (an Islamist party), was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Tribunal.
This sentence evoked large scale criticism and attacks from secularist bloggers who advocated for the death sentence of Abdul and in continuance of their call for the capital punishment, the Shahibag Protest was organized and they further went on to seek the declaration of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party as an outlawed organization. However, this protest was faced with another counter protest by the Islamist groups, which quickly escalated into violence. The Islamist group denounced the war tribunal and went on to label the bloggers “atheist” and guilty of blasphemy. Moreover, the group called to stop the prosecution of the Jamaat-e-Islami party and instead called for the death sentence for the bloggers.
In 2014 a France based NGO, Reporters Without Borders, which seeks to protect and defend the freedom of press and information, brought to light the existence of an extremist group called “Defenders of Islam” which had published a hit list of 84 journalists, most of whom are secularist and out of which nine have already been killed and many others attacked. The present intolerance to secularism in Bangladesh triggered worldwide outrage and sensitization with the killing of Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi born US citizen, who was a science writer and a blog site moderator.
The death of Avijit Roy was followed by the death of Washiqur Rehman, Ananta Bijoy Das and the most recent death was that of Niloy Chakrabarti (who used a pen name Niloy Neel). These deaths bear an uncanny similarity as, all the victims were secular bloggers and Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chakrabarti used to write for Mukto Mona – which in fact was started by Avijit Roy.
All these attacks have been claimed to have been carried out by the Islamic extremist organization outfit, Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT). According to Terrorist Research & Analysis Consortium, a digital intelligence storage containing research and analysis of terrorism and political violence, ABT is an Al-Qaeda inspired extremist organization. The group has also been claimed, by the local police, to be associated with Islamic Chhatra Shibir, Jamaat-e-Islam’s student wing.
The aim of all extremist Islamic groups is to propagate a religious state however, the growing political influence of secular bloggers along with blogs such as Mukto Mona, Dhormockery.com which propagate free thinking and often mock extremist Islamism has proved to be a major road block for such groups. It is even frightening to note that in this battle of religious extremism versus atheism, the much dreaded Al-Qaeda has also come to join the perpetrators of crime.
The involvement of Al-Qaeda is of paramount importance as after having lost ground to the newly established Islamic State, the Al-Qaeda supremo Ayman Al-Zawahari, who succeeded Osama Bin Laden, had announced last autumn of an expansion plan in South Asia and the religious strife in Bangladesh might just prove to be the fertile soil where they sow this seed of expansion. While there has been global condemnation of such intolerance, the reaction of the incumbent government of Bangladesh has been rather cold and anti-climactic. Secularism is a basic tenet of the Constitution of the Muslim majority Bangladesh nation. However, the nation seems to be in a turmoil of unsecular practices.
A secular state, literally, implies to a country which is neutral to all religions within the nation i.e. to say the state neither associates nor disassociates itself from any religion. Maintaining secularism is primarily a function of the state and religious intolerance by individuals of a society prima facie does not amount to unsecular practices by the government but the fact that the Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government has given a cold shoulder to the religious intolerance is sufficient to term it as an unsecular act on the part of the government. Tahmina Rahman, director of the . There has been wide spread criticism of the government for their failure to take action against the perpetrators and there have been demonstrations and protest in different parts of the country for speedy trial and investigation against those arrested.
It is in respect to this reaction of the public that the mindset of the law keepers must be called into question. A police chief, AKM Shahidul Haque, had been quoted as saying that “No one should cross the limit”. This was said with respect to the secular bloggers and it is particularly unfortunate as limits to free speech, if legally extended to stop criticism of extremist religious views, they would fail the very purpose of granting free speech initially..
Even the legislations relating to free speech in Bangladesh are vague and ambiguous. The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006 provides the legal framework for freedom of online expression. Ironically, the Law Minister, Anisul Huq, himself acknowledged that the law in itself is ambiguous for “certain offences such as obscenity and expression of false information”. Hence, the legislation is left open for arbitrary interpretation of the provisions and the government has in fact misused the same to arrest several bloggers and shut down websites for “defaming Islam”. There have been pleas for review of provisions (section 46 and 57) of the ICT Act and to give it a more definite form and removal of all provisions which can be interpreted arbitrarily and thus ensuring proper and constructive free speech to the nation.
It is here that the Bangladeshi government should look forth to its Indian counterpart’s judgment in the case of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, as decided on March 24, 2015, wherein the Apex Court ruled section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 to be unconstitutional on the grounds of being vague and arbitrary. On a concluding note, it is imperative in the spirit of secularism, as is preached globally, that the Bangladesh government becomes more sensitized to the issue of intolerance and not merely seeks to pacify mullahs with antiquated formalities just for the sake of cashing in on their major vote bank. It is of outmost importance for a developing country to sensitize people on tolerance and the largely condemnable attitude of the government needs to change.