Many people believe that 2013 was one of the greatest years in the history of Bangladesh. In February that year, people spontaneously came together to voice their demands for proper justice of war criminals, making it very clear that at least on this issue there is room for neither compromise nor leniency. Of course the consensus was not 100%, but it was heartening to see that a significant portion of our youth were invested in these issues and would step out in the streets to demand for justice.
Ironically, it was also in 2013 that the seeds of a terrible darkness were first sowed with the murder of freethinking writer Rajib Haider. Soon after his brutal murder, everyone began to focus on the content of his blogs and how he rejected religion. Somehow, his personal opinions began to be associated with the general beliefs of all those who demanded trial for war criminals, doing severe damage to popular support for the movement.
In contrast to the way 2013 began, 2015 has so far been a singularly oppressive year. The year began with the murder of Avijit Roy, another writer well-known for his books promoting freethinking, critical analysis of religion, and how organized religion is being used to manipulate people all over the world. Avijit was hacked to death right inside the Dhaka University campus, and his wife Bonya Ahmed also sustained grave injuries.
Since then things have been going downhill. Three other people known for writing on these issues have been murdered, two in broad daylight out in the streets and one right inside his house. In a concerning progression of events, last week two publishers who have carried books by these writers have also been attacked. Ahmedur Rashid Tutul got out alive, but is still recovering from the physical and psychological wounds. Faisal Arefin Dipon was less fortunate, and was murdered in his offices at Shahbagh.
Firstly, this turn of events is scary. Clearly the perpetrators have extended their definition of who makes a valid target, and it now includes not only writers who criticize religion but also the publishers who give them a platform to do so. As many of us have been warning since the very first murder, your silence is not going to protect you. Your feigned objectivity about how both sides should learn to temper themselves is not going to protect you. Your utterly fallacious claim that words on a page and knives hacking away on flesh are somehow equivalent is not just wrong, it is also deplorable. It is this placatory attitude that lends further strength to the culprits, giving them the audacity to target a wider base, like they are doing now.
Nor will this stop with publishers. Bookstore owners who sell these books will probably be next, and maybe in less than a decade we will all be told which books we are allowed to read, risking death for purchasing any other book or being seen reading them.
In all this, the government has not played a very satisfactory role. After the third or fourth murder, the government basically started saying that maybe we should not be voicing controversial opinions so openly, and should take care to avoid hurting anyone’s religious sentiments. In an affair where one side has words and the other has knives, the government and law enforcement officers chose to caution the side with the words.
With the latest spell of attacks, the frustration has taken on a new dimension. Even other writers, journalists and academics seem to have finally cracked under pressure and are beginning to advocate greater cautiousness and moderation in discussing sensitive issues. Some have said that the government cannot provide security for those who choose to jeopardize themselves by writing on controversial topics.
All of this is disappointing, but far more importantly it is against one of the core tenets of democracy – the right to free speech. However, even this concept has come under scrutiny as of late. What does the right to free speech mean, and can someone place reasonable limits on it? Can we have right to free speech, but only up to a certain degree?
It is high time now for these questions to be discussed rigorously in public. Can a democracy that claims to uphold free speech also have blasphemy laws? How about laws regarding hate speech, or social media criticism of the current regime? It seems to me that curtailing any form of valid, academic criticism is at odds with the notion of free speech. Nevertheless, what we really want to see is a proper discussion. How valid or appropriate is the government and civil society being when they say that views on religion should be tempered and great care must be taken to not offend anyone? Even if we accept that such vocal opinions might be mistakes, could we not claim that freedom means little unless it also contains the freedom to make mistakes? Can a government really say that it cannot be seen as sympathizing with those who hold less conventional opinions? It should be emphasized here that the government is not being expected to help spread these opinions, just to make sure that there can be people in this country who can have these opinions and discuss them in public without fear of physical harm or even death.
The danger that lurks in the horizon grows more ominous each day. In the past two months, several foreign citizens have also been murdered, with the IS or Al-Qaeda taking responsibility. Most recently, cops have been attacked, which takes on a whole new dimension once you realize that attacking the police would represent the first IS attack in Bangladesh that could be interpreted as an attack against the machinery of the state.
It seems plain enough that there are dark times ahead of us, and as Faisal Arefin Dipon’s father hoped in the face of his sons untimely and ghastly demise, all we can hope is that good sense shall prevail. Until then, the least we can ask from the authorities and officers of the law, is the acknowledgement that we do have the right to our opinions and words, and that everything will be done to protect these rights, not to curb them.