Written By: Kausik Datta
The shocking news brought a sense of overwhelming numbness that altogether masked my usual emotional reactions at such news – bitter sadness, frustration and impotent rage, and eventually resigned acceptance. This was the fifth such incident since February 2013 – a secular blogger violently cut down in his prime for daring to express his views championing secular humanism, science and rationality; Rajiv Haidar, Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and now, Niladri Chatterjee – popularly known by his pen-name, ‘Niloy Neel’. Another such blogger, Asif Mohiuddin, had thankfully survived being stabbed in January 2013.
And, in each of these incidents, the heinous, barbaric act was committed by Islamic extremists – men propelled by an all-consuming hatred; ignorant, mindless myrmidons motivated and conditioned by a hateful fundamentalist ideology that demands absolute obeisance, and must exist to the exclusion of every other view.
Washiqur Rahman was a complete stranger to the men who perpetrated the fatal machete attack on him; they – confessed the two who were later arrested by the police – didn’t even know his face, or know of him, and weren’t familiar with his work, until it all was pointed out to them. Yet, when told that Rahman had insulted Islam and the Prophet, these men executed him without a shred of remorse – because they were made to believe that it was their divinely-mandated duty to take the life of another. It is more than likely that the assailants who murdered Dr. Avijit Roy and the puppet-master at whose behest the deadly act was carried out – a relatively unknown Islamic outfit had claimed responsibility and the Bangladesh police later arrested a well-known Islamic extremist who had been threatening Avijit – had been similarly motivated, as were the still-at-large killers of Rajiv Haider and Ananta Bijoy Das.
Niloy Neel was many things to many people; a blogger, author, an activist engaged in various social justice causes, and the founder of the Bangladesh Science and Rationalists Association. His online writings touched upon diverse topics, philosophy, religions, social issues such as feminism, equality, gay rights, and so forth; he was a critic of religious fundamentalism, including Islamic fundamentalism, and relentlessly pointed out inconsistencies in religious edicts, superstitions, and other social ills. It was for his writings that he was deemed to have forfeited his life by divine fiat, and he was brutally murdered inside his residence – while his family was present at home – by assailants belonging to Ansar Al Islam, the Bangladesh branch of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (News report in Bangla here).
This pattern of grievous violence by Islamic extremists in Bangladesh has by no means been restricted to secular bloggers alone, but was visited upon several of Bangladeshi activists, professors and authors deemed to be critical of Islam in any way. The predicament of Bangladeshi author, atheist and rationalist freethinker, Taslima Nasrin, continues to haunt her. What does one do… How does one counter effectively the mindless, thoughtless, remorseless adherents of a bloodthirsty, obscurantist ideology, hell bent upon silencing any and all critics through savagery?
Violent extremists pose a serious challenge to the governance of the entire country, and so far, unfortunately, the Bangladesh government has failed to acquit itself well. In an interview with BBC Trending after Niloy Neel’s murder, Bangladesh’s Minister of Information, Hasanul Haq Inu, denied the accusation that the government has been suppressing secular voices, choosing to justify instead the nebulous and draconian laws against ‘hurting religious sentiments’.
And yet, it is a fact that most of the killer culprits still remain at large with impunity; the few who have been arrested have not been charged or brought to justice. Instead, rationalist bloggers and writers have been arrested under the odious, medieval ‘Blasphemy law’. In an essay in the Free Inquiry magazine, Late Avijit Roy, along with his daughter, Trisha Ahmed, had summarized this painful state of affairs. Shortly before his murder, Niloy Neel had chronicled (original in Bangla here) a rather troubling situation in which he, fearing for his life and safety, went to the police to make a report (known as a ‘General Diary’) but was refused on a flimsy pretext, before being advised to leave the country!
In a statement laid out by editors of Mukto Mona (the online magazine founded by Avijit), they categorically wrote: “… the Government of Bangladesh, the state administration, the Bangladeshi embassies in the US – none of these organizations have contacted Bonya Ahmed directly or through the FBI. […] no one on behalf of the government of Bangladesh felt it necessary to speak directly to Bonya Ahmed.” (Bonya, Avijit’s wife and compatriot.) In all likelihood, the exact same situation is going to occur now, too, after Niloy Neel’s murder. Zero accountability of the government towards its people.
This administrative apathy and studied indifference towards the plight of the secular bloggers, at times punctuated by active hostility towards them, surely emboldens, enables and abets only those extremist elements in Bangladesh who wish to tear away at the fabric of the society, sacrificing the social contract at the altar of ideological extremism. It is not that the Bangladesh government is unaware of the people whose lives and livelihood are at immediate risk from this; a list of 84 bloggers, considered disrespectful towards Islam, was collected and circulated by Islamist groups in 2013, and submitted to the government to have them prosecuted under the Blasphemy law. Is it any coincidence that all the murdered bloggers featured in that list? How does the government claim innocence in good conscience?
It is hard to believe or accept that in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, murderous religious extremists have declared open season on enlightened, humanist folks for simply trying to make the world a better place – and all that the nation’s government inexplicably seems to be accomplishing is punish the victims and make concessions to the extremists.
How many more precious lives must be irretrievably lost before sanity returns to its throne?