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Attacked and arrested, these Bangladeshi atheists fight it out in exile

world Updated: Jan 31, 2016 00:57 IST
Aniruddha Dhar
Aniruddha Dhar
Hindustan Times
Bangladeshi bloggers

Athiest blogger Shammi Haque (centre) at a rally in Dhaka. (Image source: Facebook)

On January 17, Shammi Haque and Ananya Azad experienced their first snowfall in Berlin, Germany. These two, among the main voices of free-thinking and atheism in Bangladesh, had fled their motherland after repeated threats from extremist groups last year.

Walking freely on the streets of the German capital has come as a relief for the two bloggers. “There are no shadows following us, neither do we have to live under police protection here, unlike in Bangladesh. It’s a free world here, but…,” Haque’s voice trails off.

The 23-year-old has led several protest rallies under the Ganajagaran Mancha — a movement demanding capital punishment for the 1971 war criminals, including Jamaat-e-Islami leaders — and written vociferously against intolerance and religious fundamentalism, a career that landed her on a hit-list containing the names of atheist bloggers.

Even in exile, she continues to write.

“A women rights-conscious person needs to be an atheist,” she wrote on her blog ‘Istishon’ (station), a post that has been read by over 1,200 people. It is her atheist and liberal thinking that had attracted the wrath of the radical Islamists. The last time HT spoke to Haque in September 2015, a fundamentalist group had threatened to pick her up from her home in Dhaka and rape her.

Bangladesh has witnessed a series of attacks on outspoken rationalist writers in the last three years. Several bloggers and writers have been living in exile in different countries, after blogger Rajib Haider was hacked to death on February 5, 2013, followed by writers such as Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chatterjee in 2015.

Frustrated over the Sheikh Hasina government’s recent decision to block Twitter, WhatsApp and Skype, the 23-year-old BBA student says: “I used to talk to my mother on WhatsApp and Skype after coming to Germany. But now, the government has blocked them, citing security threats. Calling her regularly is now not possible due to high call rates.”

Haque’s friend Ananya, 26, has resumed blogging after arriving in Berlin on June 29, 2015. He was forced to stop publishing his views after his name was featured on the hit-list of 84 bloggers that The Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a fundamentalist group, had uploaded on social media. The group also circulated his picture with a “cross mark” on June 3, 2015.

“I got scared after seeing this. This group was behind the attacks on many bloggers previously… I was being followed everywhere, so I started wearing a helmet before I would go outside,” Ananya recalls.

Son of a prominent Bangladeshi author Humayun Azad who was found dead in his apartment in Munich, Germany, on August 12, 2004, following his scathing critique of Islamist fundamentalism in his book ‘Pak Sad Bad’, Ananya was forced to quit his MBA due to increasing threats in Bangladesh. Now, he is doing research from a university in Germany.

“In Germany, I am safe and free to move around, but in my own country anyone who wants to think or write freely and talks of free speech is forced to leave…but I will go back at any cost, even if that means that I will be hacked to death or jailed,” he said.

Camelia, 27, still can’t believe that her inspiration Avijit Roy is no more. “I was supposed to meet him for dinner at his residence on February 27, 2015, a day before he was hacked to death,” she tells HT from Sweden, where she has been living since May 25 last year, after being repeatedly threatened by radical groups.

“Not only because of my writings, the fundamentalists were targeting me since I was an atheist and have married a Hindu,” Foring Camelia, as she is popularly known, said.

In 2013, Camelia’s husband Subrata Adhikari Shuvo along with several bloggers were arrested allegedly for blasphemy after pressure from extremist Muslims. Camelia and many others then took to the streets demanding their release. “It was back then when radical Muslims first targeted me. But I kept fighting for Shuvo.”

Fundamentalist Islamist group Hefazothe Islam branded her an infidel and demanded punishment for her. “Farabi Shafiur Rahman, now behind bars for the murder of Roy, issued a fatwa against me where he stated that I ought to be slaughtered,” says Camelia.

Fearing for their lives back home, Camelia, a journalist, seeks the Indian government’s intervention in the matter. She is also ready to take refuge if the Indian government offers her asylum.