The pattern in the murderous attacks on freethinkers in Bangladesh is unmistakable: Machete-wielding gangs, sometimes masked, waylay victims and butcher them in the middle of crowded streets, making sure the message of fear and impunity hits home. The murder of Ananta Bijoy Das this week, the third secularist blogger-writer to be killed since February, was no different.
The killing of Das and others is part of a wider struggle for the soul of Bangladesh, where irreverent secularists and intolerant Islamist groups are fighting a blood-soaked ideological battle that may well decide whether the country upholds its founding secularist principles or embraces religious bigotry.
The murders have sparked mass public protests because much of Bangladesh’s secular tradition is still alive and strong.
But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, known to be sympathetic to liberal intellectuals, is yet to make clear public statements defending secularism and free speech. Indeed, Hasina’s government has dithered over its response to religious fanaticism for fear of ceding ground to the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally Jamaat-e-Islam. The two sides are locked in a tense standoff since Hasina’s controversial re-election last year, sending the country into a ceaseless cycle of shutdowns and street protests that have so far claimed nearly 100 lives.
The government did not comment on the murder of atheist Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy in February, not even offer public condolences to his wife who was grievously wounded in that attack.
In an interview to Reuters this week, Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed said the political situation in Bangladesh was too volatile for the government to comment publicly and that the ruling party, the Awami League, didn’t want to be seen as atheists. "Given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can't come out strongly for him (Roy)," Wazed said.
Wazed’s remarks are the clearest sign yet that the government is offering lip service to the defence of secularism. Since 2013, it has clamped down on dissent in media and jailed atheist/secular bloggers using a draconian religious law -- just to trump political rivals. Political exigency has also meant that the government has gone soft on radical groups with links to the Taliban – including the Hefazat-e-Islam and Ansarullah Bangla Team -- that have spread across Bangladesh in recent years.
These groups -- which believe silencing their ideological rivals is better than engaging in any theological debate with them -- want the authorities to legislate a blasphemy law that provides for death punishment for religious dissent, a demand the government has so far resisted.
By jailing journalists and activists, and with its radio silence on the killings of young writer-bloggers for nothing more than expressing peaceful opinions about religion, the government is only strengthening the hand of radicals who are hacking freethinking people to death on Bangladesh’s streets. This sends the wrong signal to society.
Strangely, Bangladesh’s neighbours have appeared unmoved by this political mess. But such visible disinterest will only embolden the forces seeking to erect an intolerant Salafist rule in that country - a development that will be disastrous, especially for the dominant regional power India.
As Bangladeshi decides on the role of religion in its polity, the secularists who are now in power must not lose sight of the principles that drove its partition from Pakistan, and must put the dream of a free, progressive and inclusive society above any considerations of political self-preservation.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @krittivasm)