The Death of a Free Thinker in Bangladesh #WordsCannotBeKilled

Avijit Roy a young Bangladeshi intellectual and writer had been receiving death threats from religious fanatics for years now. But these failed to stop him from expressing his explosive views on religion through his blog and books. His conviction in his ideas was clear and unshakable. He knew how important his writings were for the future of his country which was steadily becoming radicalized. He was ready to pay the ultimate prize with his life, to save from the religious takeover of his country and protect its secular ethos. Undeterred by the threats and having full cognizance of the demands, he declared that- “If we have to give blood, we have to give blood” for the movement.

Despite such threats and many warnings from his friends, Avijit returned to Dhaka from US and attended the annual national book fair. Writing being his passion, he could not skip the once in a year chance to meet and talk about his books and ideas at the country’s largest book fair. He and his wife were returning from the book fair in a rickshaw after dark, suddenly two men from behind, dragged the couple out and attacked them with machetes concealed in their newspapers. Avijit was cleaved across his head, they slashed his wife across her face and cut a finger, leaving them in a pool of blood. Avijit died instantly and his wife is now in the emergency care.

Who is Avijit Roy?

Avijit Roy was born in Bangladesh as a Hindu and later turned in to an atheist in his adult life. Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore he took an interest in writing. The phenomenon of blogging which started in the new millennium changed his life. Before he started blogging, as a budding writer who was a software engineer by profession, he did not have the right platform to express his views to a wide audience. In 2001 he founded a blog named Mukto-Mona which means free-thinker in Bengali. The blog later developed in to a full fledged website with a forum to discuss profound topics. It soon turned in to a rallying point for young Bengali writers to exchange ideas and debate on various topics like Bengali nationalism, humanism, rationalism and atheism.

A little History of Bangladesh(skip ahead to get to main topic)

Bangladesh, previously known as East-Pakistan was partitioned from India after a sustained ‘movement’ led by their leaders that, Muslims of India cannot live in peace with the majority Hindus, once the British leave. This two-nation theory where all Muslims cutting across regions, ethnicity and language barriers constitute one nation and their interests are in conflict with rest of the population is still the root cause of religious problems in Bangladesh. Once the rich Punjabi feudal lords who patronized the leaders of this ‘movement’ captured power in Pakistan, their true colors were outed.

With the Indian National Congress(INC), the most popular party, being dominated by leftist ideologies and left leaders like Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose(both served as presidents of INC in 30s) who were supporting radical ideas of land reforms, the rich landlords began to support religious political parties as a counter to INC. The Muslim landlords began to fully support the Muslim league after the start of world war 2 when it was evident that INC’s coming to power was inevitable. The Pakistan slogan-the demand for a separate land for Indian Muslims gained momentum in 1940s. They found an able strategist and leader in Jinnah who was ironically, more western than an Islamist. He successfully took the idea that Islam was itself in danger to the masses and employed the Islamic concepts of Ummah(notion that all Muslims in the world constitute a single nation) and infidels(non-believers) for the ’cause’.

After 1947, in the newly formed nation, Bengali Muslims constituted 52% of population and the rest was divided among Punjabis, Sindhis, Balochs, Pashtuns etc However, the Punjabis were the ones who dominated higher echelons in the Army, bureaucracy and politics. Bengali Muslims were mostly poor and had very low literacy rates. There was a deep racism towards the Bengali Muslims among people in west Pakistan. In 1948, Jinnah declared in Dhaka that Urdu would be their sole national language, this infuriated the Bengalis who were very proud of their cultural heritage. This started the language movement in Bangladesh. Instead of respecting the sensibilities of Bengalis the government which was under the control of the Pak Army repressed the movement. Gradually Bengali culture was seen as something alien to ‘Muslim culture’ and is against the ‘ideology of Pakistan’, this stemmed directly from the two nation theory which held that Muslims constitute a distinct nation and any divisions among them will get dissolved to form a single identity. Any one who spoke against such moves by Pakistani state, was accused of being a India funded traitor or as being against Islam itself. But the young Bengali rationalists had too much pride in their Bengali language and culture, to be bullied in to submission by the cultural imperialists who were aping the culture of Arabs. They could see through the discrimination and racism they were subjected to.

After independence, Pakistan conducted it’s first nation wide free and fair elections in 1970. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami league had captured all but two seats in East Pakistan, emerging as the biggest political party in the National assembly becoming eligible to form the government of Pakistan. But how can the Punjabis of Pakistan allow the dark & dirty Bengalis to rule over them. West Pakistan’s largest political party PPP’s(people’s party of Pakistan) head Zulfikar Ali Bhutto(who was years later hanged by another dictator) colluded with the self appointed president General Yahya Khan(who was also the commander-in-chief) did not allow Mujib to become the prime minister of Pakistan by declining to convene the national assembly.

Feeling humiliated, Mujib on March 7 1971, gave a call for independence of Bangladesh from the tyranny of west Pakistan(which he did not do till then). Underestimating the nationalist feelings of Bengalis, Yahya announced martial law and called in army to suppress political dissenters. West Pakistan believed that the idea of Islam and one Ummah(nation) is enough to forge two landmasses which are both geographically and culturally miles apart from each other. The army started arresting the Bengali students, teachers and intellectuals with mere suspicion and began to torture them. Also religious radicals(mainly Urdu speaking people aping Arab culture) who believed in ‘saving Islam’ or plain sell outs to West Pakistan were organized in to private militias called Razakars and Al-Badr. A whole generation of bengali intellectuals, scholars and politicians were hunted down systematically and were executed in hordes by these paramilitary murderers. Mujib was himself arrested and take back to an unknown location in West Pakistan, rest of the leaders fled to India. Hindus in Bengal who were accused of being Indian agents were the most targeted groups.

By the end of 1971, more than 10 million refugees entered India becoming a huge strain on her resources. India clearly realized the gain in supporting Bangladesh’s liberation movement. It would halt the fleeing refugees, it would end the genocide that was being carried out, it would be a big blow to Jinnah’s two nation theory and in case of a future war with Pakistan, India would have to fight on only one border, and also gaining a friendly neighbor by helping Bangladesh’s liberation movement. Indian army and RAW played a major role in Bangladesh liberation war. India trained Mukti Bahini which was made of Bengali volunteers and East Pakistani policemen and army personnel who rebelled against the state. Mukti Bahini used Indian territory to carry out guerrilla war against West Pakistan. India which was micro managing the situation, waited till the winter of 1971 for the snow to cover the northern passes so that China might not come to its ally’s rescue and to gain international support(more proof of West Pakistan’s genocide would give more support to Bengali cause-except USA, most of the West did not object to Indian support to Bangladesh though it had a strategic friendship pact with USSR).

Recognizing that war with India was inevitable, Pakistan, inspired by Israel’s Six-day war, launched sudden pre-emptive air strikes on 3 Dec 1971, to destroy Indian air fields to render IAF obsolete in the war. But anticipating such a move, Indian air force had already moved to interiors of India. This strategic blunder of Pakistan gave India an opening, it accused Pakistan of unprovoked aggression and that India’s military action was only a response to it. What followed was one of the most decisive and shortest wars in history. Now Pakistan was involved in a two-front war on both sides of it’s borders. In 13 days, Indian troops aided by IAF sorties and an effective naval blockade by Indian navy in Arabian sea, virtually rampaged through East Bengal, capturing Dhaka and ending with surrounding the Pakistani barracks. Bangladesh officially seceded from West Pakistan on 26 March 1971.

Present-war trails

Bangladesh claims that during the liberation war, more than 3 million people were killed by Pakistan’s army and its para military forces. Such a genocide was unheard of since the Nazis. There is much evidence of war crimes committed during the war. Almost every household in Bangladesh knows some one who was a victim of these war crimes. But the members of the paramilitary forces like Al Badr, became political leaders in independent Bangladesh by using Islam for their political ends just like Muslim league in India did. Most of them belong to Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, which is the largest Islamic party in the country. This party supports the implementation of harsh Sharia law in a predominantly moderate secular country, it wants reunification with Pakistan and is vehemently anti-India. Due to the long military rule after Mujib’s assassination shortly after Independence and later political alliances by Jammat with other political parties like BNP, the leaders of Jamaat have escaped prosecution for their war crimes all these years.

In 2008, Sheikh Hasina the daughter of Mujib and the head of Awami league came to power promising justice and action against war criminals. She established the so called International crimes tribunal(ICT) which led to new political drama in the history of Bangladesh. Most of the people of Bangladesh want justice and punishment for the criminals. But the country is split on the intentions of ICT and the actual conduct of the trails. Several top leaders of Jamaat and BNP(led by Khaleda Zia the arch rival of Hasina) were indicted by ICT and some of them were given death sentence. Hasina government is accused by some people of political witch hunting, some say that death penalty is too harsh and others accuse ICT for not following proper rule of law.

The Shahbagh protest movement in 2013, which was mainly led by the youth and bloggers, was a historical movement. It bolstered the secular credentials of Bangladesh’s nation. Their main demands were speedy conduct of ICT trails and death penalty to the convicts instead of life imprisonment. The Jamaat whose leaders are the main accused, started a counter movement accusing the Shahbagh protesters and bloggers of hearsay.

The trail also became a political tug off war with the main opposition BNP’s leaders being co-accused in the case. The Jamaat and BNP were able able to attract a major chunk of population to their side. The conduct of the trails by ICT also did not help the issue as many including international observes accuse it of arbitrariness and of being biased. Many of the bloggers who led the movement were also secular and some like Avijit Roy were atheists, this infuriates the Muslim right which uses it for political ends.

Also, ever since Sheik Hasina became the prime minister, Bangladesh’s relationship with India has transformed for the better. Bangladesh cracked down on the anti-India groups operating from its territory, including the North east militants and Islamic militant groups like Huji which have connections with ISI and Al Qaeda. Hasina government has also agreed on the final settlement of land borders(exchange of enclaves which exist in each other’s territory and on Testa river water sharing agreement. Disappointingly, India is still to ratify the agreements due to the intransigence of Mamata Benerjee the CM of West Bengal. Bangladesh has also, for the first, allowed India to use Bangladeshi ports to have connectivity with far flung north eastern states like Tripura and Mijoram. India and Bangladesh are also working on power sharing agreements, allowing road and rail connectivity through Bangladesh’s territory and cooperation in many other areas. This unprecedented goodwill between both the neighbors has not been sitting well with other foreign powers in the region who are suspected in supporting the opposition political parties like BNP and Jammat, against the pro-India government of Sheik Hasina. Giving death sentences to those who supported Pakistan in the 1971 war has also not been a good news for Pakistan and their support for the Jammat is evident. Also, giving death sentences to orthodox Muslim leaders and Mullahs who are demanding Sharia law has put Bangladesh on the jihadi spot light. Last year when Al-Qaeda, announced expanding its reach in to the subcontinent, Ayman al-Zawahiri the leader of Al-Queda specifically raised this issue of Bangladesh and spoke against the persecution of Islamists.

Since the Shahbagh protests, violence has become a daily occurrence in Bangladesh. Political killings are happening regularly. Minorities especially Hindus are being targeted. The society is getting polarized. The heavy handedness of Hasina government is not helping the situation. In the 2014 elections her party Awami league came to power again sweeping the polls, as the opposition parties boycotted the elections. Now her rival Zia is under house arrest.

The killing

Knowing this history and the present atmosphere in Bangladesh is essential to understand what circumstances has led to the brutal murder of Avijit Roy. The divide between nationalists/secularists and Islamists has existed since the time of its independence. But the trails by ICT has opened old wounds and now the long existed divide in the country is leading to violence in the country. Ever since the 9/11 incident and the US’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a steady growth of radicalization of some parts of the Muslim world including the subcontinent. Disgusted and afraid of the attitude of Islamists who are steadily gaining influence in their country many young men took to blogging using reason and intellect to counter the spread of poison in the society.

Avijit Roy was the foremost blogger and intellectual who gained considerable popularity in the main stream. His books on atheism have become blockbuster hits. Bengali culture, whether in India or Bangladesh has always respected intellectuals and encouraged reading and writing. Being an athiest myself, I have deep respect for the man. His writings in his blog radiate intellect. Using simple words he destroys the antique arguments of religions from thousands of years which have little relevance in today’s world. In his last book Biswasher Virus, he describes religion as a social virus which has the ability to take control over the minds of its followers, dictating their actions and ultimately manipulate them to destroy themselves. He equates religion to a virus which enters the body of crickets and manipulates them to jump in to the water(suicide) so that the virus can enter the bodies of those water dwelling organisms which would eat that cricket. Similarly the virus of religion enters people’s minds and manipulates them to do unthinkable and inhumane actions.

He always provided strong arguments for his view points and was never dogmatic. He never used hurtful words towards religions, he just argued. But faith being a matter of emotion cannot understand the clear thoughts of reason. Instead of fighting with the illuminating intellect openly, the coward extremists hacked the man under the cover of dark. Despite, being born a Hindu, he never spared Hinduism as well, he was as much an enemy for Hindu extremists as he was to the Islamists. India is also seeing the rise of Hindu extremists(yesterday, a Tamil TV station was attacked with crude bombs for having a debate on the relevance of Mangala Sutra in 21st century), I hope things in India would not become as crazy as in other countries, where people have to give their blood to save secularism. But if such a situation ever comes, Indian youth would not hesitate to give sacrifice, taking inspiration inspiration from people like Avijit Roy.

The religious radicals have been able to kill the man, Avijit Roy, but his ideas and words would live till eternity through his blogs and books which cannot be killed. His sacrifice will only fuel the movement of secularism and humanism(placing the rights of human beings above all), if not atheism by inspiring millions, in Bangladesh and the rest of subcontinent.

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