The war on thought

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 20, 2018

Official efforts to corral thought is inviting rebellion from youngsters in Bangladesh. The hacking to death of law student Nazimuddin Samad this month puts the focus on the increasing tensions between free thinkers and radicals in the country Photo: Reuters   -  REUTERS

Sukumar Muralidharan

Bangladesh’s political establishment seems firmly anchored to the unprincipled middle ground in the battle between the free thinking and the radical

Nazimuddin Samad, a 28-year-old university student and activist for a radical “free thinking” movement in Bangladesh, was set upon, hacked and shot as he returned home in Dhaka on April 6. His attackers allegedly left the scene with loud vows of faith in their god.

A branch of the global terrorism franchise al Qaeda claimed responsibility but Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal discounted this, attributing the murder to a local fringe group. He was also reluctant to identify the murder as a crime against free speech. In later statements to a western news network, he seemed to blame the victim: “The bloggers should control their writing. Our country is a secular state ... people should be careful not to hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders”.

Social media has given youth in Bangladesh a powerful means of creating an alternative discourse that avoids the self-imposed constrictions of earlier generations. As in India, the horizon of aspirations in Bangladesh is being extended by demographic factors, by the rapid increase in the proportion of the youth strata in total population. And the youth demographic has a vision of a future where acrimony over events long past is immaterial and official efforts to corral thought processes are an invitation to rebellion.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s political establishment seems firmly anchored to the unprincipled middle ground. Late March, the country’s Supreme Court declined to hear a petition asking for invalidation of a constitutional clause declaring Islam the state religion. After close to three decades of deliberate neglect, the petition was dismissed with the summary observation that none of the petitioners had a credible locus standi to make the case.

Secularism was written into the constitution of Bangladesh in 1972 in the euphoria that followed liberation. It was removed from the fundamental principles by a 1979 amendment, which also introduced a preambular invocation to divine mercy and beneficence. And then came the 1988 amendment, which declared Islam the state religion, while assuring absolute freedom for all faiths.

In 2010, the Supreme Court held invalid the 1979 amendments, encouraging the belief among generations closely associated with the 1971 liberation war that its underlying values would be restored. The Awami League (AL) government, in power since 2008 with the mandate to amend the constitution, fluffed the challenge. In 2011 it enacted amendments which retained Islam as state religion, but reaffirmed the principle of equality, irrespective of faith.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had to make the political manoeuvres appropriate to a complex agenda on hand. In 2011, the first indictments were issued by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) set up in accordance with a 1973 act, for suspected war criminals from 1971. The cause of the ICT had wide public endorsement, except among Bangladesh’s Islamic parties. Procedures adopted in the war crimes trials soon created fresh polarisation, especially as the hearings moved to a decisive stage late in 2012.

In December 2012, sedition charges were brought against Bangla language daily Amar Desh, after it published transcripts of purported telephone conversations between the ICT’s head judge and an overseas expert on war crimes jurisprudence. Originally published on the website of The Economist, the transcripts had Justice Nizamul Haque ‘Nasim’, speaking about the undue pressure he faced from the government to conduct swift trials, even at the cost of due process. Justice Haque resigned without undue fuss, but in shooting the messenger the government signalled that it would not falter in its obsessive pursuit of convictions.

In early 2013, mass protests broke out in Dhaka soon after an ICT bench sentenced a senior Islamist politician to life imprisonment. Demonstrators drawn entirely from generations born after the liberation war, gathered at a square near Dhaka University, demanding death. Amar Desh and a few other media outlets pushed back with accusations that the demonstrators were atheists with little respect for religious traditions. The Jamaat, Bangladesh’s principal Islamic party and a partner in various coalition governments since 1990, remained quiescent but perhaps sponsored a kindred organisation, Hifazat-e-Islami, to retaliate.

The first targeted killing of a youth blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, occurred during this phase of turbulence. Mahmudur Rahman, the editor of Amar Desh, was arrested in April 2013. Shortly afterwards, a number of youth bloggers were taken in and charged with offences under insult laws. The AL government was obviously seeking to insure itself against a backlash from either side.

In May 2013, an unspecified number of lives were lost in a night-time crackdown on Hifazat demonstrators. All who demanded accountability found themselves targeted, with one human rights campaigner, Adilur Rahman, spending several months in prison.

As yet another blogger is murdered now, state prosecution has secured a conviction in the killing of Haider. Mahmudur has been ordered release on bail, but the government has found some other pretext to keep him imprisoned.

Meanwhile, to seemingly underline that their suspicions cut across ideologies, AL volunteers have launched a mass campaign of litigation on various grounds against two of the country’s best-known editors, Mahfuz Anam of the Daily Star and Matiur Rahman of Prothom Alo. Both were involved in the liberation movement and have since been consistent in their public advocacy of its values.

In another front in the war on thought, the government has introduced a draft law criminalising the denial of the war crimes of 1971. Marked out for particularly severe sanction is anyone questioning the three million civilian casualty figure that has become the nationalist theology of Bangladesh since liberation.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurugram and Shimla

Published on April 15, 2016

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