Photo: Flickr / arju.r
Photo: Flickr / arju.r

Bangladeshi inquisitions

Freedom of expression in Bangladesh is caught between the machete and the magistrate.
Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz
Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

(On 31 October 2015, three bloggers were assaulted in Dhaka's Lalmatia area, leading to the death of Faisal Deepan, one of Avijit Roy's publishers. Avijit Roy, the founder of the rationalist blog Mukto-Mona, was similarly hacked to death in February this year. Bangladesh is facing a serious threat to freedom of expression, but where is it coming from? In this essay from our latest quarterly issue 'The Bangladesh Paradox', Salil Tripathi explains the historical and political context behind these continuing attacks. See more from the issue here.)

Are you
Muslim or Bengali, they
Asked again and again.
Both, I said, both-then
Rocks were broken along
My spine, my hair a black
Fist in their hands, pulled
Down into the river again
And again.
Each day, each
Night: river, rock, fist.

– Tarfia Faizullah

In a pattern that has now become eerily familiar in Bangladesh, in early August 2015, six men came to the home of Neeladri Chatterjee – a social activist and blogger who wrote under the pen name Niloy Neel – saying they were prospective tenants. Two of the men, reportedly, unleashed their machetes and attacked Neel in one of the rooms at his home, killing him, while his wife Ashamoni was confined to another room.

The 40-year-old wrote frequently and critically against religious fundamentalism on the rationalist blog, Mukto-Mona, meaning 'free mind'. In May, Neel had gone to the police station, seeking security, after he saw two men stalking him. Police officials' advice to him was to leave the country.

This was the fourth such killing in Bangladesh in 2015, and the third involving a blogger writing for Mukto-Mona. Founded in 2001, the blog describes itself as an "Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists & humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent who are scattered across the globe." The first in this spate of killings was in February 2015. Each February, Dhaka celebrates its month-long festival of reading, Ekushey Boimela, at the Bangla Academy. The festival commemorates the martyrs who died on 21 February 1952, when Pakistani security forces fired on demonstrators who were demanding recognition of Bengali as an official language in Pakistan, of which Bangladesh was then part.

Soon after Partition, Bengalis had begun challenging the decision made by the newly formed Pakistani state to make Urdu the sole national language of Pakistan. Most East Pakistanis spoke Bengali, and they realised they would be permanently disadvantaged in accessing public services and jobs; their children would have to adjust in Urdu-medium schools; and they would not be able to fill government forms, do basic transactions at post offices, make complaints to the police, or get themselves heard at courts. This would not only constrain freedom of expression but cripple them economically. It would split the nation culturally, and over time, politically. Those who died in 1952, and those who died in 1971, gave up their lives because language mattered to them as much as their religion. The seeds of the 1971 war lay in the decision to make Urdu the sole official language.

West Pakistan's failure to understand the power and hold of the Bengali language among the majority of East Pakistanis contributed to the distrust between the two regions. Combined with economic disparities, neglect and perceptions of humiliation, Bangla nationalism got strengthened, particularly after 1970, when East Pakistanis felt that the federal government had neglected them after the devastation caused by Cyclone Bhola.

In the elections that followed, the Awami League, which was fighting for greater regional autonomy and respect for Bangla, swept the elections in East Pakistan – a result not expected in West Pakistan. It won 160 of the 162 seats in the region, getting an absolute majority in the 300-seat national Parliament. Instead of recognising this electoral victory, Pakistan's ruler General Yahya Khan dithered over inviting the Awami League to form the government, and the leading political figure in West Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, supported the military leadership.

People in East Pakistan responded to Awami League's call for a non-cooperation movement. Yahya Khan began negotiations with the Awami leadership, but in March he sent troops to East Pakistan and unleashed a reign of terror that led to a nine-month war in which hundreds of thousands were killed. Bengali women bore the brunt of violence – there were numerous cases of rape, with Pakistani soldiers being the perpetrators in an overwhelming number of them. Ten million refugees poured into India. Bangladeshi guerrillas formed the Mukti Bahini, which offered spirited resistance, and assisted by Indian military intervention in December of 1971, Bangladesh gained independence.

The right to express freely in a language of one's own choosing is at the core of the Bangladeshi freedom struggle. These old battles are still current and are being fought in Bangladesh today, as Bangladesh grapples with its identity – is it secular or religious, Bengali or Muslim?

On 26 February 2015, 42-year-old Avijit Roy and Rafida Ahmed Bonya were walking back home after a long day at the book fair. They were Bangladeshi Americans, both rationalists and writers who were deeply sceptical of religion. Avijit was the founder of Mukto-Mona. Ahmed met Roy in 2002 through the blog, and they got married soon. She is now a director and editor at the blog.

Roy was visiting Bangladesh to promote his latest books, Shunno Theke Moha Bishwo (From Vacuum to Universe) and Bishwasher Virus (The Virus of Faith). His writing was provocative and angered many people, and he never fought shy of arguing with his detractors. He faced threats regularly; some of these were issued through posts on social-media sites like Facebook. An online bookstore that stocked Roy's books was also threatened. In 2014, an Islamist activist had written: "Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. He will be murdered when he comes back."

On that February evening, a group of men viciously attacked Roy and Bonya with cleavers and machetes in front of a police barricade that was put up to control traffic. Both were critically injured but nobody immediately rushed to help them, until a journalist finally did. Eyewitnesses were horrified and said even the police stood by. Once the assailants fled, they were taken to a hospital. Roy died soon. Rafida, who had earlier beaten back cancer, survived the attack. She had four stab wounds and her thumb was sliced off. When I met her a few months later in London, where she delivered the Voltaire Lecture at the British Humanist Society, she made light of her personal pain, saying, "This isn't about me or Avi; it is about all of us united in this struggle against intolerance and hatred."

Mukto-Mona's website carried the message "Aamra shokahoto, kintu aamra oporajito" – we are united in our grief and we remain undefeated.

These attacks are part of a trend. More than a decade ago, on 27 February 2004, Humayun Azad, a professor of Bangla at Dhaka University, was hacked in a manner similar to the attack on Roy. He was also returning from the book fair. Azad survived the attack, but died under mysterious circumstances later that year in Germany, where he had gone on an academic visit. In February 2013, Rajib Haider, a 30-year-old architect who supported the Gonojagoron Moncho (People's Awakening Platform) was killed in downtown Dhaka. In March that year, Asif Mohiuddin, another blogger critical of Islam, was severely injured in a similar attack.

Within months of Roy's killing, other bloggers were murdered in similar incidents, including Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das, both of whom also wrote for Mukto-Mona. Several other bloggers have been threatened – partly because they are in a list of more than 80 bloggers identified as 'secular' or 'atheist' that has been in circulation in Bangladesh for some time. There are now at least two lists floating around, listing dozens of bloggers, whose lives are under threat. Sajeeb Wajed, the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, told an interviewer that while his mother had privately offered condolences to Roy's family, "we are walking a fine line here". "We don't want to be seen as atheists. It doesn't change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism, but given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can't come out strongly for him [Roy]," he said, "It's about perception, not about reality."

In Bangladesh today, free speech faces attacks from two fronts. There is the very real danger – the threat to life – from religious fundamentalists. The other front is the threat from the courts and the government itself, which have shown growing intolerance towards comments critical of their conduct.

In April 2013, in a Kafkaesque turn of events, three young bloggers were arrested for disseminating "false, indecent or defamatory" information and "hurting religious sentiments" under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006. Their desktop computer, laptop, internet modems and external hard disk were seized by the police. The Deputy Commissioner Molla Nazrul Islam said in a press briefing, "These three write defamatory posts in Facebook, Somewhere in Blog, Nagorik Blog, Amar Blog and Istishon Blog using different names. We found evidence of those from their computer, laptop and hard disk." During interrogation, the bloggers reportedly said they did not believe in religion, and their chief crime appears to have been writing "offensive statements" against Islam. Anyone deliberately publishing, transmitting or causing to be published on a website, anything which is "fake and obscene" or could "deprave and corrupt" people, leading to deterioration of law and order, prejudice the image of the state, or hurt religious beliefs, can be charged under this Act in Bangladesh. Offenders may face imprisonment for up to 14 years.

Bangladesh is prosecuting several more bloggers under the Information and Communication Technology Act. When these charges against the bloggers were asked to be thrown out, the police asserted that their "derogatory posts" (in which they opposed religion-based politics and sought a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami party) caused "a slide in law and order that led to anarchy." But, with internet penetration in Bangladesh estimated at around 6.5 percent of the country's population, this accusation seems implausible. In a nation of 158.5 million people, the number of Facebook users in Bangladesh is unlikely to be more than 3 million, though other estimates place the figure closer to 1 million.

Bangladesh's laws against causing religious offence date back to the days of the British Raj – specifically to the criminal code introduced in 1860, after the Indian War of Independence of 1857. Alarmed by how disparate Indian religions and social groups had united to take on the might of the East India Company, the colonial administration decided to impose rules and laws that would ensure communal harmony, which meant not only that freedom of expression was curbed, but people were given the right to complain if they felt someone was disrupting communal harmony.

While many of the criminal laws in the Commonwealth originate from these colonial laws, many Commonwealth countries, including Bangladesh, have developed laws which restrict freedom of expression even further. The law in Bangladesh states that "outraging religious feelings" through "visible representation" or "attempts to insult religious beliefs" is punishable by up to two years imprisonment, with an extra year behind bars for anyone who acts "with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings" of another and "utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person".

Article 39 of the Bangladesh Constitution guarantees freedom of thought and conscience, but as with many other constitutions, there are caveats. Article 39 (2) says that "subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence… the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press, are guaranteed."

Mahbubur Rahman, who teaches law at Dhaka University, wrote in 2013 that criminal offences under the 2006 Act which applies to information and communication technology are very loosely defined. He says in a legal note that, by broadening the definition, state power has been expanded, inflicting "unnecessary and precarious punishment". According to him, the ambiguity created by the law led to "unlimited opportunity for state harassment and oppression". The Bangladesh High Court recently rejected a petition which challenged the legality of the 2006 Act, saying it was premature (since the attorney general said the government was already considering changes to sections of the law).

The root of the current backlash against freedom of expression is interwoven with the debate over Bangladeshi identity. Is it a secular nation or Muslim? Is the language more important or the religion? These questions have gained immediacy because of the ongoing war crimes tribunals. Bangladesh is prosecuting and sentencing people accused of having committed war crimes during the 1971 Liberation War. Many of the accused belong to the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which opposed the creation of Bangladesh. Many of those campaigning for justice and punishment are nationalists who oppose the Jamaat and fundamentalist Islam. There is a greater nuance to these debates, but most vocal campaigners have portrayed the debate in 'either-or' terms.

In 2009, after Awami League won the general elections in 2008 and Sheikh Hasina Wajed was elected prime minister, Bangladesh set up the International Crimes Tribunals (ICT) to prosecute war crimes committed during the Liberation War. That war crimes were committed in 1971 is not in doubt. That Bangladeshis had waited decades for justice is not in doubt either.

But the bizarre turn Bangladeshi politics took since 1975 compounds the issue. In 1975, Bangladesh's first elected Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman was assassinated along with most of his family, and that changed the trajectory of Bangladeshi politics. Mujib, as he is popularly known, had received a hero's welcome in Dhaka when he returned after his imprisonment during the 1971 war, and easily won the elections that followed. However, his popularity declined rapidly because of lawlessness, poverty and famine in which tens of thousands of Bangaldeshis died. Mujib declared a one-party state, made himself the president, and closed down most newspapers. A group of mid-level army officers, including some freedom fighters, staged a coup in August 1975 and killed him and most of his family. The government that took over exonerated the officers and subsequent governments not only granted them immunity, but also gave them diplomatic postings. One of the coup leaders, Farooq Rahman, even returned to the country and ran for office in the presidential elections of 1986, which he lost miserably.

For years, victims of the war and their supporters campaigned for the prosecution of war criminals. Hasina Wajed had promised before she took office in January 2009 that she would establish tribunals. Initially, the trials of Mujibur's assassins, which began during her first term in office in 1990s, including that of Farooq Rahman, were completed. They were found guilty and executed. Then, the International Crimes Tribunals were set up to try war crimes, with the accused being overwhelmingly from the Jamaat-e-Islami party. The Jamaat was a coalition partner of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) when it was in power, but had also allied with Awami League in the past. Awami League, though ostensibly secular, also plays the religious card. For instance, while Awami League amended the Constitution to make it secular again, it retained the provision that makes Islam the state religion, which clearly limits the scope for secularism in practice.

In early 2014, the Jamaat and the BNP boycotted the controversial general elections. As a result, they did not gain any representation in Parliament, enabling Awami League MPs to be elected uncontested, and the opposition to be formed by the ruling party's alliance members.

The political polarisation was complete. On one side, those supporting Islamic parties considered the war-crime trials a sham, calling it a political vendetta. They presented the conflict as one between believers and non-believers, condemning those supporting the trials as atheists. On the other side, those supporting the trials said they were primarily driven by a desire to seek justice, and were not necessarily atheists. After one of the accused – BNP leader Abdul Quader Molla – was given life imprisonment, protests erupted in Shahbagh in central Dhaka, and demonstrators made shrill demands for the death penalty. Bangladesh retrospectively amended the law which allowed the prosecutor to appeal for a higher sentence, and Molla was subsequently executed.

Even as the Jamaat and another fundamentalist Muslim organisation, Hefazat-e-Islam, framed the Shahbagh stand-off as a fight between godless atheists on one side, and the devout and pious on the other, the Shahbagh activists and their supporters projected the divide as one between those who sought accountability for war crimes and those who felt Bangladesh should move on from the divisive past.

Many human-rights activists and international experts affirm the need to bring to justice the war criminals and seek remedies for victims. But they have also criticised the practice of the tribunals. Their objections are not merely because of a principled opposition to the death penalty, but also because of what they describe as procedural flaws. The Tribunal's procedures do not allow criticism of its conduct. Defence lawyers have claimed there have been instances of witness intimidation, unequal treatment and a procedural bias that favours the prosecutors. For example, in one recent case, prosecutors were able to present nearly 40 witnesses, but defendants were allowed only five. Likewise, a presiding judge had to leave office after revelation of recordings of his Skype conversations about the case with Bangladeshis in Europe. Several overseas Bangladeshis have been actively campaigning in support of the prosecution. Some allegedly advised the judge about the line of questioning prosecutors should take. Judges are, of course, entitled to privacy and have the right to consult experts. But in this case, the conversations were not disclosed to the concerned lawyers. After the presiding judge stepped aside and a new judge took over, defence lawyers asked for a fresh trial, but the tribunal declined.

Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and other groups have all criticised the way the trials have been conducted, even while supporting the principle of prosecuting war crimes. In December 2014, the ICT imposed a modest fine on David Bergman, a British journalist based in Bangladesh, for a series of articles he had written about the Tribunals. He was found guilty of contempt of court after some of his blogs, examining the tribunal proceedings, were seen as being critical of the tribunal.

At no point in his writing, however, had Bergman argued against the principle of justice. Bergman is in fact deeply sympathetic towards the victims of the 1971 war. He was the researcher and reporter for the award winning 1995 documentary War Crimes File. The film investigated alleged war crimes by three Bangladeshi men who migrated to Britain, one of whom has since been convicted of war crimes by the Tribunal. Bergman challenged the culture of impunity that had prevailed in Bangladesh. His reporting was an effort to hold up a mirror to the process, which has otherwise not been subject to serious scrutiny. He raised troubling questions about perceptions of bias in rulings, which have often favoured the prosecution.

On 23 December 2014 the New York Times wrote in an editorial:

Citizens and residents of Bangladesh also have a right to an informed opinion and to express views that are fairly critical of official dictates. Journalists and scholars must be able to engage in legitimate inquiry into Bangladesh's historical record without fear of punishment. If justice is truly what the International Crimes Tribunal seeks, it should immediately overturn Mr. Bergman's sentence and conviction.

When 50 Bangladeshi academics, professionals and activists, living in Bangladesh and abroad, published a statement noting the chilling effect of this judgment, the Tribunal proceeded to launch contempt charges against the signatories. One of the 50, who had been active in the Shahbagh movement, publicly removed her name from the statement. Nearly half of them apologised unconditionally; others made a statement of regret for any inadvertent impression caused. They maintained that they had not committed contempt but simply exercised their right to freedom of expression. In the end, all but one were found not guilty.

The one singled out was Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, a renowned physician who had run the Bangladesh Hospital for Mukti Bahini warriors, who fought for Bangladesh's freedom in 1971. Later, he set up the Ganoshasthaya Kendra, a rural healthcare NGO. He also spearheaded the movement to make pharmaceutical drugs more affordable in Bangladesh. Chowdhury had championed the Tribunals but had also supported Bergman. When found guilty, he initially refused to apologise. He was made to go to the same dock where the Tribunal tried accused war criminals, and was fined. After he refused to pay the fine, more cases were filed against him.

There is no appeal process allowed under the law in such contempt cases. No judicial review or a constitutional challenge is possible under the laws regulating the International Crimes Tribunals. Chowdhury and others applied to the High Court by writ and he obtained a stay. In the final hearing, he was told he could apologise or contest the judgment, and even though he has apologised, there is no guarantee that he will be exonerated. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether Chowdhury, a real Bangladeshi freedom fighter, will have to spend some time in jail.

Bergman and Chowdhury are not the only ones to have faced the wrath of the court: in August 2015, the appellate division of the Supreme Court fined two editors of the Daily Janakantha for having raised questions about the judges' role in the Tribunal case against Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury. Journalist Probir Sikdar has been sued for libel under the Information and Communication Technology Act for 'slandering' a minister.

In a democracy, people should have the right to comment freely, not only as an inalienable right of free expression, but also to ensure that the justice system remains transparent and accountable. Take away that right, and you build a barricade around the justice system. And when that happens, Bangladesh ends up stifling free discussions.

Given the scale of mass atrocities in 1971, it is important and right that survivors and victims get access to justice. But justice delivered poorly sows the seeds of future injustices. Bangladesh needs both justice and the freedom of expression. The two need not be mutually exclusive – together, they strengthen democracy, bringing the nation closer to its ideals.

Cliches are not the best way to describe a complex reality, but the state of the writer in Bangladesh today is that of one caught between a rock and a hard place. The War for Liberation began in March 1971 when the Pakistani army stormed the Dhaka University campus and murdered students, professors and intellectuals. In December 1971, two days before the war ended, a Pakistani-army-backed militia killed dozens of intellectuals who might have been central in shaping the ideals of the new nation. Today, in Rayer Bazar in Dhaka, a monument stands to commemorate them. A plaque carries Asad Chowdhury's poem: "Tomader ja bolar chhilo bolchhey ki ta Bangladesh?" (Is Bangladesh saying what you wanted it to say?) The question that the poem poses still awaits an answer.

Bangladesh threatens to turn into a land where assassins feel emboldened and act with impunity while writers are forced to watch what they speak, keeping their thoughts imprisoned in their minds. When they do speak out, they may fall foul of the state and face prosecution. The police, who are supposed to protect civilians, are likely to tell them that they should consider leaving the country.

None of this brings Bangladesh any closer to Rabindranath Tagore's dream of a golden Bengal. In fact, it takes it further away from another of Tagore's dream – the heaven of freedom where he wanted his country to awake.

~Salil Tripathi is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy. He is Contributing Editor at Mint and the Caravan in India. In May this year, he received the Red Ink Award for Human Rights Journalism from the Mumbai Press Club. He's the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International.

~ This article was published in our quarterly issue 'The Bangladesh Paradox'.
~An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the murder of Neeladri Chatterjee occurred late evening. This has been corrected. Himal Southasian regrets the error.
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