A tool for oppression
On the Digital Security Act curbing political dissent in Bangladesh.
On 8 July, political activist Pritam Das shared a Saadat Hasan Manto quote on his Facebook profile. Much later, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) groups who were resentful of his political activism and bold statements used this statement to create communal unrest in the Srimangal region, especially targeting Das' religious identity and forcing him into hiding. The situation was de-escalated through Das' political organisation Rashtra Sanskar Andolon (RSA), and local religious and social leaders.
However, the police later arrested Pritam Das for allegedly hurting religious sentiments under the Digital Security Act (DSA). In the past, the police have arrested hundreds of men, women, and children under the draconian Digital Security Act. In many cases, these arrests were made for Facebook posts on the grounds of allegedly hurting religious sentiments or critiquing the government. Das had done both.
Many of Pritam Das' posts that are mentioned in the First Information Report fit the BCL narrative. For example, on 16 July, he wrote that communal violence in Narail would not be possible without the backing of the state. On 17 July, he shared a statement from his organisation which was titled "The Government is Deliberately Inactive in Protecting the Life and Livelihood of Hindus." On 6 August, he posted a status update that said reform of the state and the fall of the ruling regime were paramount. He was targeted not only because of his religious identity but also because of his political opposition.
Between 2019 to 2021, more than 1500 cases were lodged under the controversial Digital Security Act. In a December 2021 study, Ali Riaz, who teaches at Illinois State University found that 40.4 percent of all cases filed under the Digital Security Act, up to the publication of the report, were filed by political affiliates. The ruling party and its numerous offshoots, including the youth and student wings, account for 135 of the 169 accusers. Nearly 80 percent of accusers, whose political affiliations are known, all support the government. "These numbers show that Bangladeshi government officials and their supporters have extensively used the DSA to silence detractors," Riaz said in his report posted on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website. Aside from political actors, several minors have been arrested for social media activity and are being held in juvenile correction centres. Around 10 percent of all the cases filed that Riaz analysed were lodged against students.
Riaz states in the report, "State institutions are used to muzzle critics and strengthen the ruling party's grip. Meanwhile, activists who support the ruling party are given free rein to use existing laws to effectively criminalize free speech." According to Mizanur Rahman, professor of marketing at the University of Dhaka, the DSA is more frequently misused in cases of treason, blasphemy, and slander. He continued by saying that disobedience to the government is seen as sedition.
That is exactly what is happening in the case of Pritam Das. His case has primarily been presented as blasphemy, while the police have also brought his criticism of the government to the fore. His political activity was met with political violence, and his political freedom was suppressed through a case filed by a political affiliate.
Why Pritam Das?
Das is a central leader of Rashtra Sanskar Andolon (RSA), which is part of the opposition political coalition, Ganatantra Mancha. Das was charged with blasphemy in August after holding a programme in solidarity with tea workers at Chaumohona in Srimangal, which came under attack allegedly by a section of the local Chhatra League. Das has accused specific BCL men of the attacks via press conferences and demanded that they should be brought to book. He alleged that Abed Hossain and his followers carried out the attack, injuring around ten. Abed Hossain, the former general secretary of Srimangal Municipal Chhatra League, dug out the Manto quote, shared the screenshot on 29 August, and demanded that Das be arrested, sparking tension in Srimangal. Many people, most of whom are Chhatra League activists, shared Abed's post and demanded Das' arrest and trial through Facebook posts. There were even rallies backed by politicos demanding the arrest of Das, and their wish was granted later by the police.
Previously, rallies and rabble-rousing Facebook posts of this nature have been used to spark communal unrest in various parts of the country (for example, Rangpur in November 2017, Bhola in October 2019, and Narail in July 2022), but through the activism of Das' organisation and the involvement of local religious and social leaders, who identified the post as political commentary rather than blasphemy, such a situation was averted. However, the local BCL men did not give up in their attempts to harass Das. Failing to arouse mob violence, they chose legal means that were already bent in their favour. It seems that the very men that had attacked his peaceful protests are now behind the case that has landed him behind bars. That is why the Digital Security Act is popular with the ruling party affiliates. Its vague wording can easily be used to put people of opposition political groups behind bars.
Blasphemy accusations came up right after Das' press conference that pinpointed Abed Hossain, and the case was filed in an attempt to counter Das' calls for justice. Local Chhatra League activist Mahbub Alam Bhuiyan filed the case with the Srimangal police station, accusing Das of insulting his religion. Bhuiyan was the same person who called for a mass rally protesting Das' Facebook post quoting Manto, and urged all "religion loving musallis" to join the rally.
Reactions to the arrest
Ganatantra Mancha, the opposition coalition of which RSA is a member organisation, said on 10 September that the arrest was made to harass Das for participating in activism in support of the rights of the tea workers. They noted that Das' identity as a Hindu was used to target him by the BCL activists who filed a case under the "anti-people" Digital Security Act, which they believe should be scrapped altogether. RSA's chief coordinator, advocate Hasnat Quaiyum, said in a statement, "Quarters of the government and the administration want to create communal disharmony in the country and play into the hands of the communal powers of the neighbouring country India where they want to portray Bangladesh as communal. That is why they have arrested Das without cause." Zonayed Saki, the chief coordinator of Ganasamhati Andolon and a key leader of the Ganatantra Mancha, said, "This arrest of Pritam Das would remain a prime example of what extent of dirty politics the ruling party has stooped to keep power in their own hands."
When asked for a comment, eminent law scholar Shahdeen Malik stated, "Ideas like hurting sentiments and damaging image were eradicated from much of the world in the 1850s. These were not even crimes in the Penal code 1860. They were introduced later in our country. The newly introduced Digital Security Act has made these things serious crimes now. This is only possible because the state has become increasingly authoritarian. Now the situation is such that the state should tell us how to criticise. Otherwise, how would we know what is criminal?"
On the same issue, professor and chairman of the Department of Law at Dhaka University, Asif Nazrul stated, "All kinds of opposition are now being muzzled using the religious issue, but even that ploy often fails. What never fails is the Digital Security Act. Using this, even an innocent person can be harassed. Pritam Das is now being repressed through the same law. This law should be scrapped. All sections related to speech offences should be abolished. However, speech offences are the best ways for the government to repress the opposition. That is why I doubt whether they will ever abolish those sections."