Ananta Bijoy Das, who was murdered in a brutal roadside machete attack in north-east Bangladesh, is the third secularist blogger to be killed by Islamist extremists since February 2015. But this is a less recent development than it seems. Militant attacks on so-called “atheists” have been accelerated in Bangladesh since 2013.
Militant violence against critics of Islam has been increasing ever since February 2013, when the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) set up in 1973 mainly to handle war crimes cases relating to Bangladesh’s independence struggle, handed down a life sentence to Abdul Qadir Molla, the senior member of the far-right Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, for crimes committed during the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Molla and his party affiliates were advocates for Bangladesh remaining part of Pakistan, and were accused of acting as on-the-ground sources for the Pakistan Army during the nine-month guerrilla war. Some pro-Pakistan elements headed paramilitary militias, which were allegedly responsible for the systematic rape and execution of civilians.
Molla, known as the “Butcher of Mirpur”, was considered by many people to have escaped justice in the aftermath of independence, since he and others had never been formally tried in a court of law. When he was eventually found guilty of rape, murder and mass murder – including the killing of more than 350 unarmed civilians – and given only a life sentence, there was a public outcry and widespread calls for his execution.
Such was the outrage that in September 2013, the ICT upgraded his sentence to death, and he was ultimately executed that December.
In the aftermath of the ICT’s verdict, a massive spontaneous protest erupted at a busy road junction in Shabagh, in the capital Dhaka. Over the subsequent weeks, this “Shahbagh Movement” brought together a bricolage of secular political activists, women’s organisations, students, and religious minorities which called for the execution of all those responsible for the atrocities in 1971.
In response, over the course of the following two years, a number of high-profile Islamists have been tried, sentenced and executed. And while those attaching themselves to the Shahbagh Movement rejoiced, the Islamists, feeling victimised and persecuted, have pursued a course of violent and periodic street protests, accompanied by targeted executions of anti-Islamist bloggers.
But while this apparent polarisation of Bangladeshi society can be viewed as a classic left-versus-right story, the truth is somewhere in between.
Despite the fact that the majority of Bangladeshis (90%) are Muslim, the vast majority supported independence and deplore the war collaborators of 1971. They want to see justice meted out to those who betrayed their fellow countrymen, but at the same time, they are loyal to the tenets of Islam.
This fault line means that there is a degree of ambivalence about a blogger who supports the trials against war collaborators, but is also vociferously critical of Islam.
Speaking to people during my research in Sylhet, where Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered, I found a lot of support for sentencing war criminals – but everyone I spoke to qualified their opinion with the insistence that any trial should be fair and not politically influenced. When I asked them if they thought the ICT was well placed to provide such a service, the overwhelming response was no.
In Sylhet, a relatively conservative part of the country, the ICT trials were seen as a vanity project for the government and the Awami League, a key player in the independence movement that was often accused of pursuing a historic vendetta against the pro-Pakistan religious right.
And in this part of the country, feelings towards “atheist bloggers” – some of whom have attacked the reputation of the Prophet Muhammad – are not so warm. The majority of my respondents maintained that it was unacceptable for anyone to desecrate the honour of the Prophet in a Muslim society. Ananta Bijoy Das’s murder appears to be the latest episode in the conflict between two of Bangladesh’s extreme political factions.
While many international observers are rightly outraged by the naked brutality of the attack, it is important to think about where the unfettered emotion behind it came from. The killing shows how Bangladesh is still struggling with the bloody memories of its independence.