Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 20, May 9, 2015
Death of a Free Thinker
Saturday 9 May 2015
by Nirupam Hazra
Every year, 21st February is observed as the International Mother Tongue Day since 2000. The historic significance of the day is intricately associated with the liberation movement of Bangladesh. In 1952, the peaceful demonstration of university students demanding, among other things, recognition of Bengali as one of the national languages in erstwhile East Pakistan was violently crushed. Literally it was, in many ways, the beginning of a struggle for free-speech, secularism and plurality in East Bengal which eventually led to the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh. Therefore, in Bangladesh, 21st February holds special signifi-cance and is celebrated with cultural festivals and intellectual interactions. Ekushey Padak (21st Medal), the highest civilian award of the country, has been constituted in memory of the martyrs of mother tongue movement.
But Bangladesh has come a long way since its birth in 1971, meandering through autocracy, assassinations and savage attacks on the values that led to its birth. The country and its leaders failed in their commitment to democracy, secu-larism and diversity and it is once again evident from the brutal murder of Avijit Roy, a free-thinking blogger and critic of religious extremism.
Avijit Roy, an engineer of Bangladeshi origin based in the United States, came to Bangladesh to release his book in the Book Fair during the celebration of the Mother Tongue Day. He was among the group of bloggers who regularly criticised religious extremism, intolerance and fanaticism, particularly in Bangladesh, notwith-standing the threats to their life from the radicals. On February 26, as Avijit and his wife were returning from the Book Fair, they were attacked with machete which led to Avijit’s death. Avijit was regularly threatened with dire consequences through e-mails and on social media. In one such threat Avijit was warned that he would be killed as soon as he returned to the country.
Avijit knew that it was an ‘occupational hazard’ for him and many others who raised their voice against the growing intolerance and extremism in Bangladesh and this was not the first time that free thinkers and bloggers were attacked or killed in Bangladesh. In 2013, another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was killed for his critical stand on religious fundamentalism in the country. Before that Bangladeshi scholar and poet Humayun Azad was attacked; he was later found dead under mysterious circum-stances in his apartment in Munich. Feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was forced to leave the country by the fundamentalists. The list goes on and on and these incidents repeatedly point towards the rapid decay of democratic values and a looming crisis in the country.
Political Crisis in Bangladesh
The crisis is mainly political in nature, though other facets of the crisis cannot be ignored. One of the primary reasons has been the persistent failure of the political class of Bangladesh. Since the 1990s, the two-party democratic politics of Bangladesh was more about power than democracy where political rivalry degenerated into personal enmity. Driven by their sole objective of retaining power at any cost, both the leaders of the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) reduced the government to a hereditary fiefdom and thus arose an atmosphere of political vendetta and mistrust. The winner-takes-all approach on the part of both the AL and BNP eliminated the possibility of democratic engagement or dialogue between the two antagonistic political parties. The party in power indulges in containing its opponents with force, while the Opposition forces fight it out in violent and undemocratic ways on streets. Street-fights, assassinations, violent protests and brutal state-sponsored suppression have become part of Bangladesh’s political life.
This political turmoil gave a free hand to the extremists in the country. They worked as political mercenaries under the direct and indirect patronage of political parties. The rise and dominance of an extremist party like the Jamaat-e-Islami under the BNP regime is one such example of this nexus. The Jamaat-e-Islami fiercely opposed secularism in Bangladesh as its proclaimed religio-political aim is to homogenise Bangladeshi society on the lines of religion. The minorities are either converted or expelled from the country. The leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami are also accused of war crimes for their dubious pro-Pakistan role during the nation’s liberation movement. These extremist elements with political patronage rapidly expanded their support-base and embarked on the project of radicalisation. Though the new political regime, which came to power in 2014 after an unopposed election boycotted by the Opposition, tried to contain these fundamentalists, the attempt was intended to only strengthen its political position. So, it took the form of a political witch-hunt which summarily stifled all forms of dissent and disagreement. This reactionary response of the party in power exacerbated the situation as it lacked any form of democratic legitimacy and led to further radicalisation of the disgruntled sections.
Avijit and his Mukto-mona
Avijit Roy was among those few voices that openly condemned and criticised this process of radicalisation. An avowed atheist and apostle of free-speech, Avijit regularly critiqued every form of dogmatism and irrationality through his books and articles. His blog Mukto-mona (Free thinker) was conceived as ‘an international platform for free thinkers, rationalists and humanists with the aim to promote scientific and rational views against fatalism, idealism and superstition’. Mukto-mona clearly says that they (free-thinkers) are not against any religion, but they are the staunchest critics of the religious doctrine that breeds superstition, cruelty and falsehood. Even in his article The Virus of Faith, Avijit compare religious extremism to a “highly contagious virus”. In this article Avijit shows, with examples from all over the world, how the religious self of a theist is manipulated to commit the most inhuman acts of atrocity.1 Similarly, Avijit voiced his concerns and expressed his solidarity for fellow bloggers in Bangladesh when they were arrested for being ‘openly atheist’.2
What Avijit and people like him want, through their blogs, books and articles, is the development of a scientific, rational outlook through dialogue, debate and democratic engagement. Because they believe that provocation, violent confron-tation or selective humiliation will not serve their purpose. It will not build a bridge for dialogue nor will it make people re-examine their stand in the light of reason and logic. They did not want to ridicule, insult or dismiss religion; they only wanted to bring people out from the spell of irrationality induced by religion. They used free speech to engage, not to offend, to heal, not to hurt. It is true that the death of Avijit would not draw that much attention as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, for political reasons and otherwise, but it is also true that supporters of freedom of expression and thought would not think twice before saying “Aami Avijit” (in Bengali) or in more popular terms “Je Suis Avijit”, because the virus of religious extremism needs treatment, not contempt.
1. The complete article of Avijit Roy is available at http://www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/Avijit-Roy-Final-Free-Inquiry.pdf
2. The article co-authored by Roy in support of fellow bloggers in Bangladesh https://www.secularhumanism. org/index.php/articles/3551
The author is a Research Scholar at the Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan (West Bengal). He can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org