The >threats issued by the Ansarullah Bangla Team , a Bangladesh-based Islamist group, against secular writers and activists pose a challenge to the polity of Bangladesh. The ABT, which has been blamed for a series of murders of secular bloggers, has released a hit list on the Internet. It names Bangla writers living in different countries, and threatens to kill them all unless its demands are met. It wants the government to revoke the Bangladeshi citizenship of the writers listed, who it terms “enemies of Islam, apostates… and unbelievers”. This threat is a direct challenge to the state of Bangladesh. It comes weeks after ABT leader Abul Bashar and several other activists >were arrested in connection with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy. Yet, the ABT has sent out a clear message that its violent campaign against critical thinkers and writers would only continue.
The secular bloggers are victims of an ongoing conflict between the ruling elite and violent Islamists. Ever since the Awami League government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened the trial of those who committed war crimes during the country’s liberation war, Bangladesh has seen a steady rise in violence. The Islamist groups are steadfastly opposed to the trial, but they lack the political capital to influence either the society or the state. So they have chosen to vent their anger through violent street protests. The Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders were indicted in the trial, and the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led the protests, which worsened the law and order situation. It was against this background that rightwing fringe groups such as the ABT started targeted killings. They attack the bloggers as they know they are soft targets. Hitting government officials and others involved in the trial would invite the wrath of the state machinery. The government’s response was on expected lines. Instead of immediately taking action against the assailants, the authorities advised the writers to “avoid provocative statements on sensitive religious issues”. It took four murders this year for the government to finally start cracking down on the ABT; by that time it had grown in strength. The government has to crack down on such fringe groups that are threatening free speech. The very survival of Bangladesh as a secular-democratic country may be at stake. Mainstream parties such as the BNP should set aside narrow political calculations and back the government in the fight against religious fundamentalism. They should realise that teaming up with fundamentalists might fetch short-term dividends, but in the long term it would only weaken the state and rupture the society.