On the face of it, the series of attacks on bloggers in Bangladesh — the latest victim is Ananta Bijoy Das, >mowed down by machete-wielding killers in Sylhet — suggests the hand of intolerant Islamic fundamentalists affiliated to various militant groups. These groups have targeted bloggers for their “atheistic” and “secular” views over the last few years. The victims include >Avijit Roy , the pioneering hand behind the popular Bangladeshi free thinkers’ blogging platform, Mukto-Mona. Roy and others used the Internet to voice their strong concerns and provocative views against conservatism and fundamentalism in Bangladesh, making them ready targets of the violent Islamist groups. When you dig deeper, though, these attacks are unmistakably another sad testament to the long-raging battle for the country’s soul. The bloggers are among those who would want to hold on to the ideal of a secular state that was conceived after the historic war of liberation against the then West Pakistan in 1971. On the other side are fundamentalist malcontents who have never accepted that ideal, and drawn their inspiration from the collaborators of that period of war.
Ever since the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in 2010 started the long-pending process of indictment of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for the brutal war crimes during the liberation war, the contradictions have become sharper. When one of the leaders, Abdul Quader Mollah, was convicted, spontaneous agitations erupted in Dhaka culminating in the Shahbag protests in 2013 demanding capital punishment for those convicted for the war crimes of 1971. While it must be unequivocally said that these demands are not entirely just, for capital punishment is barbaric in itself, the demand is rooted in the country’s violent history. The sharp political polarisation in Bangladesh, despite a majority of the people favouring punishment for war criminals, has led to the rejuvenation of Islamic forces that were supported at some points by the leading Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Secular and progressive bloggers such as Roy and others had taken the side of those opposed to the Jamaat-e-Islami and other radical Islamist forces ranged on the other side. The government has since accepted some of the demands of the protesters on this issue. But the Sheikh Hasina regime is bogged down by the polarised political equations in Dhaka and has not aggressively taken on those who have targeted the bloggers, making them soft targets for the radical Islamists. How many more bloggers would have to give up their lives before the government realises that their battle is essentially the same as that for justice for the war crimes of 1971?