The Dead Bloggers of Bangladesh

Last week blogger Niladri Chattopadhyay, known as Niloy Neel, became the fourth this year to be hacked to death for writings that some felt were abusive towards Islam. Chattopadhyay was among 84 people listed by hardline groups for the alleged anti-Islamic sentiment in their writings.

The government has come under increasing pressure to investigate the killings and stop further murders, with many accusing it of failure to provide security to the country. Human Rights Watch in a statement on Wednesday called on Bangladesh to protect free speech after the Bangladeshi police chief asked bloggers not to “cross the line” with their writings. “It’s shocking that Bangladesh authorities not only failed to protect the bloggers despite complaints to the police about threats against them, but instead are proposing self-censorship,” the group’s Asia director, Brad Adams, said.

“The government should recall that its duty is to uphold the constitution and protect people’s lives, as well as their religious freedom,” Adams added. The murders have shocked most Bangladeshis and have been criticized not only by civil society groups but also the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami party. On Sunday, the Inspector General of Police, AKM Shahidul Hoque, said: “There will always be free thinkers. I have enough respect for them. But we need to remember that hurting religious sentiments is a crime according to our law. I will request them, please make sure that we don’t cross the line. Anything that may hurt anyone’s religious sentiments or beliefs should not be written,” he said.

The murders have purportedly been claimed in statements by a mysterious militant group called Ansarullah Bangla Team, which claims affiliation with al-Qaeda, but their claims have not been verified.

On the face of it, it is an attempt to kill free speech. But the problem runs deeper. The Muslim-majority nation is going through a volatile phase. Ever since the Awami League government opened the controversial war trial to indict those who committed serious crimes during the liberation war, the country has been on edge. The main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has joined hands with the Jamaat-e-Islami to unleash violent protests against the government, particularly against the war trial in which several Jamaat leaders have been indicted. The government has not heeded to the protests, but the street violence continues. The killing of the bloggers comes against this background.

The bloggers were supporters of the war crimes trial, and instrumental in shaping public opinion in cyber space against communalism, which obviously brought the Islamists’ wrath upon them. They were also soft targets compared to those involved in the trial, who get government security.

Humans are full of contradictions. On one hand where we pledge to uphold the ideals of free speech, yet on the other hand we barbarically condemn  the flag bearers of dissent in our society to death. These deaths are not just deaths of bloggers, or of journalists, these are the instances where slowly our liberties are curtailed from us piece by piece. The global community should raise its voices against these crimes against humanity occurring in broad daylight and put pressure on the government of Bangladesh to stop these attacks. Failure to do so would only send a message of toleration to the assailants.