The murder of the Bangladeshi author Avijit has cast a shadow over the country. Because of a handful of hardliner extremists, Bangladesh risks becoming a place of endless feuds, writes BRAC's Asif Saleh.
One of my clear memories of interacting with Avijit, the slain rationalist blogger from Bangladesh, was around the time of post electoral violence against the minority Hindu community in Bangladesh in 2001. Avijit was a supporter to the cause of protecting the rights of the minority. He felt strongly that Bangladesh was losing its secular character. We agreed on the cause but we disagreed on the path to take. Long emails of argument-counter argument followed. In the end, he left the online organization that I had just started. From those early days of activism during which he started his rationalist newsgroup Muktomona, he came a long way in the last 13 years. He focused on writing for a different audience publishing his work on science and rational thinking in a language that young Bangladeshis understand. Soon after, he developed a following on the net. Unlike a lot of Diaspora Bangladeshis' on-again-off-again activism, Avijit remained steadfastly focused on his mission and, as a result, made enemies and often got threats from religious fundamentalists. As his wife Bannya later recalled in an interview with BBC, everyone got threats all the time but how many actually took it seriously?
Wrong call. Things have changed quite a lot in the last two years. During this time, in between quiet lapses, people across the political and ideological spectrum argued and fought bitterly. A number of targeted attacks on bloggers and a university teacher happened within the last 24 months. Those were the weak signals that all is not well with the society. Property and land-related conflicts are at an all-time high. The organization that I work for registered twice the number of cases of violence against women last year. With that backdrop of growing violence, two years ago a bloody conflict started centering the issue of the trials of the war criminals of the liberation war. This was followed by election-related violence a year later in 2014 and now after exactly a year, the country is in the middle of a political battlefield. Hardly a day goes by these days when you don't read news of passengers not getting burnt to death by patrol bomb thrown by opposition activists. An influential editor has termed this as tutsi-hutu-izations of Bangladeshi politics. As if to make the points for him, Avijit's murder on one hand was mourned by many liberals but on the other hand was celebrated very publicly on social media by another group. Graphic pictures of his last moments were posted with posters rejoicing. Very swiftly, rather than condemning the murder itself, the argument became about Avijit's writing and how hurtful it was - as if that offered some form of rationalization to the killing. Somewhere lying in there is a "why do they hate us" moment, perhaps - for both the groups. Coexistence once was possibility. But how did we come to this? The polarization in Bangladeshi society now looks all engulfing.
For the rationalists and zealots, the difference was ideological as initial investigation suggests. But for some groups who are doing the political battles, according to Mustaque Khan, a SOAS professor who follows Bangladesh closely, it is less about ideology and more about economics. He argues that rural politics is mostly about patronage. Every 5 years, young activists in two opposing political parties, got a chance to make a living as political power shifted from one party to another after each election. For the first time in a while, BNP is out of power for almost 8 years and that balance is tilting. Khan predicts that it may very well become a fight for survival for the opposition, leading to widespread violence which is often mindless and divorced from any political strategy other than just causing mayhem and instability. Khan's talk happened in December. After three months of the latest stream of political violence, his prediction is fast becoming the new norm.
Staying within this turmoil, it was almost difficult to believe the recent Price Waterhouse study which forecasts Bangladesh to be the 23rd largest economy by 2050. With all the possibilities, the stark reality is also that it doesn't take much to cause an uproar in this small but overpopulated country. As recent media reports have shown, 500 taka (6 USD) will get you a petrol bomb and another 5 will get you thrower. Spend a little money here and there like this and you have casualties and headlines all around the country often at the expense of the working class who have little voice in this. So far, more than 100 people have lost lives in this violence - most of them being burnt by these petrol bombs thrown at the buses or trucks they were on. Most people detest this violence, but very few will say that government has the ability have full control over this. But opposition's no hold barred approach in creating havoc makes one worried that a very wrong kind of signal will go out to those who killed Avijit - occasional targeted killings can be slipped in the middle of larger political clashes. Being worried about the larger political battles, thanks to the fierce polarization within the society, we are almost ignoring the fact that a more cynical and dangerous trend of intolerance is creeping in slowly but surely in this society. Like the bystander pedestrians who watched Avijit die without action, we are all standing around being passive.
Even though some members of the civil society are calling for dialog between the political parties, almost everyone knows very little will come of this. One way or another, this short term political battle will also get resolved for sure, but the damage to the fabric of the society that is slowly engulfing is going to be far more damaging than we can imagine. Dialog that is needed must start across economic class, religious beliefs and ideological divides. While the brutal killings of innocent citizens must be severely punished, the space for peaceful dissent needs to expand.
For a short time this week, the success in the world cup cricket brought the country back together with both government and opposition calling for a victory rally - some much needed relief in the wake of consistent bad news. This will not last long but at least there is still hope. As long as we go back to the basics and start listening to people we do not like - not for the sake of liking them necessarily but at least to understand the differences and to figure out a way to co-exist. Because of a handful of hardliner extremists, Bangladesh otherwise risks becoming a place of endless feuds.
Asif Saleh is a writer, policy wonk and social entrepreneur from Bangladesh. He is also the founder of rights organization Drishtipat and a senior director at the development organization BRAC.