Endangered bloggers

Print edition : September 04, 2015

Paying tribute to the blogger Niloy in Dhaka on August 9. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Niladri Chatterjee Niloy becomes the fourth online activist to be targeted this year by religious extremists.

IN a post on Facebook three months ago, the blogger Niladri Chatterjee Niloy indicated that his life was under threat and that the police had refused to accept a general diary (GD) entry he wanted to file after being followed by two men. “I was being followed by two young men day before yesterday [May 13],” wrote Niloy, recalling the ride back from a protest held in Dhaka against the murder of Ananta Bijoy Das, another blogger, the previous day. All the police stations along the way apparently passed the buck, citing jurisdiction as an issue. Finally, at one police station, Niloy was turned away. His post states: “They didn’t take the GD. They said ‘It’s not within our purview. Contact the police station that has the jurisdiction and leave the country as soon as possible’.”

On August 7, four men posing as prospective tenants casually walked into the fourth floor flat in Dhaka where Niloy lived and hacked him to death. Forensic experts found 12 wounds inflicted by sharp weapons on his body.

Niladri or Niloy, 28, who wrote under the name “Niloy Neel” a blog titled “Istishon” (Station) on social networking sites, is the fourth blogger to be murdered in Bangladesh this year. The others are Avijit Roy (killed in February), Oyasiqur Rahman Babu (March) and Ananta Bijoy Das. Unlike Niloy, they were attacked away from their homes.

Niloy had received numerous threats for his stance against radicalism. These had forced him to remove all his photographs from Facebook and state Kolkata as his current city. His wife, Asha Moni, alleged that the police had refused to file any complaint. Sensing danger, she said, Niloy had been looking for an opportunity to leave the country. The police, however, said that Niloy never sought their help.

Niloy was a part of Ganajagaran Mancha, a platform of activists demanding capital punishment for the 1971 war crimes convicts. Also a member of the Bangladesh Rationalists’ Society, Niloy used to write against militancy, war criminals and the Jamaat-e-Islami, apart from issues on the rights of women and children, and other social issues. Niloy’s landlord, Shamsul Haque, told the media that he had not known his tenant’s real name and that he had rented the flat identifying himself as Niloy Chowdhury. The landlord was under the impression that Niloy was a Muslim.

On August 3, Niloy posted that he had been mentioned on the list of “anti-Islam” people by one Shafiur Rahman Farabi. Farabi, who is believed to be one of the masterminds of the killing, was recently arrested for his involvement in the murder of another freethinker.

Hours after the gruesome murder, a group identifying itself as Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility for it. The Bangladesh branch of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) also claimed responsibility as it had done following the killing of other bloggers. The police said the pattern of the assault was similar to those against other slain bloggers.

Police’s role

Briefing the media, Inspector General of Police (IGP) A.K.M Shahidul Hoque put the success rate of the police in tackling militancy at 80 per cent. He said 632 cases had been lodged in incidents relating to militant attacks, and charge sheets were filed in 516 of them and 2,543 militants were arrested. He said hence no one should contest the capability of the law enforcement agencies, which had successfully nabbed suspected Islamist militants and foiled many of their “missions” to kill high-profile personalities or carry out subversive acts.

But many people question the failure of the police in preventing the murder of bloggers and arresting some of the murderers. There has not been much progress in those cases. The police have also not been able to get any information from the two people whom the public had caught while they were trying to flee after killing Oyasiqur Rahman Babu in Dhaka on March 30. However, the police had quickly arrested the six killers of the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in February 2013.

The police claimed that the Islamist organisation Ansarullah Bangla Team was behind the killing of Avijit and that they had identified seven of the killers. They also claimed to have made “adequate progress” in the probe into Niloy’s killing. They explained that the culprits operated as “sleeper cells” where one cell is isolated from the other and the people involved used fake names and addresses.

A day after Niloy’s murder, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose government is pursuing the war crimes trials braving many odds, admitted at a function in Dhaka that the wave of terrorism and militancy that had spread to different parts of the world had also hit Bangladesh. “We are trying to check those incidents with an iron hand,” she said, adding, “Bangladesh is a non-communal country... we have zero tolerance to terrorism.”

The Shahbagh movement

The murder of Niloy seems to fall into a violent pattern that Bangladesh has been witnessing for some time now. Although small, the blogger community in the country is active and often debates on religion— Islam and Hinduism included—society, government, political ideas and war crimes trials.

This has earned it the wrath of a blogging community of religious fanatics. In 2013, when young online activists initiated a unique movement demanding capital punishment for the war crimes convicts and for safeguarding the nation’s secular ideals that were attained through the Liberation War in 1971, the protagonists of political Islam listed 84 “atheist bloggers” and demanded their arrests and trial for blasphemy.

Overtly supported by one of the country’s largest parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and its ally the Jamaat-e-Islami, the extremists have labelled all those involved in the Shahbagh Ganajagaran Mancha, as the 2013 protests are called, as “atheists” even though many of them do not preach atheism but write on science, society and politics.

When the Shahbagh movement drew thousands of people in a massive show of strength, a nondescript madrassa-based organisation, Hefazat-e-Islam, came to the forefront and initiated a countermovement demanding the arrest and punishment all the Shahbagh “atheists”. The Sheikh Hasina government suppressed the radicals’ quest for “occupying Dhaka” in May 2013, which was perhaps aimed at toppling the government. Soon after driving out the Hefazat militants from Dhaka’s streets, the law-enforcers quickly evicted the temporary platform of the Shahbagh protesters.

The government said that though freedom of expression was guaranteed, it would not allow anyone to hurt the religious sentiments of the people and subsequently arrested a number of bloggers. Bloggers and secular civil society leaders criticised the government’s move. But the government defended its action, saying what it was doing was strictly under the law of the land.

Following the murder of Niloy, the IGP advised bloggers not to write anything that might hurt religious sentiments. At a press briefing, he noted: “I have enough respect for freethinkers. But we need to remember that hurting religious sentiments is a crime according to our law.” He, however, said “killing someone for that offence is never acceptable”.

After presiding over a Cabinet committee on law and order which met to discuss the killings of bloggers, senior Minister Amir Hossain Amu told reporters that 16 people had been arrested so far in six cases of attacks on bloggers and online activists. Describing all the killings as “politically motivated”, he said: “Whoever was behind these incidents, the law-enforcers will bring them to justice.” Despite the government’s pronounced zero tolerance towards terrorism, a section of the media and civil society blame it for its “lack of commitment” to act decisively against the killers of bloggers.

Liberal Bangladesh is in a long-drawn struggle against political Islam and a resurgent militancy, which is the legacy of militant groups that fought against Bangladesh’s independence in collusion with the Pakistan Army in 1971. The menace spread during the military and pseudo-democratic regimes that took power following the assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975, and when the opponents of the country’s freedom were rehabilitated under well-orchestrated plans.

The main goal of the killers and those who sponsor them is to suppress free and progressive thinking in order to transform Bangladesh into a theocratic state.

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