“I cannot trust anyone anymore. I feel as if everyone is keeping an eye on me,” says Dhar, who runs a pro-woman and anti-extremist blog called womenchapter.com.
Dhar, 47, received a spate of threats from extremist groups in June. “I was threatened for five days in a row. The threatening calls came from 52 different numbers. I was abused on Facebook and told that I would be their next target,” she says.
Last week, blogger Niladri Chattopadhyay or Niloy Neel was hacked to death. “Niloy too had received threats around the same time,” she says. His death was the fourth killing of a blogger in Bangladesh in six months, allegedly by the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a regional chapter of al Qaeda.
Blogger Ananya Azad is on the hit list, too – with fresh threats issued this week by a radical group, Ittehad-Ul-Mujahideen. Azad, who is a fierce critic of extremists, has often been threatened. In June, he decided to leave Bangladesh and go to Germany on a fellowship.
“When I was in Bangladesh, the one thing I had on my mind was this: maybe today is my last day,” says Azad, whose father, the liberal writer Humayun Azad, was killed by extremists in 2004. “If you want to live in Bangladesh just shut your mouth, break your pen and throw your brain into the dustbin,” Azad adds.
The space for liberal thinking in Bangladesh is shrinking. It’s not just bloggers who are being threatened. Rock band members, Baul singers, photographers, sculptors and painters have all been repeatedly attacked by radical extremists who object to their secular positions.
Most of these threats are sent online, on social networking sites, Facebook or Twitter, or through text messages and calls over the phone. The identities are mostly false, which is why they cannot be traced.
“We live in constant fear of who’s next,” Maqsoodul Haque, popularly known as Mac, the lead vocalist of the band Maqsood O’ Dhaka, says. His songs (such as Parwardigar on war crimes) have been critical of both the government and extremist groups. “They don’t want any free speech in the country,” Haque says.
The attacks have come in the wake of a burgeoning movement in recent months against war crimes in Bangladesh, which centred on a campaign seeking the death sentence for a war criminal, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Qauder Mollah.
The movement called Shahbagh, a public centre where the protestors used to gather, gave birth to a forum called Ganojagoron Mancha, which has been a fierce critic of attacks on freedom of speech and expression. Avijit Roy, killed in February this year, was a part of the movement, protesting against growing radicalism in the country and championing atheism and human rights, including homosexuality.
The radicals are training their guns on anybody who questions their religious beliefs. The Bauls, whose music celebrates plurality, have been at the receiving end of their wrath. “They want us to stop singing,” Baul exponent Abdel Mannan says. “In the past few years, extremists have harassed many Baul singers. They would shave off heads and beat them up,” adds Mannan, whose popular song, Orey Maulana, Masjid ghore Allah thaake na…‘ (Maulana, Allah is not confined to the mosque), has often irked the fundamentalists.
Liberal intellectuals fear that it is not just extremists who are after them but the government, too. In 2013, the government formed a nine-member committee to track bloggers and Facebook users who made derogatory remarks about Islam and the Prophet. Somewhereinblog.net, the largest blogging platform in Bangladesh, was asked to take down “anti-Islamic” posts from their website. Four bloggers were also charged with Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act for hurting religious sentiments.
“In 2009, the Awami League government closed our gallery and office after we displayed works on Tibetans and later the police asked us to take down the show,” says photographer and curator Shahidul Alam, who runs a photography school, Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, and a multimedia organisation, Drik Picture Library, in Dhaka. “In 2010, riot police were sent to close down Drik after we had an exhibition on extra-judicial killings,” Alam adds.
In 2007, a satirical magazine, Alpin, was forced to close after it published a cartoon extremists found offensive. In 2008, statues of five local folk singers, created by artist Mrinal Haque, in front of the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, were removed after Islamist leaders threatened to damage them.
But the recent murders of bloggers have added to the terror. “Earlier, these attacks were random and nobody took them seriously. But now we are scared,” says sculptor Vaskor Rasha. “These threats can translate into murder any time.”
The problem, the intellectuals add, is that the threats are leading to self-censorship. “We have been urging people to come to Shahbagh and protest after the killings of the bloggers. But unfortunately we could not assemble more than 100 people,” says Nasiruddin Yousuff, the director of a film on war criminals called Guerrilla.
Historians say that a nation born out of cultural resistance is facing the biggest threat to its cultural and secular ethos. Ironically, three out of four bloggers killed this year were Hindus. “The recent incidents clearly have set a question mark on our secularism. It is shameful. Things have never been this bad before,” Muntassir Mamoon, professor of history, Dhaka University, says.
Little has been done to contain the violence, many complain. This week, the inspector-general of police, A.K.M Shahidul Hoque, asked free thinkers and writers not to “cross the line”. The Bangladesh home minister, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, warned that action would be taken against those writing anything that would “hurt” religious sentiments.
“Aren’t people staying in Bangladesh? Not everyone is getting killed. We are only asking some people, who lampoon religion in the name of liberalism, to be a bit restrained,” Kamal says.
Not that the government’s attitude has helped ease the tension. The radicals have their own complaints. “If the government had punished the bloggers for writing such blasphemous pieces, nobody would have killed them,” Maulana Zaffarullah Khan, joint secretary of the group Hefajote Islam says.
Dhar, the daughter of a 1971 Liberation War martyr, feels that the only solution is to leave the country. “I had never thought that one day I would be so desperate as to want to leave my country,” she says.
Many liberals fear that Bangladesh – which fought a war for independence from Pakistan in 1971 – is treading backwards, going back to the bloody days when nationalist intellectuals were killed.
“Are we going back to where we started,” asks an agitated Dhar. Imran Sarker, head of Bangladesh Bloggers Association, adds: “This is not the Bangladesh that our fathers fought for.”