Since the eruption of protests in 2013 demanding the hanging of those involved in war crimes before the liberation of Bangladesh, at least seven bloggers and human rights activists have been killed. Only one of these cases has seen a conviction. Fearing for their lives, many bloggers and human rights activists gone into hiding, either in Bangladesh or abroad. Excerpts from an interview with one of the human rights activists on the run.
Why did you flee Bangladesh?
Since 2013, there is this Gana Jagran Manch, formed against these war criminals. War criminals have been tried and not hanged, so we wanted hanging. We knew that these people are Jamaat-e-Islami supporters, and the day the Jamaat government came, these people would find a way to be acquitted. In the middle of this protest and demonstration, Rajib Haider, who used to write under the name Thaba Baba, was killed. He was hacked to death… Hefajat-e-Islam had only one demand, that all atheists should be killed. They wrote that openly on Facebook… We believe the Awami League is behind the rise of this organisation. From the very beginning, they have [said] everybody linked to the Gana Jagran Manch is an atheist, and no atheist should remain in the country. Whoever was linked to our movement was harassed and killed. Ever since the Gana Jagaran Manch movement, Islamists have been threatening me. They used to call me and threaten me that you either stop writing or you’ll be killed. You’re writing these things, you stop writing. They used to say, look what happened to Rajib Haider.
Didn’t you go to the police?
No. Many of us did not go to the police, because in Bangladesh nobody trusts the police. We feel if we file a general diary then police would post a sentry in front of my house, just for name’s sake, and I will become more of a target because the police will only pass on information of my movements to the Islamists. The Islamists published this list of atheists in Bangladesh, they publish a list every now and then. The police should have taken action against these people, but they never did… Avijit [Roy] has been killed, Najibul Islam has been killed, Julhas Mannan who was a gay rights activists was killed. The home minister himself said, ‘This is a Muslim country. There is no place for gays in this country’… Sheikh Hasina herself has said that if anyone dies because of writing something, the government will not take any responsibility. There are many ways of murdering. The person who is actually murdering and the person giving the order, both are murderers. And the one who is supposed to protect the victim, if the government doesn’t protect him, isn’t the government too responsible for the murder?… I think the government is also a murderer.
Tell us about Hefajat-e-Islam.
Amir of Hefajat-e-Islam is Ahmad Shafi. He had given a 13-point set of demands to the government. Hefajat was responsible for stopping the Gana Jagaran Manch movement. He is very powerful in Bangladesh now. Whatever he says happens. We used to know Sheikh Hasina as a liberal. We support Awami League because they were linked to the freedom struggle, and we can never support Jamaat because they had killed the father of the nation and they rehabilitated the people who killed the father of the nation. We can never support BNP and Jamaat. But sadly the Awami League government is against us. This is a game of power for the government. The Awami League government is doing all sorts of things to win back the confidence and support of the people. It’s basically trying to speak for both sides, the secularists as well as the fundamentalists and Islamists… I don’t know if the emergence of these fundamentalists such as Hefajat-e-Islam coincides with the emergence of ISIS internationally, but the government has been denying the existence of ISIS in Bangladesh repeatedly… Whoever terrorises in the name of religion, they are all the same across the world. Some people kill in the name of Islam, some people kill in the name of protecting cows. I believe they all have the same character. I respect India because it is constitutionally secular. But I can’t say the same for Bangladesh, because the state religion is Islam.
Who is the larger threat, the government or Islamists?
Both are threats to me… The Islamists will kill me if I don’t hide. If the Islamists don’t do anything to me, then the government will come and arrest me.
According to the fundamentalists and Islamists, who is an atheist?
I think whoever doesn’t believe in any religion according to them is a naastik. The Islamists have made this definition even tighter. According to them, whoever talks of secularism is an atheist. You’ll find many people who are religious themselves but advocate secularism. They want equality for religions, they want the country to be a secular country. According to Islamists even these people are atheists.
How many activists and bloggers who you know have fled the country?
This is a secret mater. For the sake of safety we don’t talk about it. While everybody in Bangladesh thinks these people are still in the country, actually they may be in some other country. They can’t say they are not in the country because they could be killed when they get back, there could be problems with their visa. Many things can happen. A minimum ten to 15 boys and girls have fled the country.
Can you apply for asylum in India?
No, I haven’t thought about asylum or anything. I really love my country. My parents are there, I want to go and see them. If I take asylum in some other country I will not be able to do that. I have to think about my wife too. Life is above everything else, everybody wants to live. So there are many like me, they are lucky they are alive. I am lucky that I am alive. You can’t be living with this fear of death, with the fear of being killed all the time. Suppose you’re eating, you’re looking over your shoulder. Somebody knocks on your door, it could be a beggar, but you’re scared. You can’t live with this fear for very long. I don’t know what will happen…
Do you see things changing in future?
I am really, really sad and I am really frustrated. It would have been nice if I could say that things would change. But unfortunately I can’t say that. Although we have developed and progressed in many areas, we are going back to the Middle Ages. Nowadays you’ll see there are too many women who wear a burqa, which wasn’t there earlier. My point is Hefajat-e-Islam’s 13-point charter of demands was presented to the government. Why should the government deal with these people? We can see that many of the things in this charter of demands are becoming a reality slowly in Bangladesh. And these Islamists and Hefajat-e-Islam are getting encouraged by the government every day. One of their demands is that Hindu writers should not be in any textbooks. And the government is listening to that and has actually removed many writings of Hindu writers. They are demanding that anything written by atheists should not be in textbooks. For example Humayun Azaad’s poem, a beautiful poem, was in the textbooks. Because Islamists have called Humayun Azaad an atheist, the government removed that poem.