Night in Dhaka: Empty restaurants, people living in fear, elite shaken out of idyll

Bloggers hacked to death, minorities under siege and now the attack on Holey Artisan Bakery in one of the most secure neighbourhoods of the city.

Updated: July 10, 2016 1:43 am

Holey or Butler’s. Until that moment last Friday when Mohammad A Arafat heard explosions and gunshots ringing out at Holey Artisan Bakery, the upscale restaurant near his house, down Road Number 79 in Dhaka’s Gulshan-II neighbourhood, he was making up his mind about which of the two restaurants he would walk down to later that night.

Less than a week later, as he sits in his living room, taking furious drags of his cigarette, Arafat can’t seem to get his head around how the terrorists reached his neighbourhood. “This is a very, very protected area. I was very worried that night… kept thinking if somebody I knew was trapped,” says Arafat, who is a faculty member of the business school at Dhaka’s Independent University. “It has affected us. It’s so close… we could hear the sounds late at night and then in the morning,” he recalls.

That was indeed “close”. Arafat, after all, had led secular activists in their protest against Jamaat-e-Islami leaders at Shahbag Square in 2013.

dhaka attack, dhaka terror attack, dhaka news, dhaka bakery attack, dhaka news, bangladesh terror attack, isis, islamic state, world news, bangladesh news, dhaka attack news, The roundabout in Gulshan, the upscale neighbourbood where the terrorists struck on July 1. (Source: Express photo by Shubhajit Roy)

Soon after last Friday’s attacks on Holey Artisan Bakery, which left 23 people dead, the Bangladesh government had indicated that the Jamaat-e-Islami was behind the attacks. It blamed the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a terror outfit which has traditionally drawn its members from the Jamaat-e-Islami’s support base.

For Dhaka’s elite, the fear has hit home. Even for a nation blighted by unstable politics and, of late, targeted attacks on bloggers and minorities, the attack was shocking probably because it hit the city where it hurt most — the attackers were young men from wealthy families, went to elite schools and frequented the hippest places in the city, much like any self-absorbed youngster in neighbourhoods such as Gulshan would. On any other day, not too long ago, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer and Nibras Islam would have been Tarishi Jain, Abinta Kabir and Faraaz Hossain. Unfortunately for a nation founded on secular principles, ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ are now dangerous affiliations.

“Both the victims and the attackers were part of the same social set-up. It is a small society… everyone knew everyone else. They may not have been friends but would definitely have had a nodding acquaintance,” says a woman member of Bangladesh’s parliament who lives in Gulshan.

“Aamra aatonke aachhi (we are living in fear). Till now, we thought we were safe, that only those on the margins were at risk. But this last attack has got us scared,” says a woman member of parliament from the Awami League, who doesn’t want to be named.

Over cups of tea, a prominent TV channel owner, who too doesn’t want to be named, says his 24-year-old daughter is scared because she works in an international organisation and her workplace has “17 foreigners and only three Bangladeshis”.

Down Road Number 12, Banani, an upscale neighbourhood adjoining Gulshan that has swish restaurants and is popular with the rich and the expatriate crowd, is deserted. Two days before Eid and four days after the attack, Sujon, manager at Pizza Inn, is waiting at the counter. “It has been four days. Nobody is coming, only one table is booked.”

The staff say restaurants in the city, which are usually open until midnight or sometimes even later, now shut by 10.30 pm. Hotels in the city have been providing armed escorts to their clients.

Dhaka now is a city in fear.

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Much before the Holey Artisan attack, there was another section of society, the bloggers, who had learnt to live with chilling death threats — and, like Ajoy Roy, death itself. Roy’s son Avijit, a blogger, had been hacked to death with a cleaver in February 2015. In the months that followed, there were a string of attacks on bloggers such as Rajib Haider, Oyasiqur Rahman and Niloy Neel, among others. Avijit’s publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipan, too was hacked to death.

Dhaka-attack-em7 Ajoy Roy, whose son Avijit was hacked to death in February 2015, says “extremism is growing”. (Source: Express photo by Shubhajit Roy)

At his second-floor home near Romona police station in Dhaka, Roy says, “The cruelty levels have increased since Avijit’s murder… Muslims here are peace-loving, they are not the extremist variety. Hindus and Muslims have lived together for many years. But now, the extremism is growing.”

The 80-year-old Roy lives in this house with his wife, who is now seriously ill, younger son Anujit and daughter-in-law. The old guard at the entrance, who asks visitors to fill in their details in a register, provides the only semblance of security. The living room has trophies and souvenirs that Roy earned from his 50 years of teaching physics at Dhaka University. On one of the walls is a framed photograph of Avijit and a poster of Albert Einstein.

Avijit’s wife Bonya, who was with her husband when he was attacked and who suffered serious injuries, lives in the US with her daughter Trisha, where she is working on a project on extremism in Bangladesh.

dhaka attack, dhaka terror attack, dhaka news, dhaka bakery attack, dhaka news, bangladesh terror attack, isis, islamic state, world news, bangladesh news, dhaka attack news, Tributes for the victims of Holey Artisan at Road Number 79 in Gulshan, Dhaka. (Source: Express photo by Shubhajit Roy)

The deep divide within the country on the role religion should play had got bloggers such as Avijit to speak out. As the country’s leadership failed to resolve this conflict, right-wing radical organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami targeted anyone who challenged Islam and its orthodoxy. The string of attacks has forced many bloggers and free thinkers to leave the country.

Shahriar Kabir, a blogger, writer and filmmaker, says that since January last year, 26 bloggers have left the country.

Omi Rehman Pial, 46, another blogger who has written since 2006 on the Liberation War and war crimes, left for Switzerland earlier this year. Last year in June, he spoke to The Indian Express from his Dhaka home and said, “My six-year-old daughter could not go to school for a year. The school had got a threat saying it would be bombed if my daughter went there. The headmaster told me not to be afraid. But I didn’t want to put other children at risk.”

dhaka attack, dhaka terror attack, dhaka news, dhaka bakery attack, dhaka news, bangladesh terror attack, isis, islamic state, world news, bangladesh news, dhaka attack news, (Left to right) Blogger Shahriar Kabir talks about 26 bloggers leaving the country since January 2015; BNP leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi says the government has made it difficult for them to even hold meetings; Swami Dhruveshananda of Ramkrishna Mission is determined that the Mission won’t move out of Dhaka. (Source: Express photo by Shubhajit Roy)

Many like Arif Jebtik, 38, who is on the hit-list of extremists, have stayed on, though struggling to come to terms with the threats and the fear. “I quit my job in a newspaper. I had to change my house. I never declare where I am going. I can’t drop my daughter to school. I can’t jog in the park — I have been followed once or twice there. My mother has been threatened in Sylhet, so she moved in with me,” says Jebtik, one of the earliest bloggers in Bangladesh. “But I would rather die in this country than leave. We do not want to become martyrs, but the country’s history has put us in this place. We are the last line of defence. If we don’t fight back, this country will become a madrasa,” he says.

Then there are those who are in the line of fire of extremists because of who they are — the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minorities and members of the LGBT community.

On July 1, the day terrorists struck Holey Artisan, Shyamananda Das, a 62-year-old Hindu priest in Bangladesh’s Jhenaidah district was hacked to death by three men who came on a motorcycle.

Rana Dasgupta, a prominent leader of the Hindu-Buddhist-Christian unity council, says, “In the last year and a half, 53 people, bloggers and minorities, have been hacked to death. Threats, intimidation, attempt to murder… all of these are rampant. A lot of priests have stopped wearing dhotis, sacred threads and other symbols,” he says.

Blogger Arif Jebtik quotes a Bengali saying to illustrate how the ruling party, the Awami League, treats minorities: “Thaakley vote paabo, gele jomi paabo (if the Hindus stay, we will get the votes; if they leave the country, will get their land).”

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A member of the LGBT community spoke about the atmosphere of “bhoy (fear)” after Xulhaz Mannan, who worked at the US development agency USAid and who founded Roopban, Bangladesh’s only magazine for LGBTs, was hacked to death in April this year. “There is fear among the 5,000 members of the community in Dhaka… Mannan bhai’s murder was a shock. We have to be very careful,” he says.

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Bangladesh, born of strife in 1971, came into being as a secular country. But it could never bridge a crucial divide, the one between secularists and those who believed Islam was integral to the country’s identity. It is a divide that has over the years defined the political narrative of the country, with the ruling Awami League party seen as secular and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) seen as being soft on Islamists.

After she came to power in 2008, current PM Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League has cracked down on militant groups and arrested thousands of people, leading to allegations of human rights abuses. Many Jamaat-e-Islami leaders have been executed after the International Crimes Tribunal that Hasina set up in 2009 convicted them of committing war crimes during the 1971 war.

While Hasina is credited with having dealt with anti-India groups with an iron fist, her critics say she now leads a democracy with no effective opposition. The main opposition party in the parliament, led by former president General Ershad and his wife Raushan, are part of the government. The BNP boycotted the 2014 elections and is now not even part of the country’s parliament.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, which was part of the BNP-led ruling coalition between 2001 and 2006, is accused of intimidating and harassing minorities, and fuelling anti-India activities in Bangladesh. Hasina’s critics explain this violent steak of extremism in Bangladesh by saying that her crushing of the opposition might have played a part.

As the Awami League government steadfastly maintains that there is no Islamic State hand in any of the recent attacks, those critical of Hasina say she is in denial and is bent on fixing responsibility on the local Jamaat-e-Islami and the Khaleda Zia-led BNP. From home minister Asaduzzaman Khan to Hasina’s political advisor H T Imam, everyone in the ruling party blame “homegrown terrorists”, a code for the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Blogger Kabir, who has researched and written extensively on Jamaat’s activities, too believes the recent attacks have Jamaat written all over them. “If there’s Jamaat, the Islamic State need not set up shop with a signboard in the country. They have the presence, the wherewithal to carry out such attacks. The machete technique is a classic Jamaat weapon,” he says. The machete has been used in almost every recent attack in Bangladesh.

Kabir attributes this growing extremism to what he calls “Pakistanisation and Islamisation” of Bangladesh. He illustrates his point with examples: “Sunday was Bangladesh’s weekly holiday till 1988, but former president General H M Ershad changed it to Friday. These days, 80 per cent of the people you find in mosques are young; 60 per cent of Dhaka University women wear the hijab and the Eid Bazaar is full of designer burqas. These are social changes and indicators of which way the society is moving,” he says.

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Shadheen Malik, one of the top lawyers in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, blames Hasina’s “oppressive” regime for pushing the Jamaat underground. “If the government is oppressive, then extremism spreads. Under the current regime, democratic spaces have shrunk, normal dissent has no space,” he says. “However distasteful their (Jamaat’s) view, you will have to give them space. If dissent is not allowed, then we are heading for trouble,” he says.

BNP leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi says the Hasina government has made it difficult for them to hold meetings. “We did not hold a single meeting in 2015. The last meeting and the only meeting this year was on May 1, 2016, on Labour Day,” he says.

When asked about their political ties with Jamaat-e-Islami, Rizvi claimed that it is “not an ideological alliance” but a “political” one. However, liberals and activists recalled that during the Khaleda Zia-led BNP regime from 2001 to 2006, when the Jamaat was part of the government, incidents of minority intimidation and terror attacks were routine.

Many in Dhaka say the political battle between the two main parties has blunted the fight against terrorists. M Ziauddin Khan, a former advisor to the caretaker government, says, “Political blame game is on while attacks on other faiths are going on… The government has failed to take decisive action against the perpetrators.”

Hasina’s handling of the media has also come in for criticism, including the recent filing of cases of defamation and sedition filed against one of Bangladesh’s editors, Mahfuz Anam. As many as 83 cases of defamation were lodged against Anam in various lower courts across the country.

Lawyer Malik says, “There is no merit in those cases… Firstly, the law says that the person allegedly defamed — in this case Sheikh Hasina — has to file a case unless she is dead, lunatic or purdah-clad. Hasina is none of the three but she didn’t file any case. Based on complaints by her party workers, the judges admitted those cases. Secondly, sedition charges have to be filed with government approval, which was again missing. But, despite these lacunae, not a single lower court had the courage to stand up and finally, the High Court stayed the cases.”

dhaka attack, dhaka terror attack, dhaka news, dhaka bakery attack, dhaka news, bangladesh terror attack, isis, islamic state, world news, bangladesh news, dhaka attack news, A poster mourning Abinta Kabir hangs from the glass facade of Faisal Tower in Gulshan. The family of the teenager, who was one of the 23 killed in the attack, owns the department store Lavender. (Source: Express photo by Shubhajit Roy)

Anam, who sits relaxed in a blue kurta and white pyjama at The Daily Star office in Dhaka, doesn’t seem hassled, though he has only written one column since mid-February. “I haven’t been writing simply because the government is so intolerant. There is this whole prospect of being misunderstood, then considered enemy and then punished… Intolerance about dissenting views has reached a state of paranoia which, I think, is depriving the government from hearing alternative voices that may actually help them in formulating their own policy,” says Anam, choosing his words carefully.

His paper’s reporters and those of its sister-concern Prothom Alo have been banned from covering PMO functions since Hasina perceives them as being critical of the government. The paper’s revenues have been hit by about 30 per cent, Daily Star insiders say, because they haven’t been getting as many advertisements as before. There are several instances of journalists, considered close the Khaleda-led BNP, being charged and even jailed.

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Back in a drawing room in Gulshan, a couple are discussing the July 1 attack and their fears. The husband is a political analyst and his wife is a homemaker — they spoke on condition of anonymity. As the conversation veers around to Ishrat Akhond, one of the Holey Artisan victims who died because she reportedly wasn’t wearing a hijab, the woman asks whether she should start wearing a hijab. Her husband first tells her it is her choice but then says they should not submit to fear.

A few kilometres away, near Dhaka University, is the Ramkrishna Mission, where Swami Dhruveshananda sits behind his wooden desk. He is the head of the RK Mission in Dhaka and says he has received two threat letters. “This is the first time such incidents are taking place… the government has assured us security. And we are not going to move out or close down our Mission.”

On road number 79 in Gulshan, a tattered poster, which has held on despite the rains over the last few days, refers to Faraaz Hossain, the Bangladeshi youth who chose to die with his friends, including Indian girl Tarishi Jain, at Holey Artisan. It reads, “Dear foreigners, we still have many Faraaz bhaiyas so don’t lose faith in our country.”