The murder of Shahjahan Bachchu in his village in Bangladesh’s Munshiganj district, last week, raises the spectre of Islamist fanaticism after several months. Close to 50 bloggers, writers and publishers in Bangladesh had been assassinated till late 2016. The latest act of criminality driven by religious hate has rekindled fears of terrorism, which the government has been trying to root out over the past two years.
After the horrific killing of 22 people, Bangladeshis as well as foreigners, at Dhaka’s Holy Artisan Bakery, two years ago, the government sat up and took notice. That seemed to have assured people who felt that religious fanaticism was being brought under control. Operations by the police and security agencies, such as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), against Islamist terrorists, have been a sustained affair in these two years. A good number of people, alleged to be militants, have died while they were making explosives or planning to stage attacks in various regions of the country. Not long ago, two people were taken into custody after the police received information that these alleged militants were planning a large-scale attack targeting Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, leading members of her cabinet and members of the Awami League on the day when tributes are paid to the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Given that several hideouts of militants were busted in security operations and individuals — including women driven by radical Islam that has absolutely no tolerance for other people’s beliefs — suspected of involvement in planning hate attacks on liberals, government installations and other institutions were arrested, it was easy to believe that things were under control. People began to feel that the government was on top of the situation. But the authorities and people from a cross-section of the society had also warned against complacency. The murder of Shahjahan Bachchu, a publisher, writer and an activist of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, puts paid to any thought of religious militancy being a thing of the past.
Bachchu’s killing comes at a difficult time for the government. With the general elections expected to be held in December, the Hasina government is facing criticism on several fronts. There have been demands, both in the country and abroad, that the government must ensure that the electoral exercise is a transparent and inclusive affair. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) stayed away from the last election in January 2014 when its demand for a caretaker regime to oversee the voting was dismissed by the government. The result was the constitution of a Parliament in which 153 of the 300 lawmakers were returned to the House without any opposition. For all its defence of the last election as a constitutional necessity, the government remains acutely conscious of the fact that there can be no repeat of the 2014 exercise.
The picture has become even more grim with the deaths of individuals in what has been described by the authorities as “gunfights between the followers of dead men and security forces”. In recent weeks, the government’s drive against drug dealers, bona fide as well as suspected, has led to the deaths of no fewer than 130 men at the hands of security agencies. The outcry, naturally, has been loud. Human rights organisations and several citizens have condemned the extra-judicial killings of those taken into custody by agencies such as the RAB. Due process has clearly been ignored. None of those arrested has been brought to court. In their operations against drug peddlers, the authorities have disturbingly not paid heed to the imperatives of following the rule of law. Indeed, the country’s home minister has made it clear that operations against the drug peddlers will go on for as long as they are necessary.
The murder of Bachchu only adds to the misfortune the people of Bangladesh have been suffering in recent times. There is little reason to suppose that Islamist militants have been wiped out. They are certainly in disarray, but as the murder of the publisher in Munshiganj clearly demonstrates, they could be reorganising themselves while the attention of the authorities is focused on other imperatives such as the drive against drug peddlers.
Even as people wait for Bachchu’s killers to be identified and brought to justice, news comes in of the death, in suspicious circumstances, of Suman Zahid. The son of Selina Parvin, the Bengali journalist assassinated by the murder squads of the Jamaat-e-Islami — a political party fanatically loyal to the Pakistan occupation army, on the eve of Bangladesh’s liberation in December 1971 — Zahid was a key witness at two recent trials of war criminals. Not long ago, the sibling of another witness at the trials was found dead. The manner of the two killings is eerily similar: The bodies of both men were found beside railway tracks.