The killing of Shahzahan Bachchu, a well-known Bangladeshi writer, near his home in Munshiganj district, is the latest in a series of targeted murders of atheist, leftist or secular writers, bloggers and activists in that country. Bachchu ran a publishing house and was also the editor of a newspaper. He was a member of the Communist Party of Bangladesh. Police have not arrested anyone yet, though it is believed that the four men who gunned him down are linked to an Islamist extremist group. Not that the police have arrested anyone for any of the other killings since 2013.
The failure has meant a climate of impunity for the perpetrators, and an environment of fear that prevents the expression of independent views in this election year in Bangladesh. The Sheikh Hasina government’s 2013 ban on the Jamat-e-Islami a year before the last elections, and the imprisonment of Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia earlier this year, after her conviction in a corruption case, has created an Opposition vacuum that Islamist groups have rushed to fill.
Two Islamist militant groups are believed to be active in Bangaldesh — the Jamat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, and the Ansarul Islam. Yet, the government treats the BNP and the JeI as the bigger threats, leading to a dangerous political polarisation on the streets. On the other hand, it is seen to be encouraging an Islamist group called the Hefazat-e-Islami in a bid to reach out to conservative voters. The government’s actions appear to be turning off even sections of its own supporters. Last week’s police crackdown on a demonstration against extrajudicial killings of alleged drug peddlers, a total of 143 such killings in 24 days, showed how insecure the Hasina government feels about any opposition to it.
The Awami League’s victory in the 2014 elections, which was boycotted by the BNP, was accepted by Bangladesh, and with some hesitation, by the international community as well. But there is an all-round expectation that the upcoming election needs to be more inclusive than the last.
It may seem ironic that the BNP, which often accuses India of meddling in Bangladesh’s elections, has appealed to New Delhi to ensure that elections in Bangladesh are free and fair this time. In fact, it is only a clever reformulation of the old accusation. Irrespective of the BNP, India, which has worked closely with the Hasina government on countering terror, and also invested heavily in improving economic ties, should worry that while Islamist militants pick out targets at will, its favourite political leader and party in Bangladesh are seen as increasingly distant from the people.