In 2013 there was a massive movement in Bangladesh demanding capital punishment for the war criminals of 1971. When this protest began, later came to be known as the Shahbag protest, I joined in to attain some justice for my freedom fighter ancestors.
I have never been a supporter of capital punishment. But this time it was different. After the Indian subcontinent was partitioned by the British in 1947, the relationship between the partitioned became very heated. Instead of culture or geography, the partition happened by religion. East Bengal became East Pakistan. The two states were geographically, culturally, socially different. The central government of Pakistan was discriminatory and abusive. But the Bengalis didn’t take the abuse, they fought for equal rights and later independence. To finally dominate and silence the ‘dirty Bengals’ Pakistan launched a military attack in the dead of night on 25th March 1971. Islamic Political parties such as Jammat e Islami joined the Pakistani Army and together killed an estimated 3,000,000 people. Raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape. A large section of the intellectual community of Bangladesh was also murdered. With the help of India, Bengali people fought for nine months and led Bangladesh to victory. After the war, those traitors of Jammat e Islami fled to Pakistan, the Middle East, and the UK. They came back in 1975 after the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a military coup and rose to political power.
In 2008 election Awami league came to power with the promise to punish the war criminals. The International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh) was set up in 2009 to investigate and prosecute Pakistan Army and their local collaborators, Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams. United Nations Development Programme offered assistance in 2009 on the tribunal’s formation, and the EU has passed three resolutions supporting the trials.
42 years after the war the traitors were finally on trial. Almost everyone aware of the situation wanted them to get the worst punishment permitted by law, which is death by hanging. Anything less would be a joke. Because in a country so corrupt as Bangladesh, for someone with money and influence life imprisonment means they will live in luxury in jail and will be out in a couple of years depending on their behavior. Also, these criminals are 80-90 years old. They would most likely spend their imprisonment in a hospital, nurses tending to their every need.
Even though the war criminal Abul Kalam Azad got a death sentence, he fled the country long ago. The next one, Abdul Quader Mollah, who was one of the worst, was given life imprisonment. In protest hundreds and thousands of people took to the streets. This was the Shahbag protest. Our demands were simple. We wanted the death penalty for Quader Mollah and all the war criminals, we wanted the ban on Islamic terrorist party Jamaat-e-Islami from Bangladeshi politics and boycott of Jamaat institutions.
Jamaat e Islami has been terrorizing this land ever since they were formed. Their senior leaders were actively fighting with the Pakistani army against Bangladesh in the liberation war. They support the terrorist organization Ansarullah Bangla Team and have had apparent ties to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and now ISIS. They are a deadly and destructive group. Activists, writers, and bloggers have been opposing them in their writings for years.
On the tenth day of the protest, Ahmed Rajib Haider was found dead. Someone had hacked him in the dark of night. Ansarullah Bangla Team was responsible for the murder,. According to the Investigators, the attack was masterminded by the Islamic Chhatra Shibir leader ‘Rana’ which is Jamaat-e-Islami’s youth wing.
This was an attempt to defame the rally. Jamaat e Islami used all their resources and started a campaign against the bloggers and activists. Fake anti-Islamic blog posts were made, and the screenshots were distributed all over the country. We were branded as atheists, blasphemers, anti-Islamic and murdering us is justified by the holy book of Quran.
Soon after, a Jamaat-e-Islami backed Islamic fundamentalist organization called Hifazat-e-Islam started to demand blasphemy law and the death penalty for all atheist activist bloggers. Their goal was to shift focus from Jamaat-e-Islami, the war crimes trials and defile the Shahbag protest. Authorities started to monitor all blog sites and arrested four bloggers in response to their violent protests. We came out on the street once again to challenge this action. The government started to become forgiving towards the Islamic fundamentalists and became hostile towards secular activists and bloggers to satisfy the Muslim majority population. Even the prime minister Sheikh Hasina instead of finding the killers and bringing them to justice gave statements condemning the bloggers and activists. So when a group called Defenders of Islam published a hit list of 84 writers, bloggers, and activists, everyone got frightened. They knew nobody will protect them. Some fled the country, some stopped writing, others became reserved, and the blog community slowly died down. But that didn’t stop Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefajat-e-Islam. They kept pushing their fundamentalist ideas on people.
A year later, It was an ordinary day in February, I got home late that night from visiting the Annual Book Fair and heard the news. Avijit Roy was just attacked where I was just an hour ago. I didn’t believe it at first. Sometime later the news was confirmed, Avijit Roy was dead.
Avijit was the person who everyone looked up to, even his opposers respected him. I have never seen him disrespect anyone, say anything without proper proof. He had a wise, caring aura around him. His books gave thousands of people like me the strength to think outside the norm. So, when I attended the protests the next morning, I thought people will not accept this murder and rally in the streets demanding justice. But barely anyone showed up.
The death of Avijit Roy was a fatal blow to the atheist community in Bangladesh. Everyone in this small group became acutely aware of their online existence. When the government failed to make any progress in the murder investigation and their official statements sided with the terrorist’s, everyone realized that they will not protect us; we are all alone in this battle. The big names of the atheist, the secular community became very careful in their daily lives, some started to make arrangements to leave the country.
(Continued in Part 2)