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Extremist violence is trying to kill the finest part of our tradition

Freedom of expression has a long history in what is now Bangladesh – but nowadays, old power elites are using religiously motivated terrorism to crush it. And our elected politicians are wavering in their defence of democracy. This is a crime against the finest part of our local political tradition, writes PEN’s Salil Tripathi, who also gives us the political background to today’s crisis.

Credits Text: Salil Tripathi December 17 2015

Blogs are modern; machetes are ancient. It is tempting to see the brutal murder of five people – four bloggers and one publisher – in Bangladesh this year as an example of tradition and modernity, where machetes appear to be a crude, older form of argument, silencing the contemporary form, a blog. A clash of ideas it certainly is, but if we look deeper into the region’s past, the opposite is true – a blog is continuation of an older, rich tradition of arguments; the machete which seem to end those arguments is a modern intrusion.

For the bloggers who have been individually named in lists floating around the Internet, targeted, harassed, threatened, intimidated, physically attacked, told to stop writing, advised to leave the country, and in four recent cases, killed, actually belong to a tradition dating back at least 150 years. And the militants who respond to their arguments with weapons are a relatively new phenomenon in Bangladesh. To understand why, let us go back in history.

Bangladesh was once East Pakistan, the eastern half of Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation that was carved out of undivided India when the British rule ended in 1947. By the late 1930s, the Muslim League had begun demanding a separate nation for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, a demand the British paid attention to and encouraged, even though the leaders of India’s freedom struggle – Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and others – tried in vain to convince the Muslim League that Hindus, Muslims, and others could all live together in peace in a secular India. The violence that accompanied the independence of India and Pakistan was brutal – hundreds of thousands died.

Independent Pakistan was united by religion and divided by geography – nearly 1,600 kilometers of Indian territory stood between the two halves. But little else united the two halves other than faith. A major divisive force was language. Most people spoke Punjabi in the west, and the government decided to make Urdu Pakistan’s national language. In the east, however, the vast majority spoke Bengali, and its leaders – Muslim and Hindu alike – demanded that Bengali be given equal status. The east also felt it was neglected and its economists compiled credible evidence that the west saw the east as a colony to be exploited, and not as an equal partner. In Pakistan’s first proper elections, called after a cyclone had devastated the east, a pro-Bengali party, Awami League, got the majority of seats for the federal assembly. But instead of inviting its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to form government, Pakistan’s then ruler Gen. Yahya Khan sent troops. Massacres followed, and hundreds of thousands died, and possibly hundreds of thousands of incidents of rape occurred in the nine months that followed. Ten million refugees fled to India, and India trained the Mukti Bahini, Bangladesh’s guerrilla force. In December 1971 India entered the war, and Pakistan surrendered in two weeks. Bangladesh became independent.

At the time of that war, while most people who lived in what became Bangladesh wanted independence, some believed in a united Pakistan. Some of them became accomplices of Pakistan army, aiding and abetting, and sometimes participating in wartime atrocities. The Awami League formed government after the war, and said it would prosecute those who had committed war crimes. Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975, and succeeding governments began to support Islamic practices, and the idea of prosecuting those accused of war crimes began to disappear. It was only after 2009, when Mujib’s daughter, Hasina Wajed, whose electoral promises included setting up war crimes tribunals, became prime minister, and formed those tribunals. Of the more than one dozen men indicted of war crimes, most have been found guilty. Four have been executed and one has died in jail during the trial process.

The Jamaat followers are devout Muslims; the Awami League followers include many Muslims, many devout, but the party believes in secularism. (Bangladesh has a sizeable population of minorities – Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, others following other traditions, and, indeed, people of no faith). The conflict in Bangladesh today can be seen in three ways, and each is partly correct – it is a conflict between the religious and the secular; it is also a conflict between those who believed in the idea of 1971, of language-based nationalism, and those who believe in faith-based nationalism; and those who want justice (and retribution) for what happened during the war, and those who want to let bygones be bygones, even if it means the culture of impunity which has prevailed in Bangladesh for more than four decades, would continue.

It is in that climate that the bloggers have been writing – fiercely, using sharp, polemical language – denouncing blind faith and religion. And of the five men killed, four were writers, and three of them wrote for the blog, Mukto Mona (free mind), and the fifth man was the publisher of one of the bloggers. By the nature of their arguments (rationalist), and by the medium they chose (the Internet), they might seem “modern,” and those whom they upset, and those who threatened the bloggers, were religious, and hence might seem “traditionalists.” But in reality, the bloggers are part of an older, continuing tradition in Bengal – of pamphleteering, arguing, challenging, debating, and believing in the idea that you can change the minds of people through the power of your pen. That tradition is at least 150 years old. And Islam in Bengal, with its Sufi influence, has not traditionally been militant. Indeed, the Baul musicians of Bengal sing from a syncretic faith, which is inclusive, eclectic, and represents the rich, intermingled culture of Bengal.


Bengal – including today’s Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal – represents a region from where some of the most original thinkers, writers, artists, philosophers, and reformers emerged. They used pamphlets and newsletters to argue cogently the need to transform society. These were the journals of the Indian renaissance – Satyajit Ray’s film, Charulata (1964), based on Tagore’s novella, Nasht Neer (The Broken Nest) encapsulates the intellectual ferment of that time, where ideas articulated well in a pamphlet shaped opinion, leading to vigorous arguments and debates in the intellectual salons of Calcutta.

The reformist movement Brahmo Samaj, which originated in Calcutta in 1828, led the move to outlaw the barbaric Sati system (where a Hindu widow was in effect forced to commit suicide when her husband died, by making her join his funeral pyre) and which promoted education for women, did so through a newsletter called The Indian Messenger. Harish Chandra Mukherjee published the Hindu Patriot, which campaigned for the rights of indigo cultivators in the 1850s. His writing inspired Dinabandhu Mitra to write the play Neel Darpan in 1860, which championed indigo farmers. Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee spoke out against restrictions on press freedom by the British rulers in the Bengal Spectator. One of India’s oldest newspapers, Amrita Bazar Patrika, started as a weekly around the same time. Combining concern for the poor and love for Baul music was Harinath Majumdar, also known as Kangal Harinath.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the noted Bengali writer (whose novel Ananda Math, published in 1882 was set around an 18th century rebellion), used to write for Bangadarshan, a literary magazine he founded in 1872, and which the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore revived in 1901. Its aim was to narrow the gulf between the educated and the uneducated.

Jugantar, which represented a more revolutionary ethos, was founded in 1906 – the year after the British partitioned Bengal along religions lines, only to overturn the partition in 1911, but sowing the seeds of future discord.

Perhaps the most important of all was Prabashi (the traveller, or the one living in exile), where Tagore wrote frequently. Ramananda Chatterjee founded the magazine in 1901, and later, an English magazine, the Modern Review, in 1907. Tagore’s novel, Gora, was serialized in Prabashi; the magazine published the kind of articles that the slain bloggers would have written – among the topics covered were history, art, archaeology, sociology, education, literature, literary theory, scientific topics, and travelogues. Chatterjee was a renaissance man who published articles on environmental degradation, indigenous communities, and took a progressive view of the world without toeing any political line.

These editors and writers were modernist, progressive, and rational. They challenged prevailing orthodoxy, and believed in the power of persuasion through argument – they wanted a fair contest, between their views and the views of their detractors. They were convinced about the rightness of their arguments; their opponents were often bound by tradition or faith, defending obscurantism and orthodoxy. And through their plays, poems, music, songs, and articles, they swayed minds. They upset many – the orthodox, the religious, and the powerful. But violence against them was not a part of the discourse.

In 2005, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate economist, wrote a book called The Argumentative Indian. Sen was writing about the Indian trait of public debate and intellectual pluralism. Sen was born in Bengal, and many Bangladeshis claim him as one of their own (as they do with Tagore). Steeped in the ethos of the region, he celebrated the idea of arguments, as a manifestation of plurality.


It is those traditions that are now under attack. According to figures compiled by Prathom Alo (the first light), Bangladesh’s leading progressive Bengali newspaper, the number of threats writers have received in the past three years is 114; since that report was published, one more author has been threatened for expressing his views. These threats have come directly to individuals, or sometimes the individuals are listed in groups. I know of writers who have been told to leave the country or to stop writing. I know of writers who have decided to lie low. I also know of writers who have continued to write, while being fully aware that each time they write something, they may be tempting fate. I also know of brave Bangladeshi journalists and writers who have written critically of the threats.

The government’s response has been disappointing. Prime Minister Hasina Wajed has said that freedom of expression does not give anyone the licence to offend someone’s religion. And her son, Sajeeb Wajed Joy reminded a journalist that “we are walking a fine line here.” He told Reuters: “We don’t want to be seen as atheists. It doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism, but given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for (Avijit Roy, the first author who was murdered this year, in February). It’s about perception, not about reality.”

Meanwhile, writers continue to face threats.

Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Dash, Niloy Chakrabarti (popularly known as Niloy Neel), and Roy’s publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipan, all murdered in the past year, represent those traditions of Bengal. Their assailants represent an alien worldview – where writers are challenged not with arguments but machetes. It is time for Bangladesh to rediscover and embrace its real traditions, and put up a united front against those who wish to remake the country.

Salil Tripathi is Chair, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International. He is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Yale University Press, 2016; first published by Aleph in the Indian subcontinent, 2014). His other books include Detours: Songs of the Open Road (Tranquebar, 2015) and Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009). He is contributing editor at Mint and Caravan in India. He writes for publications around the world and his journalism has won awards in Hong Kong, the United States, and India. He lives in London.

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