Secular Blogger Brutally Murdered for His Beliefs - And Bangladesh Will Do Nothing About It

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Evidence at the crime scene. Credit: Arunabha Rahman Anjan (Abhijit's friend).

A pair of glasses, a pen, blood and brains surround the lifeless form of Abhijit Roy, clad in a red punjabi. The body of this curious, courageous man was hacked to pieces and left for dead when he and his wife were attacked with a cleaver just outside the Ekushe Book Fair, a public venue. None of the police officers or spectators present came to their rescue. A day later, his father, Professor Ajay Roy, handed the body over for medical research, forgoing religious rites and thereby honoring his son’s lifelong quest for rationality and science.

The blogger who started the blog Muktomona (Free Mind) had all the comforts of a successful professional life in Atlanta, yet he wrote book after book in Bangladesh, covering subjects such as the relation between religion and science and the work of Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore. 

He was killed right in front of the Teacher-Student Center (TSC), less than half a mile from where he grew up, at the Dhaka University quarters. He probably walked on that road countless times with his friends, joking, singing, arguing, smiling quietly, and thinking. The part of the university that felt most like an extension of his home, where he was supposed to breathe safely, was the place he breathed his last.

His wife Rafida Ahmed is still fighting for her life, without her left thumb.

What did Abhijit and Rafida do to invite such vicious venom?

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Rafida Ahmen Bonna, friend, and Abhijit Roy. Credit: Facebook

They ran the blog site Muktomona, where they posted critical thoughts questioning the norms of religion, politics and culture. Did they write and host unpopular or offensive thoughts? I was not a regular reader of their site, but I hope they did. Why start a blog if it is not thought-provoking? If commonly held beliefs are not questioned, how will we evolve in this world?

Yet the true reason for Abhijit’s brutal death does not lie in his actions or writings, but in the perpetrators’ malice and power. The perpetrators used social media to send death threats, never hid their intentions or the depth of their wrath and loathing, and gloated about their achievement after the deed was done.[1]

As the protests and pleas for justice are being heard all over Dhaka, no one in their right mind in Bangladesh believes Abhijit’s murderers will ever be caught and put through a proper trial.

How It Started

What has happened to Bangladesh, where absence of justice has become the norm, brutal deaths are daily occurrences, and where people actually demand a guarantee of natural death from state officials?

Once deemed the “basket case” of the world by Henry Kissinger, the enabler of the 1971 genocide, Bangladesh is projected to join the rank of middle-income countries by 2021. From experiencing a decade-long military dictatorship, the country went on to successfully embrace democratic governing mechanisms (it now has a longer history as a democracy than as an autocracy). From being the poster child of poverty and natural disasters, Bangladesh is now famous for its various poverty eradication programs.

How can a country be successful in lifting its economic status and yet slide so painfully on issues of tolerance and justice? While this combination of economic growth and political instability continues to baffle theorists, deeper anomalies of religious and cultural identities have larger-than-life implications for people who identify as Bengalis and/or Bangladeshis.

In pre-British and pre-partition Bengal, Bengali culture was porous enough to accommodate several religions, and the give-and-take between Hinduism and Islam still forms the basis of Bengali folk songs and music in general. Religion became the defining basis for political identity with the inception of Pakistan, based on the two-people two-nation philosophy, and since then the uneasy relation between religious and cultural identity has been conflictual. Bangladesh, which was once the least contested part of the Indian subcontinent, has succumbed to a religious versus secular fight that gets bloodier by the day.

More recently, the tribunal for the 1971 war crimes reignited this secular versus religious divide on a level previously unseen in Bangladesh. The demand of the Shahbag movement was for the death of war perpetrators and war criminals, while its opponents used the language of proper judicial proceedings and human rights violations. Language in politics is the weapon of persuasion and legitimacy. Young, secular activists in Bangladesh would have been better off if they had demanded justice rather than death sentences, and connected their demand for prosecution with the larger demand for a free, independent judiciary.

The anomaly of secularism is a persistent problem in Bangladesh because of how it is situated and connected with the overall breakdown of law and order. We live in a culture of immunity where criminals, including heinous murderers, can buy their freedom.

Unfortunately, this culture of immunity has become thoroughly established through the very democratic mechanism which was supposed to thwart it. It came with the two leading political parties who formed governments and won successive elections, joining with religious extremists so they could gain more seats at any cost. The Bangladeshi people in turn tolerated election irregularities and petty corruption, and looked the other way when the RAB[2] performed extra-judicial killings.

Political actions now invariably involve the killings of passersby, who are often burnt to death with petrol bombs. There have been more than a hundred of deaths in the last few months alone, not counting the hundreds more who are suffering from burn injuries. As of today, no one has been charged with any crime—even when there have been arrests at the crime scenes.

To connect the dots between the lack of tolerance and the culture of immunity, the bigger economic picture has to be taken into account. Bangladesh has enjoyed impressive economic growth for at least a decade. With the changing norms of economic status come insecurity and the need to rewrite the rules of the game. It is perhaps no accident that the rise of fundamentalism in neighboring India has also coincided with the opening of their economy. India, where the distribution of wealth is far more skewed than in Bangladesh, elected religious fundamentalists to power, but their political institutions are strong enough to sustain corrupt or even murderous politicians.

Political personalities, not parties, dominate politics in Bangladesh. After the fall of socialism, the religious right filled the vacuum in political ideology in nations across the world. Jamat-e-Islami, or Jamat, which was a fringe political group, is now a major power broker for the two political parties who are constantly battling for greater influence. Apart from their electoral success, their ideology has gained social acceptance from rural to urban Bangladesh, among both illiterate and educated Bangladeshis. In other words, the cultural rules of Bangladesh are being rewritten on their terms.

Cultural identity issues are often irrational and not permeable through policies. The only meaningful demand is for a basic law-and-order situation where a would-be murderer would have to risk his life to attack another innocent individual like Abhijit. The sight of Abhijit’s lifeless body or that of bloodied Rafida is very painful, but the police standing idle at the crime scene and the murderers running to safety through a police checkpoint, not to mention the lack of arrests despite the availability of cellphone data and recorded threats, have much more serious bearing for the 120 million Bangladeshis.

It is far too easy to blame the religious fundamentalists and then tolerate an argument where Abhijit’s death is justified by refuting his writings. Yet however offensive his writings were to certain segments of the population, that should not be part of the discourse. Any murder, regardless of the reason, has to be condemned and punished.

The culture of immunity for criminals continues to serve the political parties well because it sustains their quid-pro-quo relation with the hooligans who perform their dirty jobs. We need to ask for an investigation of the police officers who were supposedly providing security a few yards from the crime scene yet failed to pursue the murderers. Unless there is justice for Abhijit’s death, he won’t be the last person to be attacked and left for dead.


[1] Ansar Bangla 7 has already claimed credit for his murder. Last February, when another blogger, Rajib, was murdered for his atheist stance, the police had obtained a list of targeted bloggers from his murderers, which included Abhijit as a future target. Additionally, a 4-page list of death threats to Abhijit on Facebook was floating on social media.

[2] Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, is “an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police. It consists of members of the Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, and Bangladesh Ansar.”

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