The masthead of the Bangladeshi blog Ishtishon (Station), carries a photograph of the murdered blogger Niloy Chatterjee, who used the pen name Niloy Neel, his smiling face juxtaposed alongside an ax with blood on it and the question: Who is next?
“We don’t know who is next,” a college student I’d met in November 2014 at the Hay Festival Dhaka wrote to me on Facebook. “But they are cutting us down like goats for slaughter.”
He was one of a group of intense, eager bloggers who’d swarmed around after a session on free speech at the festival, asking involved questions about atheism, agnosticism, justice, and civil rights.
He wrote impassioned poetry and contributed to one of Bangladesh’s freethinkers’ blogs under a pseudonym.
A friend of his, perhaps 18 or 19 years old, had spoken nervously about the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013, and the attacks on Kazi Mahbubur Rahman Raihan and Ullash Das in May 2014.
They would all press on
Rajib Haider had been a solid pillar of strength for many bloggers during the 2013 Shahbag protests, where Bangladesh’s citizens came out into the streets to demand that those involved in the mass killings of the Liberation War of 1971 be placed on trial.
Haider’s posts and activism set him starkly against the newly resurgent groups of radical Islamists, notably the Jamaat-e-Islami Party.
His murderers had hacked him down with machetes after he had posted strong criticism of religious fundamentalists on his blog.
Das and Raihan were injured, but survived a mob attack after they were accused of blasphemy; subsequently the Chittagong College students were imprisoned for insulting Islam.
|The Listening Post – Bangladesh: Politics, religion and the limits of speech|
At the festival last year, with crowds thronging the Bangla Academy to buy books by the dozen, as we queued to listen to some of Bangladesh’s leading writers and journalists, and carried on the discussions over starfruit or hogplum juice, this young student was defiant.
They would all press on, the student said. It was important to join the debates raging in the country – over the trials and the Liberation War of 1971, but also over the question of where freethinkers might fit in a religious republic.
He mentioned some bloggers who were leading the way.
A few months later, in February, Avijit Roy, a leading scholar and the blogger who started the atheist and freethinker community blog Mukto-Mona, was leaving the book fair that was held at the same venue.
He was hacked to death in front of his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya, who sustained grievous wounds herself.
In March, the student I’d met in Dhaka sent me a terse Facebook message. “They got Washiqur” – and I went online to read that 27-year-old Washiqur Rahman had been butchered, his assailants closing in on him as he neared his home.
Washiqur had posted a photograph to his Facebook page, featuring the hashtag #IamAvijit. In the comments, a grieving friend wrote, “Dada (elder brother) in the end they have sent you to be near Avijit.”
Two months later, the murderers struck again, taking down Ananta Bijoy Das – also a leading contributor to Mukto-Mona – in another planned attack on a busy street, using machetes and cleavers to send a message of familiar, deadly intimidation.
The ‘hit list’
When Niloy Chatterjee was murdered in his home last week, a Bangladeshi journalist who respected the eloquent anti-extremism and intelligent secularism Chatterjee stood for on his Facebook page and in his posts on Istishon and Mukto-Mona, sent me a terse message: “And there are 76 more on the list.”
In 2013, a list of 84 atheists, freethinkers, anti-Jamaatis and secular bloggers had been widely circulated; this was the hit list drawn up by Islamic fundamentalist groups.
... each successive killing - carried out so openly, with such impunity - freezes more tongues, exiles more bloggers, silences the doubters.
One look at the names tells you that the murderers, who come from different radical outfits that share a similar goal, are methodically working their way down the list, eliminating anyone who was still in Bangladesh or who, like Avijit Roy, had made the mistake of returning home from the United States or elsewhere.
The targets fall into two categories: secular and atheist bloggers, seen as enemies of Islam, and members of the outspoken Ganajagaran Mancha, the group that has been consistently vocal in demanding the death penalty for the war criminals of 1971.
Most of the murdered bloggers belonged to both groups.
On August 12, a group calling itself the Ittahadul Mujahidin – so far unknown among Bangladesh’s radical Islamist parties – sent a letter to the media threatening to kill 19 bloggers, artists, ministers and teachers for being “satanic bloggers”, “enemies of Islam” and “atheists”.
The list contained 20 names; the first name, Niloy Chatterjee, had been pointedly crossed out.
Earlier this week, the Bangladesh government had signalled its reluctance to protect bloggers, or even to protect their basic freedoms.
The inspector general of police, Shahidul Hoque, told bloggers not to “cross limits” or hurt anyone’s religious beliefs.
Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal was even more blunt: “Actions as per the existing law of the country will be taken against those who will write anything on blogs or any other media hurting religious sentiment.”
From 2001, when Avijit Roy established Mukto-Mona, until 2013, when the Ganajagaron Mancha brought tens of thousands of Bangladeshis together in the Shahbagh protests, the country’s bloggers had led a minority but they headed the debate on freedoms of all kinds.
Shortly before he was murdered, Washiqur Rahman had written on his blog, “Mullahs have freedom, extremists have freedom, apologists have freedom, Muslims have freedom, corrupt people have freedom, political leaders have freedom […] Farmers and labourers are not free, nor are indigenous and minority groups, nor are freethinkers. All the people trying to be human are not free.”
As my student friend waits to hear who will be murdered next, each successive killing – carried out so openly, with such impunity – freezes more tongues, exiles more bloggers, silences the doubters.
Nilanjana S Roy is a New Delhi based novelist and journalist; she has written on free speech and censorship issues for the Business Standard, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and other media organisations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.