The gruesome hacking to death of two "rationalist" blog writers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in a span of two months, and a similar slaying of another free-thinker who propagated his ideas over the internet in 2013, are a significant outlier in the larger Muslim world which has long been bleeding, but for a different set of causes. Be it in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, Muslims are killing Muslims for area control and supremacy. But rationalists are a separate species; they do not fight for power. On the other hand, they tend to examine religion under the microscope of reason, as they do not wish to be guided by any revealed wisdom. Who is liquidating them, and why?
Interestingly, political Islam is not the sole target of their revulsion. Avijit Roy, Bangladesh-born US citizen, who is Hindu by birth, is an atheist who turned his blog, Mukto-Mona ("open-minded"), into a powerful vehicle for ripping into every religion - Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. Then suddenly one evening, as he and his wife were at a book fair in Dhaka, a group of assailants pounced on them with machetes in hand. Roy died at a hospital the same night. A similar fate awaited Washiqur Rahman, a 27-year-old Dhaka lad, who, like many city-bred youngsters, was an admirer of Roy and was giving vent to his feelings on his Facebook page. It was not liked by madrassa-educated zealots of Islamic Chatra Shibir, the student wing of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami. Rahman worked with a travel agency. As he left home for his office at the commercial district of Motijheel, a gang of three boys surrounded him. They too were armed with machetes. Ahmed was cleaved from shoulder to navel, followed by a sharp swing that narrowly missed decapitating the victim with the IS-style precision. He died on the spot.
Both the murders were followed by public anger on an unexpected scale, considering only free-thinkers and atheists were being bumped off, and that too in a country with 90 per cent of the population believing in Islam, many of them devoutly. Two of Rahman's three assailants were nabbed by the passers-by and handed over to the police, though Roy's murderers could escape due to inactivity of the cops who stood like dummy. Subsequent inquiry is pointing towards a Jamaat plot. In fact it started in 2013 when Ahmed Rajib Haidar, yet another blogger, was killed by a gang of six students, all prim and polished and students of the private and posh North South University. All the six, and their minder, an Imam, were arrested and are facing trial.
If that shows the spread of Islamist influence-from madrassa to elite university - what is baffling is the intensity of anger against it which is boiling inside the society. This is despite these "free-thinkers" raising too many awkward questions about the Allah's Prophet. Besides, nobody expected their left-liberal stance, and often quoting the words of Voltaire - "The first clergyman was the first sly rogue that met the first fool" - would win them friends in the conservative majority.
But the fact that Dhaka's atheist bloggers did exercise considerable influence on public mind is evident from their increasing capacity to bring out people on streets on a long forgotten cause - that of the 1970-71 genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by the West Pakistan Army and their local collaborators. Following her re-election as prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed launched a Nuremberg-style trial of these collaborators under an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). It showed result as the surviving leaders of the four-decades-old genocide were brought to trial one by one. They included Ghulam Azam, the then Jamaat chief of East Pakistan and chief local adviser to the genocidal regiments of the Pakistan Army; Abdul Kalam Azad (Bachchu) and Abdul Qader Molla (also of Jamaat); incumbent chief Matiur Rahman Nizami and a few others.
However, street mobilisation began as the tribunal gave life imprisonment to Molla. Known as the "butcher of Mirpur", a township in Dhaka's outskirts, he was convicted for the charge, among others, of killing Hazrat Ali Laskar, his wife, two daughters and a two-year-old son, while his third daughter, raped and left for dead, did survive; she was called upon as a witness during the trial. The blogs began blasting the sentence for being too mild; they pulled tens of thousands of sympathisers out of their homes to the capital's Shahbagh Square. The protest spread to other cities. It forced the government to appeal the sentence before the Supreme Court which gave Molla capital punishment. Azam, serving a 90-year-prison term, died in custody. Bachchu has fled to Pakistan. Others are awaiting either the gallows or the rest of their lives in prison.
Meanwhile, a deep churning is going on in Bangladesh on the ideas that had shaped the history of their nation. It touches on religion as the basis of nation state; culture superseding religion 25 years later; and then a long spell of oppressive rule of dictators and clerics ending after a lot of blood-letting but putting the nation on the ledge of a precarious democracy. It has put free-thinkers in a vanguard role. In Bangladesh, "rationalism" is not just another ideology but a way for the people to examine their fate anew. They're demanding retribution not just for the killing of three million of those who could be their parents and grandparents. They want to bring under lens everything that had caused it, including the holy book and the holy men.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to visit Bangladesh soon. But his BJP, instead of being preachy and assuming every rapist in India or every miscreant to be an "infiltrator" from the East (ignoring its own party ranks), should handle the country's identity issues with care. At least as much care as Indira Gandhi evinced from its birth pang. He should be particularly self-introspective as the movement going on in Bangladesh is against mixing religion with politics.