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May 12, 2015

Ananta Bijoy Das Becomes Third Free-Thinking Blogger Killed This Year in Bangladesh

Ananta Bijoy Das. Image from his Facebook page
Ananta Bijoy Das. Image courtesy his Facebook page
It's a sad day for online activists in Bangladesh. On Tuesday morning, science writer and blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered by a group of three or four masked people wielding machetes in Sylhet, Bangladesh's fifth largest city.

It was the third such killing this year of a writer who advocated secular thought, allegedly at the hands of religious extremists.

Das, 33, was a banker by profession but also edited a quarterly magazine called Jukti (Logic) and headed the Sylhet-based Science and Rationalist Council. He was the author of four books on science and critical thinking, and took an active part in the Ganajagaran Mancha, a forum born out of the Shahbag protests that demands a ban on Islamist parties and the death penalty for convicted war criminals.

Das was also an admin for the Bangla blog Mukto Mona (Free Thinkers), which won Deutsche Welle's prestigious BOBS award for social change in April 2015.

According to the Doha Centre of Internet Freedom:
While most of Das's output for Mukto-Mona focused on science and evolution, he wrote a number of blogs that criticised some aspects of Islam and also of Hinduism.

In comments on Facebook posted early Tuesday, Das slammed the local member of parliament from the ruling Awami League party for criticising one of the country's top secular and science fiction writers.
Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, is officially secular. But people who have challenged religion have repeatedly been targeted by Islamic extremists in the past decade.

The nature of the threats have also escalated from local to international. Just a week ago, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the assassination of Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy (the founder of Mukto Mona blog) on February 26 in which his wife Rafida Ahmed was badly injured. In a recent interview, she slammed Bangladesh's government for inaction and has termed the attack on her husband as "well planned, choreographed – a global act of terrorism."

On March 30, another blogger who opposed irrational religious belief, Washiqur Rahman, was hacked to death in Dhaka. Two madrassa (Islamic religious school) students were apprehended and a third assailant got away. Both Roy and Rahman's cases are under trial.

Das had been on extremists' hit list for some time and was first named in a list of 84 bloggers deemed atheist or blasphemous by Islamic hardliners submitted to the government in 2013.

AQIS claimed responsibility for Das’s murder, according to tweets by extremist group Ansar Bangla Team. "Another file closed! Stay tuned for next target," the statement read.

Screenshot of the AQIS statement
Screenshot of the AQIS statement
Outrage over Das' death spread quickly. Prominent blogger Arif Jebtik wrote on Facebook:
লিখতে, বলতে, ভাবতে কোনো কিছুতেই আগ্রহ পাই না। ৮৪ জনের একটি তালিকা স্বরাষ্ট্র মন্ত্রণালয়ে জমা পড়েছিল দুইবছর আগে, তালিকা থেকে নবম হত্যা হয়েছে আজকে সিলেটে। তালিকা নিশ্চয়ই চূড়ান্ত নয়, গত ২ বছরে আরো নাম সেই তালিকায় নির্ঘাত যুক্ত হয়েছে। কিন্তু অন্তত এই ৮৪ জনের ব্যাপারে গত ২ বছরে কোনো খোঁজখবর হয়নি, তাঁরা নিয়মিত বিরতিতে খুন হওয়া শুরু করেছেন।
মাসিক কোটায় হত্যা শুরু হয়েছে হয়তো এটি সপ্তাহান্তের কোটায় উন্নীত হবে। ৮৪ জন যাবে, আরো হাজার চুরাশির নাম তালিকায় আসবে। খানিক আহাজারি হবে, সবখানেই একটা ফিসফিস-চুপচুপ ভাব, কিছু বিকৃত মানুষের উল্লাস-তারপর পরের হত্যার জন্য অপেক্ষা।
এই দেশে আইনবহির্ভূত সব হত্যাই জায়েজ হিসেবে মেনে নিয়েছে বৃহত্তর জনগোষ্ঠি, এখানে সবগুলো খুনই 'বিচ্ছিন্ন ঘটনা'।
I don't have the impetus to write, say or think anything. Two years ago a list of 84 bloggers was submitted to the Ministry of Home, 9th from the list was murdered today in Sylhet. This list is not exhaustive, surely more names have been added in the past two years. But nobody bothered to think about the safety of these 84 individuals. They are ending up dead one by one, in regular intervals. Now they are killing one every month, maybe they will speed up to do the same weekly. This list will be done, thousands more will be added. People will regret the death a bit, hush, silence everywhere, demonic joy from some perverts, then everybody waits for the next kill. In this country all these illegal killings have been taken for granted, every death is an isolated incident.
Blogger and activist Rayhan Rashid remembered the fallen who were attacked or killed for their free thinking in Bangladesh:
Ananta Bijoy Das's last posts were translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha:
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) wrote in a blog that Ananta Bijoy Das's application for a visa to travel to Sweden, under invitation from Swedish PEN to speak in a conference, was rejected recently by the Swedish embassy in Dhaka, on the basis that he might seek to remain in Sweden.

Exiled writer and columnist Taslima Nasrin blamed the government:
Bangladesh government is not taking any action against the Islamist-killers for being afraid to be labelled as anti-Islam. Islamists are allowed to do whatever they like in Bangladesh. It seems killing free-thinker atheists who criticize Islam is their main agenda.

Rajib Haider
A.K.M Shafiur Rahman
Avijit Roy
Washikur Rahman Babu
Ananta Bijoy Das.
Who is next?

Tomorrow maybe you. Or maybe me.
Blogger Haseeb Mahmud wrote:
পুলিশের দায়িত্ব কি সেটা এই মুহুর্তে একটা প্রশ্ন। অভিজিৎ হত্যার কোন সুরাহা হয়নি। ব্লগার রাজিব হত্যার মামলায় গ্রেফতার ও সেটার বিচার শুরু হলেও সেই হত্যাকান্ডের নাটের গুরু এখনো ধরা ছোঁয়ার বাইরে। অনন্ত বিজয়ের হত্যাকারিদের গ্রেফতার ও তাদের রাতারাতি বিচার শুরু হবে এটাও আশা করা কঠিন। আমাদের করণীয় চাপাতির মুখে লেখা না থামানো। লেখা থামালে জিতে যাবে আনসারুল্লাহ।
What the responsibility of the police is at this point is a question mark. They could not find the killers of Avijit Roy. They have arrested the killers of blogger Rajib, but the mastermind is on the loose. It is a tough to hope that the killers of Ananta Bijoy will be nabbed anytime soon or a trial will start. Our prerogative is to not to stop writing even if confronted by wielding machetes. If we stop writing they will win.
The post was also published in Global Voices Online.

May 11, 2015

Why Arabic Script on the Walls Might Not Stop Public Urination in Dhaka

The photo shows  Arabic sign on the sidewall of Panthakunja Park at the Karwan Bazar in Dhaka. Image by Sk. Hasan Ali. Copyright Demotix (7/5/2015)
The photo shows Arabic sign on the sidewall of Panthakunja Park at the Karwan Bazar in Dhaka. Image by Sk. Hasan Ali. Copyright Demotix (7/5/2015)
Public urination is a problem in Bangladesh due largely to a lack of public toilets. Municipal officials in the capital Dhaka have battled in vain to stop men urinating in public, with signs in the local Bengali language and warnings of punishment and fines yielding no notable results.

Now the government is hoping that an innovative idea can put a stop to the habit. Recently the Ministry of Religious Affairs released a video highlighting their campaign "Language Matters" wherein Bengali signs warning against urination are now being replaced by Arabic signs, a holy language for Bangladeshis.

Perhaps they have taken a cue from neighbouring India -- battling with the same problem -- where pictures of Hindu gods and godesses on the walls are intended to have the same effect.

Although some are lauding the state's effort to solve a perennial problem, others are skeptical, claiming the campaign supports blind faith and promotes misconceptions.

Sufi Faruq comments on YouTube:
ধর্ম মন্ত্রণালয়ের দারুণ একটা ক্যাম্পেইন !!! (..)

বাংলাদেশের বেশিরভাগ মুসলিম আরবি ভাষা না বুঝলেও এই ধরনের অক্ষরকে পবিত্র মনে করে। তাই ওই স্ক্রিপ্টে লেখা যে কোনকিছু অপবিত্র করতে ভয় পায়। এই ভয়টার বেশিরভাগ সময় ধর্ম ব্যবসায়ীরা অপব্যবহার করতো। এবার একটা দারুণ কাজে ব্যাবহার হল।
A great campaign by the Ministry of Religious Affairs!!!

Most of the Muslim majority Bangladeshis cannot understand Arabic but they deem it as a holy language. So they fear to desecrate anything written in that language. Most of the time it was used by religious opportunists as it is the language of the Koran and the prayers. Now it has been used for a good cause.
Despite the Ministry of Religious Affairs' claim in the video about toilets being present in most of Dhaka's 10,000 mosques, the general lack of public toilets in the city of approximately 15 million is a genuine challenge. The city's large homeless population is particularly affected by the shortage.

Adnan R. Amin at Alal O Dulal Blog thinks that the video does not get to the root of the problem and instead aims to create false impressions:
The using of a religious misconception (“Arabic is a holy language”), to prevent a social evil, is clever. But it also reinforces and lends credence to that misconception, instead of dispelling it. One would think that for a ministry for religious affairs, dispelling religious misconceptions would outweigh protecting city-walls. If there were funds available to the government, Dhaka’s City Corporations could’ve used them to create better facilities for women. While it is difficult to discern from boardrooms, the 36 public toilets with facilities for women are now being used by men. Judging from the tactic and tone of  this video, a reexamining of both government bodies’ priorities seems to be in order.
Moreover, Fariduddin Masud, an influential cleric criticised the Ministry for Religious Affairs.

While most mosques do have sanitary facilities, mosques themselves are "not public toilets", he said, adding that "nobody has the right to use the language of the Koran for such a campaign."

Blogger Irene Sultana doubted the campaign via a blog post on Women Chapter titled 'Not Arabic, but Public Toilets, Matter":
ঢাকা শহরের প্রতি দেড় লাখ নাগরিকের জন্য শৌচাগার রয়েছে মাত্র একটি। [..] অধিকাংশ পাবলিক টয়লেটই ব্যবহার অনুপযোগী। [..] পাবলিক টয়লেটহীন নগরীতে পথচারীদের অধিকাংশই তাই ফুটপাতকেই বেছে নিচ্ছেন ’হালকা’ হতে।

না বুঝে কেবল আরবি লেখা থাকলে সালাম করা হলো এ দেশের মানুষের ধর্মীয় অন্ধত্ব। ধর্ম মন্ত্রণালয়ের দায়িত্ব ছিল মানুষকে এসব অশিক্ষা থেকে বের করে শিক্ষিত, সচেতন করা, তার বদলে মানুষের সেই অজ্ঞতাকে ব্যবহার করে ’সমাধানের’ নামে মূলত একটি মশকরা করলো!
There is only one toilet in the capital Dhaka for every 150,000 people, out of which many are not usable. So in the absence of enough public toilets the pedestrians use walls to relieve themselves.

Many Bangladeshis respect the Arabic language because they don't know the language. The duty of the Ministry of Religious Affairs was to educate them and make them aware that this is a language only, not everything in its writing is sacred. But instead they used this ignorance to eke out a "solution" which is actually a farce.
Sultana also cites the recent efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who built toilets in front of temples and achieved 5.2 million lavatories in the first 100 days of his tenure.

Bangladesh lags far behind on this issue.

While state religious officials are already trumpeting its successes, the campaign does not appear to have been well thought-through. If implemented to the fullest extent, Dhaka's walls will be covered by Arabic but people will still have nowhere to urinate.

Moreover, in India, before Modi went on his toilet-building spree, the gods on walls campaign unravelled: people simply began urinating on the faces of the deities. Innovative campaigns incorporating public shaming such as "The Pissing Tanker" also lacked impact.

For this reason Adnan R Amin's comment that the money spent on the campaign -- "a proxy solution that treats the Symptom and not the Cause" -- would be better spent on new public toilets in Dhaka seems to be well-founded.

The post was also published in Global Voices Online.