The recent killing of Avijit Roy, an atheist blogger known for opposing religious extremism, did not occur in a vacuum. It was facilitated by the nature of the politics being practiced by Bangladesh’s two most influential women, or the “two begums.”
Roy, a Bangladesh-born U.S. citizen, was killed on a crowded sidewalk as he and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were returning from a book fair at Dhaka University on February 26. It brought back the memory of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was killed in a similar fashion in 2013.
Roy’s targeting came amid street clashes, firebombings and shootouts, which had taken the lives of more than 100 people over the last two months, part a fierce rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League party and her longtime rival, Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Zia’s supporters have been seeking to paralyze the Hasina administration with strikes and blockades since last year’s general election, which was boycotted by opposition parties after their demand that Hasina and her government step down shortly before the polls was not met. Hasina’s government has also been responding by arresting and violently cracking down on protesters.
It’s not that Hasina doesn’t believe in street protests or a caretaker government before a parliamentary election. In 1996, when she was in the opposition and Zia was prime minister, Awami League workers likewise resorted to strikes to try to force Zia to step down before the election took place.
Feuding between Hasina, the daughter of assassinated Bangladeshi independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Zia, whose party is an ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the country, dates back to the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan.
Hasina’s party comprises those who favored independence from Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War. For them, religion alone could not form a cohesive national identity. They believed in “Bengali nationalism” and opposed West Pakistan, which sought to economically exploit and impose religious hegemony on its Eastern territory, which was not even contiguous with Pakistan.
Zia’s party, on the other hand, allies with Muslim nationalists who were opposed to Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan. Their wounded pride still drives them to seek the country’s Islamization.
After Hasina’s father, Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in 1975, Zia’s father, Ziaur Rahman, a military officer and founder of the BNP, became president. Ziaur Rahman, too, was assassinated in 1981.
The clash between secularists and Islamists continues to characterize the nation’s politics today.
Even before last year’s election, violent protests had been ongoing since December 2012 following trial proceedings by the International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up by the Hasina government. The trials were about atrocities committed during the liberation war, when the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators allegedly killed more than 3 million people and raped more than 200,000 women and girls.
In 2013, the tribunal sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat, to life imprisonment, and imposed the death penalty on Jamaat Vice President Delawar Hossain Sayedee to death, leading to more agitation.
The country’s progressive youth and bloggers, who are apparently not linked to any political organization or group, also held protests at Shahbagh Square in Central Dhaka, calling for genuine secularism and urging the government not to be lenient in sentencing war convicts.
The Jamaat turned the agitation against the trials into demands for sharia law, closer relations with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and the outlawing of “un-Islamic” practices and laws.
Meanwhile, other Islamist extremist groups, including Ansarullah Bangla Team, which was believed to have links with al Qaeda, began to oppose the Shahbagh Square movement. The confrontation led to the killing of the blogger Haider, a key figure in the Shahbagh movement.
Islamists had been disappointed since 2010, when the country’s Supreme Court declared the fifth and eighth amendments of the constitution null and void. These amendments had established Islam as the state religion and provided for religion-based politics. The amendments restored the original four pillars of the state – democracy, nationalism, socialism and secularism – according to the 1972 constitution.
The Awami League government nonetheless chose to retain Islam as the state religion along with the use of the word “Bismillah,” which in Arabic means “in the name of God,” while ironically reaffirming its secularism. It was perhaps a move to preempt the possibility of mass violence and chaos that might have followed the Supreme Court ruling, while avoiding the risk of being seen as anti-Islam in a Muslim majority country.
However, apart from that 2010 move, neither of the two begums seems willing to act to break the cycle of violence. As a result, political activism has become an extreme risk for the people of Bangladesh. Roy took that risk, and paid the price.