The Pulse

Liberal Voices Remain as Assertive as Ever in Bangladesh

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The Pulse

Liberal Voices Remain as Assertive as Ever in Bangladesh

Dhaka University continues to endure as the heart of progressive liberalism in Bangladesh.

Liberal Voices Remain as Assertive as Ever in Bangladesh
Credit: Sanjay Kumar for The Diplomat

The blood stains have disappeared from the street. Just near the spot where the murder took place a man is selling mangos out of his cart. Nearby, rickshaws wait for passengers. In a nearby park, young couples are busy in their own worlds.

On the face of it, the junction right outside the Dhaka University grounds does not have any trace left of the brutal assassination of blogger Avijit Roy, which took place here in February. Life seems to be moving on at its own pace.

The campus, a little further down the road, is abuzz with activities as usual. Teachers are moving from one meeting room to another preparing for the next semester. Despite Ramadan, students are dropping in to visit the library.

The surface of this normalcy is deceptive, however. You scratch a little bit past the surface and the cumulative feeling of anguish and helplessness comes out. The spate of killings of secular bloggers this year has shocked many in Bangladesh. It is as if Bangladeshis are being drawn into a battle despite wanting to stay out. But they don’t have any other options. They have to react, one way or other.

For many, silence means an endorsement of the Islamic extremists’ point of view. Defiance means an open challenge to the forces which have been working hard to turn Bangladesh into a hardline Islamic country, where secularism is subservient to Islam.

“I think there is tension in our society. People are thinking, ‘why are these kinds of incidents are happening?’” says Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, a professor.

“I don’t think people are afraid to come out and talk about the issue. Students are not swayed by the Islamist propaganda. The new generation is more open and they don’t align with the Islamists’ way of life,” adds the young academic, who also fears for his life for his own outspokenness.

Putting the present debate in context, Bhuiyan opines that “there are Islamist groups in the country who have had plans for a long time to turn this country into a so-called Islamic state. We are a Muslim-dominated country, but we are not Islamic the way Arab countries are. This is a very secular country. I see the killing of bloggers as a ploy to destroy the secular nature of the country.”

The campus largely shares his views.

The University has been one of the progressive pillars of the country. It was on the forefront during the liberation movement in 1971. Because of its activism, the institute bore the brunt of the violence unleashed by Pakistani forces’ and Islamist groups in 1971, when a large scale arrest and killing of students and professors took place, especially those who advocated a secular nation.

“It’s a matter of shame that an attempt is being made to control the liberal and progressive voices of the country by the killing,” says Sayeeda Khatum, a student. “It seems these extremist forces have not learnt the lesson from their defeat in 1971. No one can dilute the secular identity of Bangladesh,” she adds.

Shamima Nasreen, another student, notes that “the attack on bloggers is not an isolated incident but an attempt to hijack the soul of the nation.” She adds that “money and ideas imported from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are being used to turn Bangladesh into another Afghanistan. But such forces don’t understand the real character of Bangladesh.”

In the heart of the university is the Madhur canteen; it is no normal cafeteria, but an iconic building which was the center of many protests in Bangladesh. Be it the language movements of 1948 and 1952, or the mass uprising of 1969 that led to the liberation of Bangladesh, the dimly lit building was and is an epicentre of Bangladesh politics. Its owner, Madhusudan Dey, was picked up by Pakistani forces from the campus and killed during the war of liberation.

The same spirit of defiance still rules the canteen today, where students, despite the Ramadan vacation, come to discuss these burning issues.

“We understand that the cause for which our forefathers sacrificed their lives is still being challenged by the forces that were opposed to the country’s liberation,” says Imran Jebti, a student of history.

He further adds that “with the Islamist radicals spreading their tentacles in Middle East and in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is a great challenge to preserve the sanity of this Bengali nation. There is a more urgent need to be alert now than before, otherwise there is a real danger of the country slipping down a dangerous path.”

Across the campus, students note that to look at Bangladesh through the prism of other Islamic nations would be an insult to the country, which considers itself Bengali first and Muslim second.