Where are we heading? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 30, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 30, 2016

Where are we heading?

From all the information we received, Rezaul Karim Siddque of Rajshahi Univeristy, hacked to death in the morning of April 23, 2016, appeared to be a quiet man, a man who was of a peaceful nature, a lover of music and a committed teacher. As is the case with most Bangalis, he loved music. Cultural activities were in his bloodstream. He tried to set up a cultural hub in his home, where he lived, not too far from the university where he taught. He was not a declared atheist, nor a blogger, not even an armchair or Facebook activist.  Not one of those who were in the frontlines of activism, not a talk show star, not one who wrote long opinions and editorials about the state of affairs of the country.  Why would he be killed?  

He was what I often describe as the typical example of a citizen of this land, the kind of people I grew up with, secular in his thinking by encouraging culture, music, playing his favourite sitar, reading books, yet sensitive and responsive to the practice of religion of the people he lived amongst, his family perhaps, certainly his neighbours.  We heard of his large donations to the building of the local mosque as a proof of this perception.  His daughter has been very vehement in stating that he was a believer. I find it very telling on our current state of affairs that we have to insist that we are all believers. Why should it matter? A murder is a murder and a gruesome murder has to be taken in all seriousness no matter what one's beliefs are or where one stands.  We all grew up learning to sing, dance, play an instrument, and write poetry, recite etc.  Where else do we find that recitation is considered a part of cultural practice, a part of the performing arts?  Was his fault that he embodied this very nature of the Bengali? Was he murdered so brutally simply to be used as an example of what not to be?  Was he simply targeted because he embodied the very spirit of 1952, of 1971 in the quiet nature of his being?

No sooner had this murder occurred than we heard of the brutal killing on the evening of April 25, this year, of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy at Xulhaz's house in Kalabagan, a crowded locality in central Dhaka.  Xulhaz was very well known in the activists' community.  He edited the LGBT magazine, Roopban, which tried to bring forth many issues and concerns along with talking about the rights of Bangladesh's LGBT community. People were in tears when I called to find out and be sure.  I had not seen such a reaction before amongst a varied and large range of people, belonging to different ages and walks of life, people who normally do not associate with each other.  These were people he interacted with or touched, through his gentle nature in wanting a multicultural and diverse Bangladesh.  A Bangladesh that would allow all people, of all faiths, beliefs, orientation, identities and occupations to live and flourish without fear. He was truly fearless, he never felt threatened nor did he feel the need to leave his country or not continue to do what he believed in. He definitely had the option of leaving, which he never even thought of using. He took on the responsibility to care for his frail and ailing mother, in front of whom he was brutally killed. 

I last spoke to him on Pahela Baishakh, when I heard four people had been held at the Shahbagh Thana. I had asked if he needed me. He was quite clear he could handle it and said that they would be released soon. That was the last I spoke to him. His friend Tonoy was a theatre activist. Both could instill confidence and courage in people, what many people who are marginalised always experience as insecurities, but through their assertions, they instead succeeded in giving them a feeling of strength and a sense of faith in themselves to be as they are, as they wish to be. Many spoke to me yesterday and today about how these two managed to dispel within them the idea of having to live in total fear.  So why should they get killed? They were not hurting anyone; they were not using any kind of coercion or violence to force their position on others. On the contrary, they tried to let everyone have the chance to express their views. 

Not one of these gentle people ever thought that one has to use machetes, knives, daggers or guns to influence people. Surely no rational or intelligent person can ever believe that it is only through fear and force that ideology can be established and followed. That analysis is so flawed it is beyond comprehension. Either passively or tacitly, by not acting or by deliberately pandering to this kind of action, by giving into the fear factor or by being brainwashed, this is exactly what is being propagated.  

The list of people killed during the last seventeen months is long, and who knows who will be next? We have no idea about how fast this terror will spread all over the country. Of course the question asked time and again is: can we see signs that there is a serious effort to stop this? The confusing, and sometimes contradictory, statements given by those in the government certainly do not give any sense of progress in the right direction to suppress this.

It is randomly and broadly perceived by many that it is mainly the bloggers who are attacked, and that all bloggers are atheists. I think it is time to stop this oversimplification. First of all, not all those killed were bloggers, and those being killed now are not necessarily bloggers neither are they atheists. Secondly, not all bloggers or those active on social media are atheists. Thirdly, I would like to know, under which article of the Constitution is there any statement saying that it is against the Constitution of the country to be an atheist in the People's Republic of Bangladesh. The message that comes out loud and clear is that it is perfectly alright to hack to death anyone who is perceived to have divergent views regarding religion. It almost seems like the police can never find clues or identify the killers.  

It also feels like those belong to different schools within Islam are also being targeted. I say this since many people killed in this brutal manner have been believers, including Shias, Ahmediyyas, followers of the Sufi tradition, priests from other religions, and writers who were not necessarily atheists. Those outraged at this barbarism are asked to be careful so as to not hurt the “sentiment of the believers.” Whose sentiments are we really talking about? The sentiments of misogynists, obscurantists, communalist preachers, who are breeding a group that is financially solvent and has the backing of the powers that be? The sentiments of people misrepresenting and misquoting religion for their own and other's vested interests? The sentiments of those who are building a completely false base upon the lack of knowledge and understanding of the vast majority of the people in the name of religion? Why are these groups allowed to operate? In whose interests are they doing so? 

As a woman, a feminist, and a rationalist, who believes in democracy, freedom of speech and thought, equality in all fields, freedom and security of one's movement and the right to our basic needs, including that of sharpening our intellect through knowledge and culture, I will speak out, I will fight, I will sing, I will dance, I will write. My mind is my own, it belongs only to me, free to move where it wishes to go and free to dream its own dreams and free to express myself. I do not hurt others' ideology or beliefs, just as I do not allow others to hurt mine. I am strong in my belief, because it is mine as I have come to understand it. My belief, my ideology, is not so feeble that just because someone does not share my ideology, it becomes insecure and shaky.

The writer is a rights activist. 

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