Down a Slippery Road: Increasing Religious Persecution in Bangladesh

Leaders have said the religious sensibilities of believers should be protected, but on the ground, this means only Muslim believers.

File photo of the funeral of secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in Dhaka, 2015. Credit: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

File photo of the funeral of secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in Dhaka, 2015. Credit: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

In Tangail, Bangladesh, Nikhil Chandra Joardar, a Hindu tailor, was hacked to death by machete-wielding on a motorcycle. Several years ago he had spent some time in jail for supposedly offending religious sentiments – Muslim ones, that is.

A week earlier, two schoolteachers – Krishnapada Mouli and Ashok Kumar – were jailed for offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims in Bagerhat. Parents had apparently been outraged when a child reported that a teacher had said something critical of Islam. Soon, a mob had gathered outside the school with plans to punish the teachers. A court with special powers made a judgement on the spot and convicted the teachers. The reports I have seen in the Bangladeshi press are short of details. I wish some journalists had gone down there to investigate the ostensible crime committed by the teachers instead of accepting at face value what the locals and police claimed.

This is not the first time teachers have been persecuted for comments made in their classrooms. A friend reported on Facebook that back in 1993 a relative had come to him to report of a colleague, a science teacher, who had been paraded around with a garland of shoes. His offence had been to teach that the earth revolves around the sun. My friend reported that he had tried to get some of the press to report on the incident but no papers were willing to touch it; no one would stand by a poor teacher trying to teach science. He believes that stories like this may well be common around Bangladesh. They will no doubt become much more so.

There are mobs that can easily be whipped up. There is the state with its colonial-era law on offending religious sensibilities. And now here come the machete-wielding self-appointed Islamist executioners.

Starting with the prime minister, Bangladesh’s leaders have announced that no one should be tolerated for offending the religious sensibilities of believers. On the ground, this means only Muslim believers since no one ever gets punished for offending the religious sensibilities of Hindus or Christians. Friday prayers and waj-mahfils are routinely peppered with vile remarks against Hindus, Jews and Christians. Every Durga Puja season comes with reports from across the country of vandals destroying idols and images. Besides, death threats are routinely made against infidels.

This is a slippery road for the government to take. Once you start on this road, where does it stop?

Soon someone may attack a restaurant that’s open during the days of Ramzan because it hurts their religious sensibility.

There are mullahs who routinely go around on rickshaws with megaphones demanding that women cover themselves. Are we too far from seeing women attacked for offending religious sensibility because they do not wear the prescribed attire?

And what about books? How long will the novel Lal Shalu by Syed Waliullah, which features a fraudulent majar-keeper, be sold in bookshops? Can it be taught in schools and colleges?

What about our poets and songwriters Nazrul Islam or Lalon Fakir? Both have said things that could offend some believer’s religious sensibility.

If you start on this road, one day you’ll turn around and find that having a woman as prime minister still offends various people’s religious sensibilities.

The road ahead is treacherous. Once we accept this as the new normal, it will burn us all. We can look at Pakistan to see where this road heads toward. Pakistan’s killing fields were not created in a single day.

Mahmud Rahman is the author of Killing the Water: Stories and the translator of Mahmudul Haque’s novel Black Ice.