Bangladesh - Where words cost lives

Published on Friday, April 17, 2015

NOTE: Originally the Daily Star has published this op-ed and then the daily Dawn of Pakistan. Please comment and share! - Jahed

Bangladesh: Where words cost lives

ANOTHER blogger" is the phrase most English news media worldwide used in their headlines of blogger Oyasiqur Rahman Babu's murder. The phrase "another blogger" says a lot: Babu is not the first victim of this seemingly unstoppable brutal crime. By now, most news-savvy readers in the world know, at this moment Bangladesh is the worst place for bloggers and writers.

Little over a month ago, blogger and founder of the weblog form Mukto-Mona, Avijit Roy was brutally murdered outside the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka. His wife and co-blogger, Bonya Ahmed was hit as well but luckily survived. Prior to that, blogger Rajib Haider was brutally murdered near his house and blogger Asif Mohiuddin suffered a serious assault. It all happened simply because these educated young men did what is considered the art of an educated person in any society: speaking your mind, expressing your opinion—freely, fearlessly, and honestly.

With these reckless murders, a dangerous pattern - of not just the gravity of the crime, but also of a "secular" government's abysmal failure to stop it - is being established. The government's law enforcement agencies, it seems, are as clueless as the rest of us about the masterminds behind these crimes. Their activities are still limited in mere speculations and hypothesis. It was an unequipped, untrained yet brave ordinary Bangladeshi who caught the two killers of blogger Babu while they were trying to flee.

We, Bangladeshis everywhere, owe Prof. Ajoy Roy a great deal. Over four decades, he taught our youths at Dhaka University; he fought for our freedom in 1971; he worked tirelessly (and still does, even in his retirement) to promote human rights, secularism and communal harmony; as a physicist he contributed to the advancement of science. Those who didn't know this earlier now know he is also the proud father of Avijit Roy.

Avijit Roy and I worked together for years under the banner of Mukto-Mona. I've served as one of its moderators for many years and have been involved with it since its inception in 2001.

Of Professor Roy's many volunteer activities, one was to supervise a few humanitarian projects we undertook in Bangladesh, most notably, our effort to rehabilitate an elementary school in a remote area in Bangladesh which was badly damaged by the hurricane.

I remember, Professor Roy, in his seventies with ailing health, would travel hours from Dhaka by bus, by boat and on foot, to reach the site to meet with the students and teachers. He would then report back every detail, along with pictures, to us. His reports conveyed how passionate he was about helping the needy.

With Avijit Roy's death, I lost a good friend but Bangladesh lost a man of rare virtues. He was brilliant writer of popular books on science, an enlightened Bangladeshi who ignited the minds of many Bangladeshis toward science and reason. In a sense, he caused an online renaissance in Bangladesh. It's thus little wonder that one Bangladeshi fan, has described him as a 'Socrates of Bangladesh.'

Following Avijit's Roy death I was in a dilemma whether to call Professor Ajoy Roy. I was not sure what to tell him. Should I just say, do not worry Professor Roy, everything will be alright? Won't that be a travesty given that the person on the other side of the phone is a man as erudite as Professor Roy, who is above my poorly framed expression of consolation? I can only imagine how he might be feeling after losing his son.

Finally I decided that whatever it takes I should stand by him during this difficult time. So I gave him a call. It was a short conversation with long pauses in between. "Murdering someone over a disagreement," said the professor, the veteran freedom fighter of 1971, in a low but steady voice, "Eliminating someone because he said something I don't approve of! This is not the Bangladesh we dreamed of."

The few yet forceful words of Professor Roy have been tormenting me. The more I try to forget our conversation, the more profoundly it consumes my mind. It feels as it's not just the deaths of a few bloggers, but the core values which once defined us, motivated us in the battlefield in 1971 that have been assaulted.

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