Times of India Interview - Might is right is the only language we have reverted to as a society - Rafida Bonya Ahmed

Published on Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Link to the news article: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/might-is-right-is-the-only-language-we-have-reverted-to-as-a-society-rafida-bonya-ahmed/articleshow/63260016.cms

KOLKATA: Three years is a long, long time. Or perhaps, it isn't since some wounds are perpetually raw. The compulsion to move on only forces the scars to be hidden under the carapaces of scabbed-over sensibilities. Avijit Roy – a prominent secularist and atheist - had earned his share of friends and enemies since 2001 after he set up the Mukto-Mona website. It was the first platform of its kind for Bengali atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secular writers. His wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, was one of its contributors. On February 26, 2015, the couple became the target of their enemies when machete-wielding attackers tried to silence them forever outside the Dhaka Ekushey Book Fair. Brutally attacked, the duo lay in a pool of blood outside the bookfair premises. A lone photojournalist, Jibon Ahmed, came forward to help. Roy hadn't survived. His wife did. That despite the four large machete stabs on her head, each around seven inches long. Doctors had later said that if the machete had sunk into her upper neck by just another millimeter, "that would have been it". After the recent attack on Bangladeshi science fiction writer and educationist Prof Muhammad Zafar Iqbal in Sylhet, it again triggered an upsurge of emotions in her. As she began sharing her concerns with TOI, Ahmed wondered if it is only about religion that is leading to such attacks. Perhaps, it isn't correct to analyse the incidents through this prism alone.

Ahmed, a cancer survivor, doesn't have a distinct memory of her own attack as her mind had then drifted through varying levels of consciousness after being targeted. Recollections of the photojournalist and the blood-stained photographs help her stitch the turn of events. Ahmed presumes she had tried to put up a fight against the attacker and had perhaps grabbed the machete. That's how her hands were cut and the thumb had got sliced off. Many had presumed that Roy had bled to death on the spot. But in a recent YouTube interview to atheist blogger Arifur Rahman, Ahmed revealed that Roy was alive even after being taken to the hospital. As he lay on the stretcher next to her, she could hear him groan. Those memories keep haunting her even today when she wakes up from sleep. Little did she then realise that she would never get to see her 'Avi' again. By her own admission if she had, Ahmed would have tried to get up from her stretcher and be close to him. She has memories of her fingers being bandaged. Her wounds hadn't yet been stitched. Ahmed had only pleaded with everyone to save him… if required, airlift him to Singapore… she would bear all the cost… But, Roy hadn't survived. Ahmed did. Her sliced-off left thumb isn't the only scar she now lives with as a visiting research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. Ever since then, everything in her life, including her thoughts, has got "scattered". Dealing with the overwhelming loss and taking up the challenge of rebuilding herself aren't easy. On April 20, Ahmed will speak about how she fared on these counts at her TED talk. She agreed to share her concerns about other issues in this interview:

What was your immediate reaction when you heard about the attack on acclaimed Bangladeshi writer Muhammed Zafar Iqbal?

I initially felt sad and helpless as I did with all the other attacks. I could not find words to express my frustration. All I wrote on Facebook that day was: 'get well soon, unity and love'. But as it progressed through the day, I started thinking that it was not only about religion. It is not about offending Islam anymore either. The government, one the one hand, wants us to believe that these are all isolated incidents (don't forget that they blame the bloggers for their own deaths). On the other hand, these Islamic militants say this is about Islam. Professor Zafar Iqbal never 'offended' any religion. He has shown his religiosity on various occasions. Then, what is it really? I think what we are seeing is the extreme intolerance to any idea. If you do not like something, you want to hack it by force. Might is right. That's the only language we have reverted to as a society. If you look closely, Islamic militants are not the only ones who are intolerant - we are experiencing it in every walk of life. The Awami League government has systematically got rid of the opposition forces (good or bad does not matter). Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that our opposition political forces are any better than Awami League! Governments kill people in crossfire all the time. Even one of the main suspects of our attack, Sharif, was killed in a crossfire under police protection. It makes you question, what are they scared of? I know people will not like to hear this… I saw that the students beating up the attacker who stabbed Professor Iqbal so badly that he was almost dead. The police apparently locked him up in a room. Nobody cared to take him to the hospital for hours until a doctor pleaded that he would die if he wasn't taken to the hospital immediately. I have seen posts after posts on social media applauding this beating. I understand this is the spontaneous reaction of the mob, not a consciously planned attack like the attacker did. But if you think about it, this is also another kind of intolerance. They are also using 'might' without even thinking about the situation or the consequences practically. Nobody thought that this guy needed to be protected because he needed to be interrogated about his links, funding, influences and the real mastermind behind the attack. I think, this can happen when people have lost their confidence in the whole system. Nobody trusts the system. Nobody had any hope that the government or the police will dig deep, get to the root of the problem or bring people to justice. On the one hand, impunity is so high that offenders know they can get away committing any crime if they have money and/or political influence. On the other hand, you know that you will never get justice. If you are a victim or a bystander, either you stay away because you are afraid or you beat the offender to death when you get an opportunity to do so. If you look carefully, we see the similar trend not only in case of ideas. We see this everywhere. You use your might to gain anything you want if you have the power at any level. We see oppression on the minorities starting from the Hindus, Ahmadis to the people in the Hill tracts. A mere thief gets beaten to death, a rickshawala gets slapped for the smallest mistake, domestic workers are abused all the time and even teenage school girls get dragged inside marches and meetings and get sexually assaulted in public.

Is it defeating to see that such attacks keep on happening while the investigation process doesn't yield any breakthrough in terms of punishing those behind them?

No, it is not defeating. I never expected much from Bangladeshi government in regards to our case.

How do you and your family, including your father-in-law and daughter, keep hopes alive? Where do you get the strength to carry on?

As I said earlier, I never believed that the system would bring us justice. I understand that it is necessary to bring the attackers to justice for the 'good' of the society but I think real justice will not be served until we get to the root of this problem. This is a much bigger issue, intertwined in so many ways locally and internationally! Bringing a handful of criminals to justice won't solve the problem our society is plagued with. So, our strength does not depend on this so-called justice anyway. We have learned a hard way that the world is much bigger than just fear and personal loss (don't get me wrong, it hurts us immensely). We try to find our own purpose and meaning here and move on. There are lots of misconceptions regarding what had exactly happened on that fateful evening of February 26, 2015. Why do you think no one apart from the lone photographer came forward to rescue the two of you? Have people become insular or scared? I think so. I asked one of my relatives about it months later. He says people feel so hopeless and intimidated by the corrupt system that they are scared to come forward to help other people on the street. People who dare come forward risk being punished by a corporate police officer or the influential political leaders. You might have to bribe the police to get out of it. You had never wanted to go the book fair that evening and have said that Avijit had promised you that it would be the last time you would have to do it. For any average reader, his words seem like a prophecy now. As a rational human being, what thoughts cross your mind when you think about this? Nothing - I don't believe in fate or premonition or any of those things. It is ironic but it is a mere coincidence. Medicos in the West had told you that in Bangladesh, your wounds were efficiently stitched with threads that the former used some 40 years back. What does this suggest about the current situation in Bangladesh? Nothing much. We all know the reality in countries like Bangladesh. I was rather proud of the doctor in Dhaka University for treating me so well with such outdated resources. Even the doctors at Mayo Clinic commended his work. What does fear mean to you now?

I am not a fearful person. I never was. One of my friends once told my mom that if she did not get a heart attack raising me she would never get one (smiley). Instead of hiding away from danger post the attack, I am considering this as bonus time to forge my own path on this planet (we make our own meaning and purpose in this one life we have got). I actually get inspiration from millions of people who live in the midst of real fear, poverty, violence, wars and still fight to live every day. Compared to them, I have no reason to be fearful. Blogging has made you experience life-altering events including falling in love to finally having to witness Avijit's brutal murder. What would you recommend fellow bloggers to practice and to avoid? Be responsible when you write on the blogs or social media or wherever you choose to write. Do your homework beforehand. I try to remember what Fitzgerald said before I write anything: "You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say".

With the Bangladesh elections round the corner, what's your ringside view of the situation there?

I am not an expert in Bangladeshi politics. But I can tell you this much, though people like to believe it, but I do not think there is much difference between Awami league or BNP anymore.

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