Culture of Immunity

A pair of glasses, a pen, and blood and brains surround the limp lifeless body of Abhijit Roy, clad in a red Punjabi, the body of the curious and courageous mind attacked and hacked, left for dead in front of spectators and police, none of whom came to his rescue while he along with his wife was being attacked with a cleaver just outside the Ekushe Book Fair, a public venue. A day later, his father Professor Ajay Roy would hand over the body for medical research, forgoing religious rites, and thus honoring his son’s lifelong quest for rationality and science.

The blogger who started the blog Muktomona (Free Mind) had all the comforts of a successful professional life in Atlanta, yet he wrote book after book in Bangla, ranging from the exploration of relations between religion and science to thoughts on Victoria Ocompo and Rabindranath Tagore.

He was killed right in front of the Teacher-Student Center (TSC); he grew up less than half a mile from that very spot, at the Dhaka University quarters. He probably walked countless times on that road, along with his friends, joking, singing, arguing, smiling quietly, and thinking. The part of the university which felt most like an extension of his home, where he was supposed to breathe safely, was the very place he breathed his last.

His wife Rafida Ahmed is still fighting for her life, without her left thumb.

What did Abhijit and Rafida do to invite such vicious venom?

As I mentioned, they ran the blog site Muktomona, where they posted critical thoughts questioning the norms of religion, politics, culture. Did they write and host unpopular or offensive thoughts? I was not a regular reader of their site, but I hope they did. Why start a blog if it is not thought-provoking? If commonly held beliefs, whether they apply to religion, culture, or politics are not questioned, how will we evolve in this world?

More importantly, the reason for Abhijit’s brutal death does not lie in his actions or writings, but in the perpetrators’ malice and power. The perpetrators used social media to send death threats, never hid their intentions or the depth of their wrath and loathing, and gloated about their achievement after the deed.1

As the protests and pleas for justice are being heard all over Dhaka, no one in their right mind in Bangladesh believes that Abhijit’s murderers will ever be caught and put through a proper trial.

What has happened to Bangladesh, where absence of justice has become the norm, brutal deaths are daily encounters, and where people actually demand a guarantee of natural death?

From being the basket case of the world, as famously deemed by Henry Kissinger, the enabler of the 1971 genocide, Bangladesh is now projected to join the rank of middle-income countries by 2021. From experiencing a decade-long military dictatorship, the country went on to success in embracing democratic mechanisms; it now has a longer history as a democracy than that of autocracy. From being the poster child of poverty and natural disasters, now Bangladesh is famous for its various poverty eradication programs.

Culture of Immunity_html_m640d8983

1. Abhijit’s pen; 2. Abhijit’s brain; 3. Rafida’s thumb (Abhijit’s wife); 4.Abhijit’s glasses. Photo credit: Arunabha Rahman Anjan, Abhijit’s friend.

How can a country, a people, be successful in lifting their economic status and yet slide so painfully on issues of tolerance and justice? While the anomaly of economic growth and political instability going together continues to baffle theorists, deeper anomalies of religious and cultural identities have larger- than-life implications for people who identify as Bengalis and/or Bangladeshis.

In pre-British and pre-partition Bengal, Bengali culture was porous enough to accommodate several religions, and the give-and-take between Hinduism and Islam still forms the basis of Bengali folk songs and music in general. Religion became the focal political identity with the inception of Pakistan, based on the two-people two- nation philosophy, and since then the uneasy relation between religious and cultural identity has become conflictual. Bangladesh, which was once the least communal part of the Indian subcontinent, has succumbed to a religious versus secular fight, which gets bloodier by the day.

In recent years the tribunal for the 1971 war crimes has reignited this secular versus religious divide to a level previously unseen in Bangladesh. The demand of the Shahbag movement was for the death of war perpetrators and war criminals, while its opponents used the language of proper judicial proceedings and human rights violations. Language in politics is the weapon of persuasion and legitimacy. The young secular civil society in Bangladesh would have been better off if they had demanded justice rather than the death sentence, and connected the demand for justice for war crimes with the larger demand for a free and independent judiciary.

The anomaly of secularism is thus a persisting problem in Bangladesh because of how it is situated and connected with the overall breakdown of law and order and a culture of immunity where criminals, including heinous murderers, can buy their freedom.

Unfortunately, this culture of immunity has become thoroughly established through the very democratic mechanism which was supposed to thwart it. It came with the two leading political parties who won successive elections and formed governments, and it came with their alignment with religious extremists to gain more seats to win elections at any cost. The Bangladeshi people in turn tolerated election irregularities and petty corruption, and looked the other way when the RAB2 performed extra- judicial killings.

Political movements now invariably involve the killings of passers-by, often burnt to death with petrol bombs. There has been more than a hundred of deaths in the last few months alone (not counting the hundreds more suffering from burn injuries), and no one has been charged with any crime even when there have been arrests at the crime scenes.

To connect the dots between the lack of tolerance and the culture of immunity, the bigger economic picture has to be taken into account. Bangladesh has enjoyed impressive economic growth for at least a decade. With the changing norms of economic status come insecurity and the need to rewrite the rules of the game. It is perhaps no accident that the rise of fundamentalism in neighboring India has also coincided with the opening of their economy. India, where the distribution of wealth is far more skewed than in Bangladesh, elected religious fundamentalists to power, but their political institutions are strong enough to sustain corrupt or even murderous politicians.

Political personalities, not parties, dominate politics in Bangladesh. After the fall of socialism, all over the world the religious right has filled the vacuum in political ideology. Jamat-e-Islami, or Jamat, which was a fringe political group, is now a major power broker for either political party that wants to win an election and form a government. Apart from their electoral success, their ideology has gained social acceptance from rural to urban Bangladesh, from illiterate to educated Bangladeshis. In other words, the cultural rules of Bangladesh are being rewritten on their terms.

Cultural identity issues are often irrational and not permeable through policies. The only meaningful demand is the demand for a basic law-and-order situation where a would-be murderer would have to risk his life to attack another Abhijit. The sight of Abhijit’s s lifeless body or that of bloodied Rafida is indeed painful, but the police standing idle at the crime scene and the murderers running to safety through a police checkpoint, or the lack of arrests despite the availability of cellphone data and recorded threats have much more serious bearing for each of the 120 million Bangladeshis.

It is far too easy to blame just the religious fundamentalists and then tolerate an argument where Abhijit’s death is justified by refuting his writings. However offensive his writings were to certain segments of the population, that should not be part of the discourse. Murder, any murder, regardless of the reason, has to be condemned in the strictest terms and has to be punished.

The culture of immunity for criminals continues to serve the political parties well as it sustains their quid pro quid relation with the hooligans who perform their dirty jobs.

How about a demand for investigation of the police force who were supposedly providing security a few yards from the crime scene and failed to pursue the murderers? Abhijit may have been targeted by the Islamic group(s), but the easy and obstruction-free assassination is far more problematic than his death. Unless there is justice for his death, he won’t be the last one to be hacked and left for dead.

Mehnaaz Momen is an Associate Professor of Social Science at Texas A&M International University.


1 Ansar Bangla 7 has already claimed credit for his murder. Last February, when another blogger, Rajib, was murdered for his atheist stance, the police had obtained a list of targeted bloggers from his murderers, which included Abhijit as a future target Additionally, a four-page-long list of death threats to Abhijit on Facebook was floating on social media.

2Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, is “an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police. It consists of members of the Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, and Bangladesh Ansar” (source: Wikipedia).