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‘In Absence of free thinking and Freedom of Expression, even Dreaming is a Battle’ : Forced to hide and flee the Country, the Sorry State of Secular Bangladeshi Writers and Bloggers
Washington, October 29, 2017 : Fear still stalks Bangladesh’s secular writers, even though 18 months have passed since the last in a series of brutal killings of activists and intellectuals by religious zealots in that country.
For two of these writers, one who fled aboard and another who chose to stay behind, the killings and an increasingly hostile atmosphere toward non-religious viewpoints forced them to change their lives, as they told BenarNews in interviews.
Writer Sobak Pakhi is hiding out in another South Asian country but he’s too afraid to reveal its name to the public, while colleague Ranadipam Basu is keeping a low profile back home.
“Free thinking and freedom of expression are practically gone now. … I don’t see any immediate hope … even dreaming is a battle now,” Ranadipam told BenarNews in response to a series of email questions.
Both men say they don’t feel entirely safe in their homeland because of a recent spate of murders by Muslim extremists who targeted secularist Bangladeshi intellectuals like them for questioning God’s existence, or using the written word to challenge the emerging influence of religious fundamentalists.
Pakhi is an editor of Mukto-Mona (Free Mind), a leading blog for free thinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists and humanists in Bangladesh, which he fled over what he described as the government’s support for those who kill secular bloggers and writers.
“Once they get the chance, they will attack me and then my case will also be considered as an ‘isolated incident’ in a country of 160 million people,” Pakhi told Benar.
“I won’t go back to the country in the future.”
Basu, an author of short stories, poems, essays and children’s books, tried to leave but said he came to see his fate as wed to staying on in Bangladesh. Yet he’s keeping a low profile because he worries about his family’s safety in light of the attacks in the recent past, he said.
Since February 2013, when secular activist and blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed by extremists near his home in Dhaka, at least 10 writers, bloggers, publishers, activists and intellectuals have been slain in machete attacks by Muslim militants. All of the other attacks occurred in a spate that began in February 2015. The last one was the slaying of activist-law student Nazimuddin Samad in April 2016.
‘A lifetime target’
Although their country’s constitution declares Bangladesh a secular nation, both Sobak and Ranadipam voiced concern over what they described as the growing influence of the government’s acceptance of conservative Islamic organizations. They cited the relationship between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party with an influential hardline Muslim group, Hefazat-e-Islam.
Pakhi, a graphic designer skilled at video editing, wrote articles about how he grew to doubt religion and became an atheist. In 2008, he saw Bangladesh as a tolerant country.
But as the years went by, he kept writing while facing death threats. He wrote about what he said was disrespect shown to women by religions; the promotion of killings and wars in religions; the use of religious rhetoric to create unstable situations; and the limitations of God and religion.
Threats grew as groups pressured authorities to remove his blog posts. “You do not understand now, but will regret later,” one threat stated.
Pakhi then turned to writing fiction.
“I wrote some short stories, satire and poems about the limitations of the concept of God. I started writing against fanaticism, the backwardness of religion, bigoted matters of mobs and extremism on ‘Facebook,’” he said.
When asked about government action against militants, Pakhi said the nation began targeting them long before the recent attacks on bloggers. He said the first crackdown occurred in 1989, adding that after a series of arrests, the government denied the existence of militant groups and secretly released those in custody for political expedience.
“The militancy issue in Bangladesh might go out of sight again, but my risk will not be neutralized because I am a lifetime target for them,” Pakhi said.
In his view, politics pushed Prime Minister Hasina to maintain a relationship with Hefazat-e-Islam, a fundamentalist group that has called for public executions and posted his picture on a banner. Hasina’s relationship with the group weakens opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), helping to strengthen her Awami League’s control of government.
“If a few atheist bloggers die or leave the country as a consequence of relationship between the government and Hefazat, it doesn’t really matter to Sheikh Hasina, because the deaths of a few atheists do not create any pressure on the government in a 90 percent Muslim-dominated country,” he said.
A couple of months before fleeing Bangladesh in 2015, Pakhi told an interviewer he had no plans to leave his homeland, adding that militants should be the ones to go. At the time, however, some Bangladesh police officers suggested that he exit the country.
“Whatever the government is saying about providing security to bloggers, those are lies, because after my departure, two bloggers and more than 10 progressive people were killed by militants,” Pakhi said. “I haven’t seen any positive effort from the government to stop those.”
He remains concerned about threats in his new country, but continues to write and refuses to censor himself.
“Several times I have thought about reducing the volume of my writing, but then I asked, why? Basically, keeping silent is frustrating and shameful. I shouldn’t do that. My writing will not be stopped,” Pakhi said.
Threats to free speech
A report published in May by Amnesty International, the global human rights watchdog, slammed Bangladesh’s government for allegedly failing to protect secular writers against threats and stifling free speech.
Amnesty cited a widely reported statement by Hasina that followed the August 2015 killing of secular blogger Niladri Chottopaddhya, who was known by the pen name Niloy Neel.
“No one in this country has the right to speak in a way that hurts religious sentiment. You won’t practice religion – no problem. But you can’t attack someone else’s religion,” Hasina said at the time. “It won’t be tolerated if someone else’s religious sentiment is hurt.”
Government officials rejected the Amnesty report, claiming it contained recycled information.
“The report is not a reflection of the latest situation in Bangladesh. We cannot accept this,” Civil Aviation Minister Rashed Khan Menon told BenarNews at the time.
Apart from secular writers, journalists in the country have also complained about what they say is a hostile environment for a free press, in which reporters and editors are vulnerable to threats.
On Thursday, the family of a missing Bangladeshi journalist, Utpal Das, held a news conference to plead to the government to help them find him. The reporter for the online news portal Purboposchchim BD News was last seen on Oct. 10, his family said.
The website he works for was one of several local and foreign news outlets that picked up a report on Sept. 23 alleging that the government had foiled a plot to assassinate Sheikh Hasina on Aug. 24. A day after the article came out, government officials issued a statement criticizing the report as fake news.
Basu, the writer who stayed in Bangladesh, survived one of two attacks on publishing houses in October 2015 that killed publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan.
“I can’t remember even a single thing about the attack,” Basu said, adding, “I don’t see any immediate hope coming out of this situation.
“I don’t go out unless it is essential, but whenever I go out, I can’t behave normally and naturally, I get panicked when I see any unknown faces, start fearing that they may attack me,” he said. “Maybe I have lost my trust of other human beings.”
At the same time, earning a living is tough, he said, because publishers don’t want to face the risk of publishing any book he writes.
“I haven’t stopped writing, but I don’t have any platform to publish. I can’t take the risk of publishing through online platforms, as I live in Bangladesh.”
Even though the government has cracked down on militant dens throughout Bangladesh, killing dozens of suspects since a terrorist attack at a Dhaka café last year, Basu said he did not see hope for those like him who remain in the country.
“Secular thinkers are really at a panic to express their opinions. On one side, there are threats and attacks from religious fundamentalists, and on the other side, intolerance and actions from the government to stop free thinking through blasphemy-type laws,” he told BenarNews.
Basu was skeptical that the killers of secular blogger Avijit Roy (pictured) and other non-religious thinkers would be brought to justice any time soon. Roy, a Bangladeshi-born U.S. citizen and author of several books challenging religious beliefs, was hacked to death as he and his wife were leaving the Ekushey book festival, the country’s most prestigious literary event, in February 2015.
“Those attacks were not sudden, emotional actions. There was a long-term destructive plan behind those – a plan to stop secular writers from one side and to create a panic among publishers to not to publish any secular works,” he said.
“A long time has passed, but any practical results of police actions are not visible yet. Therefore, writers and publishers are panicked and as a result, expression of free thinking has been completely stopped, Basu said, adding, “Why those suspected were not arrested or why a trial is not moving, I think only policy makers can answer those questions properly.”
Meanwhile, Basu frets about the security of his family, especially his school-age son.
“Some of my friends, even the media got the wrong impression that I have left the country like many others. I did not correct their misconception over security concerns,” he said. “That’s why I do not appear before media anymore and I can’t imagine revealing my whereabouts by seeking help from police in this unsecured land.” (Benar News)
Atop the Vindhyagiri hills in Karnataka, a 57-foot-tall statue stands. This is the statue of Lord Gomateshwara, or Bahubali, as he is known to the local patrons. The surrounding area is filled with temples where each of the many Jain Tirthankaras sits.
Sharavanabelagola is named after a pond that is located at the foothills. 'Bel' in Kannada means white, and 'kola' means pond. This is a sacred water body to the activities of the temples. It is a tourist attraction and a pilgrim destination located 85 kilometres from Mysore, and 145 kilometres from the capital, Bangalore.
The pond that Sharavanabelagola is named after Image source: wikimedia commons
Since the statue is placed at such a great height, pilgrims are made to make a journey to the top of the hill by foot. They are required to climb the stone steps barefoot as an act of piety and devotion. Palanquins are offered only to senior citizens who wish to worship at the temple.
In 3 B.C, when India was ruled by the Mauryan Dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya became a Jain monk and took up residence in the Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri hills. He is supposedly responsible for the establishment of the temple complex at Shravanabelagola, where he lived till he died. Later on, his grandson, Ashoka made some additional changes to the place.
A shop in the tourist section that sells handmade items Image source: wikimedia commons
Every twelve years, a Mahamastabhisheka is conducted, and Jains from every part congregate to witness it. The statue is washed with water, rice flour, sugarcane juice, saffrom, sandalwood paste, gold, and silver flowers, curd, ghee, milk, and turmeric, and all the monks offer special prayers. The surrounding temples and rocks are preserved as archaeological wonders owing to the 800 edicts and inscriptions found here which span 600 to 1830.
Keywords: Shravanabelagola, Jainism, Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka, Karnataka
By Siddhi Jain
The author who named the book after her twin sons -- Puhor and Niyor -- is a parent who has seen and heard the tales of ridicule and discrimination suffered by many in India and beyond. She says the book is an artistic illustration for kids that details how different families can live and coexist. Whether it's children with two dads or two moms, children with a single dad or single mom, and even multiracial family units, Borthakur's book teaches love, understanding, and compassion towards unconventional families.
Beyond race, gender, color, and ethnicity which have formed the bases for discrimination since the beginning of time, this book aims to bring to light a largely ignored issue. For so long, single parents have been treated like a taboo without any attempt to understand their situations; no one really cares how or why one's marriage ended but just wants to treat single parents as villains simply for choosing happiness and loving their children.
Homosexual parents, a relatively new family system, is another form that has suffered hate and discrimination for many years. Pritisha emphasizes the need to understand that diversity in people and family is what makes the world beautiful and colourful. 'Puhor and Niyor's Mural of Family Stories' is a firm but compassionate statement against all forms of discrimination on the bases of sexual identity, gender, race, and even differences in background
'Puhor and Niyor's Mural of Family Stories' is a firm but compassionate statement against all forms of discrimination on the bases of sexual identity, gender, race and even differences in background. | Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash
Written for a global audience, the book is targeted at kids between the ages of five and 10, the reason it is embellished with colourful images of families of different types is to appeal to children's sense of sight and drive home the message at the same time. Borthakur believes children are the best place to start because the ages between five and 10 are the most formative, where little ones pick up habits, beliefs and perceptions.
The Guwahati-born author says, "With this book, I'm not trying to take away the job of parents in forming habits, I simply want to do my part as a parent. It is important that we impart the right values in our kids in a bid to build a better, more inclusive and tolerant global society that is fair to everyone." The author's first attempt at a book was an Assamese poetry 'Anubhav', published in 2010.
Set to be published under the label of Author's Channel, the book is like an adventure; a journey into uncharted territories, untouched subjects and matters long ignored. In her words. "The book takes a critical stand in defense of people in society who have had to undergo severe emotional torture for no cause of theirs. It is a terrible conception to think such people any less of a human just for being different," says publisher Aruna Naidu. By September 30, this title, priced at Rs 299, will be available online and in offline bookstores. (IANS/ MBI)
Keywords: Book, children, Guwahati, Puhor and Niyor's Mural of Family Stories, moral, story, kids, discrimination, equality
If you feel that clean and well-groomed hands are just an essential prerequisite for women, you might like to think twice. Men should equally pay attention to their hands because our hand houses 1,500 bacteria living on each square centimeter of its skin. You can easily assume what havoc it can create in our body because in India we have the culture of eating with our hands and spaces beneath nails can become breeding heaven for germs. Moreover, clean and maintained hands boost confidence in their daily life activities. Therefore, it's important to keep your hands clean irrespective of your gender by washing or sanitizing at regular intervals. And, to keep them groomed, you don't have to visit a salon.
Rajesh U Pandya, Managing Director, KAI India, gives easy and completely doable tips to follow at home:
* Refrain from harsh soaps: You should be mindful of the soap you are using to wash your hands. Your soap can have a moisturizing element in it like aloe vera or shea butter. Ensure that you're washing your hands with normal water as hot water can make your hand's skin dry and scaly.
You should be mindful of the soap you are using to wash your hands. | Photo by Aurélia Dubois on Unsplash
* Clip your nails regularly: Make use of your personal nail clipper to cut your nails. After cutting your nails at a comfortable length also file them using a nail filer. Never share your nail care clipper as the germs can get transferred to your loved ones. Also, don't forget to use grime remover to remove hidden germs in corners and beneath nails. Also, you may like to file your nails to have a smooth finish.
* Good quality Nail Clipper: Do not use a rusted or chromium coated nail clipper as it might be harmful to skin and might cause dangerous bacterial infections.
* Stop the habit of nail chewing: Sometimes anxiety or extreme boredom can lead to chewing of nails. This habit only makes your nails uneven and ugly. Sometimes, our unclean nail folds give rise to viral, bacterial or fungal infections, which in turn can make us sick if we chew our nails.
Make use of your personal nail clipper to cut your nails. | Pixabay
* Exfoliate your hands: Similar to the way you exfoliate your face; your hands also need it. It helps to keep the dry skin at bay and keep your hands soft. You can buy a scrub or make one at home using brown sugar and olive oil. After scrubbing, you need to massage your hands with moisturizer.
Similar to the way you exfoliate your face; your hands also need it. It helps to keep the dry skin at bay and keep your hands soft. | Wikipedia
* Don't use your nails as tools: Always keep in mind that your nails are like jewels. Never use them to pry things open such as pop cans, removing keys from the ring, opening letters, or scraping off labels. This results in unnecessary breakage of nails, making your hands look dirty.
Never use your nails to pry things open such as pop cans, removing keys from the ring, opening letters or scraping off labels. | Photo by Sammy Williams on Unsplash
* Be aware of nail or cuticle inflammation or redness: If there are any signs of infection, disinfect the skin as soon as possible with an anti-bacterial or anti-fungal ointment.
(Article originally written by N.Lothungbeni Humtsoe) (IANS/ MBI)
Keywords: Nails, groom, hand, exfoliate, chew, nail clipper, bite, cuticle