Terrifying time for free speech

Kanchan GuptaThese are bad times for men and women who believe in liberty and equality. These are terrifying times for those who believe in freedom — freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
The tyranny of bigots and fanatics was never to be trifled with. History is replete with instances of bigotry and fanaticism prevailing over liberty and freedom through the use of barbaric force. Today, a global surge of hate makes the situation more sinister as thousands are killed, maimed, raped or sold into slavery in the name of faith.

The world sleeps as humanity loses, bit by bit, nobility of thought, speech and action. The barbarians may be at our gates, metaphorically or literally, but we remain unmoved, paralysed either by fear and foreboding or by a strange lethargy that defies the most primal of all instincts: the instinct of survival. Meanwhile, bigotry flexes its muscles and fanaticism stretches its sinews as the sword of hate slices through an ever-increasing arc, laying low old and young, men and women, healthy and infirm, children and infants.

Bangladeshi blogger Niloy Chakrabarty’s wife mourns his murder yesterday. The secular blogger was hacked to death at his own home in Dhaka. Pic/AFP
Bangladeshi blogger Niloy Chakrabarty’s wife mourns his murder yesterday. The secular blogger was hacked to death at his own home in Dhaka. Pic/AFP

Anger, grief and frustration merge into a heady cocktail of rage as I scan the Net for details of yet another targeted killing of a secular, anti-Islamist blogger in Bangladesh. Like the previous three victims of Islamist hate, Niloy Neel was hacked to death by a group of men who, after committing their crime, melted into the crowds that throng Dhaka’s streets.

Like Avijit Roy, the first blogger to be murdered this February, Niloy Neel’s wife heard her husband struggle for his life and then slump dead. Some reports say he was decapitated, Islamic State-style. Nashiqur Rahman was killed in Dhaka in March. Two months later, in May, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in Sylhet.

Three facts were common to all these bloggers. Young, bright and bursting with hope that the world can change for the better, that evil can be defeated, they were men with strong minds and an unbending spirit. They were atheists. They believed in equality and fighting for the rights of Hindus and other minority groups. Their platform was their blog.

Islamists baying for the blood of men and women standing up to their thuggery had prepared a list of 84 ‘offenders’, accusing them of ‘atheism’, and submitted it to the Government in Dhaka headed by Sheikh Hasina who, along with her Awami League, poses as a champion of secularism and tolerance, freedom and democracy.

The Islamists wanted the 84 ‘offenders’ arrested, tried and punished for being atheists. In other words, they wanted them punished for daring to cross swords with the keepers of faith, the custodians of religion. Strangely, although the government did not act on the demand, neither did it arrange for the safety and security of these 84 men and women. The targeted killings, which began with the murder of Avijit Roy, continue with impunity. For the Islamists, it is four down, 80 to go.

Death for free thought is an infectious disease. There is little or no comfort in the fact that Bangladesh is another country. It is right next door. The fanaticism that increasingly holds sway in Bangladesh is beginning to make its presence felt in West Bengal. Elsewhere in India, bigotry is raising its ugly head.

A twisted, almost demonic meme of misplaced liberalism, holds us back from raising our voice, from asserting the majority of the truly good and virtuous. Secularism, which once had an edge of steel, is now rusted and corroded beyond recognition. It is a word that has lost both meaning and value — at home and abroad.

We should be worried. We should be very worried. It’s a Bangladeshi blogger today. Who tomorrow?

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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