‘This valley of death is not my country’

There isn’t much difference between what’s been happening recently in India and Bangladesh, with rationalists and freethinkers being butchered by fundamentalist elements. Na­rendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi were mercilessly killed because they advocated freethinking and rationalism. It’s noteworthy that, of late, a certain section of the hindu community in India is turning intolerant to progress. The only thing that probably differentiates them from their muslim counterparts across the border, is that they are clad in saffron and sport sandalwood tilak on their foreheads. So, when you look at it carefully, a fanatic’s faith in a particular religion or sect doesn’t really matter. That person is a th­reat to human society as long as he is against democracy and free speech.

We can carry on speculating who really killed Kalburgi and we would not be wrong in our assumption. Earlier, religious fanatics threatened him with imminent death if he did not mend his ways. He apparently provoked them by once famously insisting that idol worship was a lost cause and “if one wants to, one can even urinate on idols”. Staunch hindus didn’t take those words kindly. An Akademi award winner and an academic, Kalburgi had served as the vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi. He was always vocal about blind faith and caste-based discrimination. It is not surprising that his views did not go down well with people blinded by their religious ideologies.

Narendra Dabholkar, a resident of Pune, met a similar fate in 2013, when he was out for his morning walk, as did another non-believer Go­vind Pansare who was killed in Kohlapur earlier this year. The chief minister of Karnataka has issued an unconvincing statement that his government would try its best to bring to justice Kalburgi’s yet unidentified murderers.

That citizens across the Indian subcontinent can no longer voice their beliefs is shocking. And we are not talking about muslim zealots al­one. Intolerance towards free speech and reasoning has been taking a regular toll across Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. What makes it wo­rse is the extermination of freethinkers and progressive citizens in the democratic republic of India.

A nation cannot progress if it kills citizens who educate the masses about breaking free from mental barriers and outdated convictions. Such societies are condemned to live in the dark ages.

Bangladesh has already lost young and free-spirited citizens like Abhijeet and Ananta to islamic fanatics, who like Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, in India, can only be blamed for standing up to religious intolerance and bigotry. People who place their faith in wrong beliefs and religious boundaries are afraid of those who speak the truth and show them the folly of their ways. Having lost to reason, these fanatics can only resort to violence to make a point. Societies that accept terror as a means to silence thinking do not understand the value of free speech. Wh­ich is why their religious advocates insist that free speech should not hurt the religious sentiments of anyone or any sect, without even underst­anding that that is exactly what free speech is all about; it comes without any guideline or restraint.

Change agents, who set out to transform societies have always faced resistance and persecution from those who hold on to their old ways. Most are either put behind the bars or mercilessly killed. Yet, they seldom manage to restrain dreamers from altering the flow of civilisation. We might have started to consider ourselves to be progressive because we have made scientific advances and raised out standard of living, yet the truth remains that there are still certain hidden corners of our society where the glow of knowledge and truth cannot penetrate.

India is unlike Pakistan or Bangladesh. Its democratic upbringing is not a hoax or a stunt; it is more religiously tolerant than its neighbours. But then, it has not managed to stop the killings of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi; neither has it brought its killers to justice. This is a matter of shame for India. Despite being a far stronger nation than Pakistan and Bangladesh with a superior intelligence set up, its government has failed to book the perpetrators of the 2006 and 2008 Malegaon blasts, or th­ose responsible for the bombing of the Samjhauta Express that ran between Pakistan and India or those responsible for bombing its numerous mos­ques.

We can only hope that such apathy towards human life in the name of upholding religious values does not continue forever in India and its government actively intervenes in identifying and punishing the terrorists. It is India’s heavenly and historic mandate to remain a safe haven for those who believe in free speech and progress. If India fails to do so, it would be far worse than its neighbours. And that makes it appropriate to quote the famous Indian radical Na­barun Bhatta­charya: “Th­is valley of death is not my country.”

Bangladesh no country for atheists

It’s a matter of pride to be a freethinker, atheist and blogger in a civilised society; as such people are loved and respected by the masses. The renowned among them bask in adulation. However, in the dark corners around the world, where society is still in its primitive and brutal state, such intellectuals are shunned for being progressive and speaking their minds or writing what they wish to say. Such societies silence the voices of atheists who try to wake citizens to a new dawn.

I started my writing career 30 years ago, to make obscurantists understand their follies and how they were pushing our society into a deep abyss where the light of truth would never reach. After all these years, I have failed in my crusade, even as these bigots have become more strident. As the lone crusader, my voice could not be heard across the entire country. Bangladesh might have ach­ieved its independence, but without many more voices joining the chorus, the cost of freedom has been high.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her son Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed, who acts as her information and communications technology (ICT) adviser as well as political campaigner, have announced that they will not stand with the atheists, at least openly. But the point is that the atheists are not aliens, they too are citizens of the country.

So, it is apparent that the government of the day is with the bigots.

I wonder when atheist became such a hated word that everybody chooses to maintain a safe distance from them. This, when the government is bound by its own policy to not differentiate between citizens on the basis of their religion, colour, gender or language. Sadly, the Awami League government has turned its back on those people who need its support the most, in order to safeguard its own interest.

Sheikh Hasina’s statements voicing concerns about the recent murder of bloggers opposed to radical islam are words of false hope aimed at attracting a certain vote bank. More enigmatic is her silence on those who can upset her applecart.

No wonder then, Ban­gladesh runs on doublespeak today — one that sympathises with victims of terrorism and the other that remains eloquently silent against fundamentalism. Sheikh Hasina doesn’t want her world to know whether she or her government has any connection either with the atheist or with the fundamentalist, so she chooses to weave tales to appease both the votebank at home and her liberal global constituency, on which she depends on aid.

Bangladesh has never been a true democracy, because a democracy does not have affinity to any particular religion, whereas Bangladesh has an official religion. Till the time this country gets rid of that state religion, till the time atheists become as accepted as bigots, Bangladesh cannot be called a democratic country. Here, the word atheist is almost a profanity. It’s very unfortunate when a country hates atheists because of being just that.

There has always been a marked conflict between religion and science and every time science emerges as the winner, as science doesn’t base itself on faith but on facts. It supports what is tested and is true and truth cannot be hidden by lies for a very long time. To abolish all kinds of hypocricy from the country, we need more atheists to speak the truth even at the cost of their lives. We need more Abhijits, Anantars, Rajibs and Washiqurs.

I came to learn that Muhammed Zafar Iqbal has said that the silence of the government on the death of the bloggers is a strong indication that this is going to be the new norm for the country. At times, I really feel that one shouldn’t expect anything worthwhile from Bangladesh. Its political parties will turn it into a fundamentalist islamic state. And the commoners will just sit and watch the unfolding horror. A rational mind might say this is strongly condemnable, but for the masses, it is not such an appalling place to be. They have been so blinded by religion that they wouldn’t mind being another clog in the giant wheel turning Bangladesh into “darul islam.”

Citizens who are resisting this anarchy with courage will be slowly and systematically eliminated by those who will never be punished, because they serve the vested interests of shrewd politicians.

Bangladesh was earlier known to the world because of the annual floods that devastated the population. From a country that suffered from natural calamities, it is now emerging as a nation that suffers from manmade catastrophes, remorselessly butchering atheists and bloggers. Unless politicians don’t stop the business of using religion for vote bank politics, several talented youngsters will bleed to death in the country.

Once Sheikh Mujibar Rahaman had moved the people to reject the Pakistani soldiers who massacared the Ban­gladeshi intelligentsia. Today, his own daughter is indulging criminals whose hands are red with the blood of bloggers. Sheikh Mujibar protested and acted on the crisis, Sheikh Hasina is but a mere shadow of that past.

I no longer feel ashamed to say I feel scared to think of myself as a Bangladeshi.