As straightforward as it may seem, the death of Abrar Fahad raises deeper questions about our society as a whole. While it may be looked at simply as the latest violent by-product of campus-based politics, it further reflects how the space to express differing or contrarian opinions has been rapidly shrinking in Bangladesh. The threat of violence towards someone because of his/her views has become the “new normal” in our society. As distasteful and tragic as the circumstances of Abrar’s killing are, we believe this gives us an opportunity for introspection, and opens up the door to a difficult two-fold discussion: firstly, on the culture of politically motivated abuse on campuses across the country, and secondly, on the nearly established (and accepted) culture of suppressing thoughts and viewpoints under the pretext of “hurt sentiments”.
Imagine this scenario: Abrar had somehow escaped death at the expense of some broken bones. The chances are quite high that then this would have hardly caused a ripple in Buet, let alone in the wider society. The details of the incident would never make front-page news, and a majority of those “in the know” would swallow the event as part and parcel of your run-of-the-mill politically motivated abuse in campuses. At best, some online-based human rights activists would publish posts in Facebook condemning the torture; maybe some conscious student groups would form a human chain out of moral integrity and that would be that. In a few days, everyone would lose interest, the Buet authority would continue not taking any action (as has been their norm for far too long), the goons responsible would get off scot-free, and a similar incident would happen again.
Also, to get ahead of the curve and stem any possible protests, the perpetrators would try to find something in Abrar’s social media activities that could be construed as being controversial, and then use it to make the claim that he was engaged in subversive activities on behalf of organisations like Chhatra Shibir.
However, Abrar losing his fight for life and passing away, during his torture at the hands of the killers, disrupted this regular cycle of events. Similar crimes have been committed again and again by the same culprits. Some students who tried to blow the whistle on these insidious practices did not get any support from the Buet administration. Furthermore, they were later harassed and assaulted for having the “temerity” to speak up, and the Directorate of Student Welfare (DSW) office, which is designed to prevent such incidents, failed to protect them also. The constant bullying, combined with the inaction of the relevant authorities, helped to perpetuate a culture of hopelessness in which students were forced to accept that such abuse was the norm and that it is not worth protesting.
We can see this mentality in the testimony of Abrar’s roommate, who knew as soon as Abrar was called away to meet with “Boro Bhais” that he was in trouble, yet he treated it as business as usual. He did not think even once to notify the Buet authorities or consider asking for help from the law enforcement. Even when one of the goons returned to ask him to provide fresh clothes for Abrar, he thought nothing of it, because the prevailing environment in Buet had conditioned him to accept that sometimes clothes may get ripped apart when a student is being tortured. It was only when Abrar failed to return after hours—and by then the news of his demise broke—that his roommate realised the enormity of what had transpired. This is how an abominable culture of fear under the guise of “student politics” has engulfed the entire campus, and the monsters created under such a culture could feed on the fear and grow to the extent that they did. A death like Abrar’s was a matter of time, and the inevitable fate of such a dismal state of affairs.
Let us now shift our focus to the second part of our talking point. So what had Abrar done to merit such a terrible fate? The general consensus is that it had to do with a Facebook post he had published before his death, a post that some people deemed to be anti-government. It is necessary to discuss the merit of what Abrar had written. But that is beyond the scope of this write-up, nor is it relevant here. However, the circumstances do call into mind something that probably should have bothered us collectively as a society a long time before now. Over the last few years, Bangladesh has witnessed a number of murders of bloggers, writers and activists. They were specifically targeted because of their progressive, liberal and free-thinking beliefs—beliefs that they were not scared of sharing with others and engaging in the sort of dialogue that a majority of people in Bangladesh are uncomfortable with.
As these bloggers and activists were being attacked and hacked to death, as many others with similar ideologies were forced to flee their beloved motherland and seek asylum abroad, the society has done little about it. Rather, some engaged in victim-shaming, justifying the killings and attacks as inevitable given their “audacity” to opine against religion or other centuries-old cultural norms and practices. Even among the few who did speak up, there were those who engaged in the “moral equivalence” fallacy, in that they deemed both the killers and the victims to be equally responsible. As if there could ever be any logical equivalency between the “perceived hurt” caused by the pen and the very real threat of a machete!
The government and law enforcement administration, sensing the lack of interest from the general populace in seeing justice done in these cases, also handled the investigation and judicial processes very lackadaisically. In several instances, high-ranking government officials also engaged in victim-blaming. In some cases, progressive bloggers were the ones who were arrested and imprisoned for “disturbing the peace and hurting religious sentiments”. Even prominent cultural personalities and organisations at times refused to provide any sort of practical or moral support. With their voices being silenced systematically, be it through the threat of violence or legal proceedings or social ostracising, there are now precious few activists and writers who feel safe enough to write or opine about such matters openly in the country.
After the Abrar killing, the country is in an uproar. The country, it seems, is united in expressing shock, anger and demanding justice for this senseless killing. But it makes us wonder if the society recognises how the “icons” of iconoclastic words get redefined. The killers were members of the student organisation affiliated with the ruling party. They viewed any criticism of government policy and action as akin to heresy, something to be stamped down with extreme prejudice. The intolerance to contrarian opinion is finally coming home to roost.
When someone like Rajib Haider, Dr Avijit Roy or Xulhaz Mannan was being brutally hacked to death, the common reactions were apathy or at best muted because their writings or activism did not mesh with this society’s “sensibilities”. However, now that even people whose opinion and standing sit well with the majority are coming under threat, the same society is demanding that the space for one’s right to express their opinion without prejudice be ensured. The paradigm shift that a majority of the citizens had contributed to is now shaking them in a different way!
Be that as it may, perhaps it is better late than never. Let Abrar’s death not be in vain, and not just for reforming the role of student politics in our country. Let it also provide light to the dark corners of our mind-set and allow us to finally engage in some difficult conversations about respecting differing viewpoints. Let this incident help us be united against the suppression of free thinking and writing. We end by paraphrasing the words of the German pastor Martin Niemöller. The original verse was a reflection on the German society’s culpability in the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Change a few words, and it holds deep relevance for us as well:
“First they came for the atheists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an atheist.
Then they came for the minorities, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a minority.
Then they came for the opposition, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not the opposition.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Sudipta Saha, a former Buet student, is currently pursing PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina, USA. Yamen Hoque is a civil engineer at the US Army Corps of Engineers, Portland, Oregon.