Terror in Bangladesh has come knocking on the doors of intellectuals and political activists. In the last few weeks, they have received letters from unknown radical Islamist groups accusing them of being 'murtads', or non-believers, and threatening to kill them. This new wave of terror has compelled many professors of Dhaka University to organise protest marches, seek police protection, and opt for a relatively sequestered existence. Some of them have even chosen to buy peace, paying money to anonymous callers who threatened them with death.
The Dhaka University Teachers' Association staged its latest march a fornight back, seeking security for themselves and their families. The Association president, AAMS Arefin Siddique, told Outlook, "Islamist zealots are issuing death threats to those who practice free-thinking. Those who were threatened, are now under tremendous mental pressure and wonder how long they can risk taking classes. Even those who did not receive the threat are also worried."
The first group to send these letters was Mujahideen al-Islam. Signed by one Maoula Patowary, who claimed to be director of the group's "Zone B", the letter accused a group of 10 academicians and politicians of "acting against Islam" and consequently being the "enemies of Islam." Patowary then chillingly added, "These sinners are the foremost among those the Quran ordains to kill." He further claimed that Islamist organisations, including Hizbut Tahrir and Harkatul Jihad, possess the photographs of the 10, and that his (Patowary's) target was "to hoist the flags of Islam and Pakistan soaked in their blood" in Bangladesh.
The 10 who received Patowary's letters included Communist Party of Bangladesh leader Mujahedul Islam Selim, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal President Hasanul Huq Inu, Awami League leaders, Tofael Ahmed and Abdur Razzak, and writer and human rights activist, Shahriar Kabir. Communist leader Selim says, "The coalition government (of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia) has instilled audacity in Islamist militant groups by denying their existence. Now after this threat, if a person is attacked, the entire responsibility will have to be shouldered by the government." He feels the forces behind the threat letters are those whose aim is to merge Bangladesh back into Pakistan. "I am not surprised that people who had failed to kill us in 1971 have returned to butcher us again," Salem told Outlook.
Journalists appear to have been specially targeted. Some 22 of them, based in Dhaka, northeastern Sylhet and southern Barguna districts, received threat letters from one Jangi Bhai, who said they would be killed within a month as they were "enemies of Islam." Journalists in Barguna district also received a letter from one "Mrittujam" who, to hammer home his point, sent burial clothes as well. A copy of the letter sent to journalists in Barguna was also found pasted at the local press club. It declared, "You are Murtad. You cannot save yourself by using your pen against Islamic jihadi powers. Prepare yourself for death..."
It seems journalists in Barguna have been targeted because of their extensive reporting on the militancy in the area, and the eventual arrest of 33 alleged militants from a mosque there. There's a feeling among journalists here to not buckle under pressure. As one journalist working for the pro-opposition newspaper Bhorer Kagoj told Outlook, "I am not scared. If we all get scared then these people will get a free hand and undermine the very idea of Bangladesh".
In contrast, Dhaka University professors feel terrorised. And those who have been provided with detectives find their freedom circumscribed. Says prominent historian Muntasir Mamoon, "Our normal movement has been restricted, and my family is offering regular special prayers from the time the death threat was issued. You can't take a chance." Mamoon was jailed by the government for alleged "anti-state" activities following the cinema theatre bombings in 2002 in Mymensingh.
Some 25 professors, says Siddiqui, have chosen to pay anonymous callers demanding money. "One of them was asked to carry the money to Shaheed Minar on the campus, and a group of students came and took it away," he informs. Siddiqui and others are perplexed about the identity of those issuing death threats: are they militants or extortionists? Police in Dhaka do not rule out the role of militants, largely because those who have received threat letters are known to be "progressive-minded" or are inclined towards opposition parties, including former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League.
It's understandable why academicians are worried. As Siddiqui points out, "After the deadly attack on Prof Humayun Azad in February, he, along with others, received death threats. Thus, we think it can be Islamic zealots." Azad was so severely stabbed that the government had to fly him to to Basngkok for proper treatment. Back in Dhaka, he has repeatedly claimed that he was targeted for his Bengali-language novel Pak Sar Zamin Sad Bad [The Blessed Sacred Land]--the first line of the Pakistani national anthem. His book revolved around those who collaborated with the Pakistani army during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence that was backed by India.
A senior government official admits the role of militants groups behind these threats hasn't been ruled out, and the police have taken action in a number of cases. "But these groups are not major organisations, nor do they have much influence in Bangladesh's politics." All this is of little comfort to those professors, journalists and politicians who have received death threats from bigots.