Translated by Nandini Mandal
Religious text is the surprising infatuation for some humans. The religious book comprises of pages of all the incredible stories as in a fairytale, with no basis in science and rationality. And that which has no basis in the scientific and rational realm, we cannot accept. Arrests linked to defamation of the Quran occur every month in Bangladesh. There are some elements to the clamp down on freedom of expression. Among them is the blatant abuse of human rights by arresting and imprisoning people in the name of so-called defamation of religion.
Article 57 of the ICT Act is a black law. By virtue of this Act, any person can be imprisoned without trial and bail. Fundamentalists in Bangladesh have petitioned for a long time to adopt the control of religious speech through the blasphemy law. The government has not named it ‘the blasphemy law’, but since 2006 they have used the IT or ICT law to stop online writing and criticism effectively as the blasphemy law. Section 57 of the IT Act opposes freedom of speech; writers, activists, human rights activists, journalists and conscious groups have repeatedly requested the government to cancel or change this law. Because this section of the Act doesn’t define why or what writing and speech constitute a crime. Section 57, sub-section 1 states, ‘If any person willfully publishes or broadcasts in a website or any other electronic media, which the state considers obscene and false or if the concerned matter may incite anyone to be corrupt or dishonest upon reading, seeing or hearing or cause defamation, deteriorates or increases the likelihood of deterioration of law and order, affects the image of the state and the individual, hurts or is likely to hurt religious belief or by such information is provided against any person or organization, then it will be considered a crime. The criminal penalties resulting out of this prescribed in section 57 sub-section 2 states,” If a person commits an offense under subsection (1) they shall be punishable by imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years and a minimum of seven years with a fine not exceeding one million rupees. This is extreme punishment beyond the penalties imposed for ordinary felonies. Moreover, this law authorizes the police to arrest without a warrant and litigate directly with the court. And bail may not be granted. This Act can be abused and has been enforced arbitrarily. The original spirit of freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution is directly in conflict with section 57 of ICT act. This trend undermines journalistic and civil liberties, which is contrary to the article 39 of the Constitution. Besides guarantying all citizens’ freedom of thought and conscience, Article 39 confirms the freedom of speech and freedom of the press within certain conditions.
In addition to the arrests based on charges of sacrilege against the religious book of the Muslims, there’re have been incidents of arrests on charges of defamation against the Prophet Muhammad. After review of these events one can infer that such incidents have been sometimes carefully planned to gain political capital or avenge personal enmities. Like the story of Debasish Das Sohail at Ashuganj sub-division in Brahmanbaria in November 2011. It spread through Facebook that Debasish Das has made profane comments about the prophet Muhammad Sohail. Taking this cue 60 to 70 people attacked and demolished the temple and damaged houses in three Hindu-dominated areas such as Tanapara, Kandapara and Dasapara near his village. Debasish Das Sohail was arrested on the basis of section 57 of the IT Act.
Now if we look at several newspapers and blogs, we would understand how wildly the complaint of defamation has begun to spread. In the March of 2013, Debabrata Roy, a teacher at a school in Gopalganj district was arrested because he asked his students to study English instead of reading the Namaz (Islamic prayers) five times a day. In 2014, Prasenanjit Chandra Shil, a teacher in Moulvibazar was assaulted on allegations of defamation. Subsequently he fled the village and was reported missing. Sushant Kumar Dhalia, a teacher at the Nalta Secondary School in the district of Satkheera, was arrested on charges of defaming the Prophet. During class, he said, “There was a Hindu saint, a Muslim Maulvi was a foreign gentleman in a place. First, the Hindu saint stated the name Krishnochura (Krishna-crown) has been derived from the name of the deity Krishna. Maulvi then that it would have been better if it was called Muhammad crown. Similarly, when the Hindu saints and mentioned Gopalganj (Gopal’s village, Gopal is another name of Krishna) and Krishnanagar (Krishna’s town) Maulvi indicated Mohammadanagara and Mohammadaganja would have been better. When a ramchagol (dumb goat) came by, the foreigner said, instead of ramchagol we should call it Mohammad chagol(goat). ”
When Abdur Rauf, a lecturer at Moulvibazar Government College in Sylhet, made comments about the essence of Islam in an attempt to explain the poem ‘Samyabadi’ (Communist) written by the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, he was fired from the college on allegation of defaming Islam. In 2013 the arrest of Partha Sarathi Das and Vijay Chandra Pappu over ‘liking’ the ‘Muktamana’ (Free-minded) blog in their Facebook page is widely known. In February of 2015, lawsuit and movement demanding the execution of Michael Hassan was started. Charges against him were brought on the basis of his YouTube video “Michael Hassan khristiyanari from Islam,” where he made a few offensive comments about Islam. In another incident in 2014 near Hobianj district, Kritanta Das was arrested based on his so-called offensive Facebook post. When police went to arrest him the local mob clashed with the police wanting to beat him up for defaming their religion. Police fired 37 rounds of rubber bullets that wounded least 20.
In the district of Chittagong on March 30, 2014, Raihan Rahi and Ullas Das were attacked men attacked from the extremists’ camp on allegations of defaming Islam. These two men were handed over to police only after being mauled by the extremists. Then in Tangail district defamation charges against Nikhil Joarder, a teacher was filed. In 2012 defamation allegations arose against school English teacher, Krishna Chandra of Laksham Pilot High school in Comilla district. Many Hindu houses were damaged on defamation allegations that centered around the staging of a play on Victory Day in December 2012 in Satkhira. The defamation charges arose from the play “Huzur Cabla” by Abul Mansur Ahmad written about the unmasking of religious (Peer) traders. Even the students were arrested for taking part in the drama. The scope of the vandalism was so large that almost two thousand men were accused. Debashish Dayamoy another teacher in Brahmanbaria district was arrested on charges of defamation. Nirmal Kumar Roy, a lecturer at the Vikram Adarsh University in Munshiganj district was charged in a defamation suit and attacked as a result of this. Charges against him were fabricated because he praised “Innocence of Muslims”, a movie made about the prophet Muhammad. Pradeep Kumar Das, a teacher at Borolekha sub-division in Moulvibazar district was arrested because of defamation against Islam. Supriya De Khan, a teacher in Jamalpur district was expelled on charges of defamation against Islam because while teaching the fifth grade, she said, “Earthquake is not a myth it’s real and could happen. Allah, Ishwar or God is rather unreal.” The premises of small Telecom business owner at Gobindapur village in Habiganj was vandalized because he published religious caricatures. Police fired 34 rounds of rubber bullets pellets to bring the situation under, and ten were wounded. Charges of defamation were filed against Mridul, young man in Barisal district! In Narsingdi district Hridyoy Chandra Saha and Sukanto Chandra Saha were charged with allegations of defamation arising from their Facebook posts. Hridyoy was sent to jail while Sukanta absconded. When a student of BM College in Barishal district posted about her non-religious views in 2015 on Facebook, she was deemed an atheist demonstrations were held demanding her while her effigies were burnt. In another event of 2015 the Cyber Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka ordered that Nikhil Ranjan Roy (aka Prince) be sent to jail after he made comments on Facebook about the Prophet Muhammad. Besides this a man was beaten up a mob while traveling in a bus on charges of defamation in the Farmgate area. Suranjit Sengupta, the Librarian at Textile Engineering College in Begumganj of Noakhali district was handed over to the police after a public-mauling at the hands of an extremist mob. Dr. A K M Laiju, a Medical College Professor was sued and attacked on defamation allegations. During class he had said, “The Prophet also married his his adopted son Zaid’s wife.” There’s evidence about this in the Quran. Madan Mohan, a teacher at Dhanmondi Government Boys’ High School was assaulted because he raised questions about numerous marriages by the Prophet Muhammad during his last years. Shankar Biswas Mondal, an English teacher of the G T Pilot High School of Tungipara in Gopalganj district, was under and expelled due to his religious comments. In June 2014 Raiganj first-year student Gopal Chandra Dev of Raiganj college Kurigram district was arrested in June 2014 on charges of defamation. In 2015 defamation charges were filed against Jewel Chandra Shil, a student at Feni Polytechnic Institute based on his Facebook Comments. Sujan Dey of Fatiksar in Chittagong district was arrested and accused of inciting religious riots when he uploaded offensive pictures on Facebook. Aung Sing Marma, a student of Notre Dame College in Dhaka was arrested on charges of defamation in 2013. Kinkara Chandra Samajhadara, a teacher in Narail district was threatened with expulsion because he said to the class, “Religious bigotry exists in the sub-continent.” After this event the vandalism began, although students reiterated in the ‘Bangla Tribiune’ newspaper, “Kinkara did not say any of those things that were alleged he said and are talked about in different. Also what is being printed on the poster as his words are all lies. He never remarked any such things that are being alleged.”
There are many more such incidents outside of these. I hope we do not need to list all of them to form an understanding of the situation. Now if we analyze incidents of harassment and arrest for allegedly defamation of Islam you’ll see that teachers were the most victims in such incidents. Most of the arrests occurred involving Hindu teachers. Let alone upholding the right to freedom of speech, charges against many of them are framed, some victims have been arrested, some have left their homes under fire and for fear of being heckled by their Muslim neighbors. This doesn’t include many more unreported incidents of which we do not know of.
People of Bangladesh do not know what freedom of speech is, their constitutional rights, what they’re entitled to, instead they are stuck in a vicious cycle. As such due to systemic corruption, people can’t say anything against the people in power. On one hand those in power have the administration to protect their interests and on the other hand they also have a hired army of strongmen to suppress dissent. Once anyone speaks out against them there is no escape, at night or even in broad daylight they would be threatened under the knife, and be killed by these gangsters. So no one speaks up, no one listens to those who teaches others to think! Those struggling to make their both ends meet, do not have the luxury to think about freedom of speech in a developing country like Bangladesh. Because they have to survive every day for their family and their relatives. Taking advantage of their poverty and gullibility, the administration is not only clamping down on the thinkers, writers and activists through arrests and torture but they’re also silencing any form of freedom of expression with the allegation of defamation. Since a large portion of the school and college teachers are Hindu, Islamic extremists consider them as major obstacles in their effort of Islamization of the education system. We merely became an independent nation in 1971 but we have never attained real independence. By terrorizing people freedom of expression can’t flourish and if freedom of expression is silenced, any other freedom remains elusive. Bangladesh is gradually entering the dark ages of religious extremism under the influence of one of the world’s youngest religion.