The Freedom Chat Transcripts: An Interview with Bangladeshi Blogger Siddhartha Dhar
Siddhartha Dhar was among the 84 secularist bloggers named in a hitlist put out in 2013 by a group of religious fundamentalists seeking to punish writers for perceived insults against Islam. After eight of his friends and colleagues were murdered – four, including his mentor, Ananta Bijoy Das, were murdered in 2015 — Siddhartha was forced to flee Bangladesh. Bangladesh ranks #146 out of 180 countries in the 2015 Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders.
Freedom of expression is protected in Bangladesh’s constitution, but the government is doing little to protect the bloggers under attack. Many are now fleeing the country or in hiding as a result of the threats made against their lives. Arrests have been made in connection to the murders, but the government is also persecuting writers under the recently amended Information and Communication Technology Act, used to silence critics of the government. Siddhartha Dhar spoke to Sampsonia Way about how the attacks on bloggers are indicative of larger problems in the framework of the Bangladeshi government.
What kind of blogging were you doing when you were living in Bangladesh?
My friends and I were fostering a society based on the principles of Science and Reason. Bangladesh’s constitution is a secular one, and protects the right to exercise freedom of speech to a certain extent. We promoted the secularism of society, and we tried to attenuate the bad effects of some religious systems incompatible with the modern society. We promoted gender equality and human rights and exposed the contradictions of religions and their incompatibility with modern society. When we talked about religious extremism we became the target of religious zealots, but we tried to continue writing on these issues anyway.
Why was it important for you to continue the efforts despite receiving these death threats?
I was born in a Hindu family, and we were a minority group in Bangladesh. Due to the religious bigotry in Bangladesh, all non-Muslims are treated as second class citizens in all spheres of life. From the moment I started going to school, I realized that I was not being treated the same my Muslim friends were treated. My Muslim friends were always looking down upon me, reminding me that I was going to hell and they were going to heaven. Having facing such negative attitude and exploring the loopholes in the revelations of the religious scriptures, I realized how religion divided people in the society and spread bigotry, hatred.
When I first got access to the Internet, I started visiting blog sites where I came across some bloggers who thought like me. I found the Secular Humanist blog site Mukto-Mona, which had a tremendous influence on my cognitive thinking; suddenly I was viewing the world from a different paradigm. I met so many wonderful people and their writings through their website. Maybe we were few in number but we gave up our lives to do something good for our society. We were trying to complete something that will be one of the greatest advancements that our country has ever achieved, a secular society based on Science, Reason and Rationality. Freedom of expression is our constitutional right, and we were exercising it to promote what we believe in.
Could you describe the community of Bangladeshi bloggers you worked with?
Although we are very few in numbers, with our writings we have a tremendous impact on society. We have some popular blog platforms where we frequently debate with more religious-minded people on many different key issues. Our ideas were always presented within a certain context. Without harming personal feelings, we criticized many ideological stances and viewpoints. Early on, these blogs won some awards and gained popularity. But with the political turmoil, things started to go south after a while.
How did you hear about the hit list put out to kill secular Bangladeshi writers? What was your reaction to the hit list?
Originally it wasn’t a hit list. It was made to demand prosecution for the bloggers who were included in the list. The Islamists demanded that the government should prosecute the listed bloggers by enacting a new blasphemy law with the highest sanction being “capital punishment.” They killed the first blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, even before the list was published. Although he was dead, his name was still included in the list. The militants have killed bloggers whose names weren’t even included in the list. The Islamists, including the media, often use this list a reference. As a result of their propaganda, at least three more people from the list have already been killed. The list was published by a right wing daily newspaper. It also published certain lines from the blog posts written by atheist bloggers to stir unrest and provoke the Islamists to act with force. Although it was my pseudonym included in the list, I was still in danger. The government can force the blog owners to reveal the identity of any blogger. Many of my friends, including Ananta, were also on that list with their real names. Just after the list was published the government arrested four bloggers. We went through many sleepless nights back then.
Your mentor, Ananta Bijoy Das, was one of the bloggers who was killed. What was your relationship with Ananta like?
Ananta was the bravest person I have ever met. I had followed his work for a while and I sent him an email on October 1, 2009. In that email I told him, “I would like to meet you.” Both Ananta and I are from the same town. I read an article he wrote, and I felt that I should meet this guy. I felt I could join this organization he ran, called the “Science and Rationalist Council, Sylhet,” and get opportunities to promote what I believe in. So I met him and we talked a lot and we began to work together. I have learned a lot from him. He has done and would have done a lot of work to promote science and secularism. He considered religious-based terrorism a threat to creativity.
We had made so many plans together. But with his death everything has changed drastically.
What is the status of the Bangladeshi blogging community now?
The situation of the Bangladeshi blogging community is pretty fragile now. The secular bloggers are running for their lives. Some have already left the country; others are living in hiding, in fear that the militants will kill them. The government has failed to protect these bloggers. Rather than receiving protection, people are getting arrested under the infamous Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT ACT-57) for posting on Facebook about certain issues the government and the Islamic conservative forces doesn’t want anybody to write about.
The police in Bangladesh have arrested suspects in some of the bloggers’ deaths, and banned the group that claims responsibility for the attacks. Does that offer you any feeling of security or comfort at all?
No, it doesn’t. With the constant rise of extremist ideals and activities, the government has managed to do little to ensure the safety of dissidents and safeguard their right to express their opinions. Instead, the government came up with a blasphemy law ICT Act-57, under which anyone can be persecuted for simply expressing their opinions on the Internet. A lot of innocent people, including adolescents, have constantly fallen victim to this law in the past and present, and people are being forced to be silent in expressing their dissents.
What would meaningful action from the Bangladeshi government look like? What would they be doing if they were taking the attacks on bloggers seriously?
There has to be some fundamental changes in the attitude of the government in protecting and acknowledging people’s rights in expressing their opinions. The state policy of appeasing the radical forces by meeting their demands should be changed. All laws which are anti-blasphemy in nature should be abolished.
What can the international community do to support the secular bloggers in Bangladesh?
The international community can put more pressure on the Bangladesh government so that it takes necessary steps to protect the constitutional right of its citizens of expressing their opinions. At the same time, they can also provide temporary sanctuary to the bloggers whose lives are vulnerable. There should be much more open discussion over this issue from the global perspective as threats to people’s rights to express their opinions continue to rise.