Roy was hacked to death on the campus of University of Dhaka, which he called home and where his father had been a professor of physics. Though a biomedical engineer by training, he donned many hats. He was a teacher at Bangladesh’s premier engineering university, an internet activist and a secularist writer who condemned religious extremism and superstitions. His blog Mukto-Mona (meaning, liberal minded) was a prominent platform for atheist bloggers and freethinkers.
On February 27, Roy was returning home with his wife from a book fair when they were stopped and struck with machetes. That book fair they visited has been a landmark in Bangladesh’s calendar for years. Inspired by the Language Movement of 1952, the month-long fair is a magnet for writers, poets, thinkers, intellectuals. It is held on the premises of the Bangla Academy, in the middle of the University of Dhaka.
It was at the University of Dhaka too that an attempt was made on the life of renowned Bangladeshi writer Humayan Azad 11 years ago. A professor of Bengali literature at the university, Azad was assaulted with machetes outside the grounds of the book fair, close to where Roy was targeted. The writer was critically injured and died later under treatment. Doctors attributed the death to natural causes.
Azad’s literary work Pak Sar Zamin Saad Baad (the opening lines of Pakistan’s national anthem which mean “blessed be the sacred land”) had agitated Islamist mainstream parties as well as extremists. A vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami had even demanded in the Parliament that Azad be convicted for blasphemy.
Masterminds never found: Rahman was killed less than half a kilometre from his house as he left for work on Monday morning. Locals managed to catch two of the assailants who admitted that the murder was premeditated. They had been shown a picture of the blogger and told where to find him. Both were students of madrasas affiliated with the Hifazat-e-Islam movement. For about two days, they had watched he house and playing cricket in front of it while doing the recce.
Before blogger Ahmed Rajeeb Haider was killed in front of his house on February 15, 2013, it too was recced by assailants who played cricket to blend in. The similarities don't end here. Both Rajeeb and Roy were murdered by a fanatic outfit, Ansarullah Bangla Team, whose members idolise Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based al-Qaeda leader who was killed in combat in 2011.
In all these crimes, the police has failed to prosecute or arrest the masterminds, despite there being no doubt about the hand of Islamists.
As each murder sparks off a debate, the government and law enforcers appear to roll up their sleeves and become active. But nothing comes of it and the investigation gets buried once the uproar dies down. There have been no decisive measures against fundamentalism, nor any convincing commitments against fanaticism from the government. This in turn has emboldened the extremists.
There are bound to be disagreements between ideologies, between progressives and others. Alarmingly though, murder has become a common expression of that disagreement. As the society becomes increasingly divided and intolerant of diversity, there is also a change in the choice of targets. Roy and Rahman were more temperate in their critique – they did not instigate people against religious beliefs unlike Rajeeb or Azad. Their killings therefore have a more unnerving significance.
One need not be a strident critic or a non-believer to be marked. One need only be a freethinker. One need only question the obvious. One need only...