Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks in New Delhi. Her feelings of personal obligation to India are well known. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

In a living embodiment of Orwellian dystopia, the hapless Bangladeshi polity has switched back to complete surrender, after a blip of pointless outrage following the grisly murder of Abrar Fahad, a student of the elite Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).

Before his murder, Abrar was tortured for around four hours allegedly by cadres of the ruling party, the Awami League, in the BUET dormitory over a Facebook post. He argued that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had defended India’s interests instead of those of Bangladesh in treaties on ports, water sharing and energy resources. After his rather innocuous post, on October 6 at 8 pm, cadres of the Awami League’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), took him from his room to a torture cell on suspicion of being an “Islami Chhatra Shibir” supporter.

The BCL leaders checked his mobile phone and a laptop to see if he had “liked” any Facebook page supporting the Islami Chhatra Shibir. He was brutally assaulted with cricket stumps and skipping ropes for hours to force him to testify that he was a Shibir supporter. After this horrific torture, the BCL leaders called the police, to hand over the “Shibir activist” they had caught. The police arrived on the scene to pick up the “Shibir cadre” in the dead of night, but they were turned back, as Abrar had already died of internal bleeding.

Nationwide outrage

His body was lying still in the corridor of the dormitory for hours before a doctor came and pronounced him dead. None of his mates at the university dormitory dared to protest or take any action, fearing future repercussions by members of the Awami League student wing. Later, some students gathered enough courage to write a group message on the Facebook page of the alumni association.

Eventually, word of Abrar’s death spread like wildfire on social media and led to outrage across Bangladesh. People were surprised as to how a BUET student could allegedly be beaten to death by BCL members in his dormitory hall for a Facebook post criticizing Sheikh Hasina’s treaties with India.

The mainstream media initially reported a student’s death during interrogation. In the first few hours, most refused to accept that the student wing of the ruling party had allegedly murdered Abrar. However, university students across the country brought out angry processions throughout the day that led the government-regulated media to start revealing the truth slowly. Now each outlet has gone into overdrive over the torture chambers run by ruling-party cadres in student dormitories – a fact that had been known to all for many years.

Abrar’s Facebook profile shows a fun-loving boy who used to travel around. His messages show a person of Islamic orientation but no political association. One of his posts stated that all his life he had wanted to marry a highly qualified girl. However, now, after having to eat the horrible food in the campus canteen, all he wanted was a wife who could cook well. His earlier posts showed a boy who was serious about his studies. He expressed joy after completing his first complex “Linear Circuit Analyzer project” just 15 days before his death.

The unbound rage in all echelons of society and widespread media coverage of the torture chambers is ironic, because it is neither the first time Awami League cadres have allegelyy murdered a citizen or student after accusing them of being an Islami Shibir supporter. Nor is Abrar Fahad the first person to face state repression after an innocuous Facebook post.

Controversial deals

Perhaps there was anger that had been building up across the country for years. People felt the bilateral deals with India – including the defense treaty to set up an Indian radar in the maritime boundary of Bangladesh – were, in essence, Sheikh Hasina’s payback to India, her reward for India’s support for two dubious elections where people were denied their right to vote – and not a deal between two sovereign countries, as she did not have the mandate to sign the treaty.

Many people sympathetic to the regime also questioned the wisdom of the deals in private. They noted that after showing such unflinching resolve to support India’s interests, Sheikh Hasina should have been successful in obtaining Indian support for Rohingya repatriation, while in fact India backed Myanmar in international forums.

The terms of the treaties were also deliberately kept hidden from public purview. In the absence of any media coverage over these secretive deals, it is only people like Abrar who were discussing these issues in social media, defying the risk.

So Abrar’s gruesome murder over his simple but valiant Facebook post in protest of those treaties let loose a valve that Sheikh Hasina thought she had controlled tightly. No doubt she had to react, saying she would ensure justice not only as a head of state but also as a mother who knows the pain of losing dear ones.

But people have a vivid memory of how she protected the perpetrators of earlier murders by her party cadres. After her vow to bring Abrar’s killers to justice, his brother and in-laws were beaten by police in their own house, and the superintendent of police once again smeared the family as “Shibir supporters”

Later, the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Authority blocked a whistleblower page as it started to get inundated with similar horror stories of torture of students by the Awami League cadres in BUET.

The blocking of the whistleblower page indicates that Sheikh Hasina has no desire to dismantle the torture cells operating across the country. Her promise to bring killers to justice is classic Orwellian doublespeak. She is aware her unpopular government’s survival largely depends on the unmerciful cruelty by these torture chambers to regulate dissent, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Muzzling democracy for years

Sheikh Hasina usually picks the leaders of BCL herself. There is a pattern that shows her choices as top leadership are strongman on university campuses. Al Nahian Khan Joy, her current pick for BCL president, basked in glory when he confessed to beating four “Shibir supporters” back in 2014. In a widely reported interview, he bragged to journalists that “Rakib was first arrested on the suspicion of being a Shibir supporter. We contacted others through his mobile phone. We have got confirmation of his association with Shibir through checking his local people.”

In reality, Sheikh Hasina’s party established a clear link between torture cells and party promotion. Abrar’s murderers only followed that path.

It is evident that had Abrar not died in the custody of BCL cadres, he would have been handed over to the police after the grisly torture session. His handover as a “Shibir cadre” would also have been fully endorsed by the university administration. It is his unexpected death that brought an unwelcome focus on a system where the Awami League cadres, the university administration, and the police all come together to create a Nazi-like methodology of checking the phones of students for unwanted Facebook posts and likes to verify if someone is a Shibir supporter, and if people are “found guilty” of liking pages not approved by the government, they are brutally tortured and later handed over to police as Shibir supporters.

The police then take over the next phase of torture and systematic dehumanization. Ashikul Islam Bitu, the assistant secretary of the BUET Chhatra League, was not coy when he claimed immediately after Abrar’s death: “We found his involvement in Shibir politics as he liked many Shibir-run pages.”

Let us be honest here in stating that it is not only Sheikh Hasina’s regime; instead, there exists a large establishment of secular ideologues who have taken part in the dehumanization campaign led by the ruling party’s cultural establishment for a very long time.

The silent majority

Left-wing liberal politicians, progressives, freedom-of-speech defenders, atheist bloggers, artists, poets, women’s rights activists – all the moral guardians of the country for long have either advocated or kept a blind eye to the government’s de-humanization campaign that is epitomized by the ever-popular rhythmic slogan, “Ektra duita shibir dhor, dhoira dhoira jobai kor,” meaning “Capture one or two Shibir cadres, and slit their throats and kill them.”

Taslima Nasrin, a celebrated writer and women’s rights activist currently in exile in India, wrote a Facebook post after the murder: “Abrar could be meritorious, but he used to offer five times prayers a day. Being meritorious is the sign quality, but for a 21 years old boy, offering five times prayers a day cannot be considered as a quality, that should be considered as an offense.

“Even if Abrar was not a Shibir follower, he thought like a Shibir. Even if he was a Shibir, he has the right to live. Those who beat him, I believe, they didn’t intend to kill him. He just died after getting injured in the head.”

A reader must check the underlying link of Taslima’s Facebook post to be sure that this author is not writing an Orwellian fiction. This is the word of an internationally awarded women’s rights activist quoted verbatim. She is considered the epitome of progressive values in Bangladesh, fighting dark forces.

It is an excellent question to ask as to why there is an elite consensus in the secular establishment of Bangladesh to dehumanize supporters of Islami Shibir and how legitimate victimhood of a genocide four decades back has been converted into a potent tool of torture and oppression to subjugate a population against their will by a very brutal regime.

This knowledge is central to understanding Bangladesh’s conversion from a representative developmental state to a one-party client-list state to a full-blown fascist regime.

Qumr Ahmed

The author is a senior journalist based in Bangladesh.

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