Two brutal killings last week, of a gay rights activist and his friend in Dhaka, are the latest in a series of deadly attacks on atheists, foreigners and moderates in recent years in Bangladesh. Since 2013, over a dozen secularist writers, bloggers, journalists and publishers have been killed or seriously injured in attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists. Homosexuals are another community at risk. There are parallels in India, where, since 2014, a number of rationalists and authors have been killed or attacked by right-wing fanatics, with the ‘nationalist’ debate fuelling the flames and bringing students in the line of fire. In both countries, religious minorities have also been targeted—mainly Christians. Here’s the kicker—analysts point to government complicity or inaction as the key factor in the increase of attacks on either side of the border. In Bangladesh, responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by a number of militant groups who say the victims are enemies of Islam. Here, right-wing groups have targeted those they brand as anti-nationals—basically the same thing.
The Bangladeshi government has been criticised for its response, which has included jailing some of the secularist bloggers for allegedly defaming religious groups—a strategy seen as pandering to hardline elements within Bangladeshi Muslims who form about 89% of the population. According to some, the Sheikh Hasina government has taken this route to appease the mullahs whose anger can potentially cost it elections. Another factor being quoted is political instability, with the two major parties engaged in vendetta politics. While the continuing tragedy in Bangladesh has seen connections being made with ISIS and Al Qaeda, there are more worrying concerns. Extreme poverty is one reason, cited by security experts, as a factor motivating people to join extremist groups operating in the name of religion. There is another, more significant one. In Bangladesh, the attacks are taking place at a time of growing tension between secularists (‘sickular’ as Hindu right-wing activists describe them), who want the country to maintain its traditional separation of religion and state, and those who want an Islamist state in Bangladesh. It's is like looking into a mirror, darkly.