My Time with the Bangladeshi Bloggers Facing Terror and Machete Attacks
We went to Dhaka, where secular bloggers, writers, and publishers are being targeted with brutal methods aimed at suppressing free speech.
All illustrations by Deshi Deng
The killers walked along Shahbag Road, a wide, chaotic avenue in Dhaka, Bangladesh, bisected by a concrete divider, and entered Aziz Super Market, an indoor mall situated between the gaudy storefronts of Muslim Sweets and Juicy Fast Foods. The building's interior, three floors of ugly 70s concrete chic embittered by age, was little more than a series of poorly lit and dingy tunnels lined mostly with jeans and T-shirt shops.
It was around five in the afternoon, on October 31, 2015, when several men appeared. They ascended the staircase to the third floor, passing a row of brightly lit clothing stores with mannequins standing outside. At the far end of a secluded hallway, they reached the cramped office of Faisal Arefin Deepan's publishing house. Deepan was a handsome man with a boyish face, always well-dressed. At 43, he had made a name for himself by publishing both secular and religious works, including the works of Ajivit Roy, a prominent secular blogger who had been murdered earlier that year.
"The medical examiner's report said that he was 'murdered with the least possible pain,'" Deepan's father said. 'Those are the exact words: 'Murdered with the least possible pain.'"
That day, three men stood lookout in the hallways, while the other three entered the office, closing the door behind them. Once inside, they hacked Deepan to death with machetes. They focused on his face and neck, and left him in a pool of blood. Then they fled, padlocking the door behind them, apparently unnoticed by the other traders.
Deepan's father, Abul Kashem Fazlul Haq, an intellectual in his own right and professor of Bengali at the prestigious Dhaka University, found his body early that evening. He had rushed over when he heard of an attack that same day on another publisher with offices nearby and was unable to reach his son by phone. That publisher, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, along with two writers who were also attacked that night, survived, though Tutul lost his hands.
"A few years ago, this couldn't have happened," Faruk Wasif, a local poet in his 30s, told me. We had met at the Dhaka Lit Fest, where I was an invited author, and he offered to take me personally to the market. Less than a month had passed since the killing, and he warned me it was unsafe for a foreigner to go alone. The building had once been a center for culture, filled with bookshops and publishers' offices, but in recent years, those businesses had shuttered. "Deepan's office would have been surrounded by students, by intellectuals, by people talking and discussing. Everyone knew one another then; there was a community here. That's all gone. Now no one knows anyone, and they all pretend they saw nothing."
"He died quickly," Deepan's father would tell me later as we sat together in an office at Dhaka University. "In less than five minutes." He wiped away a tear and continued. "The medical examiner's report said that he was 'murdered with the least possible pain.' Those are the exact words." He repeated it softly, " Murdered with the least possible pain."
It was November 2015, and I had been invited to Bangladesh to participate in Dhaka Lit Fest, a prominent international literary festival that had been, in one form or another, in existence since 2011. First impressions weren't promising. The road from the airport was a congested mess of stationary vehicles that, every ten or so minutes, would clear up, allowing cars to creep another hundred meters before clogging again amid a constant barrage of honking. The driver told me that this was normal. The scene looked like a post-apocalyptic New Delhi. Extreme privilege rubbed shoulders with extreme want more violently than anywhere I'd ever been. Half the vehicles, battered to the edge of extinction, could be pulled straight off these streets and used unaltered in the next Mad Max movie, while many of the others, polished to a high sheen by diligent servants, would fit in on a boulevard in Malibu.
In previous years, the event had been called the Hay Festival Dhaka, after the storied Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, set annually in the bucolic greenery of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. The Hay had become a franchise, with obscure cities around the world ponying up for a Hay festival to attract tourists and boost the local cultural life. Changing the name to Dhaka Lit Fest, and throwing off the shackles of a connection to the old colonizer, symbolized a kind of coming-out party for the city. But recent events had cast a pall over the gathering.
In 2015, four blogger/writers had been brutally murdered in Bangladesh, and less than three weeks before the festival was set to begin, the publisher Deepan was killed in his office. In response, a week before the festival, the US State Department issued a travel advisory for Bangladesh, warning foreigners to stay away from large gatherings and international hotels—exactly where attendees would be during their stay. The morning before opening day, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the death penalties for two opposition party leaders, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, for their roles in organizing mass slaughter and rape during the 1971 War of Independence, when Bangladesh was formed out of what had previously been East Pakistan. The men were given 24 hours to publicly admit to the crimes they were convicted of and lodge an appeal, but failing that, they would be hanged almost immediately.
Within hours of the ruling, an Italian priest and aid worker, Piero Parolari, who had lived in the country for 35 years, was shot in the head while cycling just north of the capital city. That same afternoon, Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic fundamentalist organization aligned with the political opposition, called a hartal, a national strike, during which no cars would be allowed on the streets. This ban would coincide with the first day of the festival. Anyone found outside, especially foreigners I was warned, was subject to random attack.
As if to add insult to injury, the government shut down social media sites and messaging apps to discourage people from spreading rumors or organizing protests. "We've built our whole marketing plan around getting the word out through Facebook," festival co-director Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi said, "and now it gets shut down." A perfect storm had gathered, and it was quickly gaining enough force to sink the festival before it even began.
Many writers had already canceled, including the festival's headliners, Nobel Prize–winning Trinidadian-British writer V. S. Naipaul and American writer (and Naipaul biographer) Paul Theroux. The latter's son, Marcel Theroux, also a novelist, did arrive. He told me his father had spent his life traveling in many dangerous places, but at 74, and after reading the stream of alarming travel advisories, decided that it wasn't worth the chance. Even some local Bangladeshi writers, who lived in the city, chose to stay away. Anything might happen, a bomb or machete could be smuggled in, or the large contingent of police protecting the site might be overpowered by a mob. The series of coordinated terror attacks in Paris a week earlier only heightened the fear. In a country where free speech was being actively targeted by a minority of violent fundamentalists, the Dhaka Lit Fest was gleefully wearing a bull's-eye on its back.
Among those who accepted the invitation despite the climate was Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate in medicine, who said the US State Department had pleaded with him not to go out of fear for his life. "I was already in New Delhi when I got the message," the 76-year-old scientist told me. "It seemed silly to turn back then." But the night before the festival opened, huddled in the armed camp that had become of the Pan Pacific Sonargaon, the luxurious five-star hotel where attendees were housed, none of us knew for sure whether the festival would even open the following morning.
Almost immediately after attacks on Faisal Deepan and Ahmedur Tutul in October, al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent claimed responsibility "as vengeance for the honour [sic] of the messenger of Allah and the religion of Islam. These two publishers were worse than the writers of such books, as they helped to propagate those books and paid the blasphemers handsome amount of money for writing them."
The books they referred to were by Avijit Roy, the blogger who had been brutally murdered in February, one of the few attacks that was witnessed. An outspoken atheist and humanist, he wrote books with titles such as The Virus of Faith and The Philosophy of Disbelief , certain to enrage a dimwitted but violent segment among Bangladesh's ultra-religious.
Roy's name had originally appeared on a hit list of 84 so-called atheist bloggers that started circulating in 2013. It was the first of many such lists, and Faisal Deepan's name would appear on one later, but its exact origins remain murky. While almost certainly drawn up by fundamentalist Islamic organizations, it was originally handed to the pro-secular government as a list of names to investigate and arrest, and preferably hang, for what the compilers called "the crime of atheism." He was killed outside the grounds of the Bangla Academy, where the festival was also being held. In photographs from that night, his wife stands over his body, covered head to foot in blood. She pleads for help while onlookers, including police officers, surround her, watching impassively.
Who could possibly want to murder C? He wasn't a blogger, writer, or activist; rather, he lived a regular life in a provincial city where he was a professor in a highly uncontroversial subject, which under normal circumstances would never raise anyone's hackles. But these were hardly normal circumstances.
"For years, Islamists have been increasing their presence in the country," 45-year old K. Anis Ahmed, a prominent publisher and novelist and one of the co-directors of the festival, told me. "But you also have to remember that about forty percent of the country never wanted independence. That number hasn't changed much, and that's the reason the BNP continues to have the support it does." He was referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded in 1978 by Ziaur Rahman, who reintroduced multi-party politics to the country after a 1975 military coup.
Since the nation's founding in 1971, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by a tenuous compromise between a secular Bengali worldview, one shared by a majority of Bangladeshis, and the reactionary forces who opposed independence from Pakistan, favoring instead the creation of a fundamentalist Islamist state. To this day, those forces remain committed to some form of "Talibanizing" Bangladesh.
When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the secular Awami League and the country's first prime minister, was assassinated in the 1975 coup, the new military regime amended the previously secular constitution to make Islam the state religion. In the years since, increasingly large amounts of foreign money have been funneled into the country. The money has come from wealthy and conservative Bangladeshis abroad and hardliners in Saudi Arabia, and has been used to fund extremist organizations like Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a group that would claim responsibility for killing the blogger Avijit Roy.
Ever since parliamentary democracy was again re-established in 1991, the country has been led by two leaders: Khaleda Zia, the first woman president in the country's history, and Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father and first president of Bangladesh. The two women have leapfrogged each other as prime minister twice each, with Hasina currently holding the top job and Zia leading the opposition.
Under the moderate Hasina, the country has maintained some of its secular roots, while Zia's tenures have been characterized by a mercenary alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami, South Asia's oldest and purest radical Islamist party with ties to extremist groups like ABT. As Bangladesh's desperately poor population continues to skyrocket, this battle for the country's soul continues to edge the country away from its heady, idealistic roots and into the arms of the ultra-conservative mullahs.
On the first morning of the festival, opening ceremonies were delayed an hour and several of the day's events canceled or rescheduled because of the hartal. I entered by walking through a phalanx of officers wielding 7.62mm SKS rifles. Once inside the heavily secured gates, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and standing there was a friend of almost 20 years, and someone I hadn't seen in over a decade, not since he had returned to his native Bangladesh from the US. I'll call him C, as he asked that his name not be published. Three days before he had received a frightening phone call from a friend.
"He told me my name's just appeared on a death list," C, who was in his early 50s, said. "He recognized three names. My name, his name, and one other mutual friend." The friend refused to say how he found out or where he saw the list, at least not over the phone. "He told me to keep my head down and watch everywhere. I haven't been able to talk to him in person, so I don't know what's going on. He's connected to the security services, so if anyone would know our names are on a hit list, he would." We sat down in an outdoor lounge, sponsored by a major credit-card company, and were offered tea by jacketed waiters who afterward stood soundlessly by. "I'm fucking terrified," C turned to me and said when the waiters were out of earshot. "I don't know what to fucking do."
Suddenly, what had seemed an academic exercise in trying to understand what was happening to writers in Bangladesh had become very personal. C kept looking over his shoulder the whole way there, he said, and didn't know how he was going to get back home. It was hard to comprehend. Who could possibly want to murder C? He wasn't a blogger, writer, or activist; rather, he lived a regular life in a provincial city where he was a professor in what I can only describe as a highly uncontroversial subject, and which under normal circumstances would never raise anyone's hackles. But these were hardly normal circumstances. Even a Facebook post could get your name on a death list, as the New York Times recently reported, when Bangladeshi friends of the journalist Salil Tripathi asked him not to even tag them on posts mentioning the killings.
That was likely how C became targeted, though he couldn't be sure, and it brought home how effective the death lists had been in silencing a whole country. Few people in Bangladesh were writing about the killings anymore. And those so-called atheist bloggers who still championed their rights in what they hoped was still a secular democracy had gone into deep hiding, staying in their homes, not going to their jobs, and keeping as low a profile as they could. Many had fled the country, and many others were making plans to do the same.
The previous afternoon, I'd had an appointment to meet Mostafa Ahmed Kamal, a distinguished writer and professor who was on the original hit list of 84 names. When I asked Kamal what it felt like to have been singled out on a death list, he laughed. "There are so many lists now," he said, "at least ten by my count." He was a middle-aged man with gentle eyes and a soft mouth, and his response to being targeted was a mix of incredulity and amusement. He couldn't imagine why anyone would want to kill him. He wrote stories, had briefly authored a blog in which he (at most) championed free speech and a scientific outlook, and spent his days teaching physics at the Independent University, which was where I met him in his sparsely furnished office.
"But that first list, you have to understand," he told me, "was made by fundamentalists and handed to the government, and the government itself then made a second list—and this is important—because on that second list, which only included twenty-seven names, they researched everything about the writers. Where they lived, where they worked, who their friends were, where they spent their evenings. It was supposed to be secret, but someone leaked it, and it was this list that got into the hands of the killers. It's a how-to guide to finding someone if you want to kill him or her. My name is on both."
One of the organizations widely believed to have created that first list was Ansarullah Bangla Team. Founded in 2007 and originally called Jama'atul Muslemin, ABT was inspired by al Qaeda with the goal of founding an Islamic state in Bangladesh built around a narrow vision of Sharia law. In 2013, the organization set out on a campaign to attack and kill secular bloggers, a fact it announced on its website as well as its Facebook page, where it listed potential targets. Other than Avijit Roy, it claimed responsibility for the deaths of bloggers Oyasiqur Rahman Babun and Ananta Bijoy Das, the murder of Rajshahi University professor Dr. A. K. M. Shafiul Islam, as well as attacks on several other prominent secular figures.
"If I want to go anywhere else, I have to call the police a day before, and they send six officers to accompany me," Kamal said. "But if you're a young writer and you find yourself on one of those lists, they won't do anything for you."
It was the second list, the one drawn up by the government, that interested Kamal most, and indeed, four bloggers on this list had been arrested by Sheikh Hasina's government in April 2013 on the charge of defaming Islam. It was hardly the move of a fiercely secular administration.
The brand of Islam practiced in Bangladesh, Kamal told me, has never been the prohibitive and austere style that's trumpeted by oil-rich Saudi sheikhs. It was a different religion, having emerged out of the religious and intellectual tumult that characterized medieval India, and heavily influenced by mystical strands of Sufism and its long history living alongside Hinduism and indigenous Bengal religions. "We're a soft people," he said. "A musical people, a mystical people. Our religion is not the religion they practice in the Middle East. We're not extremists, and we never have been."
I walked him to his car, which was kept securely off the street. "I used to go out all the time, to cafes, sometimes to talk all night, to travel," he said. "That's all gone. I move from here to home and back again, and I never stop on the way. If I want to go anywhere else, I have to call the police a day before, and they send six officers to accompany me. They do this because I've got a name, and it'll be an embarrassment if I'm killed. But if you're a young writer and you find yourself on one of those lists, they won't do anything for you. All they tell you is leave the country and don't look back."
As the festival continued, I was surprised to hear little talk of the killings. Rather, the city's turbulence seemed to melt away as we passed through layers of security and walked along winding lanes that passed the quaint, neo-Victorian buildings of the Bangla Academy. It was a relief to listen, instead, to excited chatter over newly published books and the rising place of Bengali in world literature. Yoss, a Cuban rocker and sci-fi novelist who dressed every inch the part, caused a minor stir wherever he walked, along with a flurry of requests for selfies with him. We sat on a panel together discussing the state of contemporary sci-fi writing where I admitted to being a huge Doctor Who fan in my youth. Leaving the auditorium, whole classes of local schoolgirls in their pristine uniforms mobbed me, wanting to know who my favorite doctor was and pose with me for one group selfie after another. The prevailing atmosphere wasn't one of danger but of possibility. The air felt charged with an electric optimism, and no topic was off-limits, from atheism to the erotic. Bangladesh, not only as a literary force but as a nation, people kept telling me, was ready to take its place on the world stage.
I had little time to enjoy the festival, though. Usually within minutes of sitting down at a poetry reading or the launch of a novel, someone would come up to me and whisper that another of the bloggers from the list had agreed to meet and talk, but that we had to leave immediately. Soon I'd be in the other Dhaka again, the city under threat, in a car edging nervously through traffic on the way to meet another man who'd been handed a death sentence for writing that was far less damning than what was being openly discussed at the lit fest.
The contrast couldn't have been more dramatic. While ensconced on the grounds of the festival, I found it hard not to share the abiding optimism of attendees. Once outside again, however, I felt the chill of a nation unable, or unwilling, to come to terms with the demons of its own internal contradictions and strife. A few local writers asked me for my predictions for Bangladesh's future. I couldn't clearly answer because I was continually confronted with two very different countries: the hopeful, forward-looking nation represented at the festival, and the other, where writers like Avijit Roy were hacked to death right outside the very grounds I was sitting in as the investigation seemed to go nowhere. I doubted either vision for Bangladesh would triumph, and the nation's future would be characterized by an ongoing and messy compromise.
In the days after Faisal Deepan's murder, Avijit Roy's widow, Rafida Bonya, penned an open letter attacking the ruling Awami League and the country's leader, Sheikh Hasina, blasting their continued inaction and what she called their outright pandering for Islamist votes:
"Our only request to them is please stop wasting your energy by constantly shouting 'We are the secular party.' ... Stay silent and go on oiling the fundamentalist cleavers, otherwise you might lose a few votes. You know very well that it is your silence that is allowing them to hone their weapons."
K. Anis Ahmed told me that I shouldn't necessarily judge Hasina's inaction as a retreat from the ideals of a secular Bangladesh. "These killings have been going on for years," Ahmed explained. "They've been part of the ugly background noise of building the nation. In 1971, during the war, Jamaat-e-Islami not only massacred ordinary people, they also singled out writers and artists and professors to kill. Yet it was only recently that the government decided to bring these killers to justice. Part of the compromise of modern Bangladesh has been living with the fact that much of its leadership, at least during certain regimes, not only did not want the nation created, but that they actively organized the rape or slaughter of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. These new killings, ever since 2013, are a direct response to the government's determination to prosecute these war criminals."
2013 was a watershed year in the recent history of Bangladesh. So many of the tensions that had been simmering under the surface since its founding erupted. And it all happened a block from Faisal Deepan's office. On February 5, 2013, Abdul Quader Molla, a leading member of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, was convicted of crimes against humanity related to the 1971 massacres and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence that many in the country found too lenient. Massive protests erupted demanding the death penalty for all war criminals and the banning of Jamaat. They were called the Shahbag protests because they were centered on that park-filled neighborhood in central Dhaka. Counter-protests, organized by Jamaat, soon rocked the city, but the government quickly acceded, in part, to the demands of the Shahbag protestors and instated the death penalty for war criminals along with a sharply truncated appeals process. Conviction and execution would be separated by only a few months. Molla was finally hanged on December 12, 2013, an act which Jamaat dismissed as a "political killing" and vowed revenge for "every drop" of Molla's blood.
The sudden rise in the killing of bloggers since 2013 can be directly linked to the demands of Shahbag protestors, Ahmed told me. Many of the people being tried for war crimes are leaders in Jamaat, and with Jamaat crippled, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party is also crippled.
"It's why they've been keen to seize any opportunity to paint the Awami League as anti-Islamic," he told me, "and they've done a good job painting bloggers as atheists or apostates. It's the problem Prime Minister Hasina faces. Any expression of support for free speech, especially that of bloggers, would be twisted into support for atheists or apostates. And this is still a ninety percent Muslim country. If she comes out strongly for the bloggers, she'll lose her electoral base, and if she does that, BNP and Jamaat will push Bangladesh back into the arms of the hardline Islamists."
When I met Faisal Deepan's father, Abul Haq, at Dhaka University, he greeted me with a disarming smile and led me into sitting room attached to the offices of the Bangla Language Department, where he has taught for years. The room overlooked a grassy quad, where in 1952 students gathered to protest the imposition of Urdu over Bengali and other regional languages in what was then still East Pakistan. The Language Movement that was born here would lead to the schisms that gave birth to Bangladesh, and, according to the Awami League argument, these were the same forces that ultimately propelled Deepan's assailants.
However, Haq disagreed. "They didn't kill my son, not anyone from Bangladesh," he said. Instead, he suspected the Islamic State (ISIS), or the Taliban. "But the government doesn't want to admit this. Then the US will want to send forces here," he smiled ruefully. He was adamant that his son never shared Avijit Roy's beliefs, and he seemed at times angry that after Roy's murder, his son had not more forcefully distanced himself from the outspoken atheist. "Deepan committed a mistake when he published these books. If he had gone on TV, if he had made a statement, that he was against these books, that he repudiated them and would never publish them again, then maybe he would be alive."
I took his criticism of Roy as part of a father's grieving process, and changed the subject to the Shahbag protests, which happened outside Deepan's office. "Yes, he was there," he said. "He wasn't an organizer, but he attended the meetings and protests. He believed in the cause." All the killed writers had either openly supported and helped organize the protests, or attended them, and it struck me that Deepan's death could have easily have been due to his own beliefs as to those of the people he published.
"It's about economic power, here in Bangladesh," Ahasan insisted. "It's about getting it. It's about keeping it. They didn't die for their ideas; they died so someone else could get rich!"
When I left, it was early afternoon and a soft golden light filtered through the bedraggled halls of Dhaka University. On a wall, a handwritten poster for a student group meeting discussing the murders proclaimed, "We Must Not Die Before We Are Killed."
That outside forces are increasingly involved in the unrest in Bangladesh, according to many people I spoke to in Dhaka, is an argument the US government has been putting forward, calling them "violent extremists"—which these days, and in the context of Bangladesh, they would tell me is diplo-speak for ISIS. But the term could equally refer to disaffected Islamists inside the country, perhaps without any specific political affiliation.
Two months after Roy's murder, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) joined the party and claimed responsibility, as it later would for Deepan's murder. The killings of two foreigners in late September and early October were claimed by ISIS, and that same week, three men were arrested for putting up ISIS recruitment posters reading, "The call of the Middle East." After the attack on the Italian priest on the day before the Dhaka Lit Fest, ISIS published an article in its mouthpiece outlet Dabiq titled "The Revival of Jihad in Bengal," in which it condemned Jamaat-e-Islami as insufficiently Islamic along with other indigenous Islamist organizations and called for their followers to join ISIS in its pure war, which it planned to spread from Bangladesh to India.
Sheikh Hasina's government continues to scoff at such reports. "I can say surely," she claimed in early October when she invited a group of journalists to her home, "that ISIS or any such type of organization or their activities have not sprouted in Bangladesh." When I asked Ahmed, he laughed at the idea. "ISIS wouldn't be able to find its way through Dhaka traffic!" The case that the murderers are homegrown fundamentalists, and their motives relate to the government's newly found determination to bring the killers of 1971 to justice is indeed strong. It's not hard to send a tweet claiming responsibility, which is how ISIS stakes its claims, or publish an article outlining how you're going to conquer a nation. And at the heart of ISIS's media strategy and projection of power is its exploitation of our fears of its potential reach. Yet it seems equally unlikely that ISIS wouldn't be recruiting operatives in Bangladesh, if only to lay the groundwork for a future operation. Hasina's public denials of any foreign involvement are potentially as dangerous as American arguments, at least as locals characterized them to me, that these murders are the work of foreign infiltrators.
In the wake of 9/11, US foreign policy became heavily distorted, suspecting Islamic terrorists everywhere while ignoring other, dangerously real threats. Today, in the wake of the Paris attacks and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a similar process may be unfolding, where shades of gray are lost, and all the US is interested in seeing is ISIS cells. In 1971, the US took sides with West Pakistan against the creation of Bangladesh, and by proxy supported the massacre of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary Bangladeshis. That history is not forgotten here, and a distrust of US policy makers lingers, especially those who might attempt to narrow their vision of what's happening here to their own short-term needs.
But not everyone believed religion was at the heart of the dispute.
"The murders really have nothing to do with what these guys wrote," Robin Ahasan, a publisher who shared a floor with Faisal Deepan, told me. He had received his own death threat a few days earlier, slipped as a handwritten note under his door. "None of that's controversial. These are arguments in Islam that were decided a century ago." It was a cramped, poorly ventilated office, and where he sat, Robin Ahasan was surrounded by unruly stacks of paper and books. "It's about economic power, here in Bangladesh," he insisted. "It's about getting it. It's about keeping it. They didn't die for their ideas; they died so someone else could get rich!"
We were driving to the lit fest's closing night party at a sprawling private residence when we got the news. The driver had been listening to the radio and briefly turned around. "It's done," was all he said. Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, Jamaat's number-two man, and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a BNP lawmaker and one of opposition leader Zia's top aides, had just been hanged, within days of their final appeal being rejected. US officials had seriously objected to what they called the lack of a fair trial, with many key defense witnesses barred from taking the stand. The Bangladeshi writer Ahmed Ikhtisad acknowledged the problems with the trial but rationalized the court's lack of due process. "The thing you have to understand is that these were horrific killers," he said. "It's been forty years, and we've been waiting, and most people just want this over with."
I would be leaving two days later, and in my brief time in Bangladesh, I had spent most of it either at the hotel or on the protected grounds of the Dhaka Lit Fest, or being shuttled somewhere, often with an armed police escort for protection. What surprised me most was how easily I'd become accustomed to what on my first night had felt like an apocalyptic landscape. Now it felt ordinary, and I could understand how people simply lived here. As to the question of who killed Faisal Deepan, I realized the answer was less important than untangling the web of Islam, fanaticism, political rivalry, history, and power that had dominated Bangladesh. I had started with a simple question and soon found myself plunged into a story as complex and ambiguous as any Graham Greene could write.
On my last afternoon, I sat with the distinguished 77-year old novelist Hasan Azizul Huq by the hotel pool. He too was recently threatened. "Let them come and kill me," he said, "but if they do, they'll kill a free man." We talked for an hour, but not about the killings, or the rising influence of fundamentalist Islam, or the failures of this party or that party, but about writers and art, and the people we admired and who had influenced us and taught us something vital and beautiful about the world. It felt necessary, on my last day here, to breathe a little of the giddy and romantic air that had called for freedom of thought, freedom of religion, or freedom to just be—those freedoms that inspired the independence struggle of 1971, when Bangladesh was born.
Ranbir Singh Sidhu's debut novel Deep Singh Blue is out this month from Unnamed Press.