The war on bloggers and activists in South Asia

It is the bull of extremism which the state authorities have been reluctant or evasive or apathetic to take by the horns

As the news about the missing activists and bloggers from Pakistan started to spread, I was reminded of the sustained covert and open war against bloggers, activists, dissenters, heretics, and civil society in general, across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran and the Maldives. Since Avijit Roy's brutal murder in February 2015, the world has come to realise that anyone who criticises the ''mosque/temple-madrasa/ shakha-social-welfare network of extremism'', will be on the receiving end of the vindictive attitude of extremists and the state will also be apathetic to the plight of the critics.

In India, rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M M Kalburgi were murdered, shot respectively in August 2013 and February and August 2015. Their killings had sparked outrage in the country with several eminent writers and activists returning their state awards over ''rising intolerance'' in the country. Investigations point to Hindu right wing radical groups who were also responsible for the 2009 Goa blast. 

At least eight atheists and gay rights campaigners have been killed in attacks in the majority Muslim country of Bangladesh. Since 2013, and the onset of the Shahbag movement and its vision of a Bangladesh as a humane and secular nation, the killers' targets have been free-thinking and open-minded people. From Rajib Haider to Nazimuddin Samad, a number of blogger deaths have taken place in the past three years. According to a CNN report in 2015, five bloggers were killed, including prominent Bangladeshi-American writer Abhijit Roy.

In both the countries, the state's apathy towards the murders of the rationalists has been evident. It is the bull of extremism which the state authorities have been reluctant or evasive or apathetic to take by the horns, be it Bangladesh or India. The widows of the Indian rationalists still await justice and in between this comes the news of four Pakistani activists' enforced disappearances. A Facebook post by Ahmed Waqas Goraya's wife cut through my heart and brought me out of mourning for my recently deceased husband Arshid Malik. Her post reflected my own heart so thoroughly that the old fire of dissent upended the cold grief I had been feeling this long, dark, winter in Kashmir. 

It reads:

'... my husband, my companion, my best friend and the father of my child. I know him from last 13 years, out of which I am married to him for 9 years. Never, did he stop loving me... he is a person made from sentiments and yet very strong and opinionated. He was known among his peers for strong liberal views but I saw him as a progressive man with ideas that can flourish our son. That harmless man... went MISSING in thin air on January 4th 2017.. what a start of new year for our tiny family. I had so many thoughts for this year, so much to share with him when he returned from a family trip that he was making with our son. Due to my work commitments I had to return earlier while they fully enjoyed their stay in Pakistan... the land he was mad about... the land he always wished to prosper. What did he do wrong? What was his mistake? I can't sleep, I cant stop thinking... so many questions... what could Waqass have done wrong... a man that I married, a man so full of energy, vibrancy and patriotism, a man who saw and believed that he could raise his voice and have some freedom of speech. .. was that wrong? I don't know what could have been so threatening for the people who took him away. I only want him back... ASAP!

We both are alone without you and we miss you papa... please come home soon to make it feel like home. And please come alive and healthy, so full of energy and passion and that brightness in your eyes. miss you and ili pili...'

Her appeal is akin to Rafida Bonya Ahmed, widow of Bangladeshi-American freethinker, humanist, blogger, writer, rationalist Avijit Roy, standing defiantly in a gathering crowd outside a book fair, her husband's bloody body lying in the background, her hands oozing blood from her severed thumb and fingers from the machete attack. A year later her speech video shows the same defiance, courage and bravery when she explained the night he was attacked and how she had made it her life's aim to take Avijit's fight against extremism, irrationality, superstition and communalism forward. 

There is something about bloggers and activists who speak out against extremism which prompts the irrational and communally divisive forces in any country to silence them instead of arguing or debating with them. The Maldives is a collection of atolls that adorn the Indian Ocean north of the equator like teardrops. A country committed to carbon neutrality by 2020, it is troubling to see that the Maldives is also facing the backlash of the aftermath of dictatorship of the Gayoom regime of 30 years. In 2014, Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan was abducted in broad daylight outside his apartment in Hulhumale. 

State authorities at first denied any link between Rilwan's disappearance and the news of an abduction of a person from Hulhumale, but over the years the pressure of activists and the family's vigil and active insistence has at least brought forth an investigation which places a suspect among a group of 12 Maldivian jihadis who travelled to Syria. An investigative report published by the Maldivian Democratic Network implicated radicalised gangs in Rilwan's disappearance and possible evidence of ''hostile surveillance''. All this happened amidst growing concerns of Islamist militancy and rising opposition to President Yameen's rule as well as his despotic handling of the Nasheed case. 

I can refer to the states of Afghanistan and Iran in passing because we are familiar with the fate of dissenters and critics within these two countries fighting in-house Islamism and theo-fascism respectively as well as cross-border terrorism and the Red Dragon threat. 2017 seems to have been a year where the rise of the Right is colliding with the irrelevance of the increasingly Regressive Left which makes grounds for the state, as well as extremists to silence, murder, behead, abduct, disappear, imprison, falsely accuse dissenters of blasphemy, and unjustly sentence them to jail or force them into hiding or exile. 

Considering this streak of ''overt war against civil society'' is across South Asia, it would be well for people to realise that if they do not stand in solidarity with those families whose near and dear ones have suffered the terror of extremists and the state, then they will have absolutely no space in the coming years to voice their protests. The space for criticism and dissent is shrinking as countries fail or postpone their fight for secular Constitutions. Be it the Arab Spring, or the underground atheist movement in the Middle East, South Asia cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the fate of the missing activists. 

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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