Monday, February 25, 2013

Bangla 2.0: Net wave paradox

The last Facebook update that Ahmed Rajib Haider posted was on February 15. Not too long after he had uploaded this post, his hacked body was discovered around 9.30pm in front of the house where he lived with his brother in the Mirpur area of Dhaka. 

The 30-year-old architect had an online persona of Thaba Baba (loosely translated as ‘Paw Daddy’, which he wrote as ‘Claw’ in English as an explanation).

His blogs on the popular Amarblog site regularly and primarily dealt with the menace of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh.

Haider, one of the main organisers of the anti-Jamaat demonstrations at Dhaka’s Shahbagh square, was uninhibited about his distaste towards the Jamaat-e-Islami.

He had also proudly declared himself to be an atheist, something that the Jamaat has subsequently used to brand every ‘blogger’ demanding its ban as being ‘un-Islamic’ and therefore morally degenerate.

While his murderer(s) are yet to be found, most Bangladeshis believe Haider’s untimely death to be the handiwork of the Jamaat-Shibir, the lumpen youth wing of the Jamaat.

In a way, it’s rather apt that in his final Facebook post, Haider had posted the link of a news story from the Bengali daily Kaaler Kantha that detailed the massive network of assets and business interests under the Jamaat’s control.

In his comments above the link, he had strongly recommended the boycott of Jamaat-linked establishments — from banks and educational establishments to hospitals and media companies — adding that there should be a proper set of guidelines to identify Jamaat fronts since a simple transfer of shares could suggest new ownership of a company.  

This had not been the first attack on an online activist in Bangladesh. Only a month before, Asif Mohiuddin, another openly atheist blogger, was stabbed by suspected Islamists. Fortunately, he survived.

In the case of Haider, authorities and fellow bloggers point to the death threats he had received from a pro-Jamaat blog, Sonar Bangla.

If Pakistan was horrified by the brutal attack on 14-year-old blogger Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in October last year, Haider’s murder has enraged secular Bangladesh and split the nation into two.

Facebook friends 

Inside the compound of Dhaka Art College, Asif Saleh, blogger-tweeter and senior director at the development organisation BRAC (formerly, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), sips on his tea and explains how the popular movement against Islamist politics has been intimately connected to the successful ‘Digitial Bangladesh’ drive that has been aggressively pushing for the use of digital technology to spread education, poverty alleviation, health as well as democracy and human rights.

“The youth in Bangladesh was not politically sensitised. They were apathetic towards what was going on in the country,” says Saleh.

“With the arrival of social media platforms, ‘being political’ became cool. Young Bangladeshis have now suddenly found out that their actions do matter, their actions can lead to change,” says Saleh.

On the first day of the Shahbagh demonstrations on February 5, there were about 500 people who had gathered to protest against the life sentence, as opposed to a sentence of death, handed by the international war tribunal to Jamaat leader and accused 1971 war criminal Abdul Qader Mollah.

This core group had connected and vented online, and had decided their plan of action on Facebook.

The protests of this initial small gathering was picked up by the media, which in turn fed the news on the internet for others to join in. The media – social as well as mainstream –became force-multipliers for the movement.

 “It’s been a year since the advent of 24-hour news channels. The 24-hour format has to fill news round the clock. It was fortuitous that the Shahbagh protests filled much of news TV.

Suddenly you also saw the white-haired pundits, the usual suspects on political discussions, being joined by youngsters airing their views,” says Saleh, a computer technology graduate who came back from the United States leaving a Goldman Sachs job five years ago.

But at the core of the Shahbagh revolution lies Bangladesh’s internet revolution. Over the last three years, the cost of online communication has nosedived.

In 2009, a megabyte of information would set the consumer back by 27,000 takas. Today, a megabyte costs 5,000 takas.

Thanks to affordability, by November 2011, there were 9 million users with an internet connection in a country of 142 million people. The figures go up if one considers the many more mobile phone users.

Tech has no ideology

But here’s the flip side. The resources-rich Jamaat is disproportionately stronger online than offline.

Technology being ideologically neutral, the same social media platforms and penetrative telephony are tools for the enemies of the Shahbagh activists.

It is in the terrain where the online seeps into the offline and then feeds the online again that a new kind of war of propaganda is being fought.

Knowing that the Jamaat has already started to successfully conflate the idea of ‘blogger’ with ‘atheist’, the Awami League government has ‘cracked down’ on internet sites, removing blog posts that are deemed to be “spreading hatred, provoking social disorder and hurting religious sentiments of the people”.

Last week, information minister Hasanal Haque Inu urged the media “not to publish any indecent remark against Islam, the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad”.

The government had swiftly blocked YouTube after an allegedly blasphemous film on the prophet was “shown there”. 

These are measures that were taken by the government to ‘protect’ secular bloggers from the violent reactive politics of the Islamists — and not give a handle to the opposition BNP-Jamaat to accuse the government of being anti-Islamic.

But here’s the paradox: it was through social media that those demanding Bangladesh remain secular found their voices heard, voices that would ultimately reverberate through Shahbagh and Bangladesh.

To get that volume knob turned down as a precaution would be exactly what the Islamists want. To make the people disinterested again.

Hindustan Times, Dhaka, February 23, 2013

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