Cliff Richards Student Activist Award: Being an activist in Bangladesh can be deadly – By Muhammad Shohiduzzaman

Muhammad Shohiduzzaman received $2,000 in late September from FFRF as a Cliff Richards Student Activist.

By Muhammad Shohiduzzaman

My name is Muhammad Shohiduzzaman and my pen name is Paplu Bangali. I am a blogger, a student activist and a theatre activist in Bangladesh. I am an atheist, even though I come from a conventional Muslim family.

I was born in a small village in the Sylhet District in Bangladesh. It’s a multicultural area where Christian, Hindu and Buddhist religious minorities live among the Muslim majority. People in my village are very religious and conservative.
I attended a government primary school and then at the age of 14 I was sent to my uncle’s house in Upazlia to get a better education. After finishing my secondary education there, I enrolled in business studies at Madan Mohan College in Sylhet. That was when I first got involved with social, cultural and political movements, including theatre activism.

For the last decade, I have been working on various social issues, including human rights of religious minorities, violence against women, religious fanaticism, and secular and science based-education.

I have been writing in the areas of freethinking, criticizing Islamic fundamentalism and repression of religious minorities. Recently, I have been active in raising voices against the killings of bloggers. I organized and led protests and rallies demanding justice for all these murdered bloggers and freethinkers in Bangladesh. Many national print and electronic media interviewed me about this movement because we have been demanding the arrests of the killers.

As a civil society activist, I founded and/or worked with a number of organizations and political networks:

Bangladesh Student Union (BSU): I have been a member of BSU since 2010 and the ex-president of the Sylhet district committee. BSU was established in 1952 and is an independent, democratic, leftist political network that primarily works for the rights of students in Bangladesh. Its membership exceeds 20,000 students. The mission of BSU is to establish a nondiscriminatory science-based secular and uniform education system.

Bangladesh Udichi Shilpigosthi: I have been a member since 2008. It is the largest anti-sectarian, progressive and voluntary organization in Bangladesh, which plays a significant role in all secular and cultural movements in Bangladesh. Since its inception, the organization is engaged in raising awareness among the public through cultural activities — songs, dances, recitations, dramas, films, fine arts and literary works.

Youth for National Interest: I am the founder of Jatyo Sharthe Amra Tarunno (Youth for National Interest), which was established in 2013. I worked as the coordinator until I left Bangladesh in March 2016. We organized civil society campaigns against all forms of sexual abuse and violence faced by children and women.

Blogger & Online Activist Forum: I am also a founding member and organizer of this group in Sylhet since 2012. This forum promotes freethinking and the rights of online bloggers and other freethinkers. We organized various civil society campaigns against arrests and killings of bloggers.

Transparency International-Bangladesh: The Youth Engagement and Support (YES) group is a movement initiated by Transparency International-Bangladesh (TIB) to engage and empower the youth of Bangladesh to address issues related to corruption. I worked as a volunteer in this group from 2006 to 2012, helping raise awareness against corruption, organizing and participating at protests against sexual violence faced by women and children, and in other issues related to women’s empowerment. I performed in different street dramas as a theater actor. I was also a scriptwriter for these dramas.

As a result of my activism, I was physically attacked three times by Islamic fundamentalists

• On Dec. 23, 2013, a religious extremist group threatened to kill me. I reported this to the Sylhet police, but they did not respond. Furthermore, a local religious extremist group organized a procession against bloggers and freethinkers in Sylhet, and shouted slogans against me and other bloggers. The group also threatened to kill us. I found out that I am at the top of its list because of my anti-religious fundamentalism activities and my demand for justice against the murdered bloggers.

• On Jan. 11, 2014, I was attacked by a group of fundamentalists with the intent to kill me. Fortunately, I managed to save my life; however my head was injured and my right hand was fractured. I stayed in the university medical facility for two days. I was attacked because I organized the protest with Youth for National Interest days earlier. The protest condemned Bangladesh’s widespread attacks against religious minorities, and we demanded justice for victims of human rights violations.

• On May 12, 2015, I organized a protest in Sylhet against the murder of blogger Ananta Bijoy Dash after he was killed by fundamentalists. During the protest, members of the ruling party’s student league attempted to attack me because I was the main organizer. I was taken to a safe place by other protesters. However, I then found out that some of my activist friends were physically attacked by them.

• On Feb. 4, 2016, I was attacked while I was traveling by rickshaw to my home in Sylhet. Six unidentified persons dragged me out of the rickshaw and called me “nasthik,” which means atheist. Then they physically assaulted me. Fortunately, bystanders intervened and saved me from the attackers. I reported the attack to the local police, but they did not take any steps for my safety. They just told me to leave Bangladesh because it was not safe for me to stay.

The current Bangladesh government keeps silent over the killings of bloggers and freethinkers because the government is keen to maintain its ties to the fundamentalist groups in order to hold onto its political power. Therefore, there has been no action taken against the fundamentalist groups, so the religious extremist groups, as well as ruling party’s supporters, targeted me.

I made a general complaint to the police station two times regarding the attacks on me. However, the police failed to take any action. After the incident on Jan. 11, 2014, with the assistance of my political friends, I sought temporary relocation to a rural village in Bangladesh. After that, I returned to the city, and changed my place of residence. Following the incident on May 12, 2015, I took similar precautions and changed my residence again. After the incident on Feb. 4,, 2016, I moved to Dhaka with the help of my fellow bloggers.

In Dhaka, I contacted Forum Asia and it, in collaboration with INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre in Sri Lanka, assisted me in temporarily relocating to Sri Lanka. I stayed there for five months under a tourist visa. Then in August of this year, I was relocated to the Philippines with the help of PAHRA (Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates).

Several of my colleagues, including Nazimuddin Samad, who denounced the last attack I faced, were killed while I was in Sri Lanka. Such attacks clearly indicate that returning to Bangladesh is impossible and life-threatening. Therefore, I am in need of a long-term relocation. Currently I am looking for an opportunity to enroll in a post-graduate course.

So while I vow to continue my activism and education, I must do it outside of Bangladesh.

Freedom From Religion Foundation