On May 19, Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion detained 28 alleged homosexual men from Keraniganj on the outskirts of Dhaka. The next day, when they held a press conference to announce their “spectacular achievement”, the public, and intellectuals prone to homophobia, took to social media to praise the police force and the government for doing their job, finally.

Homosexuality is outlawed in Bangladesh under the Penal Code of 1860, a British colonial legacy. Section 377 of the code makes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” punishable by up to life in prison.

The Rapid Action Battalion, though, could not charge the detained men under Section 377. There was no evidence of homosexuality, the commanding officer Jahangir Hossain Matubbar said. He appeared disappointed. Perhaps, he had hoped to see some action at the scene, an orgy of filthy homosexuals ripping apart the social fabric and moral codes of the country.

By the time Matubbar’s explanation came, photos and videos of the alleged homosexuals, all aged 18-30, were all over the media, mainstream and social, which did not waste time to begin its own trial. It was a euphoric moment for the media’s moral police.

Since Section 377 was not cutting it, the detainees, we learnt, would be tried under the Narcotics Control Act. Apparently, the police had recovered 45 Yaba tablets, 250 grams of marijuana, 25 condom packets and two lubricating gel tubes from four of the men. But then why were the other 24 detained and are still locked up? Moreover, what is the explanation for mentioning homosexuality and “unnatural activities” in the First Information Report when it is a narcotics case? If there was no evidence of these men engaging in homosexual activities, why were they labeled as such and paraded in front of the world? It is common knowledge that men have been killed for being gay in Bangladesh. How can the country’s elite force and the professional media so carelessly and casually jeopardize the safety of these young men? If any of them meets the same fate as Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy upon release from jail, who will take the responsibility, the state or the media?

Maybe the bigger question we should be asking is why did the country’s elite force decide, unprecedentedly, to raid the private gathering of a handful of people and judgmentally disclose private information about them without proper evidence?

For the answer, we need to review what has happened in Bangladesh in recent years: the rise of religious extremism amid increasing political tyranny. It is not that the state suddenly woke up to the reality of homosexuality in this Muslim-majority society and decided to cleanse it. The government and the civil society have been engaged with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, or LGBT, issues for over 20 years now. The health ministry runs an extensive HIV/AIDS project that has Men Having Sex with Men as one of the primary beneficiary groups; even the guidelines for clerics on how to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS talks about this group.

Hate campaign

The state was also aware of the underground LGBT movement led by a few non-registered voluntary organisations. Although their existence was never fully acknowledged by the state, LGBT people were never in the dark. When I was picked up by plainclothes police officers last year and interrogated for five hours, I was not surprised they knew all about me and my work with the Boys of Bangladesh, which is operating since 2002. But the state apparatus has not proactively acted against the LGBT community in all these years.

What changed so suddenly and so drastically that the state is now conducting what seems like a witch-hunt? One could argue it is the visibility and growing politicisation of the LGBT movement. But that is not the whole picture. We also need to see who the movement has enraged and to what extent. Needless to say, it is the Islamist groups, both underground extremists and mainstream political parties, which have violently responded to our visibility.

The first major display of Islamist muscle against the LGBT community was when a group of Muslim clerics, the Bangladesh Olama Mashayekh Shanghati Parishad, held a press conference against Muhammad Yunus in 2013, accusing him of endorsing homosexuality and spreading vice. Yunus, along with several other Nobel laureates, had signed a statement condemning the persecution of gay people in Uganda in April 2012, over a year before the press conference. At the time, Yunus was already under fire from the ruling Awami League, and the clerics’ allegation was dismissed as politically motivated. Scarcely reported by local media, the fundamentalist group launched demonstrations against Yunus and the LGBT community across the country. Hundreds of imams took part in about 600 rallies and distributed 6,00,000 leaflets. There are allegations that the state-run Islamic Foundation funded this smear campaign since many of the protesting imams were on the government’s payroll.

Gays rights activist Xulhaz Mannan was murdered by an Al-Qaeda front in 2015. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In January 2014, when Roopbaan, the country’s first magazine on same-sex love, was unveiled, Bangladesh Tafsir Parishad called it a “master plan” of the evil West and backed other Islamist organisations’ call to try homosexuals under Section 377. On social media, vociferous condemnation poured. Extremist Facebook pages such as Basher Kella, Salauddiner Ghora and Hizbut-Tahrir posted extensively against the community, calling upon the people to resist us. Same was the case after Roopbaan organised the Rainbow Rally in 2014 and 2015. The onslaught of hate speech and death threats was unprecedented. Some of the pages even published pictures of gay activists and openly called for their murder.

In 2015, Avijit Roy, the author of the book on homosexuality in Bengali, was murdered by Islamist extremists. His publisher Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury Tutul – who also published Roopongti, a poetry collection on same-sex love by Roopbaan – was critically injured in a similar attack later. After the launch of the lesbian comic character Dhee by the Boys of Bangladesh in September 2015, the Bangladesh Olama League, Hefazat-e-Islam an affiliate of the ruling Awami League, and 13 other Islamist organisations put forward a 15-point demand. Specifically, they named several groups supporting LGBT rights and asked the government to take action against them under Section 377.

State of capitulation

While mainstream Islamists such as Olama League and Hefazat-e-Islam have been vocal about applying the law strictly, extremist groups such as Ansarullah Bangla Team, a front of Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent, could not care less for such man-made laws. They barged into the house of Mannan on April 25, 2016 and hacked him and Tonoy to death with machetes. In a statement afterwards, Al-Qaeda owned the killings and vowed to do the same to anyone promoting homosexuality.

Indeed, the tone and content of all statements from Islamist groups convey an unequivocal demand to erase homosexuals by killing them or trying them under Section 377. This provision has never been enforced or talked about much in the country. In fact, even the LGBT movement has never waged a war against it. But Islamist groups have been pushing for its implementation, which is exactly what the Rapid Aaction Battalion was determined to do with the 28 detainees. These groups differ vastly in ideology and goals, but they are united on “eradicating” homosexuality. It would be foolish of a populist government to not cash in on this sentiment to gain political mileage at the expense of a minority community.

Since the demise of the Shahbag movement and the rise of Hefazat-e-Islam in 2013, the balance of power in Bangladeshi politics has shifted towards the Islamists. To cling on to power, the Awami League has sought to crush its opponents by squeezing democratic spaces on one hand and accommodating fundamentalist forces on the other. The government has remained silent on the spate of killings of bloggers, secularists, atheists, teachers, free thinkers and activists, thereby enabling immunity for the extremists. Moreover, it has been making Faustian bargains with fundamentalists by giving in to their unending demands – removing the statue of Lady Justice, rewriting textbooks, accrediting madrassas and, now, cracking down on the LGBT community.

The busting of the “gay party” in Keraniganj did not happen in a vacuum. When the country’s home minister pledges to not tolerate “anything against Islam”, and the prime minister sits deferentially with Islamists at her table, it paints an ugly picture that threatens the very existence of certain groups of human beings, of conscientious Bangladeshis.

Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb is with the Boys of Bangladesh, the country’s oldest organisation of self-identified gay men.