When he wrote his last letter from prison, Mushtaq Ahmed was worried about the health of his wife Lipa Akhter. She had suffered a mental breakdown and had been hospitalised, reportedly because of her inability to obtain bail for her husband.

Whatever the charge they may bring against us, always remember the poem of Mahadev Saha, Mushtaq Ahmed wrote to her.

“Can they charge a cuckoo with sedition if it calls someone’s name?
Can a lily be on trial if it’s petal drops on a forbidden person’s grave?
Can they prosecute the sky for shading that tomb?
In the end, what does it matter, if they question the patriotism of the sky?”

In May 2020, Mushtaq Ahmed had been detained along with political cartoonist Ahmed Kishore Kabir and two others for allegedly spreading rumors about the Bangladesh government’s response to the Covid 19 pandemic.

Since Ahmed’s arrest on May 4 under the dreaded Digital Security Act, Akhter had fought a lonely battle.

Ahmed was always a maverick. He was probably the most eccentric entrepreneur in Bangladesh. He achieved legendary status when he successfully nurtured crocodile eggs in the arid district of Valuka and exported the reptiles to universities in Germany for research purposes. His crocodile farming success earned him an unfortunate moniker in the popular imagination that he could never get rid of: Kumeer Mushtaq or “Crocodile” Mushtaq.

His book, Diary of a Crocodile Farmer cemented his place in the business folklore of a country where a secure government job is more celebrated than risky entrepreneurship ventures.

Lipa Akhter was the perfect partner in crime for Ahmed’s adventures. She was a trained zoologist. They both inspired each other in ways that broke norms – and created new ones.

Innocuous Facebook posts

Akhter was always confident that Ahmed would somehow find his way out of prison. Ahmed came from the upper levels of Bangladeshi society. He had been a student of the elite Fouzderhdat Cadet College that enables connections with influential people. He belonged to a group that Bangladesh’s brutal security forces machinery are careful about tangling with.

Most of all, he had not committed any crime.

All he had done was to vent his frustration on social media. As the Covid-19 pandemic reared its head, the news broke last April that most Bangladeshi government hospitals did not have centralised oxygen systems. Despite billions having been spent on the health sector, Bangladeshis came to realise that for a nation of 160 million people, there were only 1,245 ICU beds, Ahmed expressed his outrage on Facebook.

And being Mushtaq Ahmed, he did so in creative ways: he wrote satirical posts. He is alleged to have written some of the captions for cartoonist Kabir’s drawings. Despite this, his Facebook posts had minimal traction.

Akhter assumed that Ahmed would not be in prison for too long for such innocuous Facebook posts. He would undoubtedly get bail.

But despite her best efforts, Ahmed and cartoonist Kabir were denied bail six times – in a country that is famous for notorious serial killers being released through Presidential pardon recommended by the prime minister’s office. Kabir was finally granted bail on Wednesday, after being in detention for ten months.

On February 23, Akhter was unable to meet Ahmed in court as she had been admitted to hospital due to a mental breakdown. Ahmed was worried about her health. During a break in the hearing, he spoke to Ehsan Kabir the elder brother of his fellow prisoner, cartoonist Kabir. Mushtaq asked Ehsan Kabir to arrange some coffee, Pringles, and Lexus cookies for him. If isn’t clear whether Ehsan managed to do thist

On February 25, two days after his court appearance, Mushtaq Ahmed – the legendary entrepreneur, “Crocodile” Mushtaq – died in Dhaka’s high-security Kashimpur prison after 288 days, having denied bail for the sixth time.

Brutal torture

The circumstances of Mushtaq Ahmed’s death are unknown. It is unlikely that the autopsy will reveal anything untoward. It is not known if Ahmed was tortured after his arrest though according to one account, he was kept blindfolded for the first 36 hours after he was arrested. But, his fellow prisoner, Kabir, was the subject of brutal torture by the security agencies, his lawyer told the court.

As a result, Kabir’s left eardrum was ruptured, and developed an infection that bled constantly. His left ankle was also injured. That was evident as Kabir limped all the way from the police van to court.

Mushtaq Ahmed’s death triggered a predictable series of events. Outrage spread across social media. Dhaka University students, led by leftist parties, clashed with the police. The head of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Mirza Fokhrul Islam, demanded a judicial investigation into Ahmed’s death.

But the authorities were unmoved. “Mushtaq breached law and order and hurt others’ faith through his write-ups,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan commented. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina remarked, “What can we do if someone dies falling sick in jail?”

The only departure from normal was a joint statement from 13 ambassadors and high commissioners from OECD countries who called on the government to conduct a quick, transparent and independent inquiry into the circumstances of Ahmed’s death.

On social media, a post that went viral suggested that Ahmed had paid the price for writing the title of a caricature cartoon by Kabir of one of the most influential members of Sheikh Hasina’s clan.

The idea could well be true. But I have different hypothesis.

The basis of my hypothesis comes from an observation by a leftist friend at BUET, Bangladesh’s top University of Engineering and Technology.

My friend observed that for the past three decades, the student wing of political parties has fought fiercely to take control of the institution’s dormitories. Control of the dormitories ensured perks, the opportunity to receive bribes and influence in the party.

To control the dormitories, ruling parties used state machinery to suppress opposition cadres. But this always met with violent resistance, which led to a balance of power. The cadres of the ruling party had to struggle constantly to gain maximum control.

This gave rise to brutal campus violence between ruling and opposition party cadres.

However, the cadres of the parties never attacked ordinary students. After all, if an ordinary student was injured, it would upset the whole student community, and the ruling party cadres would have to pay a heavy price. My friend cited incidents of the past when the top cadres of the ruling party were beaten by the general students of BUET when the political cadres stepped out of line.

Complete control

But since 2009, any opposition presence in BUET’s dormitories had been exterminated. After a few years of complete control, ruling party cadres began attacking general students. They set up torture cells where general students were rounded and tortured for simple Facebook posts or for failing to obey the orders of leader of the Chatrra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League.

He attributed the death in 2019 of Abrar Fahad – another incident that sparked country-wide protests – to this loss of balance. Abrar had been tortured to death in a BUET dormitory by ruling party cadres for a Facebook post criticising Bangladesh’s treaty with India about water use in the Feni river.

My friend’s critical insight was that after eliminating the opposition, the ruling party cadres had now turned against ordinary students. This was unthinkable a decade ago.

I see a similar pattern in the broader Bangladeshi society. Ahmed’s arrest and custodial death, and torture of Kishore Kabir are a case to this point. Ahmed’s death has only received publicity because he is a writer and a well-known activist and the country’s liberal media tend to highlight injustices against writers and people from the upper echelons of society.

The sad truth is that the Bangladeshi intelligentsia exhibit selective outrage against a broader pattern of intimidation and torture by a regime that now uses Gestapo-like tactics to eliminate dissenting voices.

The question is, why would the ruling party unleash such an attack on the population?

The answer is fear.

After two consecutive elections where people were denied their right to vote, the Awami League is clinging on to power through brute power of the police, the Rapid Action Battalion, and military intelligence agencies.

But Bangladesh is a populous country with a history of a popular uprisings. The ruling elites are gripped by a palpable fear of a spontaneous outburst. Although the opposition Bangladesh National Party has shown remarkable ineptitude in channelising public anger in any meaningful way, the fear of a public outburst drives every decision of Awami League top brass.

They have introduced draconian laws such as the Digital Security Act with vague provisions that are deployed against dissidents, installed listening devices that tap the conversations of ordinary people and heavily funded an army of vigilantes to muzzle dissenting voices in social media.

Mushtaq Ahmed’s death is part of the ruling machine’s strategy of turning against the general population after annihilating its political opponents. Even teenagers are regularly rounded up for Facebook posts defaming Sheikh Hasina. The media has been cowed into self-censorship while security agencies vet television talk shows.

Severe punishment

Despite all of this, it is impossible to control the outrage of 8 crore Bangladeshi Facebook users. People like Mushtaq Ahmed defy the fear and express their anger. Ahmed had no political affiliation. He only questioned the injustices that every self-respecting citizen would ask the government about.

The government’s strategy is to create examples of severe punishment for dissents at the highest levels and to show defiance even in the face of mounting international criticism.

My hypothesis is Mushtaq Ahmed and Kishore Kabir are a live demonstration to Bangladesh about the price of dissidence. The more these incidents are highlighted, the more fear and a sense of helplessness will spread. You could be the next Mushtaq. So, obey and do not resist. That’s why the protests on the campuses and in the streets are so important.

Many human rights defenders in Bangladesh have framed the ordeal of Mushtaq Ahmed and Kabir under the narrow domain of Digital Security Act. I disagree. Ahmed’s death is about an authoritarian regime trying to gain full control over society.

When Mushtaq Ahmed’s body was taken to his ancestral home in Dhaka’s Lalmatia area, before being buried, Lipa Akhter asked, why can’t I recognise his face?

Someone replied that his body had been slashed for the autopsy.

Akhtar murmured, but I didn’t get the chance to seek forgiveness from him.

Sorry my sister, not only you, none of us could seek forgiveness from our Kumir Mushtaq vai.

But, in the end, what does it matter, Lipa apa, if they question the patriotism of the sky?

Zia Hassan is a writer, activist and developmental economist from Germany.