On the brink of elections, dangerous speech surges in Bangladesh

Update 8 Jan. 2024: The election was held, with low turnout – unsurprising given its predetermined results. As The New York Times notes, the ruling Awami League (AL) party systematically used state power to prohibit independent election administration and then dismantle opposing parties –  AL won 223 of the 299 seats outright, and most of the others were won by “dummy” candidates being propped up by the AL to try and grant a veneer of legitimacy to the election. In the days prior, incidents of violence were reported from across the country, “including arson on a train in Dhaka that killed four people, and the torching of more than a dozen polling stations” (NYT).

During the campaign for 300 seats to be filled in its national parliament this Sunday, Bangladesh has seen mass protests, violence including killings, and a notable increase in dangerous speech, which Professor Aynul Islam of Dhaka University and his team have illustrated with examples in this new dataset.

“The prevalence of dangerous speech during election times in Bangladesh has reached alarming proportions,” Prof. Islam observes. “It has become normalized during this time, with influential stakeholders dehumanizing opponents and creating a divisive ‘us versus them’ narrative.”

Inflammatory and dehumanizing rhetoric is aimed at groups whose members are attempting to break barriers by running in the elections, such as women (who are more than five percent of the nearly 2,000 candidates – a bigger proportion than ever before), transgender people (two are running for seats) and even celebrities. Rhetorical strategies are being employed to undermine opposing candidates, with a particular focus on suppressing and discouraging women, religious and ethnic minorities, and transgender candidates, who are known in Bangladesh as part of the “hijra” or “third gender” community.

Transgender identity is often portrayed as a Western construct and a threat to Islamic values: an idea that easily takes root. In some cases, transgender individuals are falsely described as homosexual, for example by the influential religious preacher Abu Toha Mohammad Adnan, framing them as a menace to the integrity and purity of Bangladeshi Muslim society. Some dangerous speakers even describe transgender people as men who fake their identity in order to get close to women and girls – and harm them. This dangerous rhetoric has sparked widespread protests and social media discussions advocating harm against transgender individuals. This leads to violence and rejection, for example of Hochi Min Islam, a well-known transgender activist, whose lecture at the country’s preeminent private university was abruptly cancelled in November. Similarly, after Dhaka University chose to include transgender people among groups that enjoy preferences for admission, such as ethnic minorities and students with disabilities, there were widespread protests all over the nation, and the university backtracked.

Foreigners haven’t escaped dangerous speech either, during the tense election campaign in Bangladesh. U.S. Ambassador Peter D. Haas has been subjected to violent threats for what he describes as trying to protect the vote’s integrity, and which some ruling party officials resent as interference. Mujibul Haque Chowdhury, an elected representative and convenor of a local unit of the ruling Awami League party, said on November 6, “Peter Haas said he wants to see a free and fair election here. I say, ‘Peter Haas, you are as knowledgeable as a newborn, while we are the actual grown-ups. You have no idea what we are capable of. You will know just how dangerous we are once we bash you up.” A student leader of the same party made even more violent threats, playing on the fact that “haas” means “duck” in the national language Bangla: “Please take back Haas. We don’t want this local duck. We have slaughtered a lot of ducks.”

Both men who publicly attacked Haas were reprimanded by their party and apologized, but he and other diplomats and embassy staff are still taking special precautions. Moreover, the apologies stand in striking contrast to other dangerous speech which is going unchecked, as is typical during electoral campaigns. This election is especially fertile ground for dangerous speech, since the main opposition party is boycotting it, so the ruling party is trying to do all it can to make the elections seem legitimate, including recruiting candidates from marginalized groups. Exposed to the public by their new political roles, those candidates are facing vicious verbal attacks.

Finally, as we found in our earlier, extensive study of dangerous speech in Bangladesh, much of it accuses people of violating Islamic religious practices. This is both common and powerful, in a country where more than 90 percent of people are Muslim, and many are followers of draconian Islamist clerics. For example, one candidate attacked his opponent as someone who would not only consume alcohol – seen in Islam as profane or unholy – but would give it to his child. “Liquor/Alcohol is also available in the market; milk is also available. I leave it to you whether you take milk or liquor/alcohol for your child’. This message was delivered in Brahmanbaria, the home of prominent leaders of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam, and of recent religiously fueled violence. Given the sensitivity surrounding accusations of involvement with drugs or wine, such statements could potentially incite violence among the audience, particularly against candidates who are depicted – and therefore perceived – as unholy.

In light of all this, many Bangladeshis and foreign nationals are fearfully awaiting the vote.

In the absence of a robust political opposition and inclusive civic space, the intertwining of dangerous speech and intensifying violence during elections threatens the democratic process and social cohesion in Bangladesh. As dangerous speech thrives, it’s all the more important to contradict it, or “counterspeak”. To curb the escalation of threat narratives, policymakers, civil society, and the international community must collaborate on initiatives that promote tolerance, inclusivity, and responsible political discourse. Strengthening legal frameworks to hold perpetrators of violence accountable, raising awareness about the consequences of dangerous speech, and fostering a culture of respectful political engagement are essential steps toward creating a more harmonious electoral environment in Bangladesh. Only through concerted efforts can the nation hope to break free from the cycle of dangerous speech and violence that plagues its democratic processes, including elections.

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