An Encyclopedia of Heresy in South Asia October 5, 2015

An Encyclopedia of Heresy in South Asia

This is a guest post by Abhilash Mudaliar. Abhilash is a friendly freethinker who tweets @abhilashgm and blogs here.

We know fundamentalist religion is a particularly potent institution; it’s a subset of organized religion characterized by dogma, literal adherence to scripture, hostility to critical thinking, intolerance, indoctrination, and absolute faith.

Atheists (and even moderate theists) play a critical role in countering that type of thinking. Unchecked, not only can the power of fundamentalists grow excessive, but a lack of heterodoxy, generally, also stifles overall human progress.

South Asia is a particularly religious part of the world. Religious fundamentalists – chiefly Hindu and Muslim, but also others – wield significant power, as do allied charlatans of all sorts, from “godmen” to tantriks to peddlers in black magic.

For a heretic in the region, life has always been dangerous.

In recent years, however, promoting critical thinking has become a “crime” punishable by death. No fewer than 12 freethinkers have been murdered in South Asia by religious fundamentalists in this decade.


On the evening of February 26, 2015, Avijit Roy was returning home with his wife from a book fair in Dhaka. He was traveling in a cycle rickshaw that was intercepted by two men who dragged Roy and his wife out and brutally attacked them with machetes. Both were rushed to hospital. Roy died shortly after, though his wife survived. Later, she told reporters that there were police standing nearby when they were being attacked, but they did nothing.

Roy was the founder of the Mukto-Mona (freethinkers) website. Its mission, like that of so many other groups around the world, is to promote rational thinking and fight the forces of dogma: “Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.

Given his vocal opposition to religious extremism, Roy was, not surprisingly, unpopular with religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Sometime in 2013, he, along with 83 other freethinking progressive Bangladeshis, found their names on a hit list compiled by an Islamist organization.

Roy was not the first name on this list to be so callously attacked. Others include:

  • Asif Mohiuddin, secular activist and religious critic, stabbed outside his office on January 15, 2013 by four youth. He survived but was soon imprisoned for “blasphemous” blog posts. After release he moved to Berlin, Germany, where he now lives.
  • Ahmed Rajib Haider, atheist blogger often critical of religious fundamentalism, hacked to death by machete-wielding Islamists, outside his home in Dhaka on February 15, 2013.
  • Sunnyur Rahman, atheist blogger, attacked on the streets of Mirpur on March 7, 2013, also by machete-wielding assailants, but saved after police took him to hospital.
  • Shafiul Islam, well-known humanist and professor of Sociology at Rajshahi University, hacked to death by Islamists on November 15, 2014.
  • Oyasiqur (a.k.a. Washiqur) Rahman, a blogger known for criticizing irrational religious beliefs, murdered on the streets of Dhaka on March 30, 2015 by three assailants brandishing meat cleavers.
  • Ananta Bijoy Das, editor of science magazine Jukti and head of the Science and Rationalist Council, murdered on May 12, 2015 by four masked men wielding machetes, in Sylhet.
  • Niloy Neel (a.k.a. Niloy Chatterjee), organizer of the Science and Rationalist Association of Bangladesh, murdered by six men armed with machetes in his home in Dhaka, on August 7, 2015.

All said, six names on the hit list of 84 have been murdered since 2013. There is little indication that politicians or the police are doing anything of note to protect the other 78.


Narendra Dabholkar was a rationalist and founder-president of Maharasthra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organization set up to battle the forces of superstition and black magic in his home state of Maharashtra. In his activism he criticized self-styled godmen, Hindu ascetics, and tantriks for promoting irrational fears and miracle cures for life’s ailments. And it wasn’t just harmless superstition he was fighting.

Just two months before his murder, MANS heard of a case where a 10-year-old girl was kidnapped by her own grandmother along with 10 villagers. They took her to a forest where they slit her throat before proceeding to drink her blood. The reason for this macabre ritual? The grandmother had dreamt of a goddess who wanted to drink blood and so she plotted to sacrifice her granddaughter.

These were the types of practices that Dabholkar was trying to stop. For his efforts, he received several death threats over the decades. He was murdered on August 20, 2013 while out on his morning walk, shot down by two unidentified gunmen.

His murder has been followed by those of two others.

  • Govind Pansare, also from Maharashtra, was renowned for his left-leaning ideology and support for progressive thinking on many social issues, including support for inter-caste marriage and disapproval of the preference for male children. He also had open contempt for the agenda of right-wing Hindu groups. Pansare argued that Shivaji (a 17th-century king who is a modern-day icon for nationalist groups) was actually secular, respected women, and abolished serfdom.

    After Dabholkar’s murder, Pansare called for the passing of the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act that Dabholkar had spent many years fighting for.

    On February 16, 2015, when returning home from his morning walk, Pansare and his wife were intercepted by two men on a motorcycle and shot at multiple times. He was taken to the hospital but succumbed to his wounds four days later.

  • Dr. M.M. Kalburgi, a former Vice Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi and a rationalist who had had several run-ins with Hindutva (nationalist) groups throughout his life, was shot dead by two unidentified men at his home in Dharwad, Karnataka on August 30, 2015.

    Like Dabholkar and Pansare, Dr. Kalburgi had spoken openly against the irrational elements of Hinduism, in particular superstition and idol worship.

Other rationalists in India have been luckier, though they continue to live in danger. Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association, spent many years exposing the fraudulent practices of mystics and godmen across India. In one famous incident, he invited a tantrik who boasted he could kill a man just with his thoughts to try to kill him on live television. After hours of trying, the tantrik gave up, accusing Edamaruku of having sought protection from the gods. Edamaruku told him he was an atheist.

In March of 2012, a rumor spread that a crucifix at a church in Mumbai was dripping water from the feet. Edamaruku’s research indicated that the dripping was caused by capillary action from a clogged drain. Shortly after this, the Catholic Church in Mumbai filed a complaint against Edamaruku under India’s blasphemy laws, wherein one can be charged for “outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens.” Edamaruku fled to Finland, where he has lived ever since. The Catholic Church has offered to drop the charges if Edamaruku were to apologize, but he’s refused to do so.


Salman Taseer was a Pakistani businessman and politician. He came out in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian women sentenced to death under Pakistan’s archaic blasphemy law. On January 4, 2011, Taseer was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards, shot 27 times by an AK-47 machine gun.

A month before his murder, Taseer had criticized religious clerics who had issued a fatwa against him as “illiterate.” And just five days before his death he’d tweeted: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, said he killed Taseer because of the latter’s vocal opposition to the blasphemy law. Many Islamist groups came out in support of Qadri, warning against any public mourning of Taseer’s death. Qadri was also showered with rose petals as he was being taken to court for his trial.

Former Minister for Minorities Affairs, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated two months later by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban). Bhatti was also a vocal opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and had been receiving death threats since 2009, when he’d spoken in support of Christians who’d been attacked in communal violence.

On March 2, 2011, shortly after leaving his mother’s house, two assassins sprayed his vehicle with bullets. Bhatti was struck eight times. He was taken to hospital but pronounced dead on arrival. Before fleeing the scene, the assassins dropped leaflets denouncing “infidel Christians” and the existence of a (non-existent) committee to review the nation’s blasphemy laws.

Junaid Hafeez was a professor of English at Bahauddin Zakariya University in the city of Multan. A Fulbright scholar, Hafeez’s progressive views won him the popularity of students, but also the disapproval of Islamist groups. In March of 2013, a student affiliated with Islami Jamiat Talaba, accused Hafeez of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Hard-line students soon held a protest calling for Hafeez’s execution.

Shortly after, the police registered a case for blasphemy against Hafeez and arrested him. He is alleged to have used a pseudonym to comment about Muhammad’s wives in a closed group on Facebook called “So-Called Liberals of Pakistan.”

Hafeez continues to languish in jail and is now on his third lawyer. His first lawyer, Chaudhry Mudassar, dropped the case in June of 2013 after facing a multitude of death threats. His second, Rashid Rehman, was murdered on May 7, 2014 by two men who walked into his office, shot him multiple times, and walked out. A month earlier, at a hearing, prosecuting lawyers had warned Rehman that he would not live to attend the next hearing. Despite this threat being made in front of the judge, no charges were levied against the attorneys. Soon after taking on the case, Rehman, who was also the regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, had remarked to the BBC that doing so was akin to “walking into the jaws of death.”

Hafeez is currently represented by Shahbaz Gurmani. Gurmani has also received death threats including an incident where guns were fired outside his home.

Last, but not least – and perhaps the most famous case – is that of Malala Yousafzai. Yousafzai was just 11 years old when she wrote an anonymous blog for the BBC about life under Taliban rule and, in particular, about the struggles to ensure access to education for girls in Swat valley. Even after her identity became known, she didn’t stop campaigning.

On October 9, 2012, while riding to school, a gunman boarded the school bus, asked for Yousafzai by name, then shot her in the head. She survived, moved to England, and has continued her education there. Yousafzai has since continued her vocal activism for girls’ education, winning numerous international awards including the Nobel Peace Prize.


In all, twelve human beings have been murdered, three have survived attempted murders, three now live in self-imposed exile in Europe, and one has been imprisoned — all for the “sin” of promoting critical thinking and arguing against regressive religious dogma. The victims have been atheists and religious, politicians and academics, activists and bloggers, young and old.

(While my research hasn’t unearthed any recent cases of violence or harassment against freethinkers in Sri Lanka or Nepal, superstition and religious dogma are just as deeply entrenched there.)

That such a growing strain of intolerance is enveloping the region should be cause for deep concern for all supporters of free speech and expression.

No one should be in danger for having the audacity to think critically and encouraging others to do the same.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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