In a case that has shone a harsh spotlight on the right to free expression in Bangladesh, Hriday Chandra Mondal, a Mathematics and Science teacher, was languished in jail for 19 days before getting out on bail on Sunday.
The teacher at Binodpur Ram Kumar High School in Munshiganj Sadar Upazila has been booked for two blasphemy-related offences under the Penal Code, 1860, ostensibly for discussing the distinction between religion and science in the classroom. The teacher is charged with offences under sections 295 and 295A of the Penal Code.
As per experts, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1989 adds an important caveat – a case under these provisions of the criminal law can only be filed with the approval of the government. However, there is no indication that the police has complied with the provision before recording the case.
Prof Mizanur Rahman, the former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh, highlighted the need for ‘serious deliberation’ before invoking these particular provisions. That is why the prior approval of the ministry has been mentioned in the procedural law.
On March 20, Hriday was trapped by some colleges who use to sell fake certificates to the students, said another teacher of the school, seeking anonymity.
He had been teaching mathematics and science for the last 22 years.
Human rights activists, legal practitioners, academics point to a ‘procedural impropriety’ on the part of the police, which puts the case under yet more scrutiny.
Smriti Singh, deputy regional director for South Asia at Amnesty International said, “It is outrageous that a teacher finds himself behind bars simply for voicing his opinion while teaching a class. Teachers should be free to discuss ideas and opinions of all kinds without fear of reprisals. Hriday must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
This is not the only contention surrounding the controversial case. Lawyers and activists have also questioned the rationale behind denying bail to the teacher, who is behind the bars for more than two weeks.
They believe the detention of a schoolteacher “without regard for the legal process” may have serious implications for the country down the line as it could embolden communal forces. It also sends a worrying signal to teachers and academicians about the concept of “academic freedom” in Bangladesh.
Hriday’s family members are scared. Anita Saha, his domestic help, said, “Last Sunday when I was near the (Hriday’s) house around 1:00 p.m., four-five young men stared at me dead in the eyes. I went inside the house in fear.”
Renuka Hawladar, Hriday’s mother-in-law was harassed by the Islamists. She said, “I was walking on the terrace of our house at 6:00 a.m., when a young man with a brick in his hand addressed me and said, ‘don’t come out of the house’. He then went ahead and verbally abused me. I immediately went back to the house in fear.”
Shrestha Mondal, son of Hriday resumed schooling a day after his father was released from Munshiganj jail. He stopped going to school for 19 days. “Since then, I have been inside the house all day. Not being able to go to school made me quite sad. And my father was also in prison back then,” he said.
“I am not facing any difficulties going to school today (after bail to Hriday). No one is even calling me ‘son of the accused’. None of my friends asked me any questions in that regard.”
Shrestha is a student at the very same school where Hriday teaches.
Shrestha, the student in grade 5, said, “I couldn’t attend my school for 19 days as after the incident students of Classes 6-10 started calling me ‘son of the accused’. After which my mother stopped me from going to school.”
Alauddin Ahmed, the headmaster of the school, spoke to IANS on Monday, about Shrestha attending classes for the first time in a while. “He is a very talented student, as well as son of a talented teacher. His family members were afraid to leave the house after that incident. Now a teacher of the school has been assigned the task. The teacher will make sure to pick him up from home and walk him home after school.”
Munshiganj Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) Sumon Dev said, “There is no chance in the slightest that the safety of the (Hriday’s) family will be breached. We are monitoring them all the time. Police will not allow any untoward incident to happen with the family.”
Following a bail hearing in the case on Sunday afternoon, Hriday was granted bail and after release, he has sent to Dhaka for treatment.
Supreme Court lawyer Advocate Aminul Islam told IANS that section 196 of the Code of Criminal Procedure makes it clear that a case under the blasphemy provisions can only be filed with the prior permission of the government or the home ministry. Police do not have the unilateral authority to record such a case, he added.
(The story has been published via a syndicated feed with a modified headline.)