The screw tightens in Bangladesh as publisher arrested and his stall shuttered at Dhaka book fair
Police seize six books that might be ‘insulting to Islam’, in a country that has in recent years seen bloggers and freethinkers murdered in the streets by Islamists
At Bangladesh’s annual book fair held in Dhaka last month, police handcuffed Shamsuzzoha Manik, the 73-year-old publisher of the small press Ba-Dwip Prakashan, and shut down the his book stall.
They seized six books. Their target was a translation anthology titled Islam Bitarka (“The Islam Debate”), published in 2013, but they also grabbed five others: Aryans and the Indus Civilization; Jihad: Forced Conversions, Imperialism, and Slavery’s Legacy; Islam’s Role in Social Development; Women’s Place in Islam; and Islam and Women, in case they were “insulting to Islam”.
Alongside Manik, two of his associates were arrested under the country’s infamous Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act.
The book fair, popularly known as Ekushey Boi Mela, is the largest event for Bangladeshi writers, publishers and readers, and has been organised by the state institution Bangla Academy since 1978.
In a BBC Bangla interview, Bangla Academy director general Shamsuzzaman Khan defended Manik’s arrest and the closure of the stall because of the “obscenity” of the book. To prove that it was obscene, he proposed that the BBC “send someone and I will read to him”. The interviewer did not take him up on the offer.
However, someone else did. On February 17, Zafar Iqbal, a popular science-fiction writer who is outspoken on public issues, said he couldn’t bear it when Khan read him lines from the “obscene” Islam Bitarka, and he urged everyone to use “caution when writing”.
Before the book fair in February last year, I emailed Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy, science writer and founder of Mukto Mona, a web forum for South Asian rationalists, to ask him about an attack on Bangladeshi firm Rodela Publishers.
Rodela’s offices had been vandalised after the Hefazat-e-Islam organisation issued threats over the translation of Iranian writer Ali Dashti’s 23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad. The next day, although the publisher apologised and pulled the book from distribution, Bangla Academy closed Rodela’s stall at the 2015 Boi Mela.
Avijit responded immediately. He and Bonya, his wife and co-activist, were visiting Dhaka for the first time in many years. He noted how frustrating the Rodela business was and that Dhaka felt more stifling.
Two days later, on February 26, Roy was hacked to death with a cleaver as he exited the book fair; his wife was seriously injured in the attack. Several policemen were present; none intervened. A photographer and a driver of a three-wheeled taxi took the Roys to hospital.
In the months that followed, there was a killing spree. Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman, Niloy Neel – all bloggers, all murdered. Coordinated, separate attacks targeted Roy’s publishers: Faisal Abedin Deepan was also hacked to death; Ahmedur Rashid Tutul (alongside two other writer-activists visiting him) was wounded.
Bangla Academy offered no official commemoration for any of these writers or publishers – not even for Roy, who died on its doorstep – during this year’s Boi Mela. Khan, at his pre-fair press conference, acknowledged the attacks, then advised people to not publish anything inflammatory.
Dissent, provocation, hurting religious sentiment, call it what you will: here lies a truth uncomfortable for institutions such as Bangla Academy (not to mention the state) – the Bangladeshi literary canon contains many works that, examined through the static and narrow lens of strict religion, will be found offensive.
Where can book-banning begin and where can it stop? Should the self-taught farmer-philosopher Aroj Ali Matubbor’s systematic questioning of religion be pulled from the shelves? What about Syed Waliullah’s classic Lal Shaalu, which rips apart the commodification of faith? Our iconic poet Nazrul satirising mullahs and orthodoxy? What about Lalon, the mystic, or other Baul-poets whose lives and songs straddle multiple faiths? What about the many shrines and deities both Hindus and Muslims pray to in this land of syncretic faith?
In 1995, the secular writer Humayun Azad’s exploration of modern feminism, Nari, was banned (three years after publication) for offending “Muslim religious sentiment”. The ban was lifted after a protracted five-year legal battle.
In 2004, Azad was attacked, hacked with cleavers, while exiting Boi Mela, for a novel critical of political Islam. He survived that attack, but died in Munich several months later.
In 2015, Azad’s son, a blogger, fled to Germany after receiving death threats. He is not the only one.
Avijit Roy and I met as teenagers at Dhaka University – my alma mater, his home turf – which was adjacent to Bangla Academy. The son of a physics professor, Roy as a child had roamed the same streets where decades later he would die.
Politics – of country, of faith – was our conversational mainstay, but we talked about everything, as young people will: from the booty-shaking dances of Dhakai films to the literary snobbery of our intellectual elite.
Every February, our group, like many other college students, shifted our hang-out to Boi Mela premises.
These impassioned conversations would later emerge as Mukto Mona: first an email list, then a more organised online group, then a multifaceted platform for debate and exploration of ideas. As our ideas evolved, sometimes in parallel, sometimes not, Roy and I remained friends. I grew to treasure a quality in him that I find increasingly rare: we could disagree with each other’s ideas and not become enemies.
We talked occasionally about the changing nature of Bangladesh. We disagreed on many things, but agreed on one: the space for any kind of dissent was growing frighteningly constricted.
Roy once reminded me of something said by a friend whose politics and beliefs we found horrifyingly conservative. “Remember Debal’s quip?” he asked.
Our group of friends had been a mixed bag in terms of faith and non-faith as well as politics. He recalled one afternoon when we had been arguing with Debal. Our words grew heated as we sat on our usual sidewalk. Behind us was the British Council Library, in front faculty housing, to the side a “secret” gate to Salimullah Hall, a dorm for male students. Nearby a raucous murder of crows pecked at rubbish. Debal, always the peacemaking joker, said: “Shalla, I can’t tell who’s singing louder - you folk or the crows.”
These days, for sure, it’s the crows.
Tribune News Service