On February 15, 2016, at the annual book fair held in Dhaka, police handcuffed Shamsuzzoha Manik, the 73-year-old publisher of the small press Ba-Dwip Prakashan, and shut down their book stall.
They seized six books. Their target was a translation anthology called 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”.
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Alongside Manik, two of his associates were arrested under Section 57(2) of the 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. Since 1978, the state institution Bangla Academy has organised this month-long festival honouring our 1952 Language Movement.
In a BBC Bangla interview, Bangla Academy director Shamsuzzaman Khan insisted on the rightness of Manik’s arrest and stall-closure because of the “obscenity” of the book – apparently it gave him goosebumps. To prove this obscenity, he proposed that the BBC “send someone and I will read to him”. The interviewer did not take him up on the offer.
Someone else, however, did. On February 17, Zafar Iqbal, a popular science-fiction writer who is vocal on public issues, stated that he couldn’t bear it when Khan read him lines from the “obscene” Islam Birtarka, and he urged everyone to use “caution when writing”.
It isn’t only the state clamping down on dissent.
Last February I emailed Avijit Roy, science writer and founder of Mukto Mona, a web forum for South Asian rationalists. Although we had been close friends since college, it had been months since we had talked. But I thought of him as soon as I read about 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 had 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 after many years. He noted how frustrating the Rodela business was and that Dhaka felt more stifling.
Two days later, I was sitting in my living room, the sunlight slashed across the floor, when I received a text message from my husband: Avijit had been murdered.
February 26 marks a year since his death.
He was hacked to death with a cleaver, traditionally used by butchers for splintering bones, as he exited the book fair.
Today, social media is unbearable with reminders: the blood-spattered sidewalk; close-ups of Bonya trying to hold him; his body facedown, Bonya bloodied, her hand raised in supplication. In one photo, a policeman is clearly visible. Several policemen were present; none offered help. Bystanders, a photographer and a three-wheeled taxi driver, took them to the 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 Avijit’s publishers: Faisal Abedin Deepan’s throat was slit open; 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 Avijit, who died on their doorstep – during Boi-Mela.
Khan, at his pre-fair press conference, acknowledged the attacks, though: he advised people to not publish anything inflammatory.
Dissent, provocation, hurtful 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 initially survived, but died in Munich several months later. Almost 12 years after his death, the trial continues in court – unresolved.
In 2015, Azad’s son, a blogger, fled to Germany after receiving death threats. He is not the only one.
College students and crows
Avijit 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, as a child Avijit 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 hangout 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 multi-faceted platform for debate and exploration of ideas. As our ideas evolved, sometimes parallel, sometimes not, Avijit 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.
“Remember Debal’s quip?” Avijit reminded me once.
Our group of friends had been a mixed bag in terms of faith and non-faith as well as politics. He remembered one afternoon when we were arguing with the one friend whose politics and beliefs we found horrifyingly conservative. 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.
Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator from Bangladesh.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.