Dhaka, Bangladesh – This time every year, Dhaka’s intelligentsia, clad in their best, gather at the neatly-trimmed lawns of the Bangla Academy to enthral a crowd of literature lovers with their poetry readings and animated talks.
Held since 2011, the three-day Dhaka Lit Fest (DLF) kicked off on Thursday, bringing together once again writers, journalists, historians and artists from around the world to the bustling South Asian metropolis.
But this year, one particular absence has cast its long shadow over the Bangladeshi capital’s most coveted cultural event, or “the elephant in the room” as one of the attendees put it: that of acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam, a regular panellist in the festival’s various sessions over the years.
The 63-year-old has been held by Bangladesh’s authorities for speaking out against the country’s government. He was picked up from his home in Dhaka on August 5, hours after his remarks over massive student protests were broadcast on Al Jazeera.
Alam has been charged under the stringent Information and Communication Technology Act for “spreading propaganda and false information against the government”.
A close associate of DLF organisers, Alam was a frequent participant in the festival’s earlier editions.
Yet, the only panellist to have so far spoken out for Alam this year has been Nandita Das, an Indian actress and director who called him an upholder of freedom of expression.
“We should all raise our voice for him,” Das said.
Alam’s wife, Rahnuma Ahmed, said she was “surprised” when DLF organisers did not even send a customary invite for her detained husband.
“Shahidul Alam did not merely attend Dhaka Lit Fest. He was an active participant, either as a keynote speaker or moderator or a panellist,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera.
Alam’s niece, Sofia Karim, said the silence over Alam’s imprisonment at the DLF is “a sign of how far things in Bangladesh have degenerated into an Orwellian nightmare”.
“My uncle has been a participant at Dhaka Lit Fest many a times and they don’t mention him? They must realise that they look ridiculous at best and complicit at worst,” she told Al Jazeera.
Karim said she was “thankful” of the Bangladeshis and foreign participants who spoke out or questioned Alam’s absence at the festival.
“Their solidarity will go down in history as will others’ silence.”
Alam’s arrest has become emblematic of the shrinking space for freedom of speech in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, activists say.
The country recently passed a stringent Digital Security Act, which authorises prison sentences up to 14 years for collecting information against the government.
A draft Broadcast Law is also under consideration, which seeks to allow the government to jail a person for giving out “misleading and false” information in a television talk show.
“The ground for discourse seems to have shifted so much that mere criticism of the regime can now be regarded as treason,” wrote Kanak Mani Dixit, founding editor of Himal Southasia.
In an open letter to DLF organisers, a leading publisher and two academics said the holding of the festival in such a situation “will only operate as a cynical example of culture and art washing”.
“Any appearance of free or fierce expression or debate at the Lit Fest will be merely that, appearance, and deflect from the clampdowns and violence inflicted on those who dare cross government-sanctioned boundaries,” said the letter.
K Anis Ahmed, one of the three DLF directors, dismissed allegations that there were no discussions on freedom of expression at the festival as “not true”.
“We called for repeal of the Digital Security Act at the opening ceremony,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera, adding that the festival directors support the stand of Das, the Indian actress.
“DLF has been held at considerable risk, for example during the killing of the bloggers. It has spoken out for all kinds of free-speech victims in Bangladesh,” he said.
At least 10 bloggers were killed by right-wing assailants between 2013 and 2016, mainly for their secularist writings.
“We have very fond memories of Shahidul ‘bhai’ [brother],” said Sadaf Saaz, another DLF director. “And he, more than anybody, would have wanted us to carry on with this difficult fight for literary space.”
“We never told a single writer that she or he can’t say anything. The government too has never instructed us to change any topic of discussion,” she told Al Jazeera.
But Karim said the organisers could have shown “more courage”.
“I think most involved know deep down how much courage it took for my uncle and others like him to defend the artists’ space in Bangladesh, courage that most don’t have.”