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Bangladesh’s writers --- battling terror, ethnic conflict and fundamentalism

17 April 2012

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The Daily Star

April 14, 2012

by Khondakar Ashraf Hossain

Nowhere has literature been so much entangled with the political history of a land as it has been in Bangladesh. The people of Bangladesh had to fight for self-determination; that political struggle against colonial exploitation by Pakistan was over in 1971. But soon another monster raised its head, a hydra-headed monster with multifarious tentacles, the worst of which were religious fanaticism and communal hatred. After the killing of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, fundamentalist forces came to power with the help of the anti-liberation forces both inside and outside Bangladesh. A new fight started, which was more bloody and devastating, because this time the enemies were more covert and guileful and more relentless and brutal. Bangladesh has experienced some terrible carnage since 1975, particularly in the nineties. Mass killings through bomb attacks on religious and cultural venues, on Bangali New Year celebrations, in cinema halls and mosques have been witnessed by us. Following the demolition of the Babri mosque, there were riots, forcing many Hindus to flee across the border. Bands of fundamentalist thugs appeared in the northern districts of the country and went on a killing spree. Members of minor religious sects like the Ahmadiyas were persecuted: bombs hurled into their mosque in Khulna killed dozens of people. Bangladesh turned into a virtual killing field and figured on the international media as a potentially dangerous tract of land.

But Bangladesh is far from being a ’fundamentalist’ country. Its people are on the whole peace-loving, and they have a long tradition of religious tolerance. Throughout the thousand years of the recorded history of the Bangali race, people of various religious and cultural denominations have lived together in harmony and peace. Bangla literature since the time of the Caryapadas has extolled the value of religious syncretism. The medieval Bangali poet Chandidas said: “Sabar opore manush satya, tahar opor nai (Man is true above everything, nothing is higher than man.) Our ’baul’ folk-singers sang: “Nanan boron gabhi re bhai, eki boron dudh; jagat bhoromiya dekhilam eki mayer put.” (Cows are of various hues, but their milk has the same colour; I travelled the world and saw the sons of the same mother.) Bangladesh is a land where sufi preachers spread the doctrine of peaceful Islam and the Vaishnava philosophy of Caitanya mixed with it to create a climate of mutual understanding. But the onslaught of fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon, a by-product of the global rise of political Islam after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. Bangladesh, like many Asian countries, is grappling with this new monster. Writers in Bangladesh are working in this climate of fundamentalist terror and are responding to it in various ways. Being the most articulate section of society, they have responded through their writings as well as through organizing campaigns on the streets and holding seminars and symposia.

It was the poets and litterateurs who, through their works, sharpened the sensibilities of the public so that they could stand up in unison against the monster whenever the need arose. Bangladeshi literature covers two periods --- one stretches from 1947 to 1971, the cataclysmic year of the country’s birth, the other from 1971 till date. Both the periods are subsumed under the common appellation, Bangladeshi literature. In 1947, the Bangladeshi (i.e. East Pakistani) scenario was dominated by the bigots, who chanted the slogans of communal segregation and opted for a kind of literature that was removed from the immediate realities into a kind of jaded romanticism about the Middle East. But very soon, the secular voice was raised by poets and writers. They propounded humanistic values and the culture of tolerance. Poets Sufia Kamal and Shamsur Rahman, novelist Shawkat Osman , dramatist Munier Choudhury these were among the people who were the standard-bearers of communal harmony and religious tolerance in the pre-1971 period. In 1971, these values were seriously jeopardized by the onslaught of communalism and hatred. People were massacred because they had voted for secular harmony and civil rights. The worst sufferers were the Hindus, firstly because they were Bangalis, but also because they were non-Muslims. In free Bangladesh, the monster was reincarnated after 1975, when the killers of the founding fathers fanned the communal fire. Communal disharmony led to riots after the Babri mosque debacle. Many suffered as a result. Taslima Nasrin’s famous or infamous outbursts typify, albeit in an extreme form, the reaction of the writers and poets against the outrage. Poets and writers have, in their respective genres, addressed the question of religious bigotry and communal persecution in varying degrees and with different tonalities. But it can be safely asserted that Bangladeshi literature is probably the most vociferous in this particular respect in the whole of South Asia.

Major terrorist incidents since 1975

1. State terror against the tribal ethnicities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Started when President Ziaur Rahman encouraged Bangali settlers to settle in the districts of Rangamati, Bandarbaban and Khagrachhari in the late seventies. Many tribal families were uprootrd from their homestead and their ’jhoom’ land. Terror reigned supreme in the area until the government of Sheikh Hasina signed a peace accord with the tribal insurgents in 1996.

2. Communal riot after the demolition of Babri mosque in December 1992: 13 people killed; 2800 houses looted and destroyed, 2600 women raped. Taslima Nasrin wrote her novel Lajja basing on this incident. The book infuriated the fundamentalists and led to her banishment from the country in 1996.

3. Bomb attack on cultural evening of Udichi (1999) and Pahela Baishakh gathering at Ramna park in 2000. Twenty people were killed in these incidents.

4. Bombing of Ahmadiya mosque in Khulna in October 1999. Nine killed, 35 injured. The Ahmadiyas are a minor religious sect. They are Muslims, but the fundamentalists call them non-Muslims and want their sect to be banned and their mosques closed. Until last year it was a regular feature on Fridays for the fanatics to bring out processions against the Ahmadiyas.

5. Post-electoral violence on the minorities in 2001. Widespread looting and arson took place after the elections of October 2001. Several women of the minority community were gang-raped.

6. Grenade attack on Communist party rally in Dhaka in 2001. 7 killed, 50 injured.

7. Bomb attack at Mymensingh cinema halls on 7 December, 2002: 19 killed, over a hundred injured. The then government falsely accused writers Muntasir Mamun and Shahriar Kabir, arrested them and had them tortured in jail.

8. Bomb attacks on variour mazaars of pirs in 2003killing many. In one incident, British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury was wounded when he was visiting the mazaar of Shah Jalal in Sylhet. 6 people died.

9. Police fired upon a rally of the aborigines at Madhupur Tangail on January 3, 2004 killing a Garo youth named Piren Snull. The tribals were protesting the establishment of a so-called eco-park by destroying their habitat.

10. Grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina’s anti-terrorist rally on 21 August 2004 : 13 grenades were hurled at Sheikh Hasina. 24 persons killed; many were maimed forever. It was subsequently proved that Harkatul Jihad, an Islamic outfit, masterminded the attack.

11. Assassination attempt on poet-scholar Dr. Humayun Azad in February 2004. Dr. Azad was brutally hacked at by religious terrorists.

The writers’ response to terror

Taslima Nasrin is the first name to be mentioned, because her case is an example of the extent to which a writer’s insecurity can go. She has become an epitome of protest and free speech. Although many people have reservations regarding the quality of the literature she has penned, nobody doubts her force and relevance. Taslima published Lajja in 1993, in which she graphically described the torture and communal violence unleashed on the Hindu community following the demolition of Babri mosque. The book was banned by the Bangladesh government. The fundamentalists issued a fatwa declaring her a ’murtad’ (infidel) and demanded her execution by hanging. They also set a price on her head. The government of Bangladesh filed a case against her on the charge of hurting the religious sentiments of the people. She went into hiding with the help of some secular intellectuals of the country. She recounted her days of hiding in her book Shei Shob Andhakar (All those darknesses) in which she exposed the hypocrisy of her countrymen. There was a worldwide protest against the persecution of Taslima; so after two months she was granted bail but was forced to leave the country. She has been trying to come back to her land of birth ever since but without success. Her stay in India has been eventful: she has been attacked; her residence permit has been cancelled several times; she has been bundled out of Kolkata and Jaipur, put into unknown hiding places, etc. etc. Every Indian knows her sad story. Nothing can show the condition of a writer living under the cloud of terrorism more graphically than the case of Taslima Nasrin.

More tragic is the case of Dr. Humayun Azad, a famous poet, novelist, essayist and linguist of great repute. Although Taslima Nasrin could avert physical assault in Bangladesh by going into hiding, Humayun Azad could not. He infuriated the bigots by writing scathing satires on the fundamentalist mullahs and by propagating atheistic ideas. The author of seventy books, Azad started his career as a poet. Then he moved into linguistic research and finally got immense popularity by writing columns in newspapers. Religious fanatics (later identified as members of the terrorist outfit Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh) tried to assassinate him on February 27, 2004, on his way home from a book fair. The terrorists mercilessly hacked at his neck and face with machetes. Although he survived the attack, he died later that year in Munich, Germany. Some say the trauma of the killing attempt contributed to his sudden death in August 2004. Humayun Azad created a lot of dissatisfaction among the fundamentalists by writing Naari, a Bengali version of Simone du Beauvoir’s Second Sex. In response to their protests, the then government of Bangladesh banned the book. But the more immediate cause of the assassination attempt was the publication of a devastating novel named, Pak Saar Zamin Saad Baad, in which he satirized with extreme vehemence the activities of the collaborators of the Pakistani army during the liberation war in 1971.

If Taslima Nasrin protested in her way against the communal crimes after the Babri mosque affair, Mustafa Panna, a young short story writer, did his bit regarding the communal atrocities during the post-election period of 2001. Unlike Taslima, Mustafa has not yet come under any serious threat from the perpetrators of the crime. One reason may be that the issue this time is more political than religious. The post-election violence assumed huge proportions when the winners of the general election, the BNP-Jamaate-Islami-led coalition, let loose a reign of terror on the Hindu minorities. These minorities are traditionally thought of as being supporters of the Awami League. Hundreds of communal attacks have been recorded; the newspapers were awash with reports of rape, loot and arson. Purnima Rani Shil, Mahima and other young girls narrated their harrowing tales of suffering to journalists. Mustafa Panna, in his recently published collection of short stories, Magha Aslesha, depicted the stories of communal atrocities in a moving manner.

Violence on the ethnic minorities has also drawn sharp reaction from writers. Writers and activists like Mesbah Kamal, Sanjeev Drong and Audity Falguni depicted the plight of the ethnic minorities in their writings. They also organized seminars and sit-ins, formed human chains in public places to protest ethnic persecutions in the Hill Tracts and elsewhere. In general, it is writers and artistes who have always taken to the streets to protest against all kinds of religious, ethnic and political terrorism. They have been jailed and tortured by the BNP-Jamaat regime. Shahriar Kabir, a novelist, juvenile writer and human rights activist, has been a relentless campaigner against the fundamentalist terrorists. He, along with Dr. Muntassir Mamun, a historian and writer, was imprisoned after the Mymensingh cinema hall tragedy. Shahriar Kabir has been nearly maimed by torture and has had to appear at the court for interminable hearings over the years. Poet Shamsur Rahman, Poet Syed Shamsul Haq and National Professor and writer-translator Kabir Choudhury have been in the forefront of the fight against fanaticism and terrorism. Shamsur Rahman, venerated as the number one poet of Bangladesh, came under attack by Harkatul Jihad in his own house in January 1999. He narrowly escaped death, but his assailants were never brought to justice.

The writers of Bangladesh have to work under such constraints that there is always a kind of edginess in their literary expressions. Bangladeshi poetry has been overtly political, as the poets had to grapple with such monsters as political autocracy, religious fanaticism and communal hatred. They have been tireless and vociferous in their protest against these ills. Judged from pure aesthetic viewpoints, Bangladeshi literature might appear to be too loudly political, but it could hardly be otherwise. Nowhere has politics been more oppressively real as it has been in Bangladesh. The writers of Bangladesh have never found an ivory tower of aesthetic disengagement to contemplate their navels in total oblivion of the harsh realities around them.

Professor Khondakar Ashraf Hossain, a leading poet and influential voice in literary criticism in Bangladesh, teaches English literature at Dhaka University.


The above article from The Daily Star is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use