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Ekushey spirit, banning books, smashing sculpture

Written by Syed Badrul Ahsan |

Clamping a ban on books, not permitting a publisher to open a stall at the book fair and stealthily removing a statue installed by the young in defence of free speech militate against the spirit of Ekushey February.

Lest we forget, the revolt on 21 February 1952 was a bold move by the young in Dhaka and elsewhere in what was at the time the eastern province of Pakistan to assert not only the primacy of their native language but also the right of free speech. 

Ekushey was a clear demarcation between authoritarianism and the urge for liberal expression in this land. Ekushey was symptomatic of intellectual freedom.

It is this spirit of liberal values, of the conviction that thoughts and their adequate, unfettered expression matter which today is under assault. 

In these past many days, at the Ekushey book fair, quite a good number of books have been proscribed, causing to arise in our collective soul the disturbing feeling that even as we celebrate the joy of freedom epitomised by Ekushey, it is a growing sense of illiberalism which is claiming increasingly larger space in our social and political landscape.

It is a trend which has citizens worried, has the young wondering about the future of democratic expression. Not all books qualify for reading or comment. Not all writers are deserving of the adulation which generally goes the way of those who write. But all writers owe it to themselves to make themselves heard before their readers. 

And the state owes it to citizens to inform them that its belief in the fundamental principles of free expression remains uppermost, that it remains the guarantor of the right of people --- all people --- to express themselves in language spoken or written.

That is the idea we in Bangladesh have since 1952, indeed since February 1948 when Dhirendranath Dutta spoke for Bangla in the Pakistan constituent assembly, nurtured through the generations. When the Pakistan army smashed the Shaheed Minar into rubble on the fearsome night of 25 March 1971, it was a crude attempt it made to snuff out the spirit of Bengali nationalism. 

We beat back that crudity and once liberation came to pass, we rebuilt the Shaheed Minar. Our self-esteem was restored and we went happily into the task of writing books and reading them on a new dawn of sovereign good cheer. We wrote poetry, irreverent and yet loving, and recited it all over town. No one complained.

And that is why today, more than a half century after the arrival of freedom, at a time when we go out on a limb to inform ourselves that we will reclaim the old values, it hurts to be informed that certain books must not be read, that certain writers must have no space at the Ekushey book fair and indeed in our social matrix. 

Let readers decide what they wish to read; let publishers bring forth the tomes they believe should pass into the hands of the crowds which everyday make their way to the biggest celebration of Bengali cultural heritage we call the Ekushey fair. Let the reading public distinguish between the beautiful and the ugly.

Telling a nation that it cannot read, warning a writer that he or she must not write unless the writing follows parameters set by others badly undermines not merely the spirit of Ekushey but the overall objectives which deepened the foundations of this nation, both during the War of Liberation and in the times subsequent to the coming of sovereignty. 

Those objectives, held aloft before the world by Bangabandhu and the dedicated Mujibnagar leadership, must not be sacrificed at a time when the national goal is a restoration and reassertion of secular democracy in the country.

And what better spot in this land for values to be refined, reasserted and constantly reinvented than for the nation’s universities to sound the message that they remain centres of liberal expression? 

When a group of students cause a makeshift statue of Rabindranath Tagore, lips sealed and hands nailed, to underscore their concern about the decline of free expression, it is not an assault on the state but a reminder of the foundational idea of the state as it ought to be. 

When all around us the goal of creeping intolerance is a silencing of the young and their idealism, it is our universities which must come forth to reassure the nation that the present is being reclaimed, that the future will therefore be secure.

The Dhaka University authorities ought not to have taken recourse to subterfuge when they moved to destroy the Tagore statue. In a country where universities have historically and traditionally been emblematic of positive radicalism, it ought to have been for the Dhaka University authorities to engage with the young people responsible for the Tagore statue coming to stand beside the Raju sculpture before the Arts faculty. 

To first put out the false tale that they were looking into the disappearance of the Tagore sculpture and then to own up to dismantling it in a stealthy, questionable manner was unbecoming on the part of an institution which has earned its place in national history. 

Why did the university authorities do that? Because the making and installation of the sculpture had not been authorised by the university authorities? Because it was anti-culture at work? 

But no such issues of authorisation are raised when student bodies organise unauthorised demonstrations, when violence lays the campus low. As students belonging to rival political groups and factions battle it out on steamy afternoons, with many of these students left mauled in the melee, the university authorities look the other way. 

Don’t they hear the commotion beyond the confines of their offices? Don’t they owe it to the young, to their struggling guardians back home, to step in with the full force of authority and restore order?

A book fair is that hallowed ground where ideas spring forth in all their glory. A university is that landscape of national history where the seeds of intellect are planted, where a happy woodland of liberal thoughts sprouts from deep inside the soil. 

When those expected to man the universities turn a blind eye to the travails of young women falling prey to the predatory instincts of organisations comfortable in their closeness to those who wield political power, they forfeit the moral right to inform this nation that the future of the young is what they mean to shape. 

Universities are historically battlegrounds of ideas. They are not places where voices are to be silenced, where teachers will cower in intimidation. And book fairs are those hunting grounds where arguments revolve around the written word, where writers do not put thoughts to paper with fear driving their imaginations. 

In a liberal, secular social clime, bookshops arise with every dawn in every corner of the land. In the valley of human aspirations, bookstalls are not ordered shut. Creativity is not to be straitjacketed by the application of laws or regulations, and especially in this season of Ekushey. 

This piece has also been published in the Dhaka Tribune.