Bangladesh: Is this the Bangladesh we wanted?

The Daily Star
Eminent writer and freethinker Humayun Azad famously posed this question to us all.
As he lies in CMH slowly after being viciously attacked with butcher's knives by unknown assailants at the Bangla Academy during its annual book fair, this seems a fair time to ask the question again.
March 26 is just around the corner. Independence day. This is the date when we take an annual national reckoning, when we look back over the years since the liberation war and see where we have come to and what we have achieved.

Few people looking at Bangladesh today would conclude that the country we see before us is the one that we wanted. Few would argue that this is the country that we dreamed of creating. The brave new world we envisioned on March 26, 1971 remains a distant hope. The best we can say is that we have achieved some modest goals, we have much to be proud of, and things could have been and have been far worse.

But if we are being honest, we would have to concede that Bangladesh today is a bitter disappointment to our ideals.

There are so many ways in which the reality of our existence falls short of what we had hoped for -- economically, politically, educationally -- you name it. But the attack on Prof. Azad highlights the fact that, above all, what we lack in Bangladesh are basic freedoms. The freedom to express one's opinions, the freedom to dissent, to argue, to criticise. The freedom from fear.

Did we dream of a country where iconoclastic and freethinking writers can be attacked and left for dead merely for articulating a provocative opinion that threatens a powerful constituency? Is this the Bangladesh we wanted?

I am assuming that for most of us, the answer is no. So, the question is, if this isn't the Bangladesh we wanted, how did we get here, and what can we do to create a Bangladesh more in line with our ideals?

Let us use the attack on Prof. Azad as a starting point.

Right now, we cannot say with any level of certainty who carried out the attack on Prof. Azad. Perhaps we will never know for sure. But does this mean that if the authorities never manage to find the perpetrators of the attack, that we will have to draw a curtain around the matter and consider it closed until further notice?

I don't believe so. Even in the absence of concrete evidence, I think it is fairly clear who was behind the attack on Prof. Azad. We merely need to look at who his enemies are and who would want him silenced.

The writer's wife, Latifa Kohinoor has little doubt as to who is to blame. According to her, an extremist group had threatened Prof. Azad with death following the launch of his latest work, Pak Sar Zamin Saad Baad in November.

"Fundamentalists have done this," she is on record as saying, "Who else would do this? You know an MP even spat venom at him in parliament."

Indeed, on December 12, religious extremists addressing a mammoth demonstration at Baitul Mukarram Mosque demanded the arrest and trial of Prof. Azad, and on January 25, a Jamaat MP demanded the introduction of a blasphemy act in parliament to block the publication of books such as Prof. Azad's new work.

"Why didn't you take security measures to protect him after such an outrage in parliament?" Ms. Kohinoor asked the authorities after her husband had been attacked.

So, does this mean that Prof. Azad was attacked by Jamaat or IOJ cadres? The truth is that right now it is impossible to say who attacked him. Only after a thorough investigation and trial will we know who specifically is to blame.

But one thing that is certain is that the climate for the attack on Prof. Azad was created and fostered by the incitement against him by the more mainstream religious parties.

The more power that these groups are able to muster, the more emboldened will be the more fanatical extremists in our midst, and the more likely it is that attacks such as the one on Prof. Azad will occur.

It's a simple calculation. If we don't want this kind of thing to happen, then we shouldn't empower extremists.

Every time the government makes a concession to their political agenda, the extremists are emboldened. Every time the government indicates that attacks on minorities will not be punished, the extremists are emboldened. Every time they are able to check the rights and freedoms of women with impunity, the extremists are emboldened. Every time the more mainstream religious parties win more seats in parliament and their leaders are appointed to cabinet positions and ministries, the extremists are emboldened.

The end result of people like this being empowered and emboldened is incidents such as the attack on Prof. Azad. There is a direct connection between our tolerance of extremists, and the courage they have to commit the most heinous of crimes in the name of their beliefs.

The more mainstream religious parties have 17 seats in parliament and control key cabinet portfolios due to the BNP's readiness to take them on as coalition partners. Not only that, but as recently as January, when the government banned all Ahmadiyya publications, the government indicated its willingness to bow down to the agenda of the religious parties within the ruling coalition.

Does it come as any surprise that in this climate that the more radical extremists feel that someone like Prof. Azad is fair game?

So who is to blame? The short but disturbing answer is that it is we who are to blame. All those who helped put the religious parties into high office and thereby emboldened the more fanatical elements in the country share the blame for what has been wrought.

And I am not talking just about the people who voted for the religious parties. I am talking also about those who voted for their alliance partners in full knowledge of who would be given prominent cabinet positions in a four-party alliance government.

It is all very well to shed crocodile tears for Humayun Azad, but those who do so should look in the mirror and ask themselves how we got to this position in the first place. The point is that most of us are shocked and appalled by the attack on Prof. Azad, but at the same time do not acknowledge our own complicity in such matters. There is a contradiction here that needs to be examined.

If we do not each take upon ourselves the personal responsibility to do everything we can to remove extremists from public life and counter them at every opportunity then we too are accomplices to the actions of their more fanatical counterparts. If we sit idly and do nothing as they grow in power and influence and boldness then we can expect much more of the same.

Is this the Bangladesh we wanted? After what happened to Prof. Azad on February 27, we can't ever say that we haven't been warned.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.

The Daily Star
March 08, 2004