Publication houses play an vital role in sponsoring and promoting writers and thought-provoking work in a marketplace of ideas. Shuddhashar proposes we recognize this by making 31 October Freedom to Publish Day.
Shuddhashar was established in 1990 at a critical juncture in Bangladesh’s history. The early 1990s was a period marked by revolutionary upheavals. A series of mass uprisings eventually toppled the military regime and paved the way for the country’s shift from autocracy to parliamentary democracy. Back then, anti-establishment ideas dominated the cultural and literary scene of the country. These ideas were often radically amplified by an emerging movement of independently run little magazines. Shuddhashar, one of these little magazines, was a platform run with an anti-establishment spirit. It aimed at harnessing the creative power of Bangladesh’s vibrant youth previously stifled by the military dictatorship. These innovative youth dreamed of a new social order and articulated their radical visions in the poems, short stories, plays, and essays they penned for Shuddhashar.
Like these young intellectuals, Shuddhashar also dreamt big. In 2004, it took the next step by transforming into a publishing house. As a publisher of books, Shuddhashar challenged the mainstream publishing industry that had been avoiding manuscripts that questioned religious dogmas and societal taboos. Shuddhashar aimed to be at the forefront of advancing a sea change desperately needed by the publishing industry in Bangladesh. Between 2004 and 2015, Shuddhashar published over a thousand books that covered a wide range of issues deemed too controversial in Bangladesh to be discussed even in the private sphere, let alone written about: from the theory of evolution to homosexuality to atheism to women’s rights. Many of these books were debut works of authors from marginalised communities whose works had been shunned to the margins and whose voices were often been drowned out by the artificially inflated voices of state-sponsored academics and journalists maintaining the status quo. Shuddhashar published the highest number of debut books for a record number of years.
Meanwhile, Shuddhashar’s penchant for covering controversial topics made it a problem for religious conservatives. For a long time, Bangladeshi Islamsists have sought to establish a rigid social order, and they employed brute force to quash demands for any liberal alternative. Notably, they were incensed by the books authored by Avijit Roy, an intellectual known for his critique of orthodox ideas. Published by Shuddhashar, Avijit’s book, Homosexuality, was the first book in Bangla that dispersed myths surrounding homosexuality — a taboo topic in Bangladesh and much of South Asia.
In 2015, however, a seismic shift rocked Bangladesh’s liberal establishments. In dizzying succession, several secular writers, bloggers, and gay rights activists — including two Shuddhashar writers, Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Dash — lost their lives in targeted attacks waged by machete-wielding Islamist vigilantes. Next, they came for the publishers.
On 31 October 2015, assailants armed with machetes stormed into the Shuddhashar office and attacked the publisher and two writers present. Thanks to these two writers’ courageous resistance, the publisher’s life was spared. All three, however, suffered grievous injuries. On the same day, in a separate attack, publisher Faisal Arefin Dipon, who ran the progressive publishing house Jagriti, lost his life in his own office. As a result, Jagriti was forced to withdraw the books deemed controversial from the market, including a book authored by Avijit. On that fateful day, Shuddhashar’s operation in Bangladesh ended abruptly. Its publisher failed to secure a guarantee from the law enforcement agencies that they would provide him with adequate protection. His attackers were not brought to justice. He was forced into exile and eventually welcomed to Norway.
In exile, under new challenging circumstances, Shuddhashar has slowly but surely begun to find its feet again. It has added new blood in the form of academics and exiled writers. Today, it runs its operations through a newly launched website. Returning to its little magazine roots, Shuddhashar publishes a quarterly online magazine. Each magazine issue covers a different topic. These topics are diverse in range and scope: from authoritarianism to body politics, from political poetry to public art. Currently, readers from more than a hundred countries visit Shuddhashar’s website. This year, Shuddhashar has made a comeback in the book publishing world with two new books: an autobiographical novel by an exiled author and a South Asian queer anthology. Several more books are being planned. In memory of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Dash, who were brilliant mentors themselves, Shuddhashar has also launched the bi-yearly Avijit-Ananta mentorship programme to mentor young upcoming intellectuals from the global south.
31 October 2022 marks the seventh year of the attack on the Bangladeshi publishing houses of Jagriti and Shuddhashar, a historic event when two publishers were attacked on the same day.
To commemorate the day and to champion the right to free speech and the right to publish, Shuddhashar proposes to the publishing world that 31 October be declared as Freedom to Publish Day.
Writers are the focus of attention for freedom of expression campaigns – and for good reason: they craft their words; take risks when critiquing the status quo, the government and ruling parties, or societal norms; and their names are forever associated with their ideas. But publishers are not neutral in the promotion of free speech. Indeed, publishers have an active role in shaping the public and literary discourse. As they search for new writings and new ideas, they have the ability to choose what to publish and what to avoid. In Bangladesh, the viscious attacks of two prominent publishers not only led to the shuttering of those publication houses, but fear spread like a contagion, leading to widespread self-censoring among other publishers. Freedom to Publish Day acknowledges the essential role publishers play in keeping information and ideas flowing. Freedom to Publish Day demonstrates that the international community stands by the rights of publishers to be unhindered in supporting excellent writers and valuable ideas.