Looking back over the three decades of Shuddhashar

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Shuddhashar has entered its third decade this year. The journey has neither been smooth nor planned out in detail. The story began in December 1990 with a youthful passion for poetry and literature that soon grew into an aspiration to influence the broader culture and society. The hope was to bring about a change in traditional ways of thinking, see people and social structures in a different light, challenge problematic deep-rooted cultural discourses, and inspire people from all walks of life in the spirit of human solidarity. Throughout this journey from a little magazine to an international publisher, Shuddhashar continues to strive in the same three-decade-old spirit.

Shuddhashar began after my brief fascination for Political Islam had faded away. For a couple years, I had been convinced that Islam provided the structures and answers for a fair society and an ideal political system, and I participated with some enthusiasm in an Islamic student group. But I started to realize the contradictions between Political Islam’s monotheistic doctrine and its rigid hierarchical structure, and the hypocrisy of its insistence that heavenly pleasures would await followers who acted according to leaders’ instructions. I distanced myself. When that proved insufficient, I submitted a formal letter of separation. By then, I had started Shuddhashar. I also wrote an essay in a little magazine The Gronthi about why I had abandoned Islamist politics. Within days of my formal resignation, an Islamist cadre threatened to chase me down with a machete. Little did I know back then that this event foreshadowed what was to come.

Many of my closest friends also lost faith in organised religion and religious dogmas. We stopped identifying ourselves with any religious community and communal politics. Instead, we decided to commit to liberal humanism and egalitarian politics. Back then, we dreamt big and had high hopes for our future.

It was at this juncture that the first phase of Shuddhashar’s journey began, and it centred around little magazines. The little magazines were all about youth – about harnessing the creative power of emerging minds. Shuddhashar provided a platform for intellectual bookworms to write, study, observe, and shed the straitjacket of a traditional society. Many people were attracted by the avant-garde organisational culture practised by Shuddhashar, by our this-worldly philosophy of life, and they contributed to the little magazines we produced. True, in those days, many of us were inspired by Marxism too but never managed to take the next step of becoming Marxists.

Shuddhashar entered its second phase with the regular publication of books. We were inspired to shift our focus from little magazines to books when we realized that the mainstream publishing industry refused to publish books of young authors who challenged religious dogmas and societal taboos. Between 2004 and 2015, Shuddhashar published over a thousand books. A significant portion of them were books that addressed controversial issues. Many of them were penned by young and promising writers. We held the record of publishing the highest number of debut books for a record number of years. Often, we put more emphasis on the content of a book rather than its saleability. Since we published controversial books, this made us a target of Islamist groups. There was also the pressure of working under an authoritarian regime. Only a few of our books made it into state-funded public libraries.

In 2015, there were numerous attacks on secular writers, bloggers, and publishers in Bangladesh. Those who keep track of this issue suspect that rogue agencies affiliated with the security establishment of Bangladesh might have sponsored these attacks. Recently, the United States Treasury Department charged six former and current senior officers of Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force with human rights violations. One of them, a high-ranking military intelligence officer at the time, was an acquaintance of mine. Before I had reported having had death threats, he had visited my office.  It was not a social visit — he was on duty when he visited me but behaved like a friend. His subordinates were standing guard outside. Since his visit, I often noticed official motorbikes of his agency parked in the neighbourhood. Later, Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Dash, two progressive writers who published with Shuddhashar, perished in the machete attacks carried out by militant Islamists. Progressive writers of Bangladesh continue to live under death threats today.

I myself had to seek police protection after receiving multiple death threats. The police assured me that they would protect me, but they advised that I stop publishing controversial books. A few days after I sought protection, local police forces conducted a search operation in the Shuddhashar office. It was a very unpleasant experience. After finishing their search, the police charged me three thousand takas so they could buy tea. The police force, with their behaviour, did not make me feel safer.

On October 31, 2015, assailants armed with guns and machetes stormed into Shuddhashar’s office in Dhaka and declared that they were there to assassinate the publisher. On that fateful day, my life was saved by the courageous resistance of two writers who had been visiting me. All three of us sustained grievous injuries, and the Shuddhashar office suffered extensive damages. Immediately after the attack, the militant outfit Ansar Al-Islam claimed responsibility for attacking Shuddhashar and Jagriti — another progressive publishing house.

The events that day forced Shuddhashar to close all its operations in Bangladesh. I couldn’t guarantee my Shuddhashar colleagues that by continuing working for Shuddhashar, they were not putting themselves in harm’s way. Within a few days of the attack, the prime minister of Bangladesh declared that the government was not responsible for protecting the lives of those who hurt religious sentiments. Given the circumstances, I decided to pause my medical treatment and leave the country, taking my family with me. With the help of a few close friends, I left the hospital and ended up in a foreign land. I never managed to return to my home or to my office.  In this way, Shuddhashar’s twenty-five-year journey came to an abrupt halt. Shuddhashar lost its office space and employees, its vibrant office culture, and the energizing community of writers and thinkers in Bangladesh. The books in the warehouse worth millions were in tatters, and so were our million dreams.

A life of uncertainty began. As soon as I regained consciousness in that hospital bed, I was haunted by questions about Shuddhashar’s future. As an intellectual movement, Shuddhashar may not have been hugely influential. It nonetheless managed to achieve success at the grassroots level in spreading politically liberal ideas through its publications. Shuddhashar’s slogan was ‘to inspire, not to impress.’  But now I felt troubled, empty, and not at all inspired. Losing everything I had built for years left me devastated. I struggled with physical and mental traumas and with economic uncertainties. At the same time, I could not accept that this might be the final chapter of Shuddhashar’s journey.

Amidst all the uncertainties, I have finally found refuge in Norway. ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network), an organisation that works with threatened artists, secured me a sanctuary in Skien, renowned as the hometown of Henrik Ibsen. Here I have the title of a guest writer, but officially I am a refugee. Before this, I saw myself as a global citizen. In fact, I have never thought of myself as anything other than a human being. But after an unplanned migration, this refugee status makes me feel as if a part of my humanity has been snatched away from me.

During all the uncertainties of starting a new life in a foreign country, I kept dreaming about relaunching Shuddhashar.  My first thought was to rebrand Shuddhashar’s books as e-books. However, within six months after the attack on Shuddhashar, many of its authors — some of them are my dear friends — had already given the publishing rights of their books to other publishers. Because of the exposure Shuddhashar’s books received in the aftermath of the attack, many other publishers wanted to acquire the rights to those books. A bitter realisation dawned on me. No matter the camaraderie, no author would be interested in working with me until Shuddhashar had an organisational presence. I started thinking about alternatives and searched for inspiration from the past. Finally, the idea of relaunching Shuddhashar online sprang to mind. It happened suddenly, just as when I first came up with the name ‘Shuddhashar’. That had been in October 1990, and I was riding a bike in my hometown Sylhet.

The idea was right, but its implementation turned out to be much more complicated than I had ever imagined. I needed writers, technical help to launch the new website, and so much more. But as a refugee, how to manage? Back then, I didn’t even have a laptop or PC and an internet connection. Despite several limitations, with the help of a friend living in another country, I managed to launch the Shuddhashar website in January 2017. I struggled a lot with developing the virtual platform and solving its technical problems. I clearly remember one of my hosts in Norway made fun of my initiative. They told me that a website design and domain registration could be managed easily, but then what? What could I really do with a website?

Days flew by, but I didn’t give up hope and continued experimenting with new ideas. More people got involved with my project; some gave up halfway. In the end, I managed to give Shuddhashar the organisational structure it needed. Thanks to like-minded comrades and well-wishers, we now have an advisory board, a working committee, and an editorial group. The Norwegian organisations Fritt Ord and Kulturrådet have come to our aid. At the beginning of its new journey in Norway, we registered Shuddhashar as a non-profit organisation.

Shuddhashar believes that writing is an effective tool to bring about a meaningful change. There is no better alternative if the goal is to engage with other people intellectually. Shuddhashar dreams of a progressive, just, and humane society. We seek to realise this dream of ours on the global stage. Every project of Shuddhashar is geared towards actualising this dream. Instead of using methods of persuasion, Shuddhashar believes it is essential to appeal to human conscience and to promote the skill of independent reasoning.

Seven years after ceasing its operation in Bangladesh, Shuddhashar has relaunched its book publishing wing in 2022. Hopefully, later this year, we will be able to offer our readers thought-provoking books of international publishing standards.

Militant Islamists aimed to destroy Shuddhashar; they wanted to silence our voice. But we have proved that we can still dream and keep our dreams alive; we know how to work hard in the most challenging circumstances. Our struggle against fundamentalism, superstitions, and bigotry continues. We fight for the right to free speech. We believe in a just and harmonious world free of discrimination based on gender, religion, caste, and class.

This month (January 2022) marks five years of Shuddhashar online, and we are far from finished. We keep evolving, and our networks are growing stronger and wider. Welcome to the brand-new chapter of Shuddhashar’s journey!

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