Random Ramblings of a Concerned Individual

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The year 2016 is just about to end, as I sit down to write this. Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, has been requesting me to write something. People who know me well, know how painful it is for me to sit down to write. First, I only write under pressure, compulsion, or when something drives me to write. Tutul is someone I cannot say NO to, a publisher who has the ability to get someone who rarely writes, to do so. He thus has to be a publisher of some quality, indeed in my humble opinion as a non writer, the first mark up the ladder of success as a publisher, is getting writers to write. Also, when I do write, it is only after midnight. As a working woman, who often has many commitments starting from early morning till late night, means either finding a night when I can have a sleep in the next day, which in my case is very rare, or stay awake and continue to work as usual the following day. The second option is usually what I end up doing.
I thought long and hard about what to write. There is so much to write about- for instance, the culture of Impunity, in my mind being one of the most urgent issues of the time. Women and young girls being the target of attacks, cyber crime, rape, being killed in their homes or on the streets; indigenous peoples evicted, their lands and homes burnt; temples, religious leaders, and people from other religions being attacked and homes looted; coal fired power plants being built near extremely sensitive ecological zones, aggressive transformation of fertile agricultural lands into commercial ventures, for real estate, special economic zones, business ventures, whether agro business or brick fields, even military cantonments; policies and accords signed by this Government to protect the Indigenous peoples of CHT; all point towards a shrinking democratic space and lack of accountability. There seems to be almost no or in very few cases any attempts being made at resolving or taking any serious action against these offenses of such a serious and of a far reaching matter. Bangladesh has made progress in many areas, in the social development indicators, in the increase in GDP etc. Amongst all these achievements, a dichotomy exists though. The income gap is rapidly and systemically increasing, even though the lowest wage or income is higher than it was in the 1970’s, the rich are richer than they have ever been and continue to increase their profits in every manner possible, as is the case the world over. More women are out working, getting an education; also more women face sexual abuse and harassment, even within the home and definitely in public. Though elections are held on time, elections are usually one sided, with no major opposition candidates participating. No real and meaningful opposition exists which means the ruling party has no reason to gain the trust or respect of the general public. No major party practices true democracy within themselves and which is reflected in the governance mechanism of the Party in power, whatever the party may be. Conflicting and contradictory laws are being passed without any meaningful discussions. Secularism has taken a back seat to promoting and pandering to the archaic, illogical malevolent edicts promoting male centric practices in the guise of religion. This in turn has obviously led to a withering away of any ideology of secularism and provoked violent hegemony of obscurantism and dogmatism, calling it religion by taking people’s simplistic belief in the unknown. I have thought and then decided that if this venture of publishing on line, an e-journal or publication, that Tutul is bent on working hard to make it succeed, he would in all probability ask me to write again. I thought I would do so on any of the issues mentioned above, the next time. I am positive others will have done so. This time, the first time, I would put forward the conditions and events under which I met Tutul. This would, I thought, give readers, those who know Bangladesh and those who do not, a picture of what the current scene is and was, when Tutul had to leave his forte, his space, his comfort zone and why he had to do so, but did not give up his dreams when he left his home.
Shudhhashar, the publishing house that Tutul runs, was a name I had heard of earlier, but got to hear of more and more after the brutal killing of Avijit Roy, the writer, the blogger, the icon for a number of free spirited, logical, analytical, rational people, mostly young. Avijit was strong, fearless, eager to get the youth to start thinking for themselves, to be independent to challenge. When he was brutally killed in February 2015, at the very premises of the February Book Fair, a Book Fair that has come to symbolize progressive and creative thinking, the whole nation was shocked. It was at this very Book Fair that another progressive writer and Professor, Humayun Azad was attacked some years back. Everyone thought that security would be increased. The shock of Avijit’s death reverberated throughout the nation. Avijit’s role was swiftly and bravely taken up by his partner Rafida Ahmed Banya, who herself had suffered severely during the killing of Avijit. Shudhhashar, was the publisher who published most of Avijit’s writings. When one of Avijit’s young admirers, someone who respected and got strength from Avijit’s writings, an avid follower of his blogs, Niladri Chattopadhay, known to us as Niloy Neel was killed in his small flat, his partner was someone I spent time with after his death, she was alone and one of the very few people who saw some of the murderers, thus very vulnerable. Those were dark days, not that the days are much brighter now, but those were really dark times indeed. Others were killed under very similar methods and reasons during that year too. However, having known Neel personally, he was someone I liked, I found engaging and soft. A gentle person, he lived his life as he believed. His death affected me then and still does so now. I found myself accompanying his partner to the police, being the gate keeper for the innumerable journalists who wanted to interview and write about the killings, which I did as I felt it was important to provide her with the protection she then needed. The meetings were thus mostly held in my office, whether interrogation by the police detectives or the media. I felt that it would be the safest place. While giving the address and directions to our place, I was told, even by the police, that they knew our location as the office was near Shudhhashar office. In actual fact, it was right opposite. The police it seems were aware of the threats. Though the readers of this article all know, who Ahmedur Rashid Tutul is and what Shudhhashar stood for, I still am not able to control the temptation to quote what comes up when you google Tutul’s name – “…… In 1990, Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury started publishing and editing the magazine Shuddhashar, which soon became a platform for young and unconventional writers in Bangladesh. Chowdhury opened his publishing house in Dhaka in 2004, under the same name Shuddhashar, where he printed primarily works of open-minded and progressive writers in his country. In 2013, the publishing house was awarded the Shaheed Munir Chowdhury Award for publishing the highest number of best-sellers in Bangladesh. It is one of the most important publishing houses in Bangladesh.” I was keen to meet this man, but somehow never got round to meeting him. We may have shared spaces, for instance at the Book Fair, or at certain meetings, but never spoke or talked to each other. Like his friend Avijit, he obviously had a great role and a following that had quite a significant impact on the youth of Bangladesh.
On the 31st October, 2015, a Saturday, when our offices were closed due to it being a weekend, I suddenly get the news that Tutul was attacked in his office, along with two visitors, who came to visit him. It may possibly be that having to kill three in a short span of time, all the killings had a very similar pattern, was what eventually saved the three, Tutul, Ranadipam Basu and Tareque. Along with the fact that all three were immediately rushed to the Hospital and fullest care in the quickest time was ensured also helped the three to survive such a violent attack. Unfortunately, another publisher, who had also published his friend Avijit’s books was not so lucky. Faisal Arefin Dipon. Like Avijit, he too was the son of a well reputed University teacher. He too, was killed on the same day as Tutul was attacked, immediately after or maybe just before, again in his own Jagriti Publications’ office. He was found hours later, when one of his colleagues went to the office and found Dipen lying in a pool of blood. It was on that day that I first ‘met’ Tutul. At the emergency ward of the hospital. When most people, especially those who were writers, bloggers, publishers were terrified, not knowing if they were on the hit list or not and went into hiding, I just felt that I should show some support by visiting the three who survived the attack while they were in Hospital. The fact that none of the killings saw justice, nor the killers being identified and cases being initiated in a manner that denotes seriousness on the part of the law enforcers, or the Government, naturally played a big role as to why people were so terrorised and became inactive. That is simply how I got to know Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury Tutul and developed not only a fondness for him and Runa, his amazing life partner, but also great respect. Having had to leave the country for he has young children that he has to look after and provide them with the security they deserve, I had the opportunity to hear him speak in public, once when we were both at the same place, at the book fair in Gothenburg, Sweden and also through various interviews out on you tube . We both also communicate when we can. I first heard him speak in Gothenburg that since it was difficult to continue to publish physically in Bangladesh as people were still worried about their safety, if found to be involved with Shudhhashar and its publications, he announced he would try out and begin the first e-publishing for Bangladesh. I had no idea that his idea would come to fruition so soon. Tutul said that I could write in English, as some of the other contributors who are not Bangla speakers would be writing in English. In fact, he wanted me to write in English.
My article while mentioning in passing the situation we are going through is also an attempt to express that despite all efforts to stifle rationalist voices, feminist voices, humanist voices, proletarian voices, secular voices, progressive voices, the people of this land will overcome, whichever way they are able to, wherever they may be. That has been a pattern over the years and the pattern will continue. The latest incident where a publisher is being barred for a period from taking part in the February Book Fair in Dhaka, by the authorities of the grounds where the Book Fair is held, supposedly for protesting against the shutting down of a stall and the subsequent arrest from the Fair of a senior in age publisher, and the year before closure while the fair was on, of another stall, speaks clearly as to the ridiculous nature of how decisions get made. Immediately, a group of people protested this ban. Let us see how good sense will prevail within the officials. It gives out a very wrong signal and the authorities will just have to give in at some point. Until such time, we will continue to fight back, speak out. People like Ahmedur Rashid Tutul and Rafida Ahmed will continue to be of consequence and a beacon to all who still dream of the world they believe in, a world that is inclusive for all peoples, of all orientations, having all forms of creativity, as long as they do not take away another’s right to live. These wonderful strong beings show us the way that despite having survived such brutal and heinous attacks, they still continue to work, to give to people the strength of mind to work on as before, they speak out and work so that people do not give up, do not become apathetic. This to me symbolises the inner strength within us, the strength to overcome.

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