Dr Rashid Askari
The news of Avijit's murder came as more than a bolt from the blue. He died tragically young, only in his early forties. We could have taken solace if he had died a natural death or by a traffic accident. But to our great shock and horror, he died a violent death for his beliefs. He was brutally murdered in a frenzied knife attack in a crowded public footpath. He was struck in the head and shoulders with big knifes and sent sprawling to the ground. He received wounds and died from them with all eyes on him. His accompanying wife was looking desperately around for help, as one possessed suffering multiple stab-wounds herself in the head and shoulders. But nothing could save Avijit's life from the marauding wolves. He has met his end in an unprovoked militant attack. This terribly grieves us that we could do nothing to save his life. Avijit could stand no chance of surviving the deadly attack. The whole country is mourning for Avijit. Cries of protest are being raised at home and abroad for the arrest and punishment of his pathological killers. The loss of Avijit is a great blow to the freethinkers of Bangladesh, and must be keenly felt by the liberal and progressive humanists in and around the country.
The brutal killing of Avijit is not an isolated incident as such, but it is the latest in the long line of killings of the nonconformist intellectuals that have been continuing since records began. As far as human history is concerned, the event of killing dissenting intellectuals dates back to Socratic time. Socrates (c.470-399) himself was wrongly convicted by Athenian Assembly, and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock for his compelling personality, dauntless courage, and quest for knowledge. The polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) faced violent opposition from the Church for his heterodox thoughts. The Italian philosopher and logician Bruno (1548-1600) was burnt at the stake for his unorthodox views. The Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo (1564-1642) was forced to recant his views, and was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life by the religious authorities. A host of examples of freethinking intellectuals persecuted and killed for their unconventional role can be cited from the pages of history.
The killing of progressive intellectuals is not a new one in Bangladesh. The assassination of the progressive Bengali intellectuals during 1971 by the racist Pakistan occupation army and their fanatical collaborators-- the Razakar, Al-Badr and Al-Shams was, in some sense, far more premeditated than the notorious Holocaust. Although a few could escape by pure chance, the mission was the elimination of all the liberal intellectuals from Bangladesh with a view to crippling the country with fundamentalism and religious militancy. The intellectuals were rightly accused of trying to liberate the country from Pakistani subjugation and freeing the society from religious orthodoxy and fanaticism. What they had believed and did and what Avijit believed and did are much of a muchness.
The post-Independence freethinking intellectuals were also faced with threats and physical assaults. Professor Ahmed Sharif and Folk-philosopher Aroj Ali Matubbar (1900-1985) were always under situations threatening to their lives. Poet Shamsur Rahman (1929-2006) was subjected to violent attacks in 1999 at his place by Islamist fanatics and narrowly escaped being killed. A vicious assassination attack was made on the freethinking intellectual Humayun Azad (1947-2004) in 2004 in the vicinity of Bangla Academy just one day before the Ekushey Book Fair ended. The secular blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider (1982-2013), was hacked to death outside his home in February 2013 by assailants with machetes. And the hitherto last example of fundamentalist attack is Avijit Roy (1972-2015), a machete attack victim on 26 February, 2015.
The receipt of death threats by the freethinking writers/bloggers has become a day-to-day phenomenon in Bangladesh. The freethinkers receive complaints and threats sent by unidentified persons. The threats are many, but the message was one and the same-the accused are not the writers of choice for the accuser. What they are doing in the name of writing smacks of profanities and does not spare the feelings of readers. It is not understood what they really mean by 'sparing readers' feelings', but it could be easily realized that the free thought bashers' interests would always go against the true spirit of our independence, democracy and secularism. If one writes under compulsion catering to their tastes, it would be far from what we call good writing. Good writing can never been done under stick and carrot situation. So, the freethinking writers tend to pay no heed to their advice. However, the religious bigots and reactionaries are not the ones to give in. They and the likes of them keep gnawing at the freethinkers for ages.
We are living in such societies where voices of dissent are unwelcome and nonconformism is treated as an offence. There is, however, no harm in intolerance to dissenting voices and nonconformity if it works as a benign neglect or finds a non-violent expression and finally finishes in fun. But if it turns violent and fixes a price on the dissenter's head, it cannot be appreciated anyway. The ones who are prone to threaten the freethinkers have also targeted our distinguished scholars like Shahriar Kabir (1950--) of the anti-war crimes platform--Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee for exterminating the killers and collaborators of 1971), Professor Muntassir Mamoon (1951) of Dhaka University and Professor Muhammed Zafar Iqbal (1952) of Sylhet Shahjalaj University. Dubbing them all 'atheist', the religious fanatics have pronounced corporal punishment for them allowing, however, the last chance to correct themselves. I am quite sure that these three dauntless freedom fighters are used to receiving these sorts of threats repeatedly to which they turn a deaf ear. Once I asked Professor Iqbal if he was afraid of threats of this sort. The good professor sweetly smiles and says he has been living on borrowed time ever since the tumultuous days of 1971 when he lost his father. Professor Mamoon is also a spirited defender of our liberation war spirit and a champion of freedom of speech. He appeared as witness for the prosecution in the International CrimesTribunal-1, and gave a historic witness testifying the heinous activities of the so-called 'Peace Committee' members. Shahriar Kabir has, in public, alleged that Ghulam Azam, the notorious Jamaat e Islami leader, had played a nasty role in the heinous genocide of 1971 and so did Jamaat as a political party. All these pro-liberation writers and many others may have the courage of their convictions, but the threats do not always lie dormant. Consequent upon such threats, Professor Humayun Azad was slashed at with sharp lethal weapons, which fatally wounded him and finally put him to death.
As an individual and a writer, I believe in freedom of speech, thought and expression. I also believe that it is necessary for me as much as it is necessary for others. I have always been a great admirer of the oft-quoted Voltaire saying: 'I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' I never mind criticism levelled at my writing or me. I am always open to it. But I feel a sense of alarm when dissenters are threatened with extinction. To try to cow people by force is a fascist outlook, which stems from one's utter inability to counter opposing views with grace and dignity. Intellectual dysfunction leads to the exercise of muscle in order to suppress dissent.
You have every right to be mad at Avijit, to feel aggrieved at his writing, and to find that your feelings are not spared by him. In that case, I urge you to counter him with similar writings or other intellectual means, or suing him for hurting your religious feeling, but not with any bullyboy tactics. Even if you cannot do that, you may curse him, hate his guts, let loose a stream of abuse, or ask God to dispense justice. But a violent move for corporeal damage is the last thing to be supported by any sensible person. Even the religious people, who show bigotry and intolerance, are in fact, betraying the religion they uphold.
The progressive intellectuals are the best brains of a country and the conscience of a nation. They are the friends, philosophers, and guides of the people. They are determined to get at the truth, espouse certain ideals, and keep the torch of secularism alive. So, the vested interests are always the very antithesis of the liberal intellectuals. This is what we saw in our great Liberation War. It was an inevitable outcome of our social, economic, cultural, and political awareness generated by our progressive intellectuals, who finally trod the path of martyrdom. Our present day intellectuals like Avijit are trying to carry out the promises made by those martyred intellectuals. Their ideals and actions are earning them the enmity of the people who once stood against the Liberation War and now are standing against the promotion of Liberation War ideals---secularism, democracy and progressivism.
Avijit was a staunch advocate of secularism and a dauntless champion of humanism who gave full vent to his ideology in exciting intellectual discourses. He spoke revealingly about many of the religious taboos that infuriated the rabid right-wing fanatics and left him vulnerably exposed to militant attacks in a country of lax security like ours. One of the world's biggest religion-bashing scientists, Stephen Hawking is fond of criticizing religion and making fun of the religious fallacies. Would he suffer the same fate if brought to Bangladesh, as did Avijit?
Did we want this Bangladesh? Did three million people sacrifice their lives for such a country where voices of dissent are silenced by the sword of fundamentalism? Shame on us all! Dear Avijit, sorry is not the word for what has happened to you! Your sacrifice is no less than that of the valiant martyred intellectuals of our Great Liberation War. You are a pillar of free thought movement in Bangladesh. You would remain the torchbearer for people who would work for freedom of thought and expression. Your prostrate dead body would be the last nail in the fundamentalist's ugly coffin. You will never be dead and buried as a freethinker. Your silence would be a wake-up call for the government and the people of Bangladesh. Your works will live with us, and be the guiding philosophy we would live by in the labyrinth of religious dogma. Avijit dead is stronger than Avijit alive!
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]