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To kill a February dream

  • Published at 06:00 pm February 3rd, 2019
Boi Mela

There’s no room for censorship at a literary festival

John Milton in Areopagitica wrote: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

His view is not solitary. In the world of literature, there are countless epigraphs, authors inscribing what they desire to say in words that speak the truth.

But what, precisely, does it mean?

Through Areopagitica Milton traced the origin of this literary fundamentals back to ancient Athens, think of poet and dramatist Euripides’s outcry: “This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.”

Syed Waliullah comes to mind as well, in Lalsalu he told us how ordinary people are exploited by religious zealots with an unflinching eye. His view is true because it’s unafraid, bold, and fair.

Had he been afraid, holding back from exposing the truth, Lalsalu would have depicted Mazid as simply a perverted individual who has nothing to do with faith. If that were the case, would you rate Lalsalu as a literary masterpiece?

Luckily, Waliullah, like many before and after him, realized that writing is about being fearless and that it’s an author’s obligation to be authentic in telling a story, however painful that truth may be.

This realization was recently echoed by Kristen Einarsson, chair of the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) Freedom To Publish committee when she rightly pointed out: “If publishing and literature are going to be able to help create and maintain free healthy societies going forward, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and to make room for critical opposition and challenging artistic expression.”

However, unlike Milton, her insight is derived more directly from the struggles of writers and publishers in this day and age.

It also, at once, connects us to the warning recently issued in Bangladesh that legal action would be taken against writers and publishers if any book hurting religious sentiment or disrupting communal harmony is published at this year’s Amar Ekushey Boi Mela.

This recent call for censorship, understandably, is motivated by the latest slaughtering of innocent writers and publishers by fundamental Islamist outfits, which is no surprise given that our administrative establishment has a tendency of playing into the hands of such extremists and thus censorship is often imposed when these terrorists preach and kill in pursuit of their violent and hateful ideologies.

Isn’t that exactly what religious fundamentalists -- those who see themselves as the sole possessors of the only version truth -- aim to achieve?

History tells us how religious fundamentalism has always been in conflict with the brightest minds.

In a bid to suppress the truth, the Catholic Church continued publishing the notorious Index Librorum Prohibitorum since 1559, which was a list of publications which were deemed forbidden according to the Catholic Church. Authors such as Descartes, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Sartre were on the list.

The beginning of the Islamic empire is marked by the killing of poet Asma Bint Marwan. Hinduism is no exception. The brutal murder of journalist and writer Gauri Lankesh by Hindu extremists in India serves as a more recent example.

All these events remind us of how a state can often be complicit in the murder of its own citizens, through their inaction to serve justice or by pandering to those who seek to push for violent ideologies. However, social progress has meant that those dark times are well and truly behind us.

Except for us, of course. As Bangladeshis, we are apparently going backwards.

It’s a pity that the aim of this renewed restriction is directed at the Ekushey book fair, which is the single most important literary festival in our nation, attached to a proud history of freedom of expression and diversity of opinion that takes us back to the Language Movement of 1952.

This entire concept of an “unacceptable book” conjures images of a rigorous political regime, scrutinizing every line of a book either to delete or to destroy anything that speaks against the existing orthodoxy.

Who can create art when they are in constant fear of offending killers? In the last line of Arek Falgun fearless Jahir Raihan wrote: “In the coming spring, our numbers will multiply.” And another spring is indeed upon us -- but not the one we dreamt of all the way back in February 21, 1952. 

Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger.

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