Hasina’s growing alliance with pro-Islamist and far-right sections, state censorship and gagging of secular democratic voices in Bangladesh, is a red signal to the human right observers around the world, writes Subho Maitro.
A fear for freedom of speech is looming large in Bangladesh. It is ironic that a sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore erected in protest of censorship has been desecrated in Dhaka, the capital city, just before 21st February. Tagore and his work was bone of contention and icon for ‘Bhasha Andolon’ or the movement for the right to speak native language in the erstwhile East Pakistan. On 21st Feb many language activists were killed in Dhaka in 1952, and that movement culminated into division of Pakistan and birth of a new country called Bangladesh in 1971. The day is remembered as Basha Shahid Dibas or martyr day for language. While celebration of that day is in full swing this censorship and gagging is something to look at with importance. So What is happening there? Reports suggest the present Awami League Government is on a strict censorship mode and allegedly this censorship is aimed not at the fundamentalist section of the country but the progressive section. The Law called the Digital Security Act seems to have turned into a draconian act of repression of free speech and human rights.
Several cases of banning and censorship took place within a short period of time which made the progressive section uneasy about the intention of the government. The acclaimed photographer and activist Shahidul Alam was arrested after criticising the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina in an interview. Then came the censorship of the film by Mostafa Sarwar Farooki on the terrorist attack on Holy Artisan Bakery of Dhaka in 2016. And recently a book by Jannatul Nayem Prity was banned from selling and being displayed at the Ekushey Boi Mela. All these are tell-tale signs for the progressive-democratic section of Bangladesh. The youth of Bangladesh, who were in the forefront of protest throughout the decade rose to the occasion.
Last week, the students of Charukala or the arts faculty of Dhaka University made an installation with a statue of Tagore gagged with tape and carrying his Nobel-winning book with a nail stabbed on it. The message was clear, this was a protest against growing state censorship. The students placed this 19 feet tall installation at a prominent place inside the university campus on 14 February for all to view. The Dhaka university authority didn’t take this well, and on 16 February the sculpture mysteriously disappeared, with its severed head being found nearly 2 km from the university campus. The students alleged that this was done at the cover of night on instigation of the authority. They picked up the remnants of the vandalised sculpture, put them together, and re-installed it back at the original spot. While the students say they erected the installation to honour free speech, university authority says the statue is in bad taste, though they have not owned the responsibility of desecrating it. Tagore is held in high esteem as a poet in Bangladesh and to officially vandalise his sculpture would invite wrath of all sections of liberal and secular people in Bangladesh.
Has freedom of speech and democratic rights taken a nosedive in recent times in Bangladesh? Amidst its GDP growth-story are there signs to be concerned about? Let us look at some of the incidents to find out. Take the case of the controversy surrounding the book written by Jannatul Nayeem Prity. Prity who now lives in Paris, has written an autobiographical book named ‘Jonmo o Jonir Itihas’ which translates to History of Birth and Vagina in English. The book boldly proclaims as a narrative of a woman’s life who challenged State and religious Law and her experience as a feminist activist in Bangladesh. The book allegedly contains some explosive details of politicians and celebrities’ sexual life and corruption. Amar Ekushe Boimela or the Dhaka Book Fair’s task force has banned the sale and exhibition of the book, and the publishing company obliged to that. The ban on this book can be seen as a long tussle going on with Prity and the state of Bangladesh. Prity is staying in Paris which according to her is a political asylum as she feels grave threat to her life in her native country. Common sense tells that if a book contains defamatory text then its author should be sued by the person who feels they are the victim. But the State cannot take action beforehand. Thus there is a suspicion that the real motive of banning the book from the book fair has more to do with the criticism of the present government and the rising fundamentalism in Bangladesh than anything else. The suspicion strengthens as the fair committee which is under the Bangla Academy, a State controlled body, also banned a publisher which is known for publishing books critical to the Prime Minister Hasina and her government. The publisher Adarsha has not been given a place in the fair to exhibit its publications.
Prity’s book which criticised Hasina as a turncoat who has lost secular and democratic credentials and given in to the fundamentalist sections, who has been going on rampage against the progressive secular section of the society and wants to turn the country into a Islamic nation. She elaborates on how Bangladesh is regressing towards fundamentalism and women’s right and freedom of speech is getting curtailed. Is this the real reason behind the sudden flurry of action against the book?
It has been seen that criticism of the government, the ruling party Awami League, its students-wing and even the fundamentalist religious leaders is increasingly facing strong authoritarian action in Bangladesh. The most infamous case which shook the world is the jailing of Shahidul Alam, the famous photographer activist. Shahidul Alam, who extensively covered Shahbag Movement, which rocked the country exactly a decade ago. This movement was not against the Awami League Government, but against the fundamentalist jamat-shibir and the war-criminals of 1971, who basically played the role of comprador to the Pakistani Army. Shahidul became the eye-shower of the government in recent times when he criticised Sheikh Hasina in an interview with Al Jazeera. He covered the student-unrest demanding safe roads in Dacca and in the interview said that this protest was due to the authoritarian and anti-democratic tendency of the Prime Minister who is using ‘brute force’ to stifle democratic voices. After this interview, he was arrested and imprisoned with the charge of sedition and spreading false rumours against his own country. He had to spend more than a hundred days in jail, and only pressure from the international community led to his release.
The charge against Shahidul Alam has been brought under a Bangladeshi Law called Digital Security Act (DSA). This law was enforced in 2018 allegedly becoming a brutal tool to subdue the voice of any criticism or opposition against the ruling class of Bangladesh.
Even before the enactment the Law was seen by the Human Right Activist and Media as a dangerous one. Though the Government gave assurance of not misusing it, it seems a mere lip service now. This law has been used to consolidate the position of Awami League and Hasina in power and gag opposition voices. The election won that year by the Awami League was termed ‘farcical’ locally and by independent foreign media. The Law was stated as a digital security measure to preserve the idea of Bangladesh’ spirit of liberty and its war of independence. Yet the statistics suggested by the www.carnegiendowment.org states the use of the law is against the spirit of human rights. Journalists, authors have been targeted using this law and one activist Mushtaq Ahmed even died in Jail after allegedly being tortured in 2021.
This law also stated that anything that hurts religious sentiment is punishable. This seems to be for Hasina’s growing alliance with pro-Islamist and far-right section of the country. Recently Dipu Mani, the education minister of Bangladesh commented that voice of Imams is important in the society. Imams and the religious leaders are extra-constitutional players in Bangladesh’s politics and even after the Shahbag movement they have consolidated under the banner of Hefajat-Shibir and now are a force to reckon with. This totally anti-democratic and fundamentalist power centre wants strict Sharia Law (Islamic Law) to be enforced in Bangladesh. The Digital Law instead of curtailing such voices of hatred is being used more to silence the liberal and democratic section of the country. A fear of censorship and gagging is looming large on the citizens of Bangladesh which is something of a red signal to the human right observers around the world.