THIS open letter is regarding the Dhaka Lit Fest 2018 taking place at the Bangla Academy in November 8–10. While the festival promotes itself as a space for ‘fierce debates and fresh expressions’, we wanted to bring your attention to some disturbing developments, which require a re-examination of that claim.
Dr Shahidul Alam, an internationally renowned photographer and previous participant in the Dhaka Lit Fest, has been imprisoned without trial since August 5. He was picked up from his house by law enforcers, tortured, and charged post-detention under one of the most draconian laws, the Information and Communications Technology (Amendment) Act 2013, for giving a critical interview to Al Jazeera in the midst of a then ongoing student movement. It is not only Shahidul, many others have also met with similar fates for criticising the regime and even, dare we say, posting puns on Facebook or just clicking likes there. That should come as no surprise since the ‘ground of discourse seems to have shifted’ so much ‘that mere criticism of the… regime can now be regarded as treason,’ wrote the founding editor of Himal Southasia Kanak Mani Dixit. With the treatment of Shahidul and Maidul Islam, a sociology teacher in Chittagong University, Monayeem Khan Pathan, a teacher in Abdul Wahed Memorial Government Primary School, Gouripur, Mymensingh, Nusrat Jahan Sonia, a teacher in the Tiakhali Governent Primary School of Kolapara in Pathuakhali, and others, the government is deliberately and maliciously sending out a signal to the Bangladeshi intelligentsia that it will not tolerate any opposition to its rule. Meanwhile, the wave of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, ‘war on drugs,’ and harassment through the arms of the administration are going on unchecked. The government has made total and unchecked surveillance law of the land while criminalising any dissent. Self-censorship, fear, paranoia, and force are the prevailing currency instead of fierce debates and fresh expressions.
By imprisoning Shahidul, who won this year’s humanitarian category of the Lucie Awards, considered the Oscar of photography, the government is intent on stifling any and all challenge to its misdeeds. Addressing these dangerous turns in the political climate, many in Bangladesh and outside have criticised the government’s action and called for Shahidul’s, and others’, release. They include Nobel laureates Amartya Sen, Desmond Tutu, Tawakkol Karman, Shirin Ebadi, among others, world-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky, and Booker prize winning author Arundhati Roy.
These are trying times, not only in Bangladesh but globally. In these times, we can no longer turn away from our ethical responsibilities of taking a stand against repression and injustice. This includes a careful consideration of not directly or inadvertently strengthening the hands of those who condone, stand by, or are complicit in such iniquities. It is also the time to discard pat ideals of art and culture to instead examine how they are enmeshed in structures of power and systemic injustice.
The Dhaka Lit Fest is supported by the ministry of cultural affairs; and ministers and other affiliates, which include the organisers themselves, are regular chief and key guests at the event. At an event so closely supported and sanctioned by the government and against a backdrop of serious political repression, the proceedings will only operate as a cynical example of culture and art washing. Any appearance of free or fierce expression or debate at the literary festival will be merely that, appearance, and deflect from the clampdowns and violence inflicted on those who dare cross government sanctioned boundaries. Writing about ‘massive’ violations of Shahidul Alam’s rights and calling for his release in the New York Times, Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak cautioned that a ‘breakdown of social justice looms over Bangladesh’ where the lines between justice and revenge are increasingly blurred.
At a moment like this, the participants in the Dhaka Lit Fest might want to consider to what extent their participation sends a message of business as usual and by so doing they become a party to rubber-stamping such gross abuses of power. They might also want to consider whether their participation in a government-affiliated event normalises government abuses. Finally, it is incumbent on participants to ask the organisers what the latter have done to raise these issues and why there is a climate of self-censorship. Namely, why as a self-proclaimed premier literary festival and institution in Bangladesh, the Dhaka Lit Fest has failed to publicly condemn the detention of Shahidul Alam? What really is the point of talking about fresh expressions and fierce debates at an event like this when thousands have lost that freedom owing to the actions of the same institution that is one of the key supporters of this event?
We demand the immediate and unconditional release, and withdrawal of fabricated cases against Shahidul Alam and all others persecuted under Section 57 of the ICT Act, for daring to think critically.
Omar Tarek Chowdhury is a publisher (Nobotoronga Prokashonee); Mirza Taslima Sultana and Sayeed Ferdous teach anthropology in Jahangirnagar University.
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