Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Everything Falls Apart

On that fateful Friday, Dr Azad, in jeans and fatua, had been sitting in the stall of Agami Prokashani at the Ekushey Book Fair. He left the stall at around 8:45 PM; "Dr Azad left the mela, telling me he would go home," says Osman Gani, owner of the publishing house. It was around 9:30, a young man approached him for an autograph; Dr Azad crossed the road for a rickshaw after signing the autograph. And then two unknown assailants, armed with chopping knives hacked the 56-year-old writer on the jaw, lower part of the neck and hands, on the pavement outside the academy.

Conscious but profusely bleeding, Dr Azad, who has authored over 70 books, was taken to the emergency unit of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). According to newspaper reports, no doctor was available at the emergency unit of the DMCH. Later, Dr Azad was sent to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH).

Dr Azad's attackers, might have come right out of his book, Pak Sar Jamin Sadd Baad (Pakistan's national anthem: Blessed be the Sacred Land). It depicts the story of a religious fanatic who wants to establish a "Taliban-styled distorted Pakistan" in Bangladesh.
The protagonist, a member of the Jama'-e-Jihad-e Islam Party, says in a monologue, "We aren't alone. Our brothers all over the world are doing their work. If they fly an aeroplane into a building somewhere, if cars crash into a hospital or a hotel, or if a bomb blast kills 300 people in some recreational centre, then we know it's the work of our brothers; in other words, it is our work. This is Jihad."

The name, Jama'-e-Jihad-e Islam Party, is believed to be an allegory to the Jamat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JI), a partner in the ruling coalition; as another character in the book, Karim Ali Islampuri says, "We must seize power. Right now, we are with the power and the main party. At some point, power will come to us; we will become the main party. We are entering everywhere -- Islam will be established; (another) Pakistan will be created. There won't be any infidels, Malauns (Hindus); there won't be any Hindu or Jew in guise of Muslims."

Dr Azad's novel, however, meets a melodramatic end. The zealot goes through a dramatic change of heart-- he falls in love with a Hindu girl; and later abandons the path of religious bigotry and intolerance.
But in real life, Dr Azad had been fearing for his life since the novel was first published in the Daily Ittefaq's Eid supplement in 2003. In an email to Muktomona, an independent website, he wrote, "The Ittefaq published a novel by me named Pak Sar Jamin Saad Baad in the Eid issue in December 3. It deals with the condition of Bangladesh for the last two years. Now the (religious) fundamentalists are bringing out regular processions against me, demanding exemplary punishment. The attached two files with this letter will help you understand." Along with the mail Dr Azad sent JPG files that included news of protests against him.

In fact, on January 25, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, an MP belonging to JI called for the introduction of the Blasphemy Act to block the publication of "such books". Besides Sayeedi--who once called for blood tests for journalists to see "if they are Muslims or not"-- many bigots have declared the maverick writer a murtad (apostate). From an anti-Ahmadiyya rally on December 12, Momtazi, emir of Hifazate Khatm-e-Nabuat Movement and the Imam of Rahim Metal Mosque demanded the professor's arrest and trial.

Nothing has ever deterred Dr Azad, perhaps, the lone outspoken writer in Bangla literature, from speaking out his mind. Azad has even denounced some of his contemporaries, describing their novels as opponnayash (degenerated novel). Be it in writing against military bureaucracy or dictatorship in the guise of democracy, Dr Azad, with his iconoclastic views, has always stood out.

Though, teachers at the university have been divided along the line of their political allegiance, Dr Azad has kept a safe distance from both the BNP backed White and AL backed Blue factions. In fact, Latifa Kohinur, Dr Azad's wife, cannot remember him going to the polling booths, even, to vote for the general elections. Though everyone does not subscribe to his opinion, Dr Azad's writings have always generated much enthusiasm among the readers for his fierce criticism of the establishment. But through his candid statements on the political use of religion, the writer has certainly earned the wrath of a certain quarter.
Actually, according to Latifa, the writer used to receive phone calls "five or six years ago" that threatened to kill the linguist for writing "un-islamic" things. "I used to get phone calls five or six years ago…They would say, 'You will get Humayun Azad's corpse on the street… You will be a widow soon', and so on," Latifa says. But the threats suddenly stopped coming in one day.

Even after the publication of Pak Saar Jamin Saad Baad, the family members did not receive any such call, Latifa says. But she became anxious for her husband's safety when "a religious fundamentalist outfit called for Dr Azad's trial and the banning of Pak Saar Jamin Saad Baad ". That anxiety turned into fear after Sayeedi's infamous demand in the parliament.

Latifa couldn't hide her anger on the night of February 27 at the CMH. "Fundamentalists (zealots) have done this… Who else could do this? You know an MP even verbaly abused him in the parliament," she said. "Why didn't you take security measures to protect him after such an outrage in parliament?" Latifa asked Lutfuzzaman Babar, state minister for home, when he went to visit Dr Azad in hospital.

Though the police had claimed to have "cordoned off" the area immediately after the attack, the agitating students of Dhaka university, who had been demanding the home minister's resignation, recovered another blood soaked Chapati (chopping knife) from the spot on the following day.
The police, however, arrested Abbas, alias Boma Abbas, joint secretary of Sir AF Rahman Hall unit of Bangladesh Chatra League. "We have information about his presence near the spot before and after the incident. And there was a bomb explosion during the attack, he might be involved in the crime," Officer in Charge of Ramna Police Station Mahabubur Rahman said; Abbas has a history of bomb-making, the police officer alleged. The case was later handed over to the CID; and though the state minister for home has promised to give the case highest priority, the police are yet to unearth any motive behind the attack.

The attack on Dr Azad and the police's failure to nab the culprits have angered general people. The Dhaka University Teachers' Association has called an indefinite strike demanding the home minister's resignation. The anger turned into fury when armed hoodlums belonging to the Jatioyatabadi Chatra Dal (JCD), attacked peaceful procession of the general students on March 4. It is not clear, though, as to how a peaceful demonstration demanding the arrest of Dr Azad's killers can anger the ruling party's student wing.
To save its skin the government resorted to suspicious secrecy. When, immediately after the attack, the country held its breath to hear the latest condition of Dr Azad, the government even barred journalists from entering the CMH premises. It was an irregular, and in cases irresponsible, press-note of the Inter Service Public Relations that became the sole source of information for the anxious general people. The government's suspicious behaviour gave birth to a wide spread rumour of his death. Some government officials, when asked, came out with reports on his condition that were self-contradictory. Lately Azad's condition has, however, improved; and rumours died down when members of his family and Dr Azad's friends were allowed to visit him.

The attack on Dr Azad, in every sense, is shocking. Though religious fanatics have declared many writers and intellectuals as apostates, in fact, this is the first time in our history, that a writer was physically assaulted for his work. The attack, in front of Bangla Academy, one of the glorious products of our language movement, sends a chilling message to those who still believe in freethinking.

Everyone wanted to reap dividend from the attack on Dr Azad. While Dr Azad was fighting for life at the CMH, leaders of both the major political parities and intellectuals of their creeds kept themselves busy interpreting their own version of the event.

"I just want to see the man back home," says Latifa Kohinur. After 33 years of independence we cannot even be guaranteed security for our lives; forget free speech.