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Dhaka Lit Fest, now in its sixth year, is flagship Anglo-Bengali literature, arts and ideas public event in Bangladesh, held annually in Dhaka, the capital of the country. In last year’s Dhaka Lit Fest, the day I checked into the hotel Pan Pacific Sonargaon situated bang in the middle of the media district in Dhaka near Karwanbajar, I was greeted by a pink note on my bed. It was not a personal note but a note that all participants who had checked into that hotel that received. In a gentle note, it forbade me to step out of the hotel the next day due to the radical Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami sponsored hartaal (shutdown) and to be careful about security. The organizers had good reason to be jittery. Due to the War Crime trials, senior functionaries of the Jamaat had received capital punishments. Bloggers and free-thinkers had been slain in crowded public places with particular brutality. All this negative publicity in a country of the Southern world has a pattern of being amplified in the Northern white world. And that had been the case. There had been 19 cancellations from foreign participants. But life in Dhaka for a Bengali like me on the Hartaal day was quite normal. Dhaka citizens didn’t care much about the Hartaal call and neither did I. May be it was foolish. May be it was not. But in that difference lies the choice of an individual to provide legitimacy and validity to a concocted ambience of siege and terror, or to break out of that into mundaneness. When the reaction of a brown man is same as a white man to such situations, then it is time for the brown man to re-examine his conviction, location and mindscape. I chose to remain brown. Dhaka Lit Fest 2015 was a success. The footfalls made it a success.
Cut to 2016. I checked into the same Pan Pacific Sonargaon for the Dhaka Lit Fest. There was no pink note on my bed but a welcome card. However, what had happened in Bangladesh in the meantime since the 2015 Dhaka Lit Fest would make one expect another, probably bigger, pink note. For in the meantime, the list of those killed by targeting had expanded to include foreigners, religious minorities, queer people, baul-fakirs, non-extremist Muslim divines and more free-thinkers and bloggers. But this time, as the organizers told me later, there were only 5 cancellations. And to top it all, the primary draw of the Dhaka Lit Fest 2016 was none other than V.S. Naipaul, arguably the only living Nobel laureate in literature with the deepest connections to South Asia and as I learnt later, to Dhaka in particular, as Lady Naipaul had spent a few good years of her life in East Bengal. He was wheel chair bound but his spirit was flying. And to see him the people of Dhaka and beyond came in huge numbers. On day one, the least attended day, the footfall was over ten thousand.
And this is precisely what sets apart the Dhaka Lit Fest from most other such literature, arts and ideas festivals in the subcontinent. That is the increasing connect and relevance of this festival in the city to its citizens, as a part of Dhaka’s annual cultural calendar. It is a festival of Dhaka where the location is not incidental but fundamental to the identity of the festival. Some other fests have more events, some have larger crowds drawn in from the surrounds in a site that was chosen for stoking oriental fantasies of the mystic East, some have a bigger list of big names. Dhaka had the right mix of names and events, and an active participation of the citizens; and a crowd that knows they have a right to be there.
All of this was happening in the backdrop of dogged questions of freedom of speech restrictions in Bangladesh. The most high profile case was that of the arrest of Mauhumudur Rahman, the editor of the Bangla language Amar Desh, considered politically aligned with the political Islamist camp. Charges against him included “sedition and unlawful publication of a conversation that led to the resignation of the head judge of a war crimes tribunal”. He was released on bail a few days after the Dhaka Lit Fest, after 3 years in jail. At the same time, senior ministers have taken ambivalent and unhelpful positions on the issue of blogger killings with some bloggers being detained for arrested for short periods and others calling into question the content of blogs more than the issue of serial murder of bloggers. These and various other curb downs have brought into question press freedom in Bangladesh. The Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act-2006, popularly called 57 Dhara in Bangladesh, has received particular criticism as being draconian with regards to freedom of speech and expression. Section 57(1) says, “If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in any other electronic form any material which is false and obscene and if anyone sees, hears or reads it having regard to all relevant circumstances, its effect is such as to influence the reader to become dishonest or corrupt, or causes to deteriorate or creates possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organisation, then this activity will be regarded as an offence”. The sheer vagueness and breadth of this section makes it open to be used as a political tool. Many have asked for its repeal. A festival that celebrates and engages with words and freedom elsewhere has to engage with the same concepts at home. And the Dhaka Lit Fest did that in its own ambit.
On the 3rd day of the fest, the panel Ruddhoshor was specifically on the conditions of free speech in Bangladesh. Panelists were free speech advocates, including a blogger-at-risk, whose name is doing the rounds in several Islamist “hit lists”. The discussion was explosive; at one point, the floor asked if the panel agreed that Article 57 of the ICT Act should be canceled and the panel in turn asked the house, which “passed” that resolution in a resounding voice-vote. One of the festival directors commented from stage that he believed free speech was now more restricted now than at any time since the advent of democracy (except during 1/11) and also called for the rescinding of Article 57. This was part of the “Literature: Everything Is Political” panel. Bauls or syncretic spiritual mendicants of the Baul-Fakir tradition of Bengal have come under systematic attack from Islamic hardline groups, including murder, tonsure, beatings and intimidation. Apart from Baul performances, a panel specifically discussed these issues. It is clear that the issues of freedom of speech in Bangladesh are quite diverse, whether blame does rest with the government of the day as well as various other political actors opposed to the government of the day. How to apportion the blame depends on one’s vision of a good society but it is undeniable that at the end of the day, the buck stops with the government.
The government was one of the minor sponsors of the event, in addition to providing security cover for an event of this profile. This is routine for the Jaipur Lit Fest or the Lahore Lit Fest, where the government is a provider of security and the arrangements happen in close co-ordination with them. Thus, in all 3 major South Asian states, each with dismal reputations about freedom of speech, the long shadow of the government of the day is ever present. To what extent does this influence the proceedings and content of the events is what should be scrutinized closely. The clear denunciation of Article 57 shows that sentiments very critical to government policy were expressed. Could there have been more criticisms of the government? Surely, but it is questionable whether the extent of criticism of the government of the host land is the only lens through which freedom of speech standards of an event of global arts and letters is to be evaluated. In this regard, it is important to mention that in attendance as invitees at Dhaka Lit Fest were two top officials of PEN International (Carles Torner and Romana Cacchiolli) as well as bureau chiefs of BBC and Economist, who were under no obligation, one would believe, to live up to Article 57 norms about sullying Bangladesh’s image and make their own inferences about the festival and its context or to act as agents to whitewash the very real press freedom violations in Bangladesh.
Reporters Without Borders sums up the Bangladesh scenario quite succinctly in its country brief where it states, “In Bangladesh, it is a bad idea to criticize the constitution or Islam, the state religion. Journalists and bloggers who refuse to submit to censorship or to censor themselves on these subjects risk life imprisonment or the death penalty. Islamist militants have also targeted outspoken secularists. The media are nonetheless quite diverse and fairly outspoken on less sensitive issues”. The Dhaka Lit Fest represented a part but not all of that outspokenness and diversity. Bangladesh’s World Press Freedom Index rank of 144 is dismal and not too far away from India’s 133 – both classified as “Red”. For comparison, Mexico is at 149, Venezuela is at 139 and Turkey is at 151. These are bleak times where every forum in a “Red” zone state, like a literature festival can be looked upon as being at the cross-roads of co-option and resistance at the same time,. At the end of the day, the broader political realities on the ground determine which of those tendencies dominate and not the other way round.