Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 13, March 21, 2015
We are all Mukto-mona
Sunday 22 March 2015, by
“Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.”
— Avijit Roy
“Dr Dabholkar, who was fighting against super-stition, was assassinated because he was a rationalist. All such people, who have embarked upon a path of reason and rationalism, propa-gated these ideas, had to make tremendous sacrifices. Dr Dabholkar was not the first and would not be the last person who sacrificed himself on the altar of rationalism. This unending struggle between rationalism and irrationalism is going on since ages and it is for you to decide whether it needs change or not.”
—Comrade Govind Pansare
Words, ideas scare fundoos (rather, funda-mentalists) of every kind, colour and stripe.
The mere possibility that a free mind can question, challenge and ultimately upturn the ‘ultimate truth’ the faithful have received through their ‘holy books’ rather unnerves them and they react in the only way they are familiar with. Resort to machetes to take on ideas or use meat cleavers to deal with unchained minds, quoting sanction from the same ‘books of wisdom’.
Close on the heels of one such silencing of the voice of reason, sanity, justice, progress on the streets of Kolhapur (India)—the assassination of the 82-year-old Communist leader, Comrade Govind Pansare, by Hindutva zealots—has come the news about a similar killing of the 42-year-old Avijit Roy by machete-wielding Islamist militants on the streets of Dhaka (Bangladesh), when the prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger, an author, advocate of free expression, scientific ideas and secularism, was coming out of the Ekushe Book Fair along with his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna. She was also badly wounded in her attempt to shield Avijit from the attackers and is now admitted to the ICU.
Apparently there was nothing common between Comrade Pansare and Avijit. While Comrade Pansare had been active in the communist movement since his young days in various capacities and wrote in Marathi lambasting the communal and casteist forces and was equally at ease in leading the people’s movement against toll tax and participating vigorously in anti-superstition campaigns, Avijit happened to be a software engineer by profession, who had started the bilingual website ‘Mukto-mona’ (Free Mind) in 2000 that was very popular among free-thinkers, rationalists, skeptics and humanists and was also in the forefront of coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers back home.
It is a different matter that both shared equal antipathy towards religious extremism of every kind and had taken upon themselves the task of combating it in every possible way at tremendous risk to their own selves. Threats were part of their lives. Not long ago one such zealot had even threatened Comrade Pansare with a warning that ‘tumcha Dabholkar karu’ (you will face consequences like Dabholkar) in an unsigned letter, reminding him of the assassination of a great fighter for rationalism in July 2013; and Avijit also continued to face similar threats regularly through e-mails and on facebook. It is now history that none of them decided to tone down their attacks against obscurantism, closing of minds and, what Avijit used to say, the ‘virus of faith’.
It is worth emphasising that both of them also shared a passion for words.
Comrade Pansare wielded the pen like a sword and wrote articles, booklets, books in Marathi to sensitise the people around and awaken them from deep slumber. Many of his books have gone into multiple editions but his most popular monograph is ‘Shivaji Kon Hota?’ (Who was Shivaji?) which has sold more than one lakh copies and has been translated in a few other languages as well. In this booklet, Comrade Pansare had tried to counter the appropriation of the medieval era King Shivaji by the Hindutva supremacist forces who projected his image of a ‘Hindu King’ opposed to Muslims. Pansare, with painstaking research, threw light on his policies and administration and provided documentary proof that he had many Muslims in top positions of his army and one of his close comrades in his escape from Aurangzeb’s custody was Madari Mehtar and thus tried to present a very balanced picture of his contributions. In an ambience dominated by the likes of the RSS and Shiv Sena, his little monograph captured the imagination of the ordinary people and acted as a ‘weapon’ in the hands of individuals, formations who were fighting for an inclusive polity. Challenging communal elements from both the communities, he emphasised that it was high time that people recognised their composite heritage to build solidarities cutting across caste, communities.
At one place in the book he writes:
Today Muslims are being attacked by raising Shivaji’s name and similarly Dalits are also under attack by those who hail Shivaji’s name ... All those people who oppose reservation also hail Shivaji’s name but forget that even Shivaji adopted a policy of giving jobs to Dalits. One discovers today that riots are taking place between Hindus and Muslims hailing Shivaji’s name. These fanatics of religions should be told that Shivaji was never a fanatic. He was a believer but he did not hate Muslims, in fact, had many Muslims in top positions in his army.
Avijit was a also a prolific writer and had penned a dozen books, mostly about science, philosophy and materialism. His last books, Obisshasher Dorshon (The Philosophy of Disbelief) and Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), were well received around the world. In the Virus of Faith his main argument was that “faith-based terrorism will wreak havoc on society in epidemic proportions”. In his last article in Free Enquiry he declared:
To me, religious extremism is like a highly contagious virus. My own recent experiences in this regard verify the horrific reality that such religious extremism is a virus of faith.
While they were rather alone when their assassins came, thousands of people from all walks of life gathered to pay their last respects to them to give them a final farewell. While a sea of humanity had gathered in Kolhapur to see Comrade Pansare’s last remains and give him the final ‘Red Salute’, Avijit’s final journey was equally moving. The coffin of Avijit was placed on a platform erected at the base of Dhaka University’s Aparajeyo Bangla, the symbolic architecture built in memory of the Bangladesh freedom fighters of 1971. Keeping with his wish, Avijit’s body was handed over to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital for medical research.
The symbolism at the time of bidding a final farewell to Avijit was not lost on the people.
It just reminded one that it is rather a continuation of the struggle started during the 1971 liberation war between two ideas of Bangladesh’s (then East Pakistan’s) future—a struggle between religion as the basis of nationhood as opposed to secularism and democracy as the road ahead for its future. It is now history how the forces, mainly belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami, who yearned to hinge the then East Pakistan’s destiny to Pakistan, had collaborated with the Pakistani Army and had engaged in untold crimes against humanity. While they lost the battle then, they never say quits and the battle continues in very many ways still.
Merely two years back Bangladesh witnessed what is popularly known as the the ‘Shahbagh Movement’—demanding severe punishment to the war criminals—a mass upsurge which from its inception had borne the seal of secularism and tolerance, and was opposed to fundamen-talist politics. The Islamists who had been put on the defensive then had tried to turn the tables on the seculars by eliminating another blogger, Ahmad Rajib Haider, claiming that he was an atheist. In fact, Rajib Haider was part of the bloggers group which had spearheaded this movement. A month before the attack on Haider, blogger Asif Mohiuddin was also attacked outside his house by four youths from the Ansarullah Bengali Team. Asif survived the attack. Another blogger and online activist, Sunnyur Rahman, popularly known as ‘Nastik Nobi’ (Atheist Prophet) in the blog community, was also stabbed on March 7, 2013.
Anyone who has been closely following the developments in Bangladesh knows that these are no stray examples. According to newspaper reports, Islamists were found to be responsible for the killing of at least 15 people, including progressive teachers and bloggers, in the last decade. But justice seems much too far. (http://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2015/mar/01/justice-eludes-victims-militant-attacks)
Incidentally, the attack on Avijit had close resemblance with the attack on the legendary Bangla writer, Humayun Azad, who was similarly attacked just outside the Ekushe Book Fair exactly 11 years ago by Islamist militants (February 27, 2004). He was severely wounded in the attack but could survive then. He later died in Germany under mysterious circumstances (August 2004) where he had gone to do research on Heinrich Heine, the great German poet of the 19th century.
As an aside it needs to be mentioned that Azad, who had penned seventy books, had experimented in several genres of writing. He was simultaneously a poet, novelist, critic, linguist, political analyst, an essayist, and also author of quite a few books for children. His book Naari (woman), considered the ‘first comprehensive feminist book in Bengali’, was critical of the patriarchal and male-chauvinistic attitude of religion towards women, created such a furore that it was banned; the ban had to be ultimately lifted following a legal battle that Azad won in the courts.
Azad had been fearing for his life ever since excerpts of his novel, Pak Sar Jamin Saad Baad (Pakistan’s national anthem—Blessed be the Sacred Land) was first published in the Daily Ittefaq‘s Eid supplement in 2003. In this particular novel he had tried to expose the politics and ideology of the Islamic fundamentalists of Bangladesh. A regular contributor to Mukto-mona, Humayun Azad had even written to the website regarding the threats he had been receiving from the Islamists.
The Ittefaq published a novel by me named Pak Sar Jamin Saad Baad in its Eid issue in December 3. It deals with the condition of Bangladesh for the last two years. Now the (religious) fundamen-talists are bringing out regular processions against me, demanding exemplary punishment.
Humayun Azad, Salman Tasseer, Ahmad Rajib Haider, Dr Dabholkar, Comrade Pansare and now Avijit Roy.
Thanks to the religious fervour and growth of extremism of every kind in this part of South Asia, where forces of darkness seem to be on the ascendance, it may just create a feeling that we have reached a dead end as we are one by one losing people who were ‘a beacon of hope and light in these dreadful times’. Should we then say that whatever ‘little hope we saw in the horizon will wither away?’
We have no other option than to remain eternal optimists with a sincere hope that their ‘mettle will be passed onto the new generation’.
Perhaps it would be opportune here to end this brief note with ‘words of bereavement from Mukto-mona’s advisory board’ (possibly drafted by Avijit himself) following the demise of Prof Azad. It had silently resolved:
‘Our passionate fight against bigotry, religious fanaticism and communalism will continue and we shall overcome the obstacles.’
Subhash Gatade is a writer and Left activist who is associated with the New Socialist Initiative.