Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s (DMP) recent decision to examine every book slated to be released at the Amar Ekushey Book Fair for content that might “hurt religious sentiment” has drawn strong criticism from the Bangla Academy.
The Director General of Bangla Academy Shamsuzzaman Khan told the Dhaka Tribune on Tuesday that reviewing books does not fall under the jurisdiction of the police and there are separate bodies for this.
“We oppose any form of censorship and the clamping down on freedom of speech and expression. Also with the volume of books that are released at the book fair, it is impossible for anyone to actually review all of them.”
On Tuesday Morning, DMP commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia, while visiting the premises of the fair, said: “No books can be sold at the fair that ‘hurt the religious sentiments’ and disrupt ‘communal harmony’.
“We have asked writers and publishers not to release books that might offend people’s ‘religious sentiments’ at the fair.
“A committee has been formed, led by the Bangla Academy, that will examine every book and law enforcement agencies will take action under the Information and Communication Technology Act, the Penal Code and Special Powers Act, based on their recommendations.
However, the Bangla Academy DG Shamsuzzaman Khan said he was unaware of any such committee being formed.
Everyone, from writers, publishers and the intelligentsia have condemned this decision by the DMP, saying it contradicts the fundamental principles of our constitution, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression.
Trouble began in February 2015, when writer Avijit Roy, also the founder of Mukto-Mona Blog, was hacked to death near TSC on Dhaka University campus by unidentified men while exiting the Amar Ekushey Book Fair.
This prompted the police to take ‘preemptive measure’, such as prompting the Bangla Academy to examine certain books for sensitive content where certain publishers were banned at the fair in 2016.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Dhaka Serajul Islam Choudhury said the move was unnecessary, unexpected and unfortunate.
“The police cannot dictate what can and cannot be said in a book. It is up to the reader what they take away from a book. They should not attempt to restrain freedom of expression.
“The publisher too has a role to play in what is being published and what is not.
Even though his son, publisher of Jagriti Prokashoni, Faisal Arefin Dipan was hacked to death reportedly by Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) on October 31, 2015, for publishing books that fundamentalists found offensive, Dhaka University Professor Abul Kashem Md Fazlul Haque said such decision by the DMP will not be good for the country.
Bangla Academy in 2016 banned five publishers for two years from participating at the fair. It also reduced the stall size for 15 others selling books that was reportedly critical of religion.
They also banned Shraban Prakashani from the fair when they protested the closure of Ba-Dwip Prakashan stall and the arrest of Ba-Dwip proprietor Shamsuzoha Manik for selling a book titled “Islam Bitarka” (The Debate on Islam) that authorities claimed was ‘hurting religious sentiment’.
The academy later allowed Shraban Prakashan to participate in the fair.
Somoy Prakashan proprietor Farid Ahmed said that everybody has the right to enjoy the freedom of expression which is guaranteed by the constitution.
“We cannot violate the publishing act but we are well within our rights to publish content that does not violate the publishing act,” he said, adding that content that “hurts religious sentiment” has a vague definition.
The Penal Code 295A, a vestige from the colonial times of 1860 defines “hurting religious sentiments” as: “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Bangladesh, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
Section 28 of The Digital Security Act 2018 that was approved in the cabinet on Monday awards a maximum penalty for this is 10 years of imprisonment or Tk20lakh fine or both for those found guilty of “hurting religious sentiments” as well.