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Speak no evil

  • Published at 12:03 am February 21st, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:54 am February 21st, 2017
Speak no evil

Once upon a time, Bangladeshis decided language mattered.

Our right to speak, write, and think freely in the language of our choice was sacred. It was worth fighting for, and it was worth dying for.

We Bangladeshis can be an impulsive and emotional bunch, and sometimes we make wrong decisions. But on February 21, 1952, we got it right.

We fought for our language and we won.

The price was steep -- bright young men at the prime of their lives, most of them not yet 30, were shot dead by the police. Their sacrifice became not just a constant reminder of the hard-earned right to speak in our mother-tongue Bangla, but also part of the very foundation of what it means to be Bangladeshi.

With good reason, today, Ekushey February is one of the three most important dates for Bangladesh -- the other two being March 26 and December 16.

Some will, no doubt, point out the irony of commemorating Ekushey with a piece written in English. Indeed, there are those who think the existence of an English language newspaper itself is something of a betrayal.

And then there are those who still side with Ershad’s Bangla-for-everything policy, for turning our back on English and other languages, as though narrowing and limiting ourselves was somehow patriotic.

As though, somehow, a forced monolingualism honoured Salam, Rafiq, Barkat, Jabbar.

But all that is just blowing smoke to distract us from the real work to be done to truly uphold a culture of literacy, progress, and open-mindedness.

Bloggers and writers get killed for writing things that are deemed objectionable, and the government rarely makes justice a priority, often blaming the victim

The truth is -- Ekushey was never about hating on English. Ekushey was never about violently repressing the many indigenous languages which have existed within the borders of Bangladesh for ages. In fact, it was not even about hating on Urdu, a language which has given the world some of the most sublime poetry.

It was about standing up to an oppressive regime which told its people how to speak. It was about hitting back at the brutal Pakistani government that tried to use Urdu as a weapon to slowly destroy our speech, our heritage, and our very conception of who we are.

We pledged never to forget that day, and never to take our linguistic freedoms for granted.

But here we stand, 65 years later.

Publishers, authors, and organisers at the Amar Ekushey Book Fair are on edge. They have been warned that books will be scrutinised for offensive content.

No one is surprised by these warnings.

In recent years, arrests and stall closures have marred the spirit of the book fair.

The stall of Rodela Prokashani was shut down by the authorities in 2015 after Hefazat-e-Islam objected to a book they were selling.

Last year, Shahbagh police raided the stall of Badwip Prakashan at the book fair and shut it down abruptly. Police seized copies of several books including one that was deemed offensive. Three people in connection to that book, including writer-editor Shamsuzzoha Manik, were detained by the police.

Surely Bangladesh cried out against this injustice?

Sadly, no.

No less an authority than Bangla Academy Director General Shamsuzzaman Khan defended Manik’s arrest and the stall closure, claiming the book was indeed “obscene.”

It never occurred to the DG that the real obscenity was putting someone in jail just because the words they put on a page offended someone’s sensibilities.

What would the martyrs of Ekushey say about this, if they were alive to see it?

Once upon a time, young men stood in front of police rifles, willing to be shot.

Now, our own government sends in policemen to the Ekushey book fair, armed, uniformed, and ready to bully and intimidate writers. Bloggers and writers get killed for writing things that are deemed objectionable, and the government rarely makes justice a priority, often blaming the victim.

We have twisted and perverted the message of Ekushey, and dishonoured the sacrifice of those who valued, above all, freedom.

A country that fought for language has transformed into a country where writers, bloggers, publishers, journalists, and academics live in fear, and fundamentalists live with their heads held high.

The government acts like everything is just fine.

The message to the new generation is clear: Speak no evil -- it will get you into a world of trouble.

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.