Bangla-language publisher Shamsuzzoha Manik was in jail for almost eight months in 2016. DLF and its directors raised his case when almost no one else did. Where was a campaign as furious as the Free Shahidul one for someone like Manik? Was he ignored because he is not connected to the self-absorbed Anglophone civil society of Bangladesh, or to international media? Who has been elitist then: DLF or its critics?
Bangladeshis enjoy the winter wedding season as much for the feasts and dress-up as for the post-reception fault-finding. The Dhaka Literary Festival, now in its eighth year, came in for a similar treatment this year, perhaps as an acknowledgment of its status as a social phenomenon.
The literary festival, popularly known as DLF, is no stranger to criticism. Like any major public event, DLF needs honest dialogue and constructive criticism, so it can better benefit its constituents: The audience, amongst whom are future writers, artists, and thinkers.
The criticisms this year, however, took on a particularly nasty turn. There were two main allegations: Elitism of the event, and silence on matters of free speech.
Let us address the bugbear about elitism -- one I have levelled at Hay Dhaka in the past -- first. The resources and effort (pro bono) to put on such a show comes at considerable cost to any organizer -- including in the form of personal time -- and only members of the elite might be able to afford the sacrifice, especially when the existing cultural infrastructure and institutions are deficient.
To simply criticize any organizer for his/her perceived background, without taking into account how open the event is to people from all walks of life, is, thus, a mere ad hominem.
Unlike many such events around the world, including its old associate Hay-on-Wye, DLF is entirely free, and open to the entire public. It was attended by close to 30,000 people over three days this year, and similar numbers in recent years.
Such a multitude belies any charge of elites-only attendance. DLF also showcases not only mainstream Bangla literature, but our indigenous languages and folk arts with a dedication that is unmatched by most Dhaka-centric events.
If it must pack the house with the unlettered masses to prove its non-elite character, that is a test that no literary festival can pass.
Let us turn then to the issue of where DLF stands on free speech. Did they do enough for the then imprisoned photographer Shahidul Alam? What can cultural events, as distinct from rights organizations or activists, do about rights issues?
First, the bare facts. Some campaigners of the Free Shahidul movement expected DLF to issue a statement about Shahidul Alam. On asking the DLF directors what I learned was this: They were never contacted by anyone from the Free Shahidul camp regarding this, in spite of the participation of some of them on panels this year.
The directors only heard about the expectations, assumptions, and later condemnations from third parties. What I have also found is that some of these campaigners wrote to many foreign guests this year, asking them not to attend the festival.
In past editions, non-Bangladeshi panellists have raised their voices when Bangladeshis have held their tongues. If international guests abjured, Bangladesh would be deprived of the matter being raised publicly by them. People who urged foreigners to boycott any Bangladeshi event were, thus, deeply misguided.
What actually happened during the three days of DLF this year are as follows: All three directors spoke on free speech issues in their opening remarks, which they have done in the past too.
They called outright for a revision of the draconian new digital security law, in the presence of the minister of culture and other representatives of the government. Nandita Das and Philip Hensher both called for Shahidul’s release by name, respectively, during the opening and closing of the event.
Several writers from home and abroad -- Mohammed Hanif among them -- also raised Shahidul’s specific case during their various panels. In short, the event prominently featured several calls for Shahidul’s release, and, additionally, amplified other matters of free speech during the three days.
The festival has a history of addressing free speech issues openly and volubly -- through the time of free-thinker killings (in 2015 and 2016) and other instances of incarcerations, or to protest an earlier version of the digital security law.
It has always done so through directors’ official remarks at the opening or closing, and through a plethora of panels. While champions of Shahidul may not be satisfied by anything less than a statement, the directors too have reason to say they did not wish to make an exception for one person, no matter how accomplished or networked.
If anyone wants to fairly assess DLF’s credentials on free speech, they need to look at their record over the eight years. The DLF directors have spoken up orally and in print, at home and abroad -- and provided a space for others to do so -- for free speech when many did not.
A case in point would be the Bangla-language publisher Shamsuzzoha Manik, who was in jail for almost eight months in 2016, and remains charged under oppressive laws. DLF and its directors raised his case when almost no one else did (except PEN and a few Bangla-language activists).
Where was a campaign as furious as the Free Shahidul one for someone like Manik? Was he ignored because he is not connected to the self-absorbed Anglophone civil society of Bangladesh, or to international media? Who has been elitist then: DLF or its critics?
Bangladesh has been veering towards authoritarianism during the lifetime of DLF. Not only are the spaces of free speech shrinking and disappearing, dissent is too readily labelled anti-state.
In this context, DLF must guard against being co-opted for the purposes of culture-washing -- granted. However, casually throwing charges of hypocrisy or complicity without taking into cognizance all the relevant facts regarding an event and its organizers is disingenuous -- if not worse.
Over the years, DLF has spoken up for the likes of Avijit Roy and Shamsuzzoha Manik, alongside the Shahidul Alams of Bangladesh. I understand and respect the passion of those who campaigned to free Shahidul Alam, and salute their courage.
However, Dhaka is not a place where progressives should carelessly disparage one another. At a time when progressivism is under threat from both state and non-state actors, let us not turn our natural friends into enemies. We must hold one another accountable, but we have shared responsibilities.
To demand others act according to one’s specific demands, and to condemn them as derelict when they fail to comply, betrays the spirit of collective action against the real enemies.
We are glad that Shahidul Alam is now out on bail, but we hope progressives will try harder to expand -- not whittle -- their alliances.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a fiction writer and poet. His debut short story collection, Yours, Etcetera, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2015.