February 21st is observed all over the world as International Mother Language Day. Even within Bangladesh, the emphasis is on the language movement of 1952 and the right of people to use their own language in their worldly pursuits.
However, this day means a lot more to a lot of people. As the popular Bangla slogan says, Ekush means to not bow down to anyone.
To all those wishing to stand upright and make themselves heard, there are few alternatives to learning and constant education. This is where books come in, as the vessel for knowledge, facts, and above all, opinions. Unconventional, thought-provoking opinions. If anything, the celebration of the Ekushey Boimela is a homage to how any progressive, tolerant society cannot survive without at least an acceptance of, if not love for, books.
Which is where this year’s Boimela seems to have failed. During the inauguration, the Bangla Academy Director General Shamsuzzaman Khan urged writers and publishers to take care not to offend anyone with their publications. In light of the spate of murders last year, including Avijit Roy’s murder minutes away from the Boimela grounds, it is very clear what quarters his advice was intended for. Social media and the blogosphere was let down by these remarks, but of course nothing concrete happened to counter them.
Last Monday afternoon, police raided the stall of Badwip Prakashan and detained the owner and two of his associates. The steps were taken due to concerns over one book in particular, but several others were also confiscated.
Not that this event is completely unprecedented. Similar events took place last year when some extremists took offence to a book published by Rodela Prakashani, leading to Bangla Academy shutting down the concerned stall. Extremists threaten to do something, which is then promptly executed by the establishment itself. For different reasons, of course, yet the end is not beneficial to the brave publishers.
This year, things are worse if you consider that action was taken by police, in what is supposed to be a celebration of sovereignty and liberty.
So much for the facts. Let us now look at the deeper implications of this scenario.
If dozens of works on dystopic societies has taught us anything, it is not healthy for any communion of any size to have all its members agree on everything of import.
Civil, informed dissent is the path to growth for both individuals and groups. Indeed, few things can enlighten a mind as much as being exposed to contrary opinions and trying to understand the rationale of those who hold them.
After all, the only other option is to assume that one knows everything about every possible field of human enquiry and has nothing left to learn – neither modest nor likely to be correct.
It is therefore unfortunate and ominous that the state itself, maybe in all its good intentions, is helping stifle dissenting voices.
The current trend of labeling a book as being provocative and then summarily cutting off its circulations seems absurd, given how every book is provocative to someone or the other.
The state then, must either ban the whole business of books altogether.
Alternatively, they have to side with one of the parties and take their counsel of what books people should be allowed to read.
Neither option seems appropriate for a nation that tore itself apart from Pakistan due to being forced into a mould. Neither option goes with the spirit of Ekushey, with not bowing down to anyone.
Books are supposed to provoke, to challenge oneself into re-examining one’s most dearly held beliefs.
Once provoked, one is then expected to come up with rebuttals and counter-arguments. Readers are supposed to be treated to delightful intellectual debate between the opposing schools of thought, and the whole field of study is supposed to be greatly enriched.
When books offend you, you explain how and justify your position. You do not ban books, or burn books, or detain publishers.
And you most certainly do not murder authors.
In the last few years, e-commerce sites that deliver books right to your doorstep have become a new trend.
In this city where having to commute is the biggest nightmare for many citizens, we still see people travel to the Boimela from the other extreme of Dhaka. There used to be a time when the Boimela was the only time one could find rare books, but the aforementioned websites are doing their best to solve this issue too.
In fact, there are even a few sites this year offering to home deliver all the latest arrivals for this year!
Yet people go to the Boimela, rifle through books, and take in the smell of ink on freshly printed paper.
This celebration is not for the mere trade in books – it is a celebration of a culture that writes, reads and moves forth with the ideas of the day.
We urge everyone concerned to not mar these festivities by not letting us read books because they hurt feelings. Poverty, hunger, and child labour also hurt feelings.
Anyone care to shut those down? Please?