Home / Opinion / The silence of free speech

As I write this, writers from around the world are about to arrive in Dhaka to take part in the city’s eponymous literary festival. The organisers have put together an impressive list of 70 authors, including Sir V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Kiran Nagarkar and Nayantara Sahgal, and the festival attracts large crowds of readers, writers, and academics who gather at the Bangla Academy. The literary culture is strong in Bangladesh and the much older February book fair—Ekushey Boi Mela—symbolises the city’s lively, thriving culture, eager to buy new books.

But the mood over the past year has been grim. A year ago, the free thinker and blogger Avijit Roy, author of several books promoting rationality and challenging religion, was murdered on the streets—and in the months since, three more bloggers have been hacked to death. Most recently, Roy’s publisher Faisal Arefin Deepan was murdered. Dozens of Bangladeshi bloggers have received threats, including messages telling them to be careful about their movements. Several have sought help of embassies or free speech organisations to leave the country, seeking temporary refuge elsewhere. In one case, a senior police officer told a writer that he should consider moving out of the country or to stop writing.

The prime minister hasn’t been terribly helpful. Sheikh Hasina Wajed said that while freedom of speech is important, writers should respect religious sentiments. Her son Sajib Wajed Joy had said earlier, after another blogger’s death, that while the government was secular, it could not be seen to be siding with atheists.

They miss the point. The issue is not whether the writers are atheists or believers, but whether the government protects their right to write, or the extremism of some of their opponents who take offence.

The five deaths this year have chilled the mood. As of Tuesday afternoon, 18 writers had withdrawn from the festival, and of them, 12 did so because of concerns over safety. Even without spilling any more blood, the extremists have secured an important victory, of silencing conversations. This is not the fault of the writers or of the organisers. But it shows the challenge the Bangladesh government faces.

To be sure, the government is aware of the situation and has extended full support to the festival, including offering airport-style enhanced security and installing closed-circuit cameras. It is quite likely that the festival will be remembered for the conversations, and not for anything else. And the government support to the festival is welcome.

But it isn’t only writers from abroad who need such assurance; there are many writers, bloggers, publishers, and journalists in Bangladesh who face a range of threats. While the violence is the most visible and dramatic manifestation of intolerance, life for newspapers and journalists is not easy. Newspapers face lawsuits and companies are being warned not to advertise in newspapers critical of the government. Prominent editor Mahfuz Anam of the Daily Star was warned after his newspaper published a photograph of a recruitment poster by an extremist organisation. The newspaper wasn’t endorsing the extremists; it was pointing to the sheer brazenness. The government chose to target the messenger, not the perpetrator. Similarly, those critical of the International Crimes Tribunals have faced contempt charges.

Bangladesh deserves better. It deserves a wonderful celebration of literature—let there be debates and discussions and arguments. It also deserves an environment where writers and bloggers feel free to write what they think and feel. Its readers and its wider society deserve a culture where, as Rabindranath Tagore (who is India’s as he is of Bangladesh) put it, the mind is without fear and the head held high.

And this goes beyond Bangladesh, of course. In India, more than 40 writers have returned honours because they no longer trust the government to uphold Indian traditions of tolerance, as the murders of three authors remain unsolved. In Pakistan, Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down because she provided space for difficult conversations to take place. In Indonesia, fearing that reopening old conversations about the massacres of 1965 might awaken past ghosts, the authorities forced the literature festival in Ubud not to have any session about the massacres of 50 years ago.

And then there is Paris. The city where this January terrorists killed several from the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was struck once again, this time in coordinated attacks on a concert hall, a bar, a restaurant—just the kind of places where people come together to talk, meet, mingle, cheer and celebrate life.

It is important to remember the places that the terrorists attack—outside a book fair, the office of a publisher, a cafe, a soccer stadium, an open space for conversations. For that’s what the terrorists hate—openness. And that’s what we must preserve and governments must protect, so that life can go on. There will be attacks, but we must resist. For silence is no longer an option.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-

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