Kamran Reza Chowdhury: Bangladesh’s high court Wednesday ordered organizers of an annual book fair in Dhaka to remove two books whose content it said was “harmful to the religious sentiment” in the Muslim-majority country, while their author, Diarsi Arag, apparently fled to Kolkata.
The court’s ruling to ban the books, “Grandma’s Dictum” and “Dia Arefin” – both works of non-fiction – and to order them removed them from stalls at the Ekushey Book Fair occurred on the fifth anniversary of the murder of U.S.-Bangladeshi secular blogger and writer Avijit Roy. He was killed in a machete-attack by Muslim zealots while leaving the literary festival.
“The court asked the Bangla Academy Director General Habibullah Siraji to immediately withdraw the books from the publisher’s stall,” Deputy Attorney General Amit Talukder told BenarNews.
Lawyer Azharullah Bhuiyan had sought the court ruling.
“The contents of both the books hurt religious beliefs and an individual’s choice of clothing. The contents could incite communal riots in the country,” Bhuiyan told journalists but declined to give an example of objectionable material in Arag’s books.
Bangla Academy officials, who run the month-long book fair every February, said the court notice was not necessary.
“The books were removed from the fair two or three days ago. We examined them and found some remarks, which can hurt religious sentiment,” Jalal Ahman, a leader of the fair’s organizing committee, told BenarNews.
Ahmed said organizers did not grant a stall to Srishtighar, the publisher of books, so Arag turned to another publisher, Kalanjali, to sell them.
“We have cancelled the Kalanjali stall because it was selling those two books,” Ahman said. “According to the book fair’s policy, no one can sell books from other publishers.”
Kaler Lekhak Likhon, who identified himself as the Kalanjali publisher, said he had been distressed since losing his stall on Friday.
“I have been made a scapegoat. I did not publish those books. Those who published the books are not being blamed, but me,” he told BenarNews.
Likhon said he allowed authors whose publishers did not have stalls to sell from his, and typically sold a few copies of their books.
“I could not comprehend that there was content in the books that might hurt religious sentiment,” he said.
Likhon said police, as well as Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and intelligence agency officers had come to his stall to ask about Arag’s books.
“I phoned the author and found it switched off. I have given his cell number to police. Now, from his Facebook post, I have come to know that he fled to India,” Likhon said.
The gruesome killing of Avijit Roy on Feb. 26, 2015, shocked the nation and was followed by a string of similar murders until 2018 that targeted secular bloggers, publishers and intellectuals.
The killings created a cloud of fear and intimidation around Bangladesh’s rich literary tradition. In 2017, during the Ekushey fair held two years after Roy’s murder, authorities restricted displays of books that “could hurt religious sentiment.”
In the wake of the August 2015 killing of secular blogger Niladri Chottopaddhya (also known as Niloy Neel), Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina criticized writers whose works raised questions about God’s existence.
“No one in this country has the right to speak in a way that hurts religious sentiment. You won’t practice religion – no problem. But you can’t attack someone else’s religion,” Hasina said at the time. “It won’t be tolerated if someone else’s religious sentiment is hurt.”
Five years after Roy’s murder, no one has yet been convicted.
In 2019, a court indicted six suspects – five of whom were alleged members of militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team – on murder charges.
“Four of the accused in Avijit’s murder case are now in custody while two absconded,” chief prosecutor Golam Sarwar Khan Zakir told BenarNews. “Ten witnesses of 34 have testified before the court so far and we hope to complete the trial by the end of this year.”