- Subhash Gatade
‘Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science’.
- Avijit Roy
“Dr Dabholkar who was fighting against superstition was assasinated because he was a rationalist. All such people who have embarked upon a path of reason and rationalism, propagated these ideas, had to make tremendous sacrifices. Dr Dabholkar was not the first and would not be the last person who sacrificed himself on the altar of rationalism. This unending struggle between rationalism and irrationalism is going on since ages and it is for you to decide whether it needs change or not.”
- Comrade Pansare
Words, ideas scare fundoos rather fundamentalists of every kind, colour and stripe.
The mere possibility that a free mind can question, challenge and ultimately upturn the ‘ultimate truth’ the faithful have received through their ‘holy books’ rather unnerves them and they react in the only way they are familiar with. Resort to machetes to take on ideas or use meat cleavers to deal with unchained minds, quoting sanction from the same ‘books of wisdom’.
Close on the heels of one such silencing of voices of reason, sanity, justice, progress on the streets of Kolhapur (India) – assassination of 82 year old Communist leader Com Govind Pansare by Hindutva zealots – has come the news about similar killing of 42 year old Avijit Roy, by machete wielding Islamist militants on the streets of Dhaka (Bangladesh), when the prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger, a author, an advocate of free expression, scientific ideas and secularism, was coming out of the Ekushe book fair along with his wife Rafida Ahmed Bonna. She was also badly wounded in her attempt to shield Avijit from attackers and is now admitted to ICU.
Apparently there was nothing common between Comrade Pansare and Avijit, while Com Pansare had been active with the Communist movement since his young days in various capacities and wrote in Marathi lambasting the Communal and casteist forces and was equally at ease in leading people’s movement against toll tax and participating vigorously in anti-superstition campaigns, whereas Avijit happened to be a software engineer by profession, who had started the bilingual website ‘Mukto-mona’ (Free Mind) in 2000 which was very popular among free-thinkers, rationalists, skeptics and humanists and was also in the forefront of coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers back home.
It is a different matter that both shared equal antipathy towards religious extremism of every kind and had taken upon themselves the task of combatting it in every possible way at tremendous risk to their own selves. Threats were part of their lives, not some time ago one such zealot had even threatened Com Pansare with a warning that ‘Tumcha Dabholkar karu’ (You will face consequences like Dabholkar) in a unsigned letter, reminding him of the assassination of a great fighter for rationalism in July 2013 and Avijit also continued to face similar threats regularly through emails and on facebook. It is now history none of them decided to tone down their attacks against obscurantism, closing of minds and what Avijit use to say ‘virus of faith’.
It is worth emphasising that both of them also shared passion for words.
Com Pansare wielded pen like a sword and wrote articles, booklets, books in Marathi to sensitise people around and awaken them from deep slumber. Many of his books have gone into multiple editions but his most popular monograph is ‘Shivaji Kon Hota?’ (Who was Shivaji) – which has sold more than one lakh copies and has been translated in few other languages as well. In this booklet, Com Pansare had tried to counter the appropriation of medieval era King Shivaji’s by Hindutva Supremacist forces who projected his image of a ‘Hindu King’ opposed to Muslims. Pansare with painstaking research threw light on his policies and administration and provided documentary proof that he had many Muslims in top positions of his army and one of his close comrade in his escape from Aurangjeb’s custody was Madari Mehtar and thus tried to present a very balanced picture of his contributions. In an ambience dominated by the likes of RSS and Shiv Sena, his little monograph captured imagination of the ordinary people and acted as a ‘weapon’ in the hands of individuals, formations who were fighting for an inclusive polity. Challenging communal elements from both the communities he emphasised that it is high time that people recognise their composite heritage and build solidarities cutting across caste, communities.
At one place in the book he writes :
Today Muslims are being attacked by raising Shivaji’s name and similarly Dalits are also under attack by those who hail Shivaji’s name … All those people who oppose reservation also hail Shivaji’s name but forget that Shivaji even adopted a policy of giving jobs to Dalits . One discovers today that riots are taking place between Hindus and Muslims hailing Shivaji’s name. These fanatics of religions should be told that Shivaji was never a fanatic. He was a believer but he did not hate Muslims, in fact, had many Muslims in top positions in his army.
Avijit was a also a prolific writer and had penned down a dozen books, mostly about science, philosophy and materialism. His last books Obisshahser Dorshon (The Philosophy of Disbelief) and Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), were well received around the world. In the Virus of Faith his main argument is that “faith-based terrorism will wreak havoc on society in epidemic proportions”. In his last article in Free Enquiry he said:
“To me, religious extremism is like a highly contagious virus. My own recent experiences in this regard verify the horrific reality that such religious extremism is a virus of faith.”.
While they were rather alone when their assasins came but thousands of people from all walks of life had gathered to pay their last respects to them to give them a final farewell. While a sea of humanity had gathered in Kolhapur to see Com Pansare’s last remains and giving him final ‘Red Salute’ Avijit’s final journey was equally moving. The coffin of Avijit was placed on a platform erected at the base of Dhaka University’s Aparajeyo Bangla, the symbolic architecture built in memory of the Bangladesh Freedom Fighters of 1971. Keeping in with his wish, Avijit’s body was handed over to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for medical research.
The symbolism at the time of bidding a final farewell to Avijit was not lost on people.
It just reminded that it is rather a continuation of the struggle started during the 1971 liberation war between two ideas of Bangladesh’s ( then East Pakistan) future – a struggle between religion as basis of nationhood as opposed to secularism and democracy as the road ahead for its future. It is now history how the forces mainly belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, who yearned to hinge then East Pakistan’s destiny to Pakistan had collaborated with the Pakistani army and had engaged in untold crimes against humanity. While they lost the battle then but they never say quits and the battle continues in very many ways still.
Merely two years back Bangladesh witnessed what is popularly known as ‘Shahbagh Movement’ – demanding severe punishment to the war criminals – a mass upsurge which from its inception had borne the seal of secularism and tolerance, and was opposed to fundamentalist politics. The Islamists who had been put on the defensive then had tried to turn the tables on the seculars by eliminating another blogger Ahmad Rajib Haider, claiming that he was an atheist. In fact, Rajib Haider who was part of the bloggers group which had spearheaded this movement. A month before the attack on Haider, blogger Asif Mohiuddin was also attacked outside his house by four youths from the Ansarullah Bengali Team. Asif survived the attack. Another blogger & online activist named Sunnyur Rahman, popularly known as ‘Nastik Nobi’ (Atheist Prophet) in the blog community, was also stabbed on 7 March 2013.
Anyone who has been closely following developments in Bangladesh knows that these are no stray examples. According to newspaper reports Islamists were found to be responsible for the killing of at least 15 people, including progressive teachers and bloggers, committed in the last decade. But justice seems much too far.
Incidentally attack on Avijit had close resemblance to attack on the legendary Bangla writer Humayun Azad who was similarly attacked just outside the Ekushe book fair exactly 11 years ago by Islamist militants. (27 th Feb 2004) He was fatally wounded in the attack but could be. He later died in Germany under mysterious circumstances (August 2004) where he had gone to do research on Heinrich Heine, a great German poet of 19 th century.
As an aside it need be mentioned that Azad, who had penned down seventy books, had experimented in several genres of writing, He was simultaneously a poet, a novelist, a critic, a linguist, a political analyst, an essayist, and also an author of quite a few books for children. His book Naari (woman) is considered the ‘first comprehensive feminist book in Bengali’ which was critical of the patriarchal and male-chauvinistic attitude of religion towards women, created such a furore that it was banned, which had to be ultimately lifted following a legal battle that Azad won in the Courts.
Azad had been fearing for his life ever since excerpts of his novel, Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad (Pakistan’s national anthem; Blessed be the Sacred Land) was first published in The Daily Ittefaq‘s Eid supplement in 2003. In this particular novel he had tried to expose the politics and ideology of Islamic fundamentalists of Bangladesh. Regular contributor to Mukto mona Humayun Azad had even written to the website regarding the threats he had been receiving from Islamists.
The Ittefaq published a novel by me named Pak Sar Jamin Saad Baad in its Eid issue in December 3. It deals with the condition of Bangladesh for the last two years. Now the (religious) fundamentalists are bringing out regular processions against me, demanding exemplary punishment.
Humayun Azad, Salman Tasser, Ahmad Rajib Haider, Dr Dabholkar, Com Pansare and now Avijit Roy.
Thanks to religious fervour and growth of extremism of every kind in this part of South Asia, where forces of darkness seem to be on the ascendance, it may just create a feeling that we have reached a dead end as we are losing people one by one who were ‘a beacon of hope and light in these dreadful times’. Should we then say that whatever ‘little hope we saw in the horizon will it wither away?’
We have no other option than to remain eternal optimist with a sincere hope that their ‘mettle will be passed onto new generation.’
Perhaps it would be opportune here to end this brief note with ‘words of bereavement from Mukto-mona’s advisory board’ (possibly drafted by Avijit only) on the demise of Prof Azad himself. It had silently resolved:
Our passionate fight against bigotry, religious fanaticism and communalism will continue and we shall overcome the obstacle.’