Art, true art, is beholden to no one. It is this power, or at least this potential, that makes it a target of censorship. Regimes that are determined to shape the narrative have always been determined to stifle creative voices. Hitler’s book burnings and Mao’s Cultural Revolution are indelible parts of their legacies. Less publicised, but just as efficient, were Truman and Eisenhower’s blacklists against left-leaning writers and artists in Hollywood. Regardless of the methods that were used, the goal has always been the same – to stifle the scope for criticism carried by artistic expression and freedom.
Bengal has had its fair share of literary censorship. Even from the early days of the British East India Company, “subversive” literature, which is to say, any cultural output that questioned the legitimacy of a capitalist mercantile company from holding political influence, was demonised. The conceptualisation of folk culture as “low” culture can be traced back to these years. Under the Crown, these efforts were formalised through means that were either aimed at suppressing critical voices through bans and punishments, or at co-opting them through bribery and favours.
Naturally, these efforts were met with fierce resistance which manifested itself not through violent means but by tapping into the region’s rich literary traditions. The anti-establishmentarian literary scene was what made Bengal so problematic for Britain. Unlike its politics, which could be met with ritualised and legitimised opposition, the raw strength of its culture could not be directly confronted.
The 1905 Partition of Bengal led to a mass outpouring of creativity against the Banga Bhanga, with protest music being deployed decades before Flower Power and Woodstock became a thing. Tagore’s renunciation of his knighthood following the 1919 Amritsar Massacre is still cited as a supreme example of anti-colonial expression, coupled with such politically charged works as Ghare Baire. Tribal language became a crucial fighting ground during the Tanka rebellions, underlining the unifying capability of the region’s cultural diversity in the face of dogmatic Divide and Conquer policies, a piece of our history we would do well to remember today.
Post-Empire and pre-independence, Bangladeshi history is notable for its Language Movement, which spearheaded the calls for cultural and, eventually, political autonomy. Across the border, the most widespread tool against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule became the pen, not the picket line or the megaphone, epitomised by Nayantara Sahgal. Journalists like Rashid Talukder and Anthony Mascarenhas helped ensure that the brutality – and the complex communalism – of 1971 would never be forgotten around the same time that Nazrul Islam, our great Rebel Poet, neared the end of his life.
It is unsurprising then, that our modern struggles against authoritarianism should spill over to – or, perhaps more accurately, be fought on – the literary front. A lot has already been said about the abhorrent violence against bloggers that has grown worse over the last three years, but it is still important to champion their right to speak. The reason they have been targeted is less entrenched in what they have been saying than it is in who they have been reaching. Words have power and, unfortunately, those already in a position of power are aware of that.
Fiction also continues to be a way to call out oppression. By making use of the protection provided by artistic license, Bangladeshi writers have been able to tackle various socio-political issues with gusto. The range is noteworthy; problems that are scrutinised range from political corruption and malpractice (K Anis Ahmed’s The World in My Hands and Ikhtisad Ahmed Yours, Etcetera) to institutionalised homophobia and misogyny (Project Dhee, the first comic strip in the country to feature an openly lesbian character). However, as the attacks against bloggers and publishers have so openly shown, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be outspoken.
In the midst of this critical period of uncertainty and upheaval, the Dhaka Lit Fest could very well be another key battleground. Its unique position as a bilingual event that is not dictated by a wider international agenda while still maintaining a global reach means it is the ideal platform for our proud anti-establishment tradition to be heard.
The organisers for this year’s inaugural event are not oblivious to this. International guests include the aforementioned Sahgal, Jon Snow, Ramchandra Guha, Ruchira Gupta and Aruna Chakravarti – to name but a few – each of whom is renowned for their outspoken critiques of the current world order. Equally important, if not more so, is the organisation of specific panels that are clearly aimed at voicing the concerns of the silent majority. ‘Rights and Reflections’, ‘No One Too Small for History’ and the main plenary sessions are just some of the discussions that are bound to encourage critical thinking through the written medium, while ‘Oral Traditions in Bengal’ and the launch of Wasafiri’s Bangladesh issue should serve to remind attendees that we do not need to wait for more “developed” countries to show us the way.
The greatest myth ever sold is that we somehow have to gain power and influence if we are to change our fate – a task that is so daunting that it is preferable to live in comfortable oppression than challenge it. But, if we look at our history and our culture, the truth is that we already have power. We simply need to harness it. What better way to do it than by using the very means that have always been our sites for struggle and success?
Ibtisam Ahmed is a Doctoral Researcher with the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research is on utopianism in the former British Raj, with a focus on cultural politics, literature, language, gender and sexuality.