The Bangladesh government’s 1995 case against poet and activist Farhad Mazhar resulted from the publication of his article, “The Ansar Rebellion”, in the Bengali magazine Chinta. The article examined the Bangladesh Ansar paramilitary force´s 1994 rebellion demanding better working conditions, and the government’s ruthless suppression of the uprising using another paramilitary force, the Bangladesh Rifles.
The case ended within a very short period, and a chastened government set Mazhar free under a court ruling. As reported in the international media, the case was a victory for progressive, anti-censorship forces in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Placed within its full context, however, the case becomes a more complex issue, illustrating the rise of a New Left element in Bangladesh that leaves traditional “progressives” confused at best, suspicious at worst.
Mazhar vs the state
Farhad Mazhar has a history of involvement with causes that have led to direct confrontations with the state. In the early 70s, he was associated with Shiraj Shikdar´s Sharbahara Party (see Himal September/October 1997), paralleling the “armed struggle” strategy of West Bengal´s Maoist Naxalite movement. And after he returned from a decade-long self-exile in America, he was involved with the Oikya Prokriya party, a political grouping that attempted to unify left groups of Maoist inclination.
For this veteran class warrior, the 1994 Ansar Rebellion was vintage “class warfare”, and he launched into the cause with relish. In the Chinta article, he wrote, “The Ansars are marginalised, economically deprived, and they have no job security… There is no one in this cruel society to listen to the Ansars. In this intolerable situation, revolt was inevitable. We want to insist at once that this rebellion was just.”
A primary focus of Mazhar’s piece was the fact that, in suppressing the revolt, the government was forced to pit working class soldiers against each other:
The state gathers manpower from the oppressed subaltern classes. And it is with armed forces built with this manpower that the ruling classes perpetuate their control over poor peasants and working people. The BDR forces that shot and killed the Ansars are also ´peasants in uniform´. And yet the BDR sepoy did not know that he had killed his brother… When poor people from the same class awake, they will surely discover their own pride in the Ansar revolt.
Predictably enough, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government promptly arrested Farhad Mazhar under the Special Powers Act and banned the offending issue of Chinta. What was less predictable was the fact that, within a short time of his incarceration, the court would throw out the arrest warrant and order Mazhar’s unconditional release.
One factor that may have strengthened the court’s resolve was the international attention focused on the case. With astonishing speed, an international brigade of writers, artists and intellectuals mobilised to bombard the Bangladesh government and overseas embassies with petitions protesting the arrest. It was surprising how quickly the Mazhar case gained international exposure. Barely a month after the arrest, Mazhar’s supporters had reached The New York Times letters page (featuring high-powered signatories such as French philosopher Jacques Derrida). The In-ternet played a vital role in this, spreading translations of Mazhar´s article to global email accounts within days of his arrest.
During the campaign to free Mazhar, major Bangladeshi intellectuals defended his right to publish. His release was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd at an impromptu press conference. In the two years since then, Mazhar´s articles have been appearing regularly in the local Bangla papers, when earlier his writings were mostly restricted to Chinta. But despite all this, Mazhar remains defiantly outside mainstream Bengali intellectual circles. In fact, in the Chinta article, he had already crossed the intellectual “party line” by attacking the hypocrisy of the intelligentsia´s selective human rights concerns:
If a son of the middle or upper classes dies, even if a rich man´s terrorist son is killed in a brawl, the entire city is in mourning… And yet there is no conscientisation when Ansars, peasants and workers are shot like animals. We notice the same people who love to chant formulas of ´democracy´ and ´human rights´ getting busy to condemn the struggle of the oppressed masses.
Mazhar remains an independent activist with no affiliation with the dominant political parties. His progressive politics is far more radical than those of established ´progressive´ thinkers and activists, however. Mazhar has openly attacked the BNP’s rightist policies, but has not spared the slightly-left-of-centre Awami League (AL) either. In fact, his disappointment with the AL is greater, given its initial commitment towards a secular state. His criticism of the AL´s electoral alliance with the 1971 war-collaborators Jamaat-e-Islami was extremely strong in particular.
Most recently, he clashed with those who suggested that “fundamentalist” newspapers like Inquilab be banned. Mazhar vehemently defended the right to publish regardless of one’s persuasion. Meanwhile, he said, intellectuals would do better to spend their time critiquing the “fundamentalist”-favouring amendments that have been added to the Constitution.
The cultural activist
Farhad Mazhar is much more than a political activist. Through his organisation, UBINIG (the acronym stands for Research on Alternatives to Development in Bengali), he has been involved in environmental activism, in opposing the use of Bangladeshis as guinea pigs for the abortion pill RU-486, criticising American media focus on child labour as an excuse for US protectionism, and establishing Narigrantha Prabartana – Dhaka’s feminist bookstore and organising centre for women-empowerment projects.
Along with grassroots organising, Mazhar has also pioneered a new strand of cultural activism. One aspect of this has been his Nabapran project – focusing on the music of the wandering Bauls. In Mazhar’s view, Baul is one of the earliest progressive, humanist elements of Bengali culture – a vital counterpoint to the increasing eclipse of secularism in the nation’s cultural and political life. Nabapran actively seeks to rehabilitate the wandering Baul musicians, by giving support in areas like Jessore´s Lalan Mazar, associated with a great Baul singer of the last century, and also by bringing the musicians to perform in urban centres like Dhaka.
Another innovative cultural initiative has been Mazhar´s project to rescue Islamic culture and iconography from the clutches of religious extremists. He does this by practising his art (that is, poetry) from within an Islamic culture framework. As described in the foreword of Ebadothnama, his collection of “poems in worship of God”:
Progressives, in trying to reject the [reactionary face of religion], have also thrown away its core… They ignore the ultra-modern conflict or tension between Allah and his best friend Prophet Mohammed, or the feminist revelation of Sri Chaitanya’s worship in the form of Radha. In the battle against Imperialism, we need to rediscover that which is our own asset, the core of our being.
In the introductory poem, he echoes and answers his own critics:
Do you believe in Allah?
You’re the scoundrel,
Why are you suddenly
writing these poems to God?
No fraud I.
I don’t pray in the mosque,
just to get people in my boat
and I won’t ever in the future either.
What does Mazhar mean by all this? From various references to Ebadothnama in interviews, it can be gathered that the poems are part of an overall strategy of reclaiming indigenous culture as a tool for fighting Imperialism. By creating art within the structure of religious musings, Mazhar is de-mystifying religion and bringing it into the realm of open debate. There remain no sacred cows (or books). He boldly tells God that he is glad that the Koran did not come in Bengali – otherwise God would become too vain in the face of the beauty of the language. Blasphemy? Not if you read the entire poem. And certainly, there was no outcry after the book came out. Within the structure of Ebadothnama´s overall reverence, it seemed that even the occasional cheeky irreverence (Don´t mess with me God!/I’ve always got some tricky conundrums ready for you,/in my bag of tricks.) was allowed and forgiven by the readers.
Intellectual circles continue to regard Farhad Mazhar with trepidation. Some see Ebadothnama as Pakistan-era dabbling in religious wordplay. Others dub him the “Communist Mullah”. Few rush to embrace him or his strategy; NGOs generally do not reject USAID money as UBINIG does, nor is there a rise in progressive art that experiments with elements of Islamic culture. Meanwhile, Mazhar continues to be an unrepentant practitioner of his Left politics – calling for working class unity in newspaper columns, extolling the virtues of indigenous Bengali art at seminars, fiercely confronting multinationals, and verbally pummeling all established political parties. And just when his opponents think they have him pegged as an “Islamist in disguise”, he writes: “Every Bengali is simultaneously Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian.”
Although his detractors retain a strong voice, Farhad Mazhar´s projects appear to be gaining followers. His activism may provide a blueprint for creating a New Left in Bangladesh: seeking inspiration from many sources – alternative economic theory, anti-Imperialism, and indigenous culture. Is this, then, a strategy of Left politics that can be followed and duplicated with success elsewhere in the Subcontinent?
N. Mohaiemen, who works for HBO’s Interactive Media group in New York, is writing a book on the Bangladesh liberation war.
Corpse of the Custodian
Lord, the mosques of Dhaka city
Famed all over the world
On the pillars and ceilings are many designs.
In the age of the British, the sahebs came
and created the Asiatic Society
Right or wrong, they did much research on all this.
Today I see the new Bengali
With white eyes, just like the saheb
Rooting around the mosque
Doing all sorts of research
I pray that they get their doctorates
And are rewarded even more than the sahebs.
Myself? I am an uncultured illiterate, O Lord
I don’t understand all this art and architecture
But when I go to the Buriganga river, my heart
All I remember are the rebel soldiers
Hanging from the noose, waiting to be buried
I cut the rope and bring them to the ground.
At the funeral, there was no one.
The beautiful pillars and mosque ceilings
All built on the corpse of the rebel soldiers
Enough of this farce, I have to leave.
Bangla is not yours
You have made my mouth and tongue with this Bangla
My throat plays with soft sensuous vowels
With every breath I feel the vibration of long words
My eyes shut as soothing consonants spread over this body
I adore it so much, O Lord, adore my Bangla language!
I devour it greedily as if it were the fruit of heaven
Are you envious? You did not announce yourself in this language! And yet, I try to always promote the queen of languages
So she may stand ahead of all other languages, Arabic even. People today wonder – Bangla, are you also divine?
Are you that which came from nowhere?
Are you the carrier of Allah´s message?
I am happy that Bangla is not yours
For if it were
You would be vain, for no good reason
From the reflected glory of my Bangla language.
O Lord, my girlfriend does not wear a burkha
She tells me, those who are faithful
They never look at a woman´s body with evil eyes
They gaze only with Allah’s pure eyes
Only the lechers and unfaithful shout for burkha.
Let Allah put a black blindfold on their impure sight.
What is your judgment?
Look, the tailor eagerly awaits your answer
Crafty business plans: he waits with scissors and cloth
Waiting to turn on the sewing machine at your order.
Think it over, not bad – this idea of mine
Men wearing sharp clothes, all the airs
Even a prayer cap.
But the imbecile walks with a black blindfold
In the streets, not a burkha in sight
But people easily see
Who is the lecher and who is the faithful.