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     Volume 4 Issue 35 | February 25, 2005 |

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Mustafa Zaman

One year has passed after the machete attack on noted writer and academic Prof. Humayan Azad. After the initial face-saving arrests followed by months of inaction, there is little hope of justice.

On February 27, 2004, Prof Humayun Azad was returning to his Fuller Road home. Like every other day, once out of the Bangla Academy book fair, where he had spent the whole evening greeting his admirers, he started walking along the footpath that borders the Suhrwardy Udyan. This was his usual route; it became a routine for the writer to return home on foot during the month-long book fair.

On that dreadful night, a group of young men swooped on him. Machetes in hands, the youths attacked with a vengeance, meaning to kill the writer who was a maverick among his fellow faculty members in the Dhaka University, where he used to teach in the Department of Bangla. They even left two of their weapons behind, one that the police picked up as evidence on the night of the attack and the other that was discovered by the mob the next morning. Sheer negligence of the police led to the discovery of the second weapon by the public the next morning. The discovery of a dagger spurred the mob that consisted mainly of university students to beat up a police officer present on the spot.

The wrath that almost cost the writer's life was of another kind. It was stoked by a brand of fundamentalism that goes back to the days of independence of Bangladesh. In his last novel that came out the previous year and was enjoying a speedy sale in the February book fair, Azad delineated a character from that extremist school. He painted an almost realistic picture of a so-called Islamist with prurience making up the core of his personality. Pak Sar Jameen Saad Baad (the first line of the Pakistan national anthem), the novel, is direct in its approach. And it was apparently an instrument for the writer to disrobe religious extremists who had no qualms about their association with the Pakistan-era dictators and about actively joining hands with the Pakistan high commands in massacring the Bangalis during the war of 1971. The same bunch has an intense ill will against the people who fought for Bangladesh. With a pathetically distorted notion of Islam, Azad's protagonist represents the murkiest hue in the spectrum that stands for such convoluted as well as unforgiving brand of faith.

The same ruthlessness has cost Azad his life. Miraculously recuperated after the attack that left him disfigured in the face, he was discovered dead in a hotel room in Munich, Germany, four months later. It was The Writers in Prison Commitee (WiPC) of International PEN, an international writers' forum that had given him a scholarship at a very short notice and had flown him to Germany. Later it was the same organisation that refused to pay for the return of his dead body.

Azad was a voice of dissent against the rise of the conservatives. He was popular as well as controversial as he often espoused iconoclastic views. At times he would even stretch his voice of reason to the extreme, as in the case of the bombing of Afghanistan by the US after the September 11 debacle. His position on the issue was bewilderingly simple, he endorsed the attack.

He was equally vociferous against the faint-hearted. He had the knack for sneering at the knee-jerk responses against the fundamentalists from the so-called liberal bastions. With no political affiliation or clout, he was an easy target. "If it had not been for the attack that left him scarred and alone, he would not have died four months later," believes Sajjad Sharif, a poet and one of the Deputy Editors of Prothom Alo. "In a sense he brought it upon himself, as he also knew that the rise in intolerance had made it almost impossible to touch upon the kind of subject he dealt with in his novel," he adds.

Azad was brave enough to brush off the threats he used to receive. Long before Pak Sar Jameen Saad Baad, he was being plagued by calls that threatened to kill him if he did not put a stop to his writing against the fundamentalists or values that they considered Islamic. It was a one man resistance that he put up through out the years, and in consequence, he lost his life. And the case that had been filed by Monzurul Kabir Matin, his younger brother, on behalf of the family, has seen no headway since the turbulent days of protests and rallies right after the attack.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) inspector, who is in charge of the case, has little to say. "There has been no progress since the arrests of the two suspects..." is his short answer over the phone. Many are of the opinion that the arrests that followed were a face saver. Two men were picked up who belonged to two divergent political outfits. Boma Abbas, who is currently on bail (according to Inspector Malek) was the Joint Secretery of Chhatra League of F Rahman Hall. The other suspect was a 40-year-old man, Golam Mostafa. A member of Tabligh Jamaat, he was picked up on March 2 by the CID.

It was the Home Ministry's monitoring cell, after a meeting on February 29 that treated the attack on Azad as a case of "an attempt to murder and included it on the list of sensational cases". Soon after, the CID of police took over the charge of investigation. It has been almost a year, and the public as well as the family of Dr Azad are still in the dark.

"In the beginning inspector Malek used to visit my husband in the CMH to ask him who he thought carried out the attacks. He also visited our house a few times, but nothing ever happened," says Latifa Kohinoor, the widow of Prof Humayun Azad.

The family kept receiving calls that threatened to end the life of the writer who had just escaped death from the machete attack and had returned from abroad after receiving treatment. An attempt at kidnapping the sixteen year old son of Azad was foiled on July 24. He slipped out of the clutch of a group who grabbed him near their home and pressed him to give away his father's plans and movements of the last few days.

As far as the Bangladeshi brand of fundamentalism is concerned, the actions always predate threats over the phone and in the public gatherings. Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a member of parliament representing Jammat-e-Islami, known for their collaboration with the Pak army in the war of independence, was the one who first brought the attention to Pak Sar Jameen Saad Baad. The moulana known for his firebrand attacks on all things secular, asked the government to ban the book by promulgating the blasphemy law. The hatred-generating Sayeedi is an orator who works as a mouthpiece of his organisation to mobilise the mob.

Even after the attack there was no let up in the vitriolic attacks. On July 25 there were newspaper reports on Islamic leaders and parliament members doing their bit to resists free speech. They allegedly told the crowd that Azad would face "dire consequences" for his writings. The next day an anonymous telephone call was made to the family home. It is at this point that PEN voiced their concern and asked Bangladesh government to take steps to protect him and his family. The organisation later granted him a scholarship.

"I don't raise a strong voice to demand a probe into the case of the machete attack, as I fear retaliation. If I become too vocal my children could be the next target," fears Azad's widow Latifa. Her tone of voice turns more distressing as she dwells on the fact that "the man (Azad) has gone and even if justice is met to the culprits, he isn't here to know about it." But reason forces her to steer away from the throes of emotions and face hard reality. She argues that these events had put the bigots in a commanding position. "I can't imagine that a writer could be attacked because of his opinion and beliefs. If the attackers are not rounded up and punished more crimes of this nature will take place giving a free reign to terror and lawlessness," Latifa contends. Her concern stems from her lived experience in Bangladesh, where almost a year after the atrocious attack on her husband, a noted writer, there is no trace of the accused let alone the possibility of a fair trial.

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