You have always been very vocal against Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, there are many voices of liberal Muslims saying that terrorism in the name of religion is not Islamic – do you find yourself to be isolated?
There are free thinkers, rationalists and atheists who think like me, so I don’t always feel isolated. For us, it is not important what religion our families may be following, but we believe in humanism. For people like this, there is no need for any religion in society – rational thinking and scientific minds are far more important. So when I say that religion and fundamentalism have no difference and religion is the root cause of religious terrorism Look at ISIS or Boko Haram – Islamic terrorists are always inspired by Islam. They cite the same Quranic texts all Muslims consider sacred.
What about freedom to practise religion?
Of course, we don’t ask people who believe in it to throw away religion. But religious reform is needed for society. And laws should be based on human rights, womens rights, equality, justice and humanism instead of religion. I acknowledge the rights of religious people to believe and practise religion. When temples are broken in Bangladesh, or mosques are destroyed somewhere else, I protest because religious freedom is necessary, but there should also be freedom to not believe in religion or to criticise it and society, education, state etc should be kept outside the domain of religion. The state should should not have a religion but if people like to they can practise a religion but can’t be forced by anyone. This plurarity of thought is important and laws should be based on human rights and not religion. Personally as an atheist and secularist I do not believe in religion. Secularism for me is not the Indian definition – instead it is someone without religion.
You speak a lot about Islamic fundamentalism – but what about religious intolerance in India?
Some people are intolerant – and the cases of torturing Muslims in India, the beef controversy or the recent case of making Muslims eat cow-dung are very disturbing. But so many religions and cultures in India coexist that it is amazing – if India was intolerant there would be many more riots and the state is not intolerant, nothing in the constitution that promotes intolerance – maybe secularism is not being practised properly. The Indian Constitution is not intolerant, but there are individuals who are intolerant and that has to change.
Your thoughts on uniform civil code?
I’m all for an uniform civil code and had campaigned for it in Bangladesh too, where Hindu women really suffer because of ancient Hindu laws and have no right to inherit property from their fathers. They also suffer because their husbands can marry any number of times that they want to. Muslim personal laws based on Islam in Bangladesh also say that women can inherit less property than their brothers. The husband can have four wives. There’s no equality under any religion, so uniform civil code based on equality is the best way possible in India and Bangladesh.
The new face of terrorists in India and Bangladesh is that of educated young men from affluent families. Your views on radicalisation and is this more alarming than before in view of the recent violence in Bangladesh and Kashmir?
Religious leaders are looking at looking at educated youth for Islamisation because they need talented young people as recruits. They have grandiose dreams to control the world, for which they need to recruit bright young educated men with brains. The old stereotypes of poor, underprivileged and frustrated people turning to religion has changed. Educated young people are turning to religion and are being groomed through Islamic education and the Koran within their families. From a young age they are taught to believe in religion and have faith, when they later study science that’s only for jobs and their profession but they already have a strong belief in religion from childhood. This religious identity is created at an early age and provides an easy solution. Science is difficult to learn and understand while religion is attractive because it provides easy solutions. It is also easy to convince and brainwash young people with religion. Islamist leaders often don’t send their children to madrasas but instead to English medium institutions and western countries for their education, but they have been brainwashed with religion from an early age and so turn to terrorism.
What in your view is the solution?
Children should be allowed to grow up in a free thinking environment and should not be under pressure of religious teachings from an early age. Only then will they not be influenced by preachers to turn to violence in the name of religion. What happens now is that they become easy prey since the seeds of religious fundamentalism has been sown at an early age in their fertile minds. There has been a lot of talk about the misinterpretation of the Koran by preachers. But like Koran there are other holy books too which have also doubtlessly been misinterpreted by fundamentalists – but that has not given rise to Christian or Jewish terrorists who slaughter people. Only one religion creates terrorists who kill innocents around the world.
As a writer and a creative person in exile do you have any regrets about not being able to go back?
No I have no regrets, but I have relatives in Bangladesh and would like to go and visit them. But that is Impossible – the government doesn’t renew my passport or issue a visa – I have no valid documents and it is not safe anymore for me to travel to Bangladesh. I feel like I’m a citizen of this world and I don’t believe in national boundaries – the universe is my country, whole world is my village.
What about the ban by the West Bengal government?
I will keep on fighting for my right to go to Bengal, I’m a Bengali writer and I don’t have any rights to live either in Bangladesh or in West Bengal. I will fight for my right to go back to Bengal – I may not live there but I should have the right to go there because of my freedom of expression. I should be able to criticise religion or say whatever I like and still have the right to stay there. Even the Indian government had thrown me out but I came back again and I’m living here – and that is because India is democracy and India should uphold my freedom of expression. That’s why I live in India because India is a democracy and freedom of expression is valuable – I can criticise religion and still stay in India. More than me this is a positive of India as a secular and democratic state. My fight is not only for me, it is also the fight for people who need to have freedom to express their views that are different from others.
Personally, I’m a citizen of Europe and can live in Europe. I also have an American Green Card and permanent resident rights there. But I live here because I love the Indian sub-continent and I don’t feel like they’re different countries. When I’m in India I feel like I’m at home – my books have been published here and I have so many readers, so many people love me that’s why I feel at home here and not because Indians look like me.
There’s a conspiracy to throw me out though – I have been thrown out of Bengal and Bangladesh and there ae so many fatwas and price on my head but still I’m living in the Indian sub-continet because I write in Bengali – one of the Indian languages.
What are you working on – and though you write in different genres which defines you the best?
Some people like my poetry while others love my fiction and essays. I have written seven autobiographies and will write another one. I’m also writing about women’s freedom. I feel there is a poet inside me.
Since 2013, more than 20 people – including secular writers, bloggers, professors, members of religious minorities and foreigners – have been killed in targeted attacks in Bangladesh. Why are secular individuals being targeted in Bangladesh? Who is killing them?
Jihadists have been silencing or threatening voices of sanity because democracy and pluralism are anathema to them. All they want is to establish a theocracy. They want to create Darul Islam, the land of Islam in Bangladesh. They want no law but Sharia, no women’s rights, and no freedom of speech. They want group loyalty perforce, which has no space for freedom of thought. There are 148 jihadi training camps in Bangladesh. Jihadists are helped by Jamat-e-Islami, 132 Islamic terrorist organizations including Ansarullah Bangla team and 231 fundamentalist institutions including ‘Islami bank’. In the last 40 years, almost 40 thousand crores takas have been used for the military training of Jihadists in Bangladesh. It is only 20% of total profits that was earned from the Islamic fundamentalists’ economy. It is well established that the Islami bank has been financing terrorism.
Six years ago when Bangladesh restored secularism in its constitution, it seemed it was on a progressive path. What happened in the last few years that there is such violent reaction against secularism? Has the trial and conviction of 1971 Jamat-e-Islami war criminals in Bangladesh triggered this violence?
If that were so, Islamists would have attacked the judges or people in positions of power. But Islamists have been killing atheist bloggers, critics of Islam, intellectuals, and progressive Muslims. Islamists can kill anyone they want with impunity, and it becomes possible because the country has been Islamized for the last few decades because the government is not only a mute spectator but also directly encouraging the Islamists by criticizing bloggers for hurting the sentiments of people. This is bizarre, unthinkable in a society governed by rule of law. It seems that Bangladesh is hurtling back to the medieval age.
What is the extent of religious extremism in Bangladesh? Can ISIS find support there? How is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina fighting religious fundamentalist forces?
All of the terrorists and fundamentalists of the country support ISIS. Many received training from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Sheikh Hasina denies this because of political compulsions. The denial is facile and nothing short of political skullduggery. The killings of atheists and bloggers punch holes in her claims. Islamists once attacked her with grenades. However, out of political compulsions she prefers to forget about it under imposed amnesia. Instead of proclaiming she is actually a secular person, she says she is a deeply religious person. There is a competition among political leaders as to who is more religious. Politicians use religion to get votes from the ignorant masses. Sheikh Hasina created the Ulema League in her party, the Awami League. The Ulema League is the organization of Islamic fundamentalists. Members of this organization are not different from the Jamat-e-Islami goons. They support the killing of freethinkers and atheist bloggers in the country.
India is stigmatized by 1984 anti-Sikh violence, 1990 ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits, 2002 Gujarat riots. According to Indian government’s own admission, communal intolerance and violence has gone up in the last couple of years in India too. Three rationalists were killed last year and two Muslim boys lynched to death. How is India’s majoritarian violence against minorities different from Bangladesh?
Islamic fundamentalists have systematically targeted Minorities in Bangladesh. Hindus are harassed, tortured, and even killed only because they are Hindus. Hindu girls are getting raped, and Hindu-hating Muslims forcibly takes lands owned by Hindus. Hindus are frequently told to leave the country. In 1947, Hindu population in Bangladesh was 31%. Now it is around 8%.
I do not think Muslims in India are oppressed the way Hindus are oppressed in Bangladesh. Hindu extremists hate Indian Muslims but the Indian Constitution is secular which guarantees equality before law and the equal protection of law to all irrespective of religion, caste, sex, place of birth etc., and the laws are applied uniformly, which protect Muslims. Muslims in India are given lots of facilities and opportunities to get education and jobs for being Muslims. The population of Hindus is currently less in Bangladesh because of the exodus that started since the partition of India. Hindus do not fight back in Bangladesh, but in India Muslims often fight back against their oppression. It can happen only if you have equality.
In India, all politicians appease Muslims. In Bangladesh there is no such thing as minority appeasement policy. Hindus are leaving Bangladesh for other countries to save their lives. Muslims in India do not need to leave their country.
Pakistan is fighting Islamists too. How is Bangladesh’s situation any different from Pakistan’s?
Bangladesh was born as a secular country; its constitution was secular. Pakistan is an Islamic republic. But Bangladesh, once a secular state, is now degenerating into a country of Islamists. Because of the Islamization of Bangladesh for 40 long years, its political system is now totally Islamic. You will not find many Muslim countries with political systems as Islamized as is the case in Bangladesh. Islamic fanatics have killed so many secular writers and bloggers and freethinkers in recent years. Not a single killer has been punished. But the Islamic fanatic who killed secular and progressive Salman Taseer in Pakistan was hanged. You can get at least some justice in Pakistan, but not in Bangladesh, which has become a safe haven for Islamists. Even Syria and Iraq are not as accommodating of Islamic fanatics as Bangladesh. No air raid or drone attacks disturb Bangladeshi jihadists. The government of Bangladesh is providing them with protection and has warned atheists and free thinker bloggers to quit writing about atheism and secularism and stop hurting religious feelings. Atheists are getting arrested under 57 ICT acts, a new law which was created to fight free thought.
All three states that emerged from the partition of Indian subcontinent seem to be challenged by the same communal conflicts that our freedom fighters were fighting through the 1940s. Was Partition a good idea to begin with? How has creation of Bangladesh helped?
Partition was a mistake. Now India has two neighbours dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. The 1971 Bangladesh-Pakistan war proved that Muslim unity was a myth and the two-nation theory was a blunder. Bangladesh could not remain as a secular state due to the Islamic policies that were introduced by corrupt political regimes. Bangladesh is becoming the worst Islamic country in the world. Having a neighbour like Bangladesh is not good for India. You never know when the ISIS and al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations will come to India and begin killing innocent people. Bangladesh is totally a failed state. The so-called democratic government is a theocratic government in reality. The creation of Bangladesh as a secular state has failed miserably. Bangladesh has become a breeding ground for terrorists.
You have been very critical of Indian liberals and the Left. Why?
I have always been critical of far right politics. I am also critical of Indian liberals and leftists. I noticed liberals and leftists are generally very critical of Hindu fanaticism but not of Islamic fanaticism. Islamic fanatics are against human rights, women’s rights, free speech and democracy. The truth is those Islamic fanatics are against everything Indian liberals stand for. But liberals strangely sympathize with them. This is how they have distorted the concept of secularism.
You have been opposed to all religions? Don’t you think criticism of religion is unnecessarily provoking even moderate religionists to take hardliner positions?
I do not think so. Freethinkers, rationalists, atheists, humanists are a minority in most societies. Moderate religionists do not need criticism of religion to become hardliners. They have political reasons to become hardliners. Criticism of religion should hopefully provoke people to think rationally and give up irrational blind faith. We must not forget that without criticism of religion no society has evolved and no state becomes secular. Critical scrutiny of religion is necessary for a healthy society. No religion should be protected from critical scrutiny, from questioning unethical aspects of its doctrines. Criticism encourages people to become secular humanists.
Hardliners have been killing atheists and rationalists in Bangladesh. They became hardliners because they were indoctrinated with Islam from a very early age, and they sorely need to be exposed to a rational and tolerant worldview.
Rezaul Karim Siddiguee was hacked to death by Islamists yesterday in Bangladesh. He was not an atheist blogger. He was a professor of English at Rajshahi University. He was involved in cultural activities. He played sitar and puboished literary magazines. He was of course a progressive man.
It is not easy to find atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. Because atheists left the country out of fear. Some are hiding. Stop writing. So, islamists killed a progressive student in Dhaka a few days ago, now they killed a progressive teacher in Rajshahi.
Muhammad killed poets. Asma Bint Marwan was killed for criticizing Muhammad in her poetry in 624. Rezaul Karim Siddiquee was killed by followers of Muhammad for writing poems or publishing literary magaizines, or playing sitar or for being a freethinker in 2016.
I am not surprised. Killers are Muslims. They have the right to practice Islam or follow the orders or advices of Allah and Muhammad in a country where state religion is Islam and where almost everybody believes that Islam means peace and nobody has the right to do any unislamic things. Rezaul Karim opened a music school in his village, that was a non Islamic act. Writing poetry,playing sitar are also non Islamic.
Islamists killed some other progressive professors of Rajshahi University. Islamists will continue killing all the secular progressive people in Bangladesh. Government will say nothing against the killers. No action will be taken against them. Bangladesh is Becoming a killing field.
Delhi appeared almost unrecognisable during the days of the odd-even rule, when evenings appeared livable, devoid of traffic snarls and as if, in the midst of a holiday season or a citywide general strike. Delhi is the world’s second largest densely populated city after Tokyo. The populations of some of the European towns do not even add up to a couple of lakhs, though Delhi boasts more than 2.5 crore residents. No wonder, the first fortnight of the New Year transformed Delhi into a dream city.
I often cover my routine evening drives through Delhi in an hour-and-half, though now I did it in barely 20 minutes, which is why I find the odd-even scheme almost magical. This was tried and tested in Beijing a few years ago with overwhelming success, and appeared to work in Delhi on Day 1, though, to start with, so many of us remained sceptical. I remember crossing path with a journalist friend at the state-run Doordarshan Kendra, who informed me that he’d taken the metro to reach office, a first in years. It is good to see that a constructive move has been made to make Delhi pollution free and most Delhiites endorse the plan.
Global studies earlier showed Beijing and now Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. It’s high time that city government draws up a sustained and viable campaign to clean up the mess, for which, several foolproof measures can be initiated. For starters, it should ban old diesel cars, as these are among the biggest sources of pollution. Cigarettes are no longer the prime cause of lung cancer; carcinogens concentrated in the atmosphere are far more lethal. I don’t remember a day when I walked Delhi’s forever busy streets breathing freely, or without coughing. A large number of citizens have taken to wearing masks sold at neighbourhood chemists, even as the city stays shrouded by permanently looming smog. Haunted by the poisonous air, we no longer get to enjoy the city’s fabulous winter.
Let there be longer queues at the metro. Let there be more public buses. Let the upper class and upper middle class keep aside their vanity and take to public transport. Let separate cycle tracks run parallel to the main carriageways and the citizens pedal to office. Delhi’s face will change for the better.
Citizens across Europe are looked up to for cycling to work. Berlin’s streets have been redesigned with cycling tracks that are not encroached upon by rush hour cars. Even ministers in Stockholm ride to work. Public representatives have the moral conviction to lead by way of example. Delhi needs to catch up with the world’s foremost modern civilisations. And the government’s top echelons must set the example to make this happen, instead of spending billions to treat bronchial ailments, as catastrophic death stares citizens in their faces.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who masterminded the move, set a precedent, driving on alternate cars to work, as his own car sported an odd number; the tourism minister bicycled to office. Kejriwal was strict about not extending privileges based on citizens’ social standing, considering that Delhi is home to thousands of VIPs. I too chose to stay indoors every alternate day of the odd-even fortnight, as my car sports an even number plate. Though I have a security detail to escort me all over the city, I never felt it necessary to drag my VIP mooring by driving out on days when my car was meant to idle. I live in this city under a constant threat from fundamentalists without whom I would love to bicycle around the city’s lovely roads every day, irrespective of whether the odd-even rule was in force or not.
Yet, Delhi being Delhi, I was overwhelmed to note the scale of corruption in Delhi to help citizens bend the rules, despite the Herculean effort to clean up the city. In this country, the corrupt always have the last word. Fuel stations were busy selling illegal CNG stickers for cars that don’t run on natural gas. And desperate citizens, who don’t think twice about burning up lakhs on the latest fuel guzzlers, got busy buying those stickers. I also noticed certain citizens driving around with the wrong number plate, despite the concession made only to self-driving women, CNG cars and for medical emergency. Who knows if these citizens were content at breaking the rule by paying a hefty Rs 2,000 fine? It’s sad that such scoundrels don’t understand how big the problem of pollution is.
It’s also unfortunate that well-known global brands selling diesel cars have been nagging about the Supreme Court-imposed ban on sale of higher capacity diesel vehicles in the national capital, when everybody knows that such cars are a menace. It’s time that the carmakers adopt social and ecological consciousness instead of racing to capture market and chase profit.
All this when, a majority of Delhi’s residents actually found it wise to wholeheartedly stick with the odd-even plan making the experiment a grand success.
It’s been 44 years now that Bangladesh has become an independent nation, but it still feels like yesterday. Freedom from Pakistan was won after a long war of nine months and Bangladesh was born with the promise of being a peaceful, tolerant, democratic and secular nation. Though if you talk to Indians, most will say that the 1971 war was fought between India and Pakistan and Bangladesh’s guerrilla forces had no part in it. It was as a result of India’s victory that Bangladesh was born, they aver.
However, the fact is that independence was achieved by the sacrifices and bloodshed of Bangladeshi freedom-fighters. The second partition was the result of the uprising of Bengali muslims of East Pakistan against the constant attacks on them by non-Bengali muslims. The idea of all muslims living happily ever after in one country after separating from India, obviously wasn’t working out.
The nationalists who fought for Bangladesh envisioned a country that would differ from Pakistan in its goals and principles. A nation where everyone, irrespective of religious inclination, would coexist in mutual harmony. However, within a few years of independence, the country’s ugly side emerged. Though Bangladesh is not divided geographically, there is a major division on the basis of principles: at one end there are dogmatic religious fascists and on the other is the liberal secular minority. Religious extremists attack unarmed liberals with impunity, and rising frequency, while the judicial system remains in disarray. So, far from being different from Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh is actually no different from it.
The powers that be in Bangladesh have long fed the masses with catchy words like freedom, democracy and secularism, however, the country is not mature enough to understand and implement these ideals. The day Bangladesh comprehends the value of these words and start to practise them, that would be the day when the national flag fluttering over the memorial of the martyrs in Dhaka would derive its true honour.
I don’t celebrate the independence day of Bangladesh because I am hardly able to see any difference between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Freethinking is prohibited in both countries, so how does that make us free? I strongly feel that Bangladesh does not have the right to celebrate independence day till freethinkers stop getting killed and exiled ones are brought back home. The celebration on February 21 will, therefore, be nothing but a superficial pomp and show as long as Bangladesh does not fix its issues of injustice against the liberals.
I don’t have faith in religion, but in human beings. I place my faith in good work, constructive ideas, dedication, equality and freedom of speech. Do I not have the right to live in Bangladesh? It’s been 21 years now that I have been banished from my motherland. It wasn’t my choice; the government forced me out and the doors of return are closed till date. Why did I have to face this fate? Did I kill or loot anyone? I was a doctor and a writer. All I have done is to write for the people so that the light of knowledge could reach the common masses and they could live a better life.
In 21 years of exile, the definition of a country has changed for me. It’s not a territorial entity anymore, it’s all about people; who are liberal, love each other, believe in freedom of self expression and are not shackled by the inhibitions of religion and superstitions. That is where my motherland is, that is where I belong.
Politicians make the boundaries of the world. If non-political entities had the power, the world would have been a different place altogether. The map wouldn’t have been altered on grounds of partitioning in the name of religion and faith. The world is becoming smaller and people are learning foreign languages as well as adopting food habits, lifestyles and cultures of far away countries. Dividing people on the basis of language and socio-cultural structure does not make sense any more. It’s time that divisions made by politicians for their own benefit be removed. Let there no longer be barbed wires or walls segregating people.
Animalistic tendencies are inherent in humans; we try to rein them in to be social. If we could get rid of these instincts totally, the world would be one; without divisions, borders or countries. The geographical distance between America and Eurasia would always be present but the cultural distance has diminished. The economical gap between the rich and the poor too will get bridged in time. Even if there are socio-political differences, that is no justification to sow seeds of hatred, intolerance, religious dogma, superstition and terrorism. These horrible aspects shouldn’t be a part of the culture of any nation. This is the era of science and technology, let us utilise this for something constructive, and let’s unite with the purpose of being one country, one nation and one world.
In the war of 1971, muslims fought against muslims. It wasn’t a battle between two sects of muslims; sunni muslims took up weapons against another group of sunni muslims. This conflict was one of a kind. A group of bravehearts stood up against their own sect in order to save their mother tongue. This is a great instance of secularism. This is the kind of secular politics that I have tried to propagate through my writings. And this is what other freethinkers of Bangladesh have done as well, yet all those who believe in the idea of a secular country are being exiled, one after another.
I don’t refer to Bangladesh as a country anymore. For me, a country is a sense of shelter, an envelope of protection. A piece of land where people don’t feel protected, where writers and intellectuals don’t have the liberty of self-expression is anything but a country. It is easy to be an independent national in the logbook of the world; but being a country isn’t easy. It requires a sense of responsibility. Just like having the appearance of a human being is inherent, but being human is not.