Asia’s largest literary event, attended by Nobel Prize winners and Booker Prize winners, faces allegations that it does not provide space for critics of Sheikh Hasina’s government.
For four days last week, Bangladeshi intellectuals gathered on the manicured lawn of Dhaka’s Bangla Academy in traditional loose shirt kurtas, embroidered shawls, batik sarees, and some western attire. I listened to poetry and lively discussions while sipping hot tea.
This mix of young and old, mostly wealthy, has made Dhaka Lit Fest (DLF) in the Bangladesh capital one of the most coveted events in the city’s cultural calendar. I made one.
After a three-year lull due to the pandemic, this year’s 10th edition of the DLF reunited poets, journalists, novelists, historians and writers of all kinds from around the world in this bustling South Asian metropolis. .
In a city where such cultural openings are still rare, internationally acclaimed novelists eagerly talk about the nuances of writing fiction, and seasoned journalists speak inside and outside of several global events. Few things are more satisfying than analyzing and listening to
The guest list for the 10th DLF includes Nobel Prize winner Abdul Razak Gurna, Booker Prize winner Shehan Karnatilaka, Geetanjali Shree, Daisy Rockwell, Neustadt Prize winner Nurdin Farah, Booker Prize nominee Amitav Ghosh, It included renowned columnist Pankaj Mishra and brought together hundreds of renowned authors and speakers from five continents.
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For Adnan Habib, who studies English Literature at a private university in Dhaka, the DLF offers an escape into world literature. “The energy, atmosphere and cosmopolitan vibe are rarely found in Dhaka,” he said.
Even veteran Bangladeshi writer Saad Z. Hossein couldn’t hide his excitement. In an interview with TRT World, Hossein said the idea of Nobel Prize winners and Booker Prize winners coming to Dhaka for the festival used to be so far-fetched that no one even tried. said he didn’t. “This decade is not only real, it’s almost a humming drum, a testament to the consistency and quality of the festival,” he said.
Although the DLF has cemented Bangladesh’s place in the literary world and sponsored aspiring writers, it has a serious concern, which many refer to as the ‘elephant in the room’, namely the compulsion of Bangladeshi writers and journalists. It fails to cope with the highly restrictive and censorship environment that exists. at work.
The deterioration of freedom of expression in Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decade-long rule has been well documented by global watchdogs and human rights groups. Last year produced annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) In the World Press Freedom Index, Bangladesh ranked 162nd out of 180 countries, the worst among South Asian countries.
Over the past five years, the Hasina government has passed strict digital security laws. This is what the United Nations has called “an example of a flawed law” that “imposes harsh penalties for a broad range of vaguely defined acts”.
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A Dhaka-based think tank records that around 1,500 people, mostly writers and journalists, have been detained under the law since 2020. Meanwhile, a draft broadcasting law under consideration aims to allow the government to imprison anyone who provides “misleading and false” information, even on television talk shows.
Against this background, as one critic has pointed out, the DLF has successfully avoided criticism of the host government through rather ‘naive’ discussions and sessions, and thus, in a I was unable to defend the cause.
Appearance of DLF
Bangladesh’s literary world has always been dominated by writers who prefer to write in their native language, Bangla, not only for a wider audience, but also for nationalistic fervor. It is probably the only country in modern history that shed it.
Although Bangla is still the language of choice for Bangladeshi writers, there has been a gradual emergence of a new group of writers who have chosen English as their preferred language over the past two decades.
The main participants in the DLF are groups of English-speaking writers and readers. Moreover, the relatively large Bangladeshi diaspora who were raised or educated in the West are also participating in this. In fact, the festival began with a pilot event in 2011 under the auspices of the globally acclaimed Hay on Wye Festival. After his three successful trips in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the festival was renamed Dakkarit Fest.
Organizers say the festival focuses primarily on literature, but embraces more broader cultures and ideas, generating debate on a wide range of topics.
Zafar Soban, English Editor Dhaka Tribune It has supported DLF since its founding.
“The Dhaka Lit Fest helps foster an atmosphere of discussion, debate and dissent,” said Sovan. “It inspires people to think, to question, to dream, to pick up a cudgel and put up a good fight.”
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How comprehensive is the DLF?
Critics point out that the DLF’s claims to inspire debate and dissent are grossly exaggerated, if not true. In an interview with TRT World, Australia-based Bangladeshi writer Faham Abdus Salam said that in the West, literary festivals and similar gatherings are met with opponents and nonconformists who are highly critical of the existing status quo. “Ironically, the DLF is sponsored by people painfully close to the inner circle of the dictatorship.
Salam’s observations are not unfounded. A good example would be a session titled “”.Chap er mukhe sangbadikota (Journalism Under Pressure)”. Two editors from two news outlets accused of being brazenly friendly to the Hasina regime and rarely speaking truth to it were invited to the session. A social media post displayed in front of a plate of Chap (A popular meat preparation that shares the same Bangla word meaning pressure).
The DLF also appears to have stopped inviting speakers critical of the current Bangladesh government, including internationally renowned photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam, who was jailed four years ago for criticizing the Hasina regime. am. “I’m relieved to not be invited as a speaker. It must mean I’m doing something right,” Aram told TRT World.
Another director of the DLF, K. Anis Ahmed, refuted the allegations of prejudice. “Many people critical of the government and government work have been featured in the DLF over the years, including Shahidul Alam,” he said.
Bangladesh’s minister for cultural affairs, KM Khalid, also denied state intervention or sanctions against freedom of expression and literary and artistic works. In a statement to TRT World, Khalid, who launched his DLF this year, said the government has always patronized writers and artists. “In fact, they flourished many times during the Awami League era. [the ruling party] stay in power. As a political party, we stand for secular values and pluralism first and foremost. ”
Writer and journalist Rezaul Karim Rony found this attitude of the ruling party leaders to be the crux of the problem. “Yes, the number of writers and artists has increased, but that does not mean that the space for pluralistic views and counterarguments has improved.” and agencies are being cracked down on, he said. An online magazine named Ronnie’s Tokiwa was shut down in 2018 after publishing articles highly critical of the government.
Rony said the DLF’s main problem is that it deliberately and conveniently sidesteps these key issues engulfing Bangladesh today. “There they talk superficially about global issues, the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Merthyr Amini hijab protests, but not the elephants in the room. The deterioration of democracy and freedom of expression in Bangladesh Isn’t that hypocritical?” asked Ronnie.
DLF organizers did not clarify their position on these allegations. Indian author Vivek Menezes, who joined this year’s DLF as a speaker and moderator, probably offered a realistic look at these.
“It’s complicated. I have a similar event in Goa (Menezes is co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival). Our challenges are different. It can be achieved, that’s what I do. I saw it on DLF.”
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Source: TRT World