That Elusive Thing with Feathers – After the Killing of Avijit Roy: Abdul Bari

Guest Post by ABDUL BARI

Avijit Roy was brutally murdered in Dhaka a few days ago. His wife, after heroically trying to shield his person with her own body, now lies in an ICU bed, fighting for her life.  I was an infrequent visitor to his website, Muktomona. Visiting it was like running your tongue over that tooth you’re missing, or reflexively checking whether you had your keys with you in the morning. Its presence was a reminder that, no matter how circumscribed, the nation-state of Bangladesh still had men and women who liked to think unconventional thoughts; give expression to unpopular ideas; endeavored to stand, as it is, in the very edge of what the societal limit of what could be expressed, and then take another firm step, not back, but forward.

Freedom of expression is one of those intangible public goods – when you have it, you’re never sure whether you have enough of it, and whether you’re putting it to the best use. But its absence is unmistakable, as unmistakable as the sight of a blue-faced baby in the pediatric ward who is struggling to get in a lungful of oxygen. Moderation is often the proper response to a great many number of
things. But the more I go through life, I feel that I am becoming a free speech absolutist, because when we can speak our thoughts without fear or reprisal, when we can look at the fat, bloated face of power and point out that it is without clothes – we are striking a blow for all that is good and proper.

But this is easy. Any two-bit hack, at such an overcharged moment, can put together some words expressing outrage and indignation. More difficult, and ultimately, more effective, is the introspection that is in order in the aftermath of this murder.

The shade of Humayun Azad must have been watching from above as, yards away from the same place he was attacked and savagely chopped with a machete, the same brutality again played out. Eleven years ago, they failed for the moment. This time, they succeeded. Strident calls are being made for the quick prosecution for Avijit’s killers; but somehow, when the second most powerful person in Bangladesh openlycalls for the trial of the country’s leading editor for treason, I have a feeling that ensuring freedom of expression isn’t really a priority at this moment.

Performance art – that’s the current fad, isn’t it? But how post-modern do you have to be when murder becomes performance art? For what else could this gruesome attack be called? Dhaka University is often, along with the Baridhara diplomatic zone and the Ramna government enclave, one of the heavily-guarded places in Dhaka. You cannot throw a stone there without hitting a plain-clothes detective. And then, before the stone hit the ground, you’d be whisked away, and perhaps your body would be recovered from a construction site a few days later. How then, could two human beings be dragged down from their transportation, chased and overpowered, and hacked to death, in the middle of all this? It is dispiriting to reflect on the amount of apathy and callousness on display for such a thing to happen.

And if such is the performance, what can be said about the audience?

Just as the solution to bad democracy is good democracy, the only proper response after a heinous event like this is to resolve ourselves to be more outspoken. If the past is any guide, pieces will
be bouncing through the blogosphere composed of snippets of Avijit’s most incendiary comments, taken out of context, to provide some weak rationalization of this attack. Let us equivocally reject these blatant distortions. Avijit gave his life, but in doing so, he won the argument against all his critics – past, present, and future.

Hope, the poet said, is the thing with feathers. At such times, we must hope, that the blood of brave men and women like Avijit is not spent in vain, and the people of Bangladesh can, through their conduct and example, give such meaning to such sacrifice. The alternative is stark. And the next time the performance art is staged, there is no guarantee that you will not be, against your will, a participant.

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