The first anniversary of the brutal attack on Humayun Azad

 A.H. Jaffor Ullah


A year ago, late professor Humayun Azad, a noted linguist and leading freethinker of Dhaka University was brutally attacked on February 27, 2004 in front of Bangla Academy where he was attending the Book fair, which has become a seasonal event. In that attack, the assailants wanted to chop off Prof. Azad�s head. However, because of the presence of many book fair-goers the assailant could not do their job. In the process, though, they injured him with repeated chops in the neck and head areas resulting in his comatose condition. For a few days, his well-wishers thought he would not return from his long slumber. By surprising everyone, Prof. Azad�s senses came back and he took a slow road to rehabilitation, which required a number of plastic surgeries on his face to efface the brutal mark of the attack he received on that fateful day.

As I have mentioned, it took several weeks before Prof. Azad could sit and talk. The attack resulted in a loss of considerable amount of blood. Naturally, he was very infirm and visibly shaken due to the personal injury. At the insistence of Dhaka University faculty, the government sent him to Bangkok for further treatment. After his return, most of his friends heaved a sigh of relief thinking that worst was over. Little did they know what was coming!

Prof. Azad was a broken man after the attack. After all, he was a proud son of the soil. The physical attack did destroy his ego and tell me why it should not do such terrible damage to his self-respect. Prof. Azad was a bold person who never shied away from speaking his mind. His forthrightness and fearless approach to truth seeking put him in collision course with the obscurantist Mullahs, Jamaatis, and other fringes of Bangladesh polity.

Prof. Azad taunted the loser of 1971 freedom struggle, the Jamaatis, through his satirical novel �Pak Saar Jamin.� Days before his attack, one of the elder leaders of Jamaat had openly showed his disdain for Humayun Azad. To them, Azad was a murtaad or apostate. Therefore, he was an easy game (read target) for fundamentalist goons. Goaded by Maulana Delwar Hossain Saydee, an MP from Southern part of Barisal and a member of the inner circle of Jamaat and the four-part alliance government, a handful of assailants came to Ekushey Book Fair. They knew the author loved to mingle freely with his readers. Azad was a free spirit who thought no harm could ever come to him. But how wrong was he. This brutal attack did him in by robbing his free spirit. As I wrote earlier, Dr. Azad�s pride was long gone and he was devastated by the tenor of the attack. No man wanted to see a disfigured face of his in the mirror. It probably was too painful for him to see that the attack had left permanent scar on his face. Azad was a very sensitive human being. It is almost a prerequisite for a writer of his caliber to be too sensitive about everything - his persona, look, and deportment - you name it. Seeing one�s disfigured face or permanent scar, artificial tooth, is not all that pleasant. These have caused much anguished in him. I felt it as I read his swan song that was published in late July 2004 in Dhaka�s vernacular newspaper Janakantha.

I had the opportunity to translate that evocative article of Azad into English. One could never translate Azad�s piece. It was written using a profoundly complex language with a profusion of metaphor. After the translation was done right before his trip to Munich, Germany, the piece was e-mailed to him in Dhaka for his approval. He Okayed the translation, which was published by Mukto-mona, a freethinkers� forum in the cyberspace. In that piece, Prof. Azad made a fine prognosis of the tortuous path Bangladesh is treading now. He was alarmed by the spate of bomb blasts, attacks on intellectuals. He was petrified by the ferocity of the attack. His family started to receive non-stop barrage of menacing phone calls, his son was almost kidnapped, and he could not bear it all. Under this dire circumstance, he reluctantly had accepted a fellowship to visit a university in Munich, Germany. Prof. Azad never did recover from the pernicious attack done by the shadowy fundamentalist goons. His infirmity got the upper hand and he breathed his last immediately after reaching Munich in the beginning of August 2004.

Prof. Humayun Azad was already a marked man when his publisher printed the first run of his book �Pak Sar Jamin� (Bless the pure land). The ire of fundamentalists fell on him right away because the author had unmasked the masquerading Maulanas who suddenly had become the greatest patriot in the land through the hard work of Khaleda Zia and her party machinery. The cantonment politics that led to the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975 had started the Islamization of Bangladesh. The party BNP is a direct result of this cantonment intrigue. In the guise of �multiparty democracy,� an army General had unleashed the Islamists who were barred from joining the politics. The brutal assassination of that army General led to the entry of a charlatan army General who also pushed the nation towards the path of fundamentalism. In 15 years time from 1976 through 1990, the nation changed her demeanor from secular to quasi-religious state. Prof. Azad was keenly aware of this transformation. He wanted to mock the Maulanas who were at the forefront of this vital transformation and who were the real engine of this societal metamorphosis. Naturally, he had to pen something on this. And he did. In a way, his writings did him in. The obscurantist Maulanas hated his guts and they gave fatwas, which certainly �inspired� young jihadis who came with full force to decapitate him on February 27, 2004.

Who is the loser now that Prof. Azad is gone from Bangladesh forever? The nation lost a freethinker, undoubtedly. The Dhaka University is sore loser because Prof. Azad died a bit prematurely. In Bangladesh there is a severe crisis going on in the field of freethinking. The void left by his death would be difficult to fill. There is already a dearth of true freethinking scholars in the academia in Bangladesh. That is the reason I say that it was a great loss for the campus.

Prof. Humayun Azad would have walked the corridors of art faculty right now. To our knowledge, his was a healthy person. Nonetheless, the brutal attack that he took on that night made his world topsy-turvy. He was never the same again. I point finger at the resurgence of religious fervor that resulted in his premature death. The Bangla culture took a severe blow from fundamentalist camp on that fateful night. It is an utter shame that the government failed to protect a courageous son of the soil.

As I was writing this piece on February 22, 2005, I read in the Internet that a bunch of Madrassah students was arrested near Savar who were found carrying bomb-making paraphernalia. It seems as if Dr. Azad�s prognosis was correct after all. He clearly pointed finger at the wrongdoers. Bangladesh has created a monster out of Madrassah students. Instead of receiving proper education, many of them had been indoctrinated into Talibanism. The present government turned a blind eye to the developing problem. The government�s view was that all of these were a part of propaganda. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost and they don�t even get it right.

On this anniversary day of the brutal attack on Prof. Humayun Azad, let me say that the humanity was raped in Bangladesh on February 27, 2004. We all know that the stealth evil force killed a dozen or so leading intellectuals in the fag end of our freedom fight in December 1971. They could not efface freethinking and progressivism from this deltaic land. Now they think they could do the same. Their fang should be surgically removed so that future Humayun Azads of Bangladesh could voice their opinion against obscurantism and monolithic views which if allowed to grow would devour this society. Who wants to live in a Talibanized Bangladesh? Prof. Azad would have loathed the idea anyway.


Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA