A Dhaka-based publisher of popular books authored by secular and progressive writers, which faced threats and was violently attacked by suspected Islamists last year, has received an award for courage from a group of American publishers.
The Shuddhashar Publishing House this week received the 2016 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award from Association of American Publishers International Freedom to Publish Committee (IFTPC) for putting out work despite the threats and with little support from the Bangladesh government.
Awarded for courage
Among others, Shuddhashar has published books by Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das, two secular authors who were hacked to death in Bangladesh by Islamist militants last year.
According to the IFTPC website, the annual award is given to those publishers outside the U.S. "who have demonstrated courage in the face of political persecution" in a country.
Shuddhashar co-founder Mahbub Leelen, who received the award at the PEN Literary Gala in New York, said it honors all the writers and publishers who have died for their work in Bangladesh.
“This is an award not just for our publishing house. The award also carries an important message that the international community of writers, publishers and human rights groups are strongly standing behind the Bangladeshi writers fighting the battle for freedom of expression,” Leelen told VOA.
“This Freedom to Publish Award would encourage us to keep moving ahead on our mission.”
Secular and freethinking writers
After Shuddhashar was established in Bangladesh by Leelen, Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury Tutul and Zafir Setu in 2004, it turned into a massive platform for the secular and freethinking Bengali language writers.
But when the Islamists began violently targeting the secular writers and activists in 2013, Shuddhashar also began receiving threats.
On October 31 (2015), a group of machete and gun-wielding men attacked Shuddhaswar’s Dhaka office where publisher Tutul was present along with his two blogger friends. They managed to escape with only injuries. But the same day militants killed a publisher of secular books during an assault on another publishing house in Dhaka.
Leelen, Tutul and Setu have gone into exile in fear for their lives, leaving Shuddhashar closed in recent months. But only temporarily.
“Shuddhasar has not been closed down permanently. Since we have still been receiving threats, for reasons related to the security of our employees, we have kept our regular work at the publishing house on hold,” said Tutul.“We are firm on our mission of publishing the class of books as we did before. We will try our best so that our readers do not miss our books.”
Shuddhashar has been in the process to launch itself online, he added.“We are working on some e-book projects now.”
Leelen said Shuddhashar has to stay alive for the sake of Bangladesh.
“In 2004 we started our journey with three of us. Today Shuddhashar is a platform for more than 3,000 writers. We have so far published the first work of at least 1,000 writers. We have been playing a key role in grooming budding writers. We can never dream of closing down Shuddhashar permanently,” Leelen told VOA.
Shuddhashar has published mostly secular and scientific work, a mission which should never be stopped in the interest of a nation, Leelen said.
“If we stop publishing and close down Shuddhashar, it will be a victory for the religious fundamentalists. We have to keep Shuddhashar alive because we are fighting for the rights to freedom of expression and resisting the onslaught by the Islamists,” he said.
Freedom of expression
Calling Shuddhashar “a beacon for freedom of thought and open discourse in Bangladesh”, Michael De Dora, from the US-based Center for Inquiry (CFI), a secular organization, said the publishing house has won the award deservingly.
“Yet, it is sad that the government of Bangladesh has allowed its human rights situation to deteriorate so much that this valuable publishing house can no longer operate in the country,” he said.
He added that despite the attacks on Shuddhashar that left several of its writers and publishers severely injured, the Bangladesh government has never issued a statement in defense of the rights of the publishing house.
The government of Bangladesh has not commented on the award and efforts by VOA to reach officials for comment have been unsuccessful.