Translated from the Bangla by Arunava Sinha.
My heartfelt good wishes and love to everyone present here. My thanks to PEN, especially to English PEN, for inviting me here and giving me this opportunity to speak.
I would like to express sincere thanks and gratitude to Margaret Atwood. Margaret has made me a partner today in her own accomplishment. I am delighted and humbled. This encouragement and inspiration will undoubtedly fortify me for the difficult journey ahead.
Somehow, I survived with my life a year ago. Having overcome the initial shock, when I sensed that I had indeed survived, I realised deeply that it is in fact essential to be alive. I had probably never felt the sensations about life that I did then.
But the joy of this unexpected survival fades when Dipan’s face floats up in front of my eyes. When images of Abhijit and Ananta and Neel appear in my mind’s eye, in my consciousness, like a slideshow, asking questions. Their lives were beautiful too, and essential. When I think of the sacrifices made by the victims of murders and assaults over the past two years, the bonus of my life seems much more burdened. As you know, writer Ranadipam Basu and poet Tareq Rahim were injured along with me that day. Had they not been present to resist the attackers, I would not have had the chance to be standing here today. Tareq Rahim and Ranadipam Basu are still passing their days with their injuries and their trauma. Ranadipam Basu lives in a state of extreme insecurity in Bangladesh.
I would also like to inform you of the bloggers and writers who are currently living in countries neighbouring Bangladesh because of reasons of security. Many of their visas have expired. They were all well-established in their respective fields in Bangladesh. But now they are living in isolation with their wives and children in foreign lands, spending long days in extreme uncertainty. I would like to use this platform to draw the attention of international organisations to their predicament, and request that they be given secure sanctuaries and the opportunity to lead normal lives.
As you know, the Ansarullah Bangla Team issued a statement taking responsibility for the attack on me. The Indian subcontinental branch of the Al Qayda had accepted responsibility for murdering Abhijit. And ISIS has announced that it was responsible for the recent vicious terror attack in Dhaka. It is now a proven fact that, despite different names, the roots of all these terrorist organisations built on Islamic principles converge at a single place. In its statement the Ansarullah Bangla Team had said that they wanted to murder me because I publish anti-Islamic books, and because I use my own writing, opinions, and other methods to support writers who criticise the Islamic faith for various inconsistencies. For many years now, for decades, in fact, there has been an attempt to change the Bangladesh state into one that conforms to Islamic principles. Those who want this supported the Pakistani forces during the war of independence in 1971 with the dream of an Islamic state, directly helping the worst genocide and mass rapes in history. Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, the overt as well as covert support of not one but two military administrations enabled these forces to return to Bangladesh politics and establish a strong presence in mercantile and sociocultural activities.
In recent times, these Islamic political forces in Bangladesh have initiated various programmes to block the widespread interest among young people in science education, scientific consciousness, and the ideals of the war of independence that are being disseminated through online activism. The process of putting war criminals on trial has been going on at the same time. It is worth mentioning that online activists played a significant role in building public opinion and putting pressure on the government to conduct these trials of war criminals after 40 long years. Even as we talk here, Shamsuzzoha Manik, the septuagenarian publisher of Baw-Dweep Prokashoni has been languishing in jail for a long time for the crime of publishing books.
All of you are more or less aware of the sequence of events that began in 2013 and are continuing today. I do not wish to test your patience with detailed descriptions of these. What I, and we, want to say is that there is a strong effort in Bangladesh to turn the wheels of civilisation backwards and repeat the events and lies of a barbaric era – but we cannot allow this initiative to go unchallenged. We are challenging this process through rational thinking and through our writing. Anyone who wishes to counter them can do so through their writing.
But please do not issue fatwas to have me, to have us, killed. Do not dispatch undercover assassins with knives and guns.
The work I did involved rational, constructive criticism. And I was rapt in my own writing, particularly in my love for poetry. This was just where the fundamentalist forces struck. After Dipan’s death and after my leaving the country in an injured state, which publisher in Bangladesh will dare publish these challenges, these logical critiques? I had said in an interview from the hospital bed that I would not retreat. I am still determined now too. Because I know that books and texts can play a gigantic role in changing the mentality of society. That is why I wish to return to the world of books, to the world of publishing. Through any alternative medium that is available to me. I do not consider publishing to be a business alone, as far as I am concerned it is also a sociocultural movement. I am hopeful of being able to take new Bangla writing on new subjects to readers once again.
London is one of the seats of modern civilisation and culture. I feel a great sense of pride at being able to talk to all of you as a representative of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of publication, here in the historic British Library in this historic city of London.
May you always stand by free thought and free reasoning.
My deepest thanks to all of you.
Margaret Atwood won the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize, awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. Find out more here.
Listen to audio from ‘Words Cannot Be Killed’, a PEN Atlas event marking the anniversary of the death of secular blogger Avijit Roy exploring freedom of expression in Bangladesh.