A brief history of hounding
Abdul Monem Khan, determined to prevent Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from emerging into sunlight, always made sure that every time the Bengali nationalist leader obtained bail in a case, a new case and therefore a new arrest warrant were slapped on him.
The Ayub-loyalist governor of East Pakistan once even made the dire prediction that as long as he held office, Mujib would remain in prison. The prediction went wrong. Bangabandhu was freed under the onslaught of a mass movement in February 1969 when Monem Khan was still governor. And he would be governor till late March, when his benefactor Ayub Khan would throw him out of office as a way of trying to save himself.
The point is simple: hounding people, trying to humiliate eminent individuals, in the end leaves those doing the hounding red-faced with embarrassment. These days when you observe the government of Bangladesh compelling the eminent scholar and academic Serajul Islam Choudhury to seek bail in a case related to the Arial Beel incident, you begin to wonder why good men must always be hounded by people who ought to have known better.
In Professor Choudhury's instance, the policemen who filed the case against him (and his brothers as well as hundreds of others) simply had no idea of his background. They thought he was a doctor of medicine earning a living through his practice in the village. What do you make of that? And what happens to Choudhury once his four-month bail period is over? Does he, one of the foremost men of letters in Bangladesh today, then quietly walk into prison?
In the mid-1960s, President Charles de Gaulle, asked what action he planned to take against the radical, Nobel-rejecting Jean-Paul Sartre, had a simple response: "One does not arrest Voltaire." But that was then and the man was De Gaulle.
In this country, for a good number of years now, we have had few qualms about pulling down men and women whose thoughts are more sublime than ours and whose image in the eyes of the world is brighter than ours. If we now have Serajul Islam Choudhury arrested, we will be putting all sophistication and all things of intellectual brilliance in a bind.
Now observe the various ways in which Muhammad Yunus has been and is being harassed by a government we thought had liberalism as a cornerstone of its being. The prime minister has been scathing in her condemnation of the Nobel laureate in parliament; her government, despite all the worries raised by the international community about the treatment being meted out to Yunus, appears determined to hound him out of Grameen Bank.
As a citizen, you are troubled. Why would you not be if the ghost of Monem Khan keeps coming back in your life? Your sadness takes on added weight when you watch a cheerful Sheikh Hasina inaugurating the Ekushey Book Fair in the company of the eminent Bengali Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, with that other Bengali Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, nowhere in sight. Why must it always come down to this?
Ah, but there is something in the nature of men and women that quite does not rise above the provincial. Kazi Nazrul Islam remains definitive proof of the varied pedestrian ways in which the good and the great are hounded. The mullahs went after him, for he wrote verses and songs they did not understand. And before the Nobel came to him in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore saw his songs ridiculed by men who are today not remembered by history.
A disturbing instance of hounding you can decipher in the torment Taslima Nasreen has gone through over the years. She moves from one country to another in search of shelter, for her own country has shut its doors to her. It is a shame we do not speak of. And so we put ourselves into deeper shame. Humayun Azad was hounded for years by the dark forces of fanaticism. In the end, he did not live.It is our shame.
Men and women with grey matter have suffered the consequences of originality. In 1960, the Soviet regime of Nikita Khrushchev went, in the manner of attack dogs, after Boris Pasternak. The heart-broken writer of Doctor Zhivago had little choice but to repudiate the Nobel awarded to him. In Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya community has been hounded ceaselessly and not even Sir Zafrullah Khan, its first foreign minister, was spared indignity. Fanatics in Bangladesh have employed their own dark mechanism to keep local Ahmadiyyas in a state of siege.
Hounding by the state has often led to terrible consequences for the hounded. The Moroccan authorities, under King Hassan II, abducted the outspoken opposition politician Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965. The man was never seen or heard of again. Stalin hounded Trotsky and would not rest until his agents had the revolutionary murdered in far-away Mexico. Iran's ayatollahs, for all their professions of religiosity, felt not at all queasy about taking the life of Shahpour Bakhtiar in distant France.
In Bangladesh, Ahmad Sharif was hounded by men whose intellectual competence was symbolised by absolute shallowness. The government of Khaleda Zia cheerfully hounded the academic Muntassir Mamoon and the politician Saber Hossain Chowdhury. Our practice of hounding reached horrendous proportions when the military-backed Fakhruddin Ahmed caretaker administration tried to strip the academics Anwar Hossain, Harun-or-Rashid, Sadrul Amin, Sayeedur Rahman Khan and others of their dignity in blindfolded remand.
One last point: humiliating Serajul Islam Choudhury and Muhammad Yunus demeans all of us. Will someone in government call a halt to all this misplaced activism?