December 17, 1978. A study circle, comprising only 15 members, was formed at an auditorium of the then Bangladesh Education Extension Department (now National Academy for Educational Management). The members of the study circle pledged that every week they would read a book and reflect on it through a spontaneous, interactive discussion. Forty years later, such study circles have been replicated in 14,000 secondary and higher secondary level educational institutions all over Bangladesh—engaging 8,30,0000 students in reading and reviewing some of the world's greatest literary works. Besides reaching out to school students, BSK's fleet of 46 mobile libraries, buses and trucks converted to libraries, run all over the country to serve almost half a million readers from all walks of life.
Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, the convener of that study circle, ultimately founded an organisation called Bishwo Shahitto Kendro (BSK)—with the motto “we want enlightened humans”—that has created generations of enlightened young Bangladeshis.
How did Professor Sayeed, a teacher of Bengali language and literature, inspire millions of people to join his movement of reading books—at a time when reading anything except textbooks was frowned upon, when teachers actually used to instruct their pupils not to 'harm' their academic performance by reading 'unnecessary' books?
“I was brought up in a society and family in which literary practices were valued as part of the anti-colonial movement. In the sixties, when I completed my study and entered the teaching profession, literature was regarded as a weapon to fight the Pakistani authoritarian regime,” he recalls.
“But when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation, I realised that the general masses were far from the light of arts and literature. Appreciation of literature as a source of knowledge and excellence was confined to a small group of urban elites and academicians. In most of the educational institutions, arts and literature were regarded as unnecessary subjects and our students' intellects were confined to some particular textbooks,” he adds.
The formation of the study circles was his first initiative to dispel people's ignorance. Inspired by the success of these study circles, he thought of establishing a library in Dhaka. “At that time, I was also working as a presenter at Bangladesh Television. This engagement helped me a lot to reach out to people from different quarters with my plan of setting up a library and a centre for study circles.” With the help of well-wishers, Professor Sayeed established a library of 100,000 books. To his dismay, however, the rich library could attract no more than a hundred regular members.
“I was really shocked to see that even most of our regular members wanted to read cheap detective fictions and film magazines in the library. I realised that setting up a library in Dhaka is not a solution to the problem. So, I started to
travel all over Bangladesh, particularly to schools and colleges, to make our students and teachers aware of the importance of reading up on arts and literature,” shares Professor Sayeed.
Despite immense fund crisis, the dilapidated communication system of war-ravaged Bangladesh, disappointing resistance from school teachers and reluctance of government officials, Professor Sayeed did not budge from his cause. He finally convinced the educational institutions and the government to support his initiative in 1984. Since then, the Secondary Education Quality and Access Enhancement Project (SEQAEP) of the Ministry of Education has been supporting BSK's nationwide 'Development of Reading Habit' programme. It has been running in 14,000 secondary and higher secondary level institutions; in the process, it has introduced 8.3 million students (from grades six to ten) to the greatest literary works of the world.
“We select these books very carefully for the students, keeping in mind their intellectual maturity. We usually choose 15-20 books from all literary genres, giving them a taste of Bengali and international literature. But we focus mostly on classics,” says Professor Sayeed. “Most of the books are BSK's own publication, which means we can ensure the quality of the books.”
But reading is not the only component of this programme. Students have to participate in a series of lectures on ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, art of reading and appreciation of literature and arts. They must also engage in critical analyses of the books they read, which BSK assesses at the end of the programme to evaluate the reading comprehension of the participants. In this way, BSK is not only encouraging students to read books but also developing critical thinking.
Ishfaq Salehin, a student of a higher secondary school in Dhaka and a participant of the programme, says, “I have been participating in this programme since I was in class six. Now I am studying in class nine. This year, I will also take part in it. It is not like our usual exam. Reading the books and answering the questions is fun. It's not actually an assessment or exam; it's like re-reading the books. If I hadn't participated in this, I would not have been able to read these books in the midst of school and coaching classes.”
The BSK also offers attractive gift hampers for the participants. Those who read five books become eligible for an award of four books. The best reader wins a collection of 10 books. Besides the prize, the award ceremony itself, which includes inspiring speeches given by eminent personalities, is a great source of joy for the students. Abrar Sakib Khan, a friend of Ishfaq, won an award of 10 books last year. He says, “The experience of receiving an award from Abu Sayeed sir and Zafar Iqbal sir is unforgettable. But my highest achievement is getting their autographs in the books”.
In 2017, more than 90 percent of the participants attended this assessment and 34,38,000 books have been awarded to these participants. The most hopeful thing is that this initiative of BSK is gaining popularity at an astounding rate. In 2018, nearly 2.3 million new students joined this programme.
In the last 40 years, BSK has developed a base of at least one crore readers. “I have always dreamed of developing an enlightened generation which will possess knowledge on every field and on every aspect. This is the inspiration behind all my projects. I believe this generation will be the flag bearers of renaissance in Bangladesh,” says Professor Sayeed.
While enlightening students with his reading and excellence programme, Professor Sayeed did not abandon his dream of building a rich and open library. At the BSK centre, he has developed a library of 200,000 books. Anybody can read these books for free at the library. To be a member of the library, a person has to deposit only Tk 300 as security money and pay a nominal monthly membership fee of Tk 20.
He did not stop there by establishing a stationery library, and came up with the unique idea of launching mobile libraries. Buses and trucks of five different sizes have been fitted with book shelves and converted to libraries which can carry 4000, 6000, 8000 and 11000 books respectively. These vehicles now travel 250 upazilas and 58 districts of the country engaging half a million readers. In June this year, 36 new buses and trucks will be added to this fleet.
BSK's growing fleet of mobile libraries are also a testimony to Professor Sayeed's dedication for his enlightening movement. “Running such a large fleet of vehicle is a costly enterprise. It's the only project we have accomplished with some initial foreign donations. We were really struggling to manage funds. We did not get any support from the government until last year. Thanks to this much needed support, we are hoping to operate all our libraries at least for five more years.”
BSK has also been organising regular study circle in its own building, which is called Alor Ishkool. Anyone above 18 can be a member of this study circle, attend lectures on a wide range of topics—world literature, classical and contemporary philosophy, poetry, cinema, photography, art appreciation—and enjoy different types of cultural performances. BSK is now planning to launch branches of Alor Ishkool in all the major cities of Bangladesh with the motto “We want enlightened individuals”.
“My goal is to develop a generation of enlightened youths who will initiate a renaissance of knowledge and excellence in Bangladesh. How can I achieve this? I need to introduce them to the biggest minds of the world who have achieved the highest order of intellectual excellence. Litterateurs and philosophers like Dante, Sheikh Saadi, Plato, Aristotle, and great religious preachers and prophets have documented their great thoughts and ideas in their books. Instilling their intellectual resources in our minds by reading their works is the only way to achieve our vision and enrich our intellect. This is how our youths can be enlightened human beings,” concludes Professor Sayeed.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org