Bad Form reached out to Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, the editor and publisher of the socio-political platform Shuddashar. Shuddhashar started off as an independent magazine in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1990 before developing into a publishing house. Its commitment to promoting and supporting writers who wrote from marginalised and often taboo viewpoints that were critical of religious fundamentalism and corruption resulted in constant threats to its staff, including the deaths of two contributing authors, Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy, in 2015. On 31 October that year, the Shuddhashar offices were attacked and Mr. Chowdhury was grievously injured. Having fled the country for his and his family’s safety, he has continued Shuddhashar as an online platform, dedicated to writing pieces at the intersection of politics, human rights, culture, freedom of expression and secularism – crucial topics that are all too easily framed as criminal and unwanted. Shuddhashar and Mr. Chowdhury have been recognised with the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Award in 2016, and Mr. Chowdhury has recently been appointed to the national board of Norwegian Editors. Ibtisam Ahmed conducted this interview in early 2020.
Thank you for speaking to us. Could you tell us how important it is for platforms like yours to keep their work going, despite being seen as controversial and even criminal?
In my opinion, it is essential that we keep working. For one thing, I strongly believe we did nothing wrong. Shuddhashar was attacked because people (Islamic extremists) didn’t like what we were publishing. But in a healthy democracy where dissent is seen as a necessary facet of debate and growth, we did nothing wrong at all. The government of Bangladesh should have supported us by protecting our right to freedom of expression. Therefore, despite adversities, if a platform has a clear purpose, concept, and commitment to ideals, it will try to do its job no matter what. For me, I felt I had no choice but to continue – it was a natural instinct. But doing this work does not get easier, so this commitment is very important to keep working.
You work with a lot of writers who are at-risk in difficult jurisdictions and locations. If you are able to share without too much detail, how do you reach out to them and what precautions do you take for their situations?
Thank you for this question. Each case is different and depends on the country of origin, the host country for exiled authors, and the current political situation, which is always in flux. In many cases, many authors use a pen name. I always give authors the option of using a pen name or pseudonym. Many writers are reached through various international and human rights networks, and then others I learn about through contacts I already have. It is a slow process and requires time to build confidence and trust. It is not the same as walking to someone’s office down the street.
Free speech is a concept that is increasingly being used by extremists to actually stifle speech of marginalised communities. That is to say, free speech of minorities is often seen as damaging or even criminal. What is your belief about the value of free speech in such a politicised world?
Free speech is one of the most important tools of society's progress. Free speech is a prerequisite of equality, fairness, and democratic values. Of course those in political power are threatened by free speech. They – especially in authoritarian or hybrid regimes – don’t want any dissent. Yet dissent is exactly what makes societies learn and improve. Dissent is the source of creativity in any society. So free speech absolutely must be protected for minority voices and for a diversity of perspectives.
Shuddhashar has a history of being a magazine, a printing press, and now an online platform. How has adapting to new modes and media shaped your work?
First of all, we had to accept the reality of our changed circumstances. I admit that was difficult. But then we started working on our goals and objectives, and we started thinking about new opportunities and how to work within our current circumstances. We started finding new writers and readers in our international context, including writers and free speech activists from other countries who were exiled. So, now we have committed to a new dimension of Shuddhashar. Due to the lack of experience with the new online medium, there continue to be some challenges, but we are learning. It is very much a question of material reality.
Online spaces are important for accessibility, but they can also be blocked by governments, including by governments in countries your contributors come from. How do you deal with such challenges as an independent and small platform?
This is a big challenge. The situation of shutting down access is happening in several different countries. However, the opposite effect can also be observed. For instance, when access is limited, this can actually increase people’s interest. Especially modern tech-savvy young people will find an alternative gateway to access. I am hopeful that Shuddhashar will continue to be read by our Bangladeshi friends and allies who seek a refuge of ideas in this community, and I hope that they will continue to write for us.
Bad Form is based on providing a space for voices of colour to speak out. As a Bangladeshi platform, does Shuddhashar have a similar experience of racism in the industry? Are there any other marginalisations you have worked with, like queer writers and disabled writers?
In a global context, any platform that gives voice to Bangladeshis is already creating a space for marginalised voices because Bangladeshis are dismissed and discriminated against in most countries – in the West, the Middle East, and in India and Pakistan. Besides that, Shuddhashar is particularly committed to working with queer writers and women. We recently had a special issue on feminism. In August, we will have a special issue on LGBTQI+ identity. We also have found, through some shared experiences of racism in European countries, an affinity with at-risk writers from Africa, and we hope to be able to work with them more in the future. But we see Shuddhashar not only as providing a space for marginalised voices. We understand that this is the work of a collective, and we work with and alongside allies who are committed to the same ideals of social and economic equality, human rights, and freedom of expression.
Fiction is a popular means of understanding politics and crime. Sherlock is always in the zeitgeist. Do you have any South Asian equivalents you feel people should read more of?
This is an interesting question. I think there is no single answer to the question. I think Arundhati Roy's novel shakes the reader in this regard and often delve into criminalised lives even it if it is not strictly crime fiction. I think the novels of Ahmed Safa and Akhtaruzzaman Elias in Bangladesh are far more political.
Shuddashar can be accessed online at www.shuddhashar.com, which includes an archive of previous issues, e-books and publications, and an ongoing blog. Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury tweets from the handle @AhmedurChy.