(In tribute to Sabeen Mahmud.)
(Published in the Business Standard, 28 April, 2015)

It was around noon on March 2007 when Baghdad’s street of booksellers went up in flames. A suicide car bomber had detonated in the middle of Mutanabbi Street, killing over 20 people. One of them was Mohammed Hayawi, owner of the Renaissance Bookstore.

“Books and stationery, some tied in charred bundles, littered the block,” The New York Times reported. “Firefighters unleashed powerful sprays of water, only to have flames reignite because the paper had transformed into kindling.”

The late Anthony Shadid had been visiting the Renaissance Bookstore since 2003; he commemorated Hayawi in a grieving, thoughtful piece for The Washington Post. “Life goes on,” Hayawwi had said. “We are in the middle of the war and we still smoke the hookah.” Before the bombing, Mutanabbi Street had been filled with booksellers and intellectuals who, like Hayawi, had “tried to make sense of a country that doesn’t make sense any more”.

In Karachi, two days ago, gunmen followed Sabeen Mahmud back from a talk on “Unsilencing Balochistan”, that she’d hosted at T2F, a buzzing hub for citizens who wanted change, and also for music workshops, open mike nights, children’s storytelling sessions. Mahmud was driving home with her mother. When she stopped at a green light, the men with the guns opened fire on either side. She died in hospital; her mother sustained severe injuries. Mahmud was just 40; in the spate of tributes that came up everywhere, one featured the T2F director in a T-shirt that said, “I think therefore I am dangerous.”

(Kamila Shamsie’s tribute to Sabeen Mahmud in The Guardian)

For writers and the creative community from any country going through times when violence reigns along with its fellow thug, the muzzler of dissent, the choice seems stark. They could leave and face the pain (and sometimes the guilt) of self-chosen exile, or stay and face imprisonment, silencing or death. But what is less clear is how you should live if you decide not to leave. Despite all the risks attached to speaking out or creating an open community that might make you a target, the alternative – to remain silent, abandoning all that you love – is unthinkable to many.

There’s a phrase we often employ, in all sorts of circumstances, that is both banal and meaningful: “Stay safe.” It seems like good advice, until you start asking what is safe and what is unsafe. Since when was bookselling a dangerous profession? In what kind of world does hosting a group discussion in a small community centre become an invitation to murder?

Last month, another blogger was killed in Bangladesh. Washiqur Rahman, just 27, used to write on atheism and critique Muslim majoritarianism under the pseudonym “The Ugly Duckling”. Two of his attackers were taken into custody; they had hacked Rahman down on a busy street with meat cleavers, just as the blogger Avijit Roy had been killed a month or so ago. Roy and Rahman had both been outspoken in their critique of religion and had received death threats previously.

The murders of these two bloggers come at a time when a war crimes tribunal in Dhaka has initiated contempt of court proceedings against 23 Bangladeshi writers, journalists, musicians and activists, including Ziaur Rahman, Masud Khan, Bina D’Costa, Shahidul Alam, Anusheh Anadil and others. Their supposed crime is that they expressed concern in a joint statement over the sentencing of the journalist David Bergman. The tribunal’s actions go beyond criminalising critical journalism – they make even expressing dissent or disagreement a crime.

Bookselling and the existence of books, cafes, intellectuals and writers discussing the most pressing issues of their times are a threat indeed: the existence of such a community threatens hardline fundamentalism, because that fundamentalism cannot flourish in an open community.

Bloggers and rationalists who flourish their atheism and question the tenets of religious fanatics, from Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman to Narendra Dabholkar or the exiled Sanal Edamaruku, are seen as a threat because of the fear that their disbelief and scepticism might spread to the mainstream.

Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down not just for one talk, addressing one of the many taboo subjects in Pakistan today, but because the liberal community and space she fostered is a direct challenge to those who would like to see the country descend further into a regime of brutal intolerance. And the Bangladesh writers, historians and creative artists who questioned the tribunal’s decision are now being put under pressure because their dissent could spark wider questioning of how the state and its instruments function.

Beyond the present grief for Mahmud and for others who have died in this escalating war between fundamentalist intolerance and basic human rights, there are lessons for India.

It would be unwise to take the free spaces and the right to dissent that we have had so far for granted. This last year has seen rising clashes between religious and cultural majoritarians and liberal Indians, a takeover of many educational and cultural institutions by ideologues. Ominously, this government has already signalled and acted on its dislike of dissenting voices from non-governmental organisations and the media.

And yet, despite these troubling signs, it is worth remembering that those who stay on in a country going through upheaval often find ways to thrive and survive even the worst attacks on their spirit.

In 2008, Mutanabbi Street reopened in Baghdad. It was a shadow of its former self, but there were books out on the pavements again; reports said that the Friday curfew was lifted shortly after. In 2014, Al-Akhbar carried a report on Mutanabbi Street: the bookstores had not fully returned, but the pavement vendors were thriving, and the cafes were open once again.