Attended by Nobel Laureates and Booker winners, the South Asian nation’s biggest literary event faces allegations of denying space to critics of the Sheikh Hasina government.

For four days last week, Bangladesh's intelligentsia clad in traditional loose shirt kurtas, embroidered shawls, Batik sarees and some in western outfits sipped on hot tea while listening to poetry and animated discussions at the neatly trimmed lawn of Bangla Academy in Dhaka. 

This crowd, a mix of old and young and mostly well-to-do, made the Dhaka Lit Fest (DLF) in Bangladesh's capital one of the most coveted events in the city's cultural calendar.

After a three-year lull due to the pandemic, this year's DLF, the 10th edition, once again brought together writers of all kinds—poets, journalists, novelists and historians—from all around the world to this bustling South Asian metropolis. 

In a city where cultural openings like these are still infrequent, there are few things more satisfying than hearing an internationally acclaimed novelist zestfully talking about the nuances of fiction writing or a seasoned journalist dissecting the ins and outs of some global events.

The guest list of the 10th DLF included Nobel Laureate Abdul Razak Gurnah, Booker winners Shehan Karunatilaka, Geetanjali Shree and Daisey Rockwell, Neustadt recipient Nuruddin Farah, Booker nominee Amitav Ghosh and celebrated columnist Pankaj Mishra among hundreds other notable writers and speakers from five continents. 

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To Adnan Habib, an English literature student at a private university in Dhaka, DLF offers a getaway to world literature. "The energy, the vibe, the cosmopolitan atmosphere, you can't find it in Dhaka very often," he said.

Even seasoned Bangladeshi writer Saad Z Hossain could not hide his excitement. Talking with TRT World, Hossain said that the idea that Nobel laureates and Booker winners would come to Dhaka for a festival was so farfetched once that no one even bothered to try. "That ten years on this is not only a reality but it's almost hum drum is testimony to the consistency and quality of the festival," he said.

While DLF has helped cement Bangladesh's position on the literary map and patronised aspiring writers, it has failed to address a significant concern that many have termed "the elephant in the room"— the exceedingly restrictive and censorious environment in which Bangladeshi writers and journalists are forced to work.

Bangladesh's deteriorating freedom of expression under the decade-long rule of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is well documented by global watchdogs and human rights bodies. Last year's World Press Freedom Index, prepared annually by the Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), had Bangladesh ranked 162nd out of 180 countries, the worst among South Asian nations.

In the last five years, the Hasina government has passed the stringent Digital Security Act, which the United Nations has termed "an example of flawed legislation" that "imposes draconian punishments for a wide range of vaguely defined acts".

A Dhaka-based think tank has recorded that nearly 1,500 people—many of them writers and journalists—have been detained since 2020 under this law. Meanwhile, a draft broadcast law under consideration seeks to allow the government to jail a person for giving out "misleading and false" information even on a television talk show.  

Against such a backdrop, DLF, with its rather "naiveté" discussions and sessions that conveniently bypassed any criticism of the host country's government—as one critic pointed out—has not been able to champion the cause of freedom of expression in any meaningful way.

An enthralled crowed gathered in numbers inside the Bangla Academy premise for DLF.
An enthralled crowed gathered in numbers inside the Bangla Academy premise for DLF. (Mahmud Hossain Opu / TRTWorld)

Emergence of DLF

Bangladesh's literary circuit has always been dominated by writers who prefer writing in the native Bangla language not only for a greater audience but also out of nationalistic zeal. It is probably the only country in modern history which has shed blood for the sake of the mother tongue. 

Even though Bangla still is the most preferred language of the country's writers, a new group of authors has slowly emerged throughout the past two decades who have chosen English as their favoured language.

The primary attendees of DLF are these groups of English-embracing writers and readers. Besides, a relatively sizeable Bangladeshi diaspora with an upbringing or education in Western countries also attends this. The festival, in fact, began with a pilot event in 2011 under the aegis of the globally acclaimed Hay-on-Wye festival. After three successful iterations—2012, 2013 and 2014—the festival was re-christened, the Dhaka Lit Fest.

According to the organisers, the festival is focused primarily on literature but embraces culture and ideas more broadly, generating discussions on a wide array of topics. 

Zafar Sobhan, the editor of the English language Dhaka Tribune that sponsored DLF since its inception, said that the festival brings the world's best to Bangladesh and provides a platform for the country's best to showcase their work and ideas.

"Dhaka Lit Fest helps foment a climate of discussion, debate, and dissent," Sobhan said. "It inspires people to think, to question, to dream, and to take up the cudgels to fight the good fight."

How inclusive is DLF?

Critics point out that DLF's claim of inspiring debate and dissent is grossly overstated, if not untrue. Talking to TRT World, Australia-based Bangladeshi writer Faham Abdus Salam said that in the West, literature festivals and similar gatherings are the kinds of places where one would find the dissenters and non-conformists—highly critical of the existing status quo. "Ironically, the DLF is sponsored by the people who are achingly close to the inner circle of an authoritarian regime," he said.

Salam's observation is not unfounded. A case in point could be the session titled "Chap er mukhe sangbadikota (Journalism under pressure)". The session had invited two editors of two news outlets known to be brazenly friendly to the Hasina regime and are accused of seldom speaking truth to power. Their participation in that session has sparked several memes, most notably one viral social media post where they are shown in front of a plate of chap (a popular meat preparation that shares the same Bangla word, which means pressure). 

DLF has also seemingly stopped inviting speakers critical of the current Bangladesh government, including internationally celebrated photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam, who was once jailed for criticising the Hasina regime four years ago. "It's a relief that I am no longer invited as a speaker. It must mean I am doing something right," Alam told TRT World.

K. Anis Ahmed, another director of DLF, refuted the allegation of bias. "Many people who are critical of the government, or their works, including Shahidul Alam, have been featured at DLF over the years," he said. 

K.M Khalid, Bangladesh's state minister of cultural affairs, also denied any state intervention or sanctions on freedom of expression as well as literary and artistic works. In a statement to TRT World, Khalid, who inaugurated this year's DLF, said the government has always patronised writers and artists. "They have, in fact, flourished many times when Awami League [the ruling party] stays in power. We, as a party, uphold the secular values and pluralism more than anyone else."

Writer and journalist Rezaul Karim Rony found this attitude of ruling party leaders the core of the problem. "Yes, the number of writers and artists has increased, but that doesn't mean the space for pluralistic views or dissidence has also improved." On the contrary, he said, the government has been steamrolling any individual or institution they think is a potential threat. Rony's online magazine named Joban was shut down in 2018 after it published a highly critical story against the government.

Rony said the main problem with the DLF is that it carefully and conveniently bypasses these critical issues that have engulfed present Bangladesh. "There, they superficially talk about global issues, the Russia-Ukraine war, Mahsa Amini's hijab protest, but don't address the elephant in the room: the worsening state of democracy and freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Isn't that hypocritical?" Rony questioned.

DLF organisers didn't clarify their stance against these allegations. Indian author Vivek Menezes, who attended this year's DLF as a speaker and moderator, perhaps provided a realistic reflection on these. 

"It's complex. I do organise similar events in Goa (Menezes is the co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival), and our challenges are different. Still, compromises are always required, which can be achieved with integrity. That's what I saw at DLF."

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Source: TRT World