There are two versions of the story of publishing in Bangladesh. The official version, tokenised every year during the month-long Ekushey Boi Mela, trumpets the Bangladeshi exceptionalism of a well-read country with a rich cultural and literary heritage. According to this version, publishers are in rude health; every citizen is a reader, every other citizen is a poet.

But if we take a closer look at this façade, it falls away at the most basic interrogation to reveal another version. Publishing in Bangladesh is a battle against creative censorship – censorship by many covert means through a combination of operational factors and conditions imposed on an informal industry. The robustness that should come with the healthy development of an essential sector is missing.

It is this already precarious landscape that has had a visit from the Covid-19 pandemic. To the multipronged attack of the viruses of authoritarianism, fundamentalism, majoritarianism, nepotism, and suppression of free speech, a biological virus has been added. There is no vaccine for any of them.

The fault-lines

Several publishers wanted the general holiday declared to tackle Covid-19 in Bangladesh to be ended. They cited loss of income due to difficulties with distribution as their reason. There is some truth to this, but those pushing hardest for the country to be opened again did so for personal benefit rather than the best interests of the industry or care for human life.

Publishers cannot rely on the business generated by selling books to private individuals to stay afloat. One of the reasons for this is that there is a syndicate amongst the traditional publishers in Dhaka’s Bangla Bazar who have a stranglehold on nationwide distribution. Whether it is sales agents who travel throughout the country and sell books, or purchases made through post orders, the syndicate controls the distribution and guards its territory fiercely against competitors. The practice has gone on for so long that other publishers, especially smaller presses daring to attempt intellectualism, have ceded the ground. They concentrated their private distribution efforts on bookshops.

Three obstacles have arisen from this. First, this makes business city-centric, often centred on Dhaka. Second, there is a scarcity of bookshops in the country. Those that exist are in the cities. The ones in the upscale neighbourhoods neither stock nor have relationships with Bangladeshi publishers. Those that do have shown encouraging signs of growing. Publishers, especially the independent ones, supplement this by selling books directly to readers at their offices.

But then comes the third obstacle. Covid-19 has made people wary of non-essential social interactions (and buying books is certainly seen as being non-essential) and has had a severe economic impact on the populace. The few online sales platforms that do exist have been neglected by the promises of Digital Bangladesh – the ruling Awami League’s flagship programme – and, therefore, are not robust enough to contend with a pandemic and its effects.

Here, too, there is discrimination against smaller publishers and books that challenge convention or require critical thinking, under pressure from state and non-state actors. That leaves governmental schemes as the lifeblood of the publishing industry.

Dubious practices

Promoting independent book publication is an essential responsibility of governments, but none of that matters in Bangladesh. The publishing industry has a longstanding and unavoidable relationship with the government, despite the latter showing little interest in or care for it. Not only does the industry operate under the purview of the Ministry of Culture, but it is reliant on governmental grants and purchasing schemes.

Tendering processes, in which publishers are sorted into hierarchical categories influenced by nepotism are further affected by books entering through the backdoor after under-the-table deals. For, in Bangladesh, there is always a system and a shadow system. The sun may be perpetually stuck at the point of setting, never allowed to rise again and travel the short distance to noon. But the shadow is always many times longer than the object, with the object itself shrinking to insignificance.

The Public Library and the Jatiyo Grontho Kendra are the two government purchasing projects known to all. For these, publishers are arranged into a hierarchical pyramid comprised of three categories. The higher the category, the higher the compensation. To climb the ladder, publishers need to develop relationships with the government. Appeasing the state by publishing books that it wants rather than books the publisher deems of a good quality is, therefore, an occupational hazard.

In addition to this, answering the call for profits has seen motivational and celebrity books take over the industry, with the media – some of whom own publishing companies – complicit in this activity by protecting and promoting these books exclusively at the cost of good literature. New readers are being put off reading and good publishing practices are being eroded.

Bangladesh’s recently announced budget shows a government living in a dream world of its own creation, where the post Covid-19 reality does not exist. In this world, publishing will proceed as usual. The pittance of Tk three crore reserved for cultural activities, including publishing, shows how neglected the industry is by a budget that has claimed Bangladesh’s economy is unaffected by Covid-19. The truth about the industry is wrapped in deceit.

However, arguing with people who have the ultimate authority on deciding facts and determining the truth is futile. Instead, let us look at what existing within this purchasing framework is like for a publisher.

Achieving even the highest category is not enough to keep a publisher solvent. Bangladeshis, though, are innovative. So publishers have taken clever initiatives to solve this problem. A private, much more lucrative, government purchasing scheme exists exclusively for the members of a publishing syndicate that monopolises the lobbying power of the industry. Its close alignment to the state reveals the mutually beneficial relationship between publishing and power.

For instance, 2020 was earmarked for the birth centenary celebrations of Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The year was to be Mujib Borsho. Normally , books about the Liberation War of 1971 and the heroes of the independence movement would form the majority of new books launched at the Ekushey Boi Mela. Old books and stories would be rehashed; new forms of expressing nationalism and obeisance would be found; and occasionally a historically important book would surface.

This year, publishers have redoubled their efforts for the windfall promised by Mujib Borsho. Sadly, their hopes for a big payday may have already been dashed. Tk 350 crore worth of books about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman have been purchased by the Ministry of Education in 2020 – the list of publishers from whom these books were bought included only three registered and recognised publishers, the rest being people who had no publishing track record or history of activity in the industry.

In fact, some of those most vocal about ending the Covid-19 general holiday published some of these books. They wanted to be able to take them physically to schools, colleges and local governments, knowing that these institutes would have to purchase books about Mujibur Rahman this year. That would only be possible if these were open and fully functional.

Moving online

One rare truth spoken by the government is that this endless cycle of flexing power and association with power, even within the publishing industry, will be unscathed by Covid-19. In fact, the culture of anti-intellectualism nurtured over decades will thrive even more now. The staunch classist segregation within publishing – those with means are the ones publishing and being published; those without are marginalised out of existence – may have been exposed by the pandemic, but it is being reinforced rather than rectified.

Neither the economics of publishing nor its principles exist in this environment, preventing the development of an industry. My journey into publishing through Shuddhashar was to fight this plague of anti-intellectualism. From being a part of the little magazine movement for fourteen years to publishing books for eleven, I operated outside the mainstream. For those of us on the margins, it was all about cultivating an unbreakable relationship with readers through the shared belief in the power of words. It was activism for a common good.

When I made the move from little magazine to books in 2004, the internet was in its early days in Bangladesh. With its arrival came the advent of online forums and blogs that led to an explosion of intellectual stimulation because of a large number of people connecting virtually. I wanted to bring in the discipline and rigours of editing and publishing – absent even in much of our traditional publishing – to this self-publishing arena. Books demand a standard that internet forums and blogs do not.

I tasked myself with turning the online word into the printed one, to encourage writers to fully develop their critical thoughts and realise their visions, and to document and disseminate the best of the intellectualism that a majoritarian country sought to suppress. It created a revenue stream for authors who, until then, were happy to give away the fruits of their mind for free online. One of the uglier truths of Bangladeshi cultural exceptionalism is that we as a nation have not valued our culture enough to pay for it. We believe we are entitled to culture free of cost, and in the process of demanding it for free, we have cheapened it. As a publisher, it was my duty to oppose this.

A new publishing

So along with likeminded publishers, we created a home near the University of Dhaka and its neighbouring Bangla Academy, away from the traditional publishing centre of Bangla Bazar. Aziz Super Market was an unfinished building whose owners’ grand ambitions of a modern shopping centre were put on hold by numerous legal disputes. The infamy meant plenty of vacancy and cheap rent a stone’s throw from the historical intellectual heartland of Bangladesh.

Before the more profitable businesses of T-shirts and, eventually, other items of clothing started occupying the market and pushed the rent up to squeeze publishers out, we capitalised on the benefits of the location to try and usher in a new way of publishing in Bangladesh. Fiction was popular amongst readers, and there was already a culture of reading poetry. Alongside these, we started to publish treatises, polemics and essays in book form.

While traditional houses and the syndicate were insular to new voices, we focused on a new generation of writers and readers. Daily addas that adopted the socratic method in pursuit of knowledge over tea, biscuits and jhalmuri became a fixture at our office. We found many of the one-thousand-plus books we have published at these sessions, discovered many first-time writers who became bestsellers and intellectual heavyweights. Readers shared our thirst for knowledge and responded enthusiastically to our books on rationalism, indigenous populations, and LGBTQ+ issues, helping us establish a strong socio-political and freethinking identity.

We had failures, too. We tried unsuccessfully to set up an informal translation system in Bangladeshi publishing. We oversaw quality translations of some important works, but the accepted practice of obtaining translation rights is still lacking. Many translated books are passed off as original works – more than a few by renowned writers – encouraging plagiarism and piracy. There is no standard or discipline. Nevertheless, ours was an organic, symbiotic growth replicated by other kindred publishers and their multiplying readership. We were engaging with people and creating a lasting impact. That made us a threat.

Aziz Super Market was the scene of the original Shahbag movement – not the 2013 one against Awami League’s seeming compromise with Islamist forces, whose cause was corrupted and appropriated by the party, and which continues to be misunderstood to this day – but the 2007 one. When a civil society-backed military government assumed power in 2007, writers, bloggers, publishers and readers congregated at the market and spilled over to the university grounds to interrogate the regime and protest against suppressions of democracy and human rights. There were raids and arrests to neutralise the protest. We were policed and censored.

Rather than reversing such trends, policing and censorship have become standard practices in publishing now. Direct police presence to monitor and approve books available at the Ekushey Boi Mela started in 2017. Since the publishing syndicate and the Bangladeshi intelligentsia are close to power and need to preserve the status quo, they do not object.

A year before this, publisher Shamsuzzoha Manik was arrested for hurting religious sentiments and his Ba-Dwip stall at the 2016 edition of the Mela was shut down. Several intellectuals censured Manik and came out in support of censorship, and many publishers tacitly agreed.

Point of no return

However, it was the year 2015 which marked the point of no return for oppression against freedom of speech and creative censorship. For me, it was a personal point of no return.

Avijit Roy, one of my authors and friends, and a formidable freethinking intellectual whose books on rationalism included the first Bengali study of homosexuality, was hacked to death by machete-wielding Islamists outside the Ekushey Boi Mela. His wife, Bonya Ahmed, was injured in the attack. Two and a half months later, in May, Ananta Bijoy Das, a burgeoning freethinker and another of my authors, was killed in similar fashion in broad daylight near his home.

In October that year, they came for me in my office. Machetes struck my torso and split open my jaw. The difference between life and death for me was that my attackers were distracted by two brave friends visiting me at the time, and the thickness of my wooden furniture that softened the blows. Fellow publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was less fortunate and was murdered on the same day.

One by one, we fell. With every attack, the fundamentalist voices grew louder, taking on the form of a majoritarian mainstream view appeased by the government. We were to blame for what was happening to us. We should not hurt religious sentiments or threaten the peace of the nation.

The solidarity of friends and a determination to reprint and distribute the books of Avijit Roy, Ananta Bijoy Das and other threatened freethinkers, saw Shuddhashar participate in the 2016 edition of the Ekushey Boi Mela, although not with its own stall as we had done previously. It was to be a statement: we are still here; we have not been defeated.

Ultimately, when rhetoric meets reality, there is only one winner. The presses printing my books were visited by law enforcement officers and Islamists. The stall selling them was harassed. Allies had to retreat. I was living in exile by then, and, like Manik, have not been able to return to publishing books in Bangladesh. Direct announcements, orders, bans or press notes are no longer necessary to censor us. Once you are forced out of Ekushey Boi Mela, your place is gone for good – unless you bow to power.

The new alternative

That is why, today, I publish Shuddhashar as a magazine for free thinking, of and for freedom. Whereas once I became a publisher to bring the virtual world to the real, physical one, I now publish the magazine online. Our issue on blasphemy came out after the Covid-19 outbreak.

Thankfully, none of our friends and regular contributors have fallen to it, but the psychological impact of the pandemic and its consequences have hampered their output. We experienced similar difficulties with our recently released latest issue on LGBTQ+. Audience engagement has been lower at a time when I was trying to step it up. One of the things we did to mitigate this for the latter issue is have a guest editor who is an expert in the field.

Not only did he do a superb job of putting together an inclusive and comprehensive issue in a relatively short period of time, he broadened our contributor base. Through their networks we have found new readers. A combination of this and people returning to old habits as Covid-19 drags on has seen an uptick in our reader engagement.

The guest editor may be a concept we can replicate in a post-Covid-19 world, provided we find people who share our values. The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the overwhelming flow of misinformation. There is a need for correct information and quality writing from experts in their field, which such a model can address.

But there is a catch-22 for us. Guest editors and expert contributors are easier to obtain for recognisable brands. Shuddhashar is beginning to be recognised in some quarters as a publication of international standard, but its journey from a domestic platform in Bangladesh to a global platform with a focus on Bangladesh has not gone on for long enough for it to become a known entity worldwide.

That Bangladesh itself lacks the cachet of our South Asian neighbours makes it that much more difficult to capture the attention of readers, never mind that our thoughts, hopes and plights are no less important or relevant. Covid-19 has made cross-border physical engagement with prospective readers and writers at seminars and conferences impossible. Being restricted in talking about our work limits our growth to social media algorithms that cannot distinguish between good and bad information.

Although Shuddhashar is now a not-for-profit venture, like all other publishers, I fear for funding in the aftermath of the global pandemic. Moreover, the failure of Digital Bangladesh to think about publishing and offer solutions in the digital age, has kept ebooks from taking off and restricted e-publishing to the upper echelons of society. Covid-19 has, hence, made us halt our plans to return to publishing books – a long-held ambition that will have to wait for more certain times. But my journey into publishing itself was born of innovation, and I am having to think creatively once more.

We have added an op-ed section to our bi-monthly subject-based issues. We have also created a blog, to groom younger writers and engage with younger readers. We have more fully accepted our inadvertent activism as part of what we do and started to release statements about human rights violations the world over, particularly the suppression of freedoms of speech and expression.

Readers and writers are responding to these shorter-length pieces on different topics. We will launch a podcast in September, releasing two interview-based episodes a month in an attempt to recreate our addas virtually. Originally planned for next year, the plans have been accelerated because of Covid-19. We are having to find a variety of ways to get our work to as broad a readership as possible, catering to different demographics and struggling to be heard above the constant din of the churn of digital content, with negligible resources.

Covid-19 will expedite the concerted efforts to destroy that which is good about our publishing and amplify the worst aspects of it. The global pandemic is not to blame for either. We conceived and perfected over many years modes of practising anti-intellectualism through publishing in Bangladesh.

The handful of good publishers who intend to serve and preserve intellectualism despite systemic obstacles will now be pushed further to the brink. Creative censorship requires creative solutions, but it is a battle between a force armed with the full might of the state, mutated by Covid-19, and an underfunded, malnourished, depleted melee of idealists. Yet, foolish as it may be, I believe principles can defeat viruses in the struggle against erasure.

As told to Ikhtisad Ahmed.

Ahmedur Rashid Tutul is a Bangladeshi free-thinker, and editor and publisher of Shuddhashar.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.