Humayun Azad and wolves in the bushes

by Syed Badrul Ahsan
When Humayun Azad died in Munich last year, he quite simply brought a particular intellectual phase to an end in Bangladesh. It is ironic, if you truly sit down beside the bank of a river anywhere in this country and think, knowing how all the people who should have mattered in our lives have simply been dying off or moving into exile or falling steadily quiet. Azad?s of course was not a soul willing to remain silent. In all the years he lived, a full fifty six of them, he made sure that his was a voice that was heard across the country, and beyond it. It was a voice that was not willing to reach a compromise or accommodation with elements he thought were a perennial danger to the future of this free country.

The murderous assault made on him at the Ekushey February book fair last year was manifest proof, if proof were at all needed, of the extent to which he had aroused the ire of seedy men. It was not long after the publication of Pak Sar Zamin Shaad Baad, a powerfully polemical observation of the life and politics of the rejected collaborator class, the collaborators being the old friends of the occupation Pakistan army in 1971, that he came under attack. But the ferocity of the assault did not quite surprise anyone. Almost everyone had known that the enemies of the state, those who had never been able to accept Bangladesh as it came to be shaped during the war and so did all they could to have the state mutate into a shadow of the murderous, communal dispensation they had once defended through killing and rape, were on the prowl for Azad.

And yet, to our collective relief, Humayun Azad survived. The manner of the survival left us in little doubt, though, that life thenceforth for him was going to be different from what it had been up until that point in time. It was his rebirth, something he himself acknowledged as he lay recovering in a Bangkok hospital. Condemned to die, he had made it miraculously back to the light and brilliance of life. But how such a new phase in existence was going to affect his view of the society around him, his perceptions of the world he was part of, remained a question. It would take a long time, or so many of us reasoned, for Humayun Azad to make his way back to the intellectually activist potency he had over the years become synonymous with. When he travelled to Munich to engage in research, we considered the relocation a necessary move in his journey towards a new, perhaps more forceful beginning. That was not to be. The manner of his passing into the ages, in distant Germany, was a silent affair. And yet it was a death the loudness of which reverberated in our souls back here in Bangladesh. In these past twelve months, Azad?s absence has been emblematic of a darkness that promises little of starry light at the end of it all.

It is thus that we survive, as a nation, around the legacy Humayun Azad left behind for his people. His was a voice unafraid to speak the truth, a rarity in a time when good men sometimes tell themselves that closing one?s eyes to the dreadful reality all around is the better part of wisdom. Azad had eyes wide open. He kept politics and its practitioners endlessly under the microscope. There was an extremely high sense of vigilance in him when it came to the question of keeping watch on Pakistan-lovers in this secular republic. And these Pakistan-friendly Bengalis he found all around him, like so many locusts ?- in politics, in administration, in the media, indeed in the drawing rooms of the elite. When such realities crowded around him, Azad retreated into his corner, angry and yet conscious of the need to turn anger into a force for public good. It was such anger that threw up such purposeful works of intellectual inquiry as Amra Ki Ei Bangladesh Cheyechhilam. It was not propaganda that Azad went for. It was simply a forensic study of all the wrong moves that had been made since the secular Bengali state first began to be stripped of its dignity and began to slip, quietly but surely, into the hands of those who had first tried murdering it at its birth in 1971.

A year after Humayun Azad?s passage into the great beyond, there is a stillness that speaks to us of wolves lurking in the bushes. These are wolves he warded off in his lifetime. These are the sinister creatures we need to keep at bay, through remembering the ideals Humayun Azad lived by.

(Dr. Humayun Azad, academic, social commentator and scholar extraordinary, died in Munich, Germany, on 12 August 2004)