Photo of Tuhin Das courtesy of Renee Rosensteel
By Donnie Mangino
Tuhin Das is the ICORN writer-in-residence of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, and is the author of seven poetry books. In April 2016 he had to flee his home and country Barisal, Bangladesh from threat of death and violence from fundamentalist Islamists. In Bangladesh, freethinking artists and writers are in danger for their anti-Jihad content and live under the threat of death. Today, he calls Pittsburgh his home and shelter. Although he is an ocean away, he possesses an abundance of faith for the future of his country and its people.
“I want to see my Bangladesh improve in all aspects,” Das said.
In the following interview he shares his experience of exile.
What are your earliest memories of writing from childhood? How did they shape the writer you are today?
I used to notice the different poetries that we had in our literature textbooks. My first writing was to make parodies out of these poems, while keeping the same structure and style. And then I started to write poetry for children that were published in various magazines. Around 2000 I published my first magazine ‘The Wild.’ It was a little before the time ‘The Wild’ was published in which I really started to take my writing seriously. To date I have seven books of poetry published. Apart from poetry I write about various political, social issues, the importance of secularism, and the right of free speech.
What role did religion play in your life and career as a writer? How did the implementation of statewide Islam in the ‘80s affect you?
I come from a Hindu family, although I am not a practicing Hindu. With my Hindu background, I am often judged by the people around me; either by the fundamentalists or my neighbors. We are viewed as the minority. I would like to stress a little more on the first question. In my poetry I did not allow religion to have any influence. My poetry is secular in nature and it mostly speaks about the environment and human relations. However, my columns spoke mainly against the influence of religion in politics. It was 2001 when I began to write about bringing justice to the war criminals of the 1971 Bangladesh war. This was the beginning of my protest.
For example, people were encouraging elements of Islam within Bengali poetry. Many symbols of Islam and the Middle East were being encouraged in their poetry. Symbols from the Middle East and Islam. These symbols weren’t common and familiar in Bangladesh. Why should I use these words or why should we encourage poetry that contradicts my heritage? This is one example of the Islamization of literature in Bangladesh. I wrote against the Islamization of poetry. I’m not saying all things in Islam are bad. However, the people who are teaching Islam are trying to impose their original culture, from south Arabia, onto our local culture. It is difficult to adopt this foreign culture, which denies my Bengali heritage and Bengali lifestyle. This is where the conflict begins. We are not in conflict with Islam itself but in the way it is being propagated.
Can you explain your role in the Shahbag protest in 2013?
The Shahbag protest movement started in Dhaka, Bangladesh and began on the basis of three main demands: the first was the trial and punishment of the war criminals of the 1971 war who were the local collaborators with the Pakistani army. They were to blame for rape, killings, and other illegalities. We wanted the war criminals to be tried in court. Their targets included Hindus and Muslims, women, artists, writers, and civilians. They were not being punished because they had power and influence. Two, we wanted the ban the Jamaat-e-Islam party, that was deeply rooted in fundamentalism. This fundamentalism influenced the governance of the country. The third demand was the demand to stop the funding of fundamentalism through organizations such as the Islamic banks, and the insurance companies. According to research, these companies have almost 380 million in Bangladeshi Taka (that’s about $4.8 million in US dollars). Ten percent of that number is used to fund and support militant activities.
The origins of the protest begin with social media and bloggers calling people to action. The protest started as a small gathering, but soon it was over hundreds of thousands of people. Very quickly it spread throughout major cities in Bangladesh. I was one of the main workers at the protest in my home city Barisal, Bangladesh. Everyday we blocked off a large section of a main road within the city, we held signs, we would read protest poetry aloud, we drew satirical cartoons of the ’71 war criminals, and held candlelight vigils for their victims.
What made you first realize your writing could be used as a vehicle for protest? Did any writers influence this?
In 2000-2001 was when I was editing and writing the editorial columns for my magazine ‘The Wild.’ Six issues were published during this time period. Around the third issue was when I began to write about the justice of the war criminals, and also to write against the influence of religion within politics and in my writing. I am mainly influenced by our beloved, and famous late writer, Humayun Azad. He was a liberal writer, who wrote against the persecution of minorities, the Islamization of literature, and the war criminals. He was a foreword-thinking writer. He won several awards in Bangladesh, but mainly people viewed him as a social pariah. In 2004 he was attacked with a machete by fundamentalists at a book fair. Several months later he was found dead in Munich, Germany. It was a person like him and many of the other freethinkers of my time that inspired the protest.
How did you evade the threat of violence and death?
I was stabbed by extremists in 2001, I received threats again in 2006, and in 2013 I had barely escaped the police from my own home. My name came up on a hit list in August 2015 because of my active role in the protest in Barisal. In 2015 six bloggers and activists were killed. Niladri Neel colleague, and fellow writer, was murdered in his own home. This made me feel like the fear and danger was very near. There was no security within the walls of your own house. My name was on the hit list, and I knew I needed to go underground. The group of protestors and I knew that we needed to be more cautious and wary. I wouldn’t come out of my house much; I would work from home with a publishing company. My colleagues would come and collect my work from home, and I would contact them through email. Many of my friends suggested that I shouldn’t go to the police, but I thought I should. I went to the police with a group of others who were on the hit list as well. They didn’t take us seriously, but talked to us separately and asked us what we wrote about on our blogs. There was no serious action being taken against the criminals who were after us. This was when we knew had to take care of ourselves.