A 73-year-old atheist writer and publisher, Shamsuzzoha Manik has been languishing in prison in Bangladesh since February 15, 2016. Police have charged Manik under the country’s harsh Internet law that criminalizes criticism of religion. He faces up to 14 years in jail if convicted.

The latest effort to get him free became futile, as the High Court of Bangladesh on May 23 denied him bail. His lawyer Tobarak Hossain said that they will continue the legal battle to get the author and publisher free.

On February 15, 2016, police handcuffed Shamsuzzoha Manik, the owner of the publishing house Ba-Dwip Prakashan, and shut down his book stall at the annual book fair held in Dhaka.

Police seized six books. Their target was a translation anthology called Islam Bitarka (The Islam Debate), published in 2013. But they also seized five others: Aryans and the Indus Civilization; Jihad: Forced Conversions, Imperialism, and Slavery’s Legacy; Islam’s Role in Social Development; Women’s Place in Islam; and Islam and Women, in case they were “insulting to Islam”.

Police also seized more 75 books published by him from Kataban and Nilkhet areas of the capital in separate drives.

Alongside Manik, two of his associates were arrested under Section 57(2) of the draconian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. The two others are Fakir Taslim Uddin Kajal, official at the publication house, and Shamsul Alam, a writer. The two were released a month later, as police did not find their involvement in publishing the book.

The book fair, popularly known as Ekushey Boi-Mela, is the largest event for Bangladeshi writers, publishers, and readers. Since 1978, the state institution Bangla Academy has been organizing this month-long festival commemorating the Language Movement of 1952 and its martyrs.


Who is Shamsuzzoha Manik?

Shamsuzzoha Manik was a prominent student leader in the 60s.  He studied political science in Dhaka College from 1960-1962 and in Dhaka University from 1962 to 1966. In this period, he became a major organizer of the student movements against army ruler Gen Ayub Khan. He also acted a pioneering role in the Liberation Movement of Bangalees at that time along with other front ranking student leaders.

Being a communist atheist in ideology, he later became involved in organizing peasants against oppressions and establishing their rights.

He become dissected from the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) in 1972 on some debates over the path over communism and indulged himself in researching and organizing a new communist force which might be congenial for Bangalee people. He wanted an undivided Bengal and stuck to his campaign through his write ups and blogging. He established a website Bangarastra.net to propagate his ideology.

He worked with Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), Multi Disciplinary Action Research Centre and Adibasi Unnayan Kendra (Indigenous People Development Centre) as a researcher.  He worked over the Garo Indigenous Community in greater Mymenshing area of Bangladesh.

He has established the Ba-Dwip publishing house and has also authored a good number of books. Aryans and the Indus Civilization (Arjojon O Sindhu Sovvota) is his famous work.


Muzzling of faiths

The arrest of Manik came amid mounting fears over freedom of speech in conservative Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has seen a series of killings of secular bloggers and publishers by Islamist militants.

He was arrested in the face of warning of violent protests over one of his books which the Islamists deemed offensive.

Manik was the translator and publisher of the book “Islam Bitorko” (Islam Debate), which includes a controversial chapter entitled ‘Muslim Manosher Jouna Bikriti’ (sexual perversion of the Muslim mind).

Some publishers and secular authors last year fled the country in fear of attack over their work. Others are too scared to speak out against what critics say is an erosion of freedom of speech and the rise of religious extremism.

Last year police shut a stall at the fair of another publisher, Rodela, following similar complaints on a book about the life of the Prophet Mohammed.