Prof. Kabir Chowdhury :Voice of Secular Democracy
Kabir Chowdhury was born in 1923 in Brahmanbaria of the then
Tipperah district of united Bengal where his father was working as a civil
servant at the time. He grew up in an atmosphere of liberal ideas and secular
thinking. His father was a devout muslim but completely free from any trace
of religious fanaticism. Kabir’s many close friends in school belonged
to the Hindu community. When he studied English literature at the Dhaka University
in the early 1940s he was greatly impressed by the writings of H.G. Wells,
George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell, among others. During the second
world war he was deeply troubled by the Nazi atrocities carried out in their
concentration camps, the mass killing of Jews as a plan of ethnic cleansing
and the destruction of all democratic norms. Kabir’s faith in democracy,
secularism and liberal thoughts grew stronger by the day and he found himself
drawn to socialist ideology.
After the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and the emergence of Pakistan as an autocratic state with theocratic ideals, the democratic and secular aspirations of Kabir and his friends received a rude shock. During the 50s and the 60s the Bengalees of the then East Pakistan waged a relentless struggle to free themselves from the yoke of Pakistan’s neocolonial hegemony. The Bengalees found great inspiration in their age old secular culture and traditions and in their rich language and literature.
In the late 1960s the movement of the Bengalees, first for regional autonomy and then for independence, gathered great momentum. Bangla Academy, the premier institution of language and culture of the region, became the fountain-head for propagation of the ideals of Bangali nationalism which was rooted in secular democratic values. Kabir Chowdhury was the head of Bangla Academy from early 1969 to the middle of 1972. He played a major role as the Director of Bangla Academy in propagating secular values during the mass movements of 1969 and 1970. After the genocide of 25 March 1971, he continued to disseminate the ideology of secularism and democracy but, understandably and of necessity, surreptitiously. Then Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign independent nation after a nine-month long war of liberation and Kabir Chowdhury began to work tirelessly through his writings, speeches and formal and informal discussions to imbue the citizens of the newly independent country with the values of democracy, secularism, non-communalism, tolerance and liberal humanism.
The offices he held from 1972 to mid-1975 helped him in his task. After leaving Bangla Academy he became the member-secretary of the first National Education Commission set up by the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, under Dr. Kudrat-e-Khuda’s chairmanship. From there he went on to become the secretary of Education, Sports and Cultural Affairs of the government of Bangladesh. Both as a member-secretary of the national education commission and as education secretary to the government he tried to incorporate secular and democratic values in the curriculum, specially at the primary level, and achieved at that time a certain degree of success. But all this got a severe setback when the Father of the Nation was killed on 15th August 1975. Kabir Chowdhury and his associates took their stand against the onrushing tide of reaction. The regimes of Ziaur Rahman, General Ershad and later of Khaleda Zia moved away from the principles of the war of liberation and, in one way or another, encouraged fundamentalism. Kabir Chowdhury and his associates tried to stem the growth of communalism and religious fundamentalism by organising meetings, rallies and seminars not only in the metropolitan city of Dhaka but also in several outlying cities of the country. In these activities Kabir Chowdhury provided inspiring leadership. He headed several organisations that worked for secular democracy, such as the “Committee for Resisting the killers and Collaborators of 1971”, better known as “Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee”, “Citizens Social Rights Movement”, and “Citizens United Front”. He worked closely with the late Jahanara Imam in trying to bring to book the killers of 1971 as war criminals. Along with several others he helped in setting up a People’s Court which found Golam Azam, the Ameer of Jamat-e-Islam, and some other colleagues of his guilty of war crimes, and urged the government of Bangladesh to try them in a properly constituted tribunal. But the then pro-fundamentalist government, instead of during that, declared Kabir Chowdhury and 23 other distinguished/colleagues of his as traitors to the state and instituted a formal case against them. The case was withdrawn later during the caretaker regime headed by retired Chief Justice Mohammad Habibur Rahman.
After the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state its association with many socio-cultural organisations of various countries rapidly developed at non-government level. Branches of many such organisations were formed in Bangladesh, namely, Afro-Asian Writers Union, World Peace Council, Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organisation and several friendship Societies. Kabir Chowdhury acted as Chairman of the Bangladesh Afro-Asian Writers Union for many years. He was also a member of the Presidium of the Bangladesh World Peace Council and the Bangladesh Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organisation. He headed the Bangladesh¾ Soviet Friendship Society for over a decade. He is currently the President of the Bangladesh Vidyasagar Society and Chairman of the Advisory Council of Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee. In all the above capacities he has significantly contributed to the dissemination of secular ideas and democratic values. He has written extensively on anti-fundamentalism, religious fanaticism and communalism, and has stressed the need for developing broad human values and for realizing the importance of cultural diversity, and the imperatives for developing a pluralistic society. The very titles of some of his books clearly show it, for example :
Human Welfare and other essays; Who wants to live without liberty?; Unfinished Liberation War and other issues; Bangabandhu, Liberation War and the Pursuit of Intellectual Freedom; Let Fire Inflame Your Heart; and Taslima Nasreen and the Issue of Women’s Liberation.
Included in his book Miscellaneous Writings are essays entitled
“The Power of Culture”, “Culture, Religion and Civil Society”,
“Thousand Years of Bengali Culture”, “Dismantling the Hostile
Images of Hindu-Muslim Disunity”, and “Conflict of ideologies”.
In his book written in English called “Of Ghosts and Other essays”
there is an essay entitled “Supremacy of the Heart” and another
called “Of Human Rights”. His book Human Welfare and other Essays
has among other articles “Communalism”, “Fundamentalism
and Fascism”, “Bengali Nationalism”, “Unfinished War
of Liberation”, and “Religion for Man, or Man for Religion”.
Kabir Chowdhury was the Chairman of the Committee that organised the South Asian Conference on Communalism and Fundamentalism held in Dhaka some time ago. In 1994 when the Islamic fundamentalists of Bangladesh declared poet Taslima Nasreen a heretic and demanded her head Kabir Chowdhury strongly came out in her defense.
In his long career Kabir Chowdhury has spoken at many national and international meetings of writers and social activists on literature, socialism, secularism and democracy. He has addressed gatherings in Germany, Russia, USA, Bulgaria, Angola, Japan, Pakistan and India.
For his contribution to education, literature and civil society movement Kabir Chowdhury has been nationally and internationally honoured. Among the numerous awards he has received are the Bangla Academy Literacy Award, the Ekushey Award, the Independence Day Award, Bangabandhu National Award, Mohammad Nasiruddin Literary Award, Sher-e-Bangla Award and India’s William Carey Award. In 1998 he was made National Professor of Bangladesh.
Now in his 81st year he continues to teach in the English Department of Dhaka University as a part-time teacher and is as staunch a fighter for democracy and secularism as ever.