Humayun Azad – a poet, novelist, short story writer, columnist, critic, linguist and above all a humanist and a social reformer – was born on 28 April 1947 (14 Baishakh 1354 BS) at maternal grandad’s house in the village of Kamargaon, Bikrompur in the district of Munshigonj, However, Humayun Azad used to think that the place where he was brought up in the village of Rarhikhal in Bikrompur was his birth place. His father, Abdur Rashed, was a teacher at the early part of his life and then a postmaster and finally he became a businessman. His mother Zobeda Khatoon was a house wife. Humayun Azad was the first of the siblings, there were three brothers and two sisters. The village had luminary like Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the world-renowned scientist.
Humayun Azad loved and adored the natural beauty and surroundings of his village. He started his primary education in the village. He passed his SSC from Jagadish Chandra Bose Institute in 1962 and then HSC in science from Dhaka College in 1964. He got acquainted with the Bengali teacher and most prominent writer, Mr. Shawkat Osman at the college. That might have influenced him to love Bengali as the chosen subject. He got BA(Hons) and MA in Bengali from Dhaka University in 1967 and 1968 respectively and got first classes in both. He obtained PhD in linguistics submitting his thesis titled ‘Pronominalisation in Bangla’ at the University of Edinburgh. Humayun Azad’s name at birth was Humayun Kabir, but he changed that name to Humayun Azad by affidavit on 28 September 1988 applying to the magistrate of Narayangonj District.
His first published book was the collection of poems from 1960s to 1972 and called Alaukik Ishtimar (An Unreal Steamer), which was published in 1973. He published interesting and provocative novels called shobkichu nashtader adhikare jabe (Everything will go to the despicables) in 1985, Chhappanno hazar borgomile (Fifty six thousand square miles)(which is the area of Bangladesh) in 1994, Shobkichu bhenge pore (Everything breaks down) in 1995 and many more. His most prominent and comprehensive feminist book was Naree (Women). In this book, he was even fearless to criticise Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate in literature in 1913; although he praised Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. The theme of the book was critical of the patriarchal and male-chauvinism of the Indian subcontinental society towards women. Both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists were very critical of the book. Under constant agitation and threats of violence by the extremist mullahs, Bangladesh government banned the book in 1995. The ban was, however, forced to be lifted in 2000 following a legal challenge in the High Court of the country, which Humayun Azad won. He produced more than sixty titles,
He viscerally hated a State based on religious doctrine. Humayun Azad was branded an atheist by the Islamists right from the early years of his literary contributions in the 1970s, mainly due to his free unbiased thinking and forthright vision. When Ziaur Rahman, Ershad and Khaleda Zia were in power from mid 1970s till about 2008, they had all been fanning and supporting Islamic fundamentalism for political expediency and financial opportunism. Humayun Azad was the voice of humanism, secularism and free-thinking. He rebelled against religious bigotry and wrote a number of articles pointing out sheer lunacy and inhumanity of religiosity.
His satirical novel called Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad (Pakistan’s national anthem) when published in 2003 and the Daily Ittefaq produced excerpts in the same year, he started receiving life threats from the Islamist fundamentalists. The book was regarded as an insult to the Pakistani mentality Bangladeshis for ridiculing political ideologies of Pakistan. On 27 February 2004, as Humayun Azad was going home after attending the book fair near the Dhaka University campus, two assailants hacked him several times with machetes on the jaw, lower part of the neck and hands. He was taken to the nearby Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Subsequently the then prime minister of Bangladesh Khaleda Zia ordered him to be transferred to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) for better treatment. He recovered from the attack, but remained grievously injured.
A week prior to Humayun Azad’s assault, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a member of parliament of Bangladesh, said in parliament that the book ‘Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad’ must be banned and the blasphemy law must be instituted in Bangladesh. (It may be noted that Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was a blatant Pakistani agent and caused death of many Bangladeshis during the 1971 war, but still managed to become an MP in Bangladesh. He was convicted of war crimes by the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh and was sentenced to death in 2013) A week later Humayun Azad was very badly assaulted. In 2006, one of the leaders of the Islamic fundamentalist organisation admitted to the RAB that Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) operatives carried out the attack on Humayun Azad (as well as carrying out other murders, bomb blasts etc).
Several months after that attack, he applied to the German government for a grant to carry out research on nineteenth century German romantic poet Heinrich Heine. The German government offered him the grant and he went to Munich on 8 August 2004. The other purpose was to get the medical treatment. However, on 12 August 2004, he was found dead in his apartment, just a few days after his arrival there. His dead body was brought back to Bangladesh and he was buried in Rarhikhal in Bikrompur on 27 August 2004.
It is a very sad story that the person who loved his country supremely, the person who fought for humanity and human justice had to suffer the inhumanity and religious barbarity and lay down his illustrious life in a foreign land. We salute you, Sir.
- Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist