The Bangladesh government has banned a novel about the sexual abuse of an orphan boy in a residential Islamic school because it could offend religious teachers and may be a threat to public security, officials said.
Saiful Baten Tito, author of the novel “Bishfora” (Carbuncle), told BenarNews that his work, which details abuse at such schools, was based on interviews of students and teachers at qwami madrassas. Qwami madrassas are unregulated, traditional Islamic schools that provide religious education for free. The novel isn’t against Islam or qwami madrassa education, Tito added.
The government didn’t give him a chance to present his case, he said, and on Aug. 24, it published a government notice banning the book, which was launched at the annual Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka in February.
“The content of the novel Bishfora is against peace and quiet in the country. The book is prohibited as [it] has been considered to be a threat to public security,” said the gazette.
Abu Bakr Siddique, an additional secretary at the ministry of home affairs, told BenarNews the government was informed about the book by security agencies.
“Intelligence officials alerted us that the book could hurt the sentiment of madrasa teachers,” Siddique said. “We have gone through the book, and it seemed to us the alert has some justification.”
The ban comes even as the number of cases of sexual abuse of boys at madrasass is rising, said Mahmuda Akhther, a prosecutor at the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal in Dhaka. She did not immediately provide numbers to support her claim.
“The number of cases relating to abuse of boys has been on the rise, and a significant number of such incidents has been taking place at the qwami madrassas. Most of the victims are either boys from poor families, or orphans,” Akhther told BenarNews.
“Child abuse is a criminal offense. In the past, the guardian kept mum on child abuse. Now, they have been filing cases.”
About 1.5 million students study at qwami madrasas, Nurul Islam Nahid, former education minister, told parliament in September 2018. Sexual assault cases are widespread at such schools, according to an Aug. 2019 report by the French news agency AFP.
“For years these crimes eluded the spotlight due to sensitivity of the subject,” AFP quoted Abdus Shahid, the head of child rights group Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum, as saying.
“Devout Muslims send children to madrasas, but they don’t speak up about these crimes as they feel it would harm these key religious institutions.”
Manusher Jonno Foundation, a Dhaka-based NGO working with poor and marginalized communities, documented at least 433 cases of sexual violence against children in 2018, reported AsiaNews last year. Most of the victims were aged 7 to 12, it said. The data was not linked to religious schools.
The government, for its part, said it dealt alike with all complaints about the abuse of children.
“The law is for everyone. If the police get formal complaints about abuse of children, they arrest people, no matter whether the abusers are from madrassa or [non-religious] schools,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews.
Mosharraf Matubbar, the publisher of the novel, said he would contest the ban.
“The book highlights the injustice done to madrasa students,” Matubbar told BenarNews. “We will appeal to the courts to vacate the government ban on the book.”
Author Tito likewise said the book contained “nothing malicious” and didn’t warrant prohibition.
“The novel is about fanaticism, backwardness and inconsistencies inside the qwami madrasa education,” he said. “This book is neither against Islam nor qwami madrassa education.”
Matubber, the publisher, said that when the book was launched at the Dhaka book fair, police checked its contents and had no objections.
“They did not oppose selling the book after concluding that it contained nothing sensitive,” said the publisher. “But some people launched a smear campaign against the book.”
Civil society group Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee group has alleged that the ban was a move to appease religious fundamentalists.
The group on Friday issued a statement demanding the ban be immediately lifted.
“The book has been prohibited to appease the fundamentalist forces,” the group said. “In the past, writings of many famous authors were dropped from text books … Thus, the fundamentalist forces have been indulged.”
Over the last 30 years, Bangladesh has banned at least five books saying they defamed Islam. Police have also arrested publishers and shut book stalls for publishing and selling books they claim criticized Islam.
In 1988, Bangladesh banned the sale and circulation of British author Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Novelist Humayun Azad’s collection of feminist essays “Nari” (“Women”) and a novel on Islamist militancy, named after Pakistan’s national anthem “Pak Sar Zamin Saad Baad,” were prohibited by the Bangladesh government in 1992.
In 1993, feminist author Taslima Nasrin’s book “Lajja” (“Shame”) was banned for allegedly defaming Islam. The book is about a riot in Bangladesh following the demolition of a 16th century mosque, the Babri Masjid, in northern India.
Nasrin had her literary work proscribed a second time, when the government banned her autobiographical novel “Amar Meyebela” (“My Girlhood”) in 1999, again on the grounds that it defamed Islam. The author has been in exile for more than 20 years.
In 2016, police shut the stall of a publishing house called Badwip and arrested its publisher Shamsuzzoha Manik and two others. A case was filed against them under the Information and Communication Technology Act for publishing a book that police said defamed Islam.
In February, Bangladesh’s high court also ordered organizers of the Dhaka book fair to remove two books whose content it said was “harmful to the religious sentiment.”
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.