Can’t always speak my mind: Prof. Serajul Islam Chowdhury

Can’t always speak my mind: Prof. Serajul Islam Chowdhury

Sohrab Hassan,

Never before have person to person relations or man’s relations with nature, reached such a low level, says Serajul Islam Chowdhury, professor emeritus of English department at Dhaka University.

The prolific writer is also appaled to see the people’s security now under constant threat as reflected in rape, murder, abduction, violent family feuds and drug addiction in society.

“There is nothing outside of personal gain. Patriotism is on the wane. Consumerism is being promoted,” he observed in an exclusive interview with ProthomAlo, ahead of his 83rd birthday on 23 June. Serajul Islam Chowdhury has authored around a hundred books and has been editor of the journal NotunDiganta for the past 16 years.

Popularly known among academics and his students as professor ‘SIC’, he regrets that pursuit of knowledge is dwindling, spaces for social interaction are shrinking and cultural creativity has faded.

Dwelling on the country’s current political situation, he expressed his views that unless an election is free, it will not reflect public opinion. “Most people are anxious about the next elections. So am I.”

Asked if he could always speak out unhesitatingly, this thinker candidaly said: “No, I can’t always speak my mind… There is a lack of clarity in ideologies. There is opportunism, grabbing what one can get and not bothering about the rest.”

The full text of the interview is as follows:

Best wishes from ProthomAlo on your birthday. You were born in colonial India, grew up when this country was Pakistan, and then we gained independence as Bangladesh through the liberation war. But has there been any fundamental changes in social structure?


Serajul Islam Chowdhury: Thank you for the felicitations. There certainly have been changes over the past eight decades; there has been visible development. But by fundamental change if you mean social change and change in state structure, that hasn’t taken place. The legislative and administrative system of the British colonial rule wasn’t changed during the Pakistan times, not has this been changed in Bangladesh. There was private ownership of property then and remains so now.

There were four fundamental pillars of the state, committed to social change. This has not been implemented. The administration remains bureaucratic as before. Even the leftists don’t speak about secularism. Socialism has been reduced to a dream of the hopeful.

Whatever development there has been, has been of the capitalist mode. The capitalist system existed during the British rule, expanded during the erstwhile Pakistan times and has flourished further in Bangladesh. A section of the petty bourgeoisie is in state power. They may not be bourgeoisie in the cultural sense, but are so in wealth and status. This has not brought about any change in social relations. In fact, the relationship between the rich and the poor has become more oppressive.

Bangla is now the state language, but is challenged by the three streams of education, these three streams further widening the social divide. This is alarming. No matter what we may say, it cannot be said that there have been changes in the fundamental socioeconomic scenario.

You’ve been striving for social changes, but the society has simply been slipping backwards. You may point to capitalism as the cause, but that was there before too.

 Yes, capitalism was there before, but it has lost its progressive aspects and has reached a despicable level. Education, healthcare, justice and even drinking water have been reduced to commodities to be bought and sold. Profit is sought everywhere. There is nothing outside of personal gain. Patriotism is on the wane. Consumerism is being promoted. Never before have person to person relations or man’s relations with nature, reached such a low level. Never has drug addiction spread so extensively. People’s security is under constant threat of rape, murder, abduction, violent family feuds.

Statistics may point to economic advancement, but this is not supported by employment figures. Our development is due to the earnings and remittances of our workers at home and abroad.

Pursuit of knowledge is dwindling. Spaces for social interaction are shrinking. Cultural creativity has faded. Bourgeoisie praise the quality of tolerance, but that is lacking in all spheres. Parliamentary democracy is ineffective. How can the sufferings of the pedestrian below the development flyover be explained other than by blaming capitalism?

You are a teacher, a writer and an editor. Which identity predominates?

 I would say my identity as a writer. It was my compulsion to be a writer.

 How effective has your journal NotunDiganta been in inspiring the young mind? It has been 16 years into publication.

 It has entered its 17th year. It’s a literary and cultural journal, a social initiative being brought out amidst very adverse circumstances. I wouldn’t say it has had a great impact on the youth, but their interest has grown. If not, it wouldn’t have been possible to continue to bring out this journal. It’s a rare feat to publish this journal for so long. I must thank ProthomAlo too. They have extended their cooperation from the very beginning.

 Dhaka University had been a spring of intellectual emancipation, but today is sadly lacking in any intellectual or creative exercise. Why did you all fail to generate an intellectual movement from Dhaka University?

 This is because of capitalist aggression. The pursuit of knowledge is not being encouraged. Knowledge has less market value. It’s not indispensible to going up in the world. It’s not without significance that our university has had no student union for the past 27 years. This is unprecedented. Merit is being siphoned off, many of the meritorious going abroad never to return. The loss of the intellectuals in 1971 has not been replenished. Facilities and benefits have increased, ready for the taking. The failure is not of any one particular group. It’s of the entire country.

 You have several scholarly research works on the partition. Your book on nationalism, communalism and people’s emancipation is highly popular here and in West Bengal. But have you avoided research on the 1971 liberation war in fear of controversy?

 I have worked on this topic and I have written on the ‘1971 war and the limits of nationalism’ in NotunDiganta. Two articles have been published. Information is being collected. I hope to write more on the subject.

 What was the point of all the efforts you put into the commemoration of the ‘October Revolution’ when the leftists are so weak.

 The October Revolution was a social and international movement. It’s not that the commemoration didn’t have an impact. People are questioning private ownership. The question of social ownership has arisen. The media wasn’t on our side. One of the reasons is that the commemoration was not overly sensational. Secondly, it was against capitalism.

Another point is, leftist does not mean a non-compromising social revolutionary. At least, even to some degree, there has been a realisation that the prevailing frustration in the country can only be assuaged through revolutionary changes. It’s not the responsibility of just one particular group to take up this social revolution. It’s the responsibility of all feeling and intelligent people.

You recently said in one of your writings that an elected government is not necessarily a democratic one. But there can be no democracy without an election. How do you foresee the next election?

 Our experience tells us that an elected government is not necessarily a democratic one. History will show that even the most fascist powers created turmoil and came to power through elections. Unless an election is free, it will not reflect public opinion. In absence of an opposition in parliament, the government can do as it pleases with no regard to accountability. That is why fair elections are essential. Most people are anxious about the next elections. So am I.

 You all criticise everything about capitalist society, but it is this society that has given the world the greatest inventions, research and literature.

 When capitalism emerged, breaking the shackles of feudalism, its role was basically progressive. It has great contributions to knowledge, science, art and culture. But the problem lies in ownership. Ninety per cent of the people were exploited and repressed, with ownership going to the hands of 10 per cent. Capitalism forged ahead with its oppression and looting, hiding behind a liberal facade. It has now reached the limit of brutality. It’s no longer progressive. It’s entirely reactionary.

 As a thinker, can you always speak out unhesitatingly? If not, why are there no united efforts to create such an environment?

 No, I can’t always speak my mind. To have united efforts we must be united at first. That is not happening. There is a lack of clarity in ideologies. There is opportunism, grabbing what one can get and not bothering about the rest.

 As a teacher, what would you say about the present predicament of education? This bourgeoisie system of education in the past did produce ideals and great men. What is wrong now?

 How can one evaluate the present education system without the context of capitalism? Education has become a commodity. You don’t need knowledge, you just need good results. This is the general attitude.

 How can the government overcome the prevailing crisis of democracy? Surely you can’t just lay the blame on capitalism?

 For the time being, an election is necessary in which public opinion is reflected. Everyone should be able to vote freely, without fear, with no rigging.

 Do you see any hope for Bangladesh in the future?

 Certainly I do. The situation is bad, and worsening, but that is not the end. We have fought in the past and will do so in the future. The liberation war may not have ushered in socioeconomic emancipation, but it did drive out an extremely powerful force. The spirit of the liberation is the spirit of social revolution. The people of this country have that spirit. If necessary, that will propel the people forward to finish the unfinished struggle. The working masses will do that, joined by the believers in social revolution. It was the working masses that were the driving force of the 1971 war.

  This interview text, originally published in ProthomAlo print edition, has been translated by Ayesha Kabir