Bangladesh ignored many wake up calls in the past: Poet-activist Sadaf Saaz (IANS Interview)

Thimphu, Sep 2 (IANS) The Bangladesh government’s failure to take action against those behind the attack on bloggers and minorities in the recent past led to the terror attack in July on a popular Dhaka cafe that left 23 dead, says poet-activist Sadaf Saaz.

Speaking to IANS on the sidelines of the just-concluded Mountain Echoes Literary festival, Saaz said that the horrifying attack shook the conscience of the country and the government has finally woken up to take action.

Most of the victims in the attack on the upscale Holey Artisan Bakery were foriegners and were killed after being taken hostage by the attackers.

The poet, who lost her close friend Ishrat in the attack, said the gruesome incident had shaken the society and has led to a wider debate.

“It was devastating for us. This made us sit up and pushed us to have conversations among ourselves. We should have spoken more strongly before. Now, the government is also taking very strong measures,” said Saaz, who is the director and producer of the Dhaka Literary Festival.

Saaz said that the attack could have been averted had the Sheikh Hasina government cracked the whip after a spate of attacks on secular bloggers, minorities and liberals in the country.

“We had many wake up calls when secular bloggers were killed. We didn’t do anything and the state was slow to act. Our silence encouraged something like this to happen. Now, the Awami League government is taking strong measures,” said Saaz, who also works with Naripokkho, a women’s rights organisation.

Though the involvement of affluent Bangladeshi youth in the attack came as a surprise to many, Saaz felt that it was the complacency of the society and the government that led to such horror.

“The shocking thing is how could young people be brainwashed into committing cold-blooded murders? There is a recognition now that if we had introspected much before, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Saaz, adding that the spread of radical ideology is a problem that is plaguing the world at large.

The poet also felt that rising intolerance in India and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States cannot be ignored.

“There is rising intolerane in Bangladesh, India and all over the world. We are seeing a new force of Wahhabis and the rise of Trump. We need to have conversatiion as we are a connected world,” she said.

Saaz believes that groups like Islamic State (IS) shouldn’t be linked with Islam. “There is a feeling among deeply religious people in the country that we are only strengthening IS by calling them Islamic,” said Saaz.

Writing is a political act for Saaz, who believes that culture can play a big role in bringing the country together in difficult times. She also stressed that Bangladesh will remain secular and democratic, the principles on which the country was formed after the 1971 liberation war.

“The (cafe) attack made us realise that we have such an amazingly rich Bangla culture where we can draw strength from. We bank on our history, literature, music, philosophy, and the folk anthems which see us through tough times,” she said.

Saaz, who was also involved in the rehabilitation of rape survivors during the liberation war, felt that the country has seen profound change in the status of women in the past 25 years.

“A lot of changes have happened over 25 years. Women are more empowered than before and a lot of focus is given to education of girls,” she said.

Saaz said the stories of the women who were raped in the 1971 war were always a painful one for her.

“I wanted to re-hear what happened to the women who were raped during the 1971 war. Though the government has done a lot for them, they still haven’t got justice. The title Birangonas was given as a recogntion of what they went through. The title is a dishonour for them now, though it wasn’t meant to be,” said Saaz.

As she gears up for the sixth edition of the Dhaka Literary Festival in November, Saaz hopes that the world will get to know what Bangladesh is about.

“It’s a wonderful celebration. Our programmes are curated to give a global perspective and the world will get to know more about the country through our writings and diverse voices,” she said, adding that security will be beefed up this time.

(Preetha Nair can be reached at



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