জানার স্বাধীনতা, জানানোর স্বাধীনতা: অধ্যাপক মাসুদ মাহমুদ প্রসঙ্গে — খান তৌসিফ ওসমান
[সম্প্রতি চট্টগ্রাম বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের ইংরেজি ভাষা ও সাহিত্য বিভাগের অবসরপ্রাপ্ত অধ্যাপক ড. মাসুদ মাহমুদ-এর বিরুদ্ধে শ্রেণিকক্ষে অপ্রাসঙ্গিক যৌনতা বিষয়ক আলোচনার অভিযোগ তোলা হয়েছে। এই বর্ষীয়ান শিক্ষক ৪০ বছর ধরে চট্টগ্রাম বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের ইংরেজি বিভাগে অত্যন্ত সুনামের সঙ্গে অধ্যাপনা করেছেন। এর আগে কখনোই তাঁর বিরুদ্ধে শ্রেণিকক্ষে বা তার বাইরে নীতিবিরুদ্ধ কোনো কাজে লিপ্ত হবার অভিযোগ আসেনি। তিনি অবসর গ্রহণের পর একটি বেসরকারি বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের ইংরেজি বিভাগে উপদেষ্টা হিসেবে দায়িত্বপালনকালে তাঁর বিরুদ্ধে উত্থাপিত এই অভিযোগ কেবল অবিশ্বাস্যই নয়, তীব্র আপত্তিকরও বটে। তার উপর, সংবাদ মাধ্যমে কিছুক্ষেত্রে তাঁর মন্তব্য না নিয়েই যেসব একপেশে ও তথ্যবিভ্রাটপূর্ণ রিপোর্ট করা হয়েছে তা চরিত্রহননমূলক। অভিযোগ আছে University of Science and Technology Chittagong (USTC)-র ইংরেজি বিভাগের উন্নয়নের স্বার্থে নেয়া অধ্যাপক মাসুদ মাহমুদের কিছু পদক্ষেপ কতিপয় মানুষের স্বার্থে আঘাত লাগার কারণে তারা গুটিকয়েক শিক্ষার্থীকে কাজে লাগিয়ে একটি গভীর ষড়যন্ত্র রচনা করেছে। এই প্রসঙ্গে কথাবলির পক্ষ থেকে যাদবপুর বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে তুলনামূলক সাহিত্যের ছাত্রী বিপাশা নীহারিকা বড়ুয়া কথা বলেছেন অধ্যাপক মাসুদ মাহমুদের প্রাক্তন ছাত্র খান তৌসিফ ওসমানের সঙ্গে। খান তৌসিফ ওসমান বর্তমানে স্টেলেনবশ বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়, দক্ষিণ আফ্রিকার হিস্টরিকাল ট্রমা ও ট্রান্সফরমেশন অধ্যয়ন কেন্দ্রে পোস্টডক্টরাল গবেষণায় নিয়োজিত।]
I will first ask some general questions about literature and literature classrooms; then I will move on to specific questions about the movement for academic freedom around the Professor Masud Mahmood issue. My first question is on the nature of literature classrooms. How do you think a literature classroom should be?
My answer to this question will be informed by my experience as a student, teacher and researcher in three countries. One thing that literature classrooms are characterized by is the freedom to discuss anything and everything. Let me explain what I mean by that: Even though I do not believe that literature is a reflection of life, literature does definitely explore life. And that includes the erotic, the blasphemous and the politically incorrect. Literature, to make a general statement, explores life through language, so classroom dialogues have to explore life too.
When we say something is “unnatural” in an everyday conversation, we are actually making an ethical judgement. A literature classroom, however, is not a place for ethical judgement; it is a space where everything, whether ethically approved or not by the society, will be discussed. This implies that there is nothing unnatural in a literature classroom and, by extension, in literature.
The kind of discussion that takes place in a literature classroom assumes an unoffendable audience. If you are getting offended by the discussions and your feelings are constantly getting hurt, the literature classroom is not a place for you unfortunately. You can do us a world of good by getting out.
Should there be any limit to academic discussions?For example, should we be careful or even self-censor while making certain statements in the academia?
As I implied before, literature explores the light and darkness of life. If you have to limit your discussion to light, you are only dealing with the half of it. Light is only light when it is seen against darkness. Although I have used the binary of light and darkness for illustrating my point, we have to keep in mind that literary discussions deconstruct all binaries. Consequently, conversations in a literature classroom cannot be limited to any one term of the binary. Limiting discussions to only socially permissible parts of literature handicaps the very purpose of a literature classroom, that is, creating thinking beings—students with perspectives.
I consider any suggestion of limiting literary discussion in any way comparable to excluding discussions on sexual organs in an anatomy class or nuclear fusion in a physics class.
What do you think of sexuality and obscenity in literature? Is there any such thing as obscenity in literature at all?
Obscenity is irrelevant in literary discourses. Think of the great works of literature that have been considered obscene: Nabokov’s Lolita or Arabian Nights, for example. These texts have so far stood the test of time because they have pushed the limit of the thinkable and permissible. They have brought us to new regions of perceptual geography by expanding the realm of the known, the thought and the felt. Think of Shakespeare, who was often considered unsuitable because of bawdy language and was bowdlerized as a result. Who is Shakespeare today, and who is Dr. Thomas Bowdler? Only history may take the measure of the real worth of any literary work, not the general feeling of the contemporary society.
Sexuality is central to human existence, so naturally it appears in literature too. Sexual implications or overt descriptions are often found in literary works, and many times poets, playwrights and novelists deal with sexuality that is thought “deviant” in general terms. In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, for instance, the protagonist Saleem gets aroused by the scent that he recognizes as his sister’s. Or take Sappho, who has written poetry about lesbian love. Language artists engage their art and craft in discovering and exploring all shades of sexuality, not normative heterosexuality only. This appears offensive only in bigoted examinations when righteous voices invoke ethical judgement.
Unfortunately, the question of ethics in literature is an old one—at least as old as Plato, who thought poetry had better be left out of his ideal state. No wonder his utopia never came into being; that is what utopias are—absurd. Books are often banned for being obscene, blasphemous and unethical. However, as Humayun Azad once said, every burnt book lends light to the civilization.
What is your observation on academia in our country? Is the academic space shrinking in Bangladesh?
I would not say the academic space is shrinking; I think it has always been narrow. Take a look at the percentage of budget spent on education in our country—one of the lowest in the world. Bangladesh, we hear, has prospered so much in recent years, but education has never been our priority. There is another side to it: Bangladeshi universities mainly aim at producing graduates for the local job market. We have never been concerned about producing knowledge. As a result, Bangladeshi universities produce a minuscule number of PhDs, and many are doubtful about the quality of research done in the country.
Research invests your statements with objectivity; it supports your assertions with facts, figures and examples. Not prioritizing research in Bangladeshi universities has been self-defeating for our country. Let me give you a very obvious example: We have not been able to prove yet to the international community that genocidal violence took place in Bangladesh in 1971. The importance of the genocide in our nationalist narrative is supreme as it is regarded as the foundation of the nationhood of Bangladesh. If you have a look at the definition of genocide and read the literature on it, you will feel that it should not be very difficult to substantiate the argument that genocidal violence indeed took place in Bangladesh. Still, that did not happen. This is how our national interests and integration are being sabotaged by a narrow academic space.
Having said that, two recent developments have indeed been worrying. First, there has been a growing intolerance of dissenting voices in Bangladesh as a state. Being objective in your discourses, even in research, may cost you your career among other more sinister consequences. Secondly, the growth of religious radicalism in recent years have made it almost impossible to hold secular worldviews in public as such philosophies have caused many killings, especially in the counter-secularist wave post-2012 against the Shahbagh movement. The government also has been shrewdly trying to please the religious groups by co-opting their ideas into its policy as a ploy for polling politics. All this has created a general sense of claustrophobia in the academia.
Now tell us about “Students’ in Support of Professor Masud Mahmood”. What is it? Is it about a person or does it hold an ideological position around an issue?
No, it is definitely not about a person. Well, the movement began as a general outrage against the allegations of sexual harassment against Professor Masud Mahmood, a veteran professor of English with forty years of service under his belt. From there, it evolved into something larger. To make a general statement, “Students’ in Support of Professor Masud Mahmood” is about whether or not we have academic freedom to discuss anything and everything as students, teachers and researchers in Bangladeshi universities.
The movement has a core group mainly consisting of academics and artists from around the world; it has its supporters with a considerable online and offline presence. We are reacting to the recent attempts of limiting academic discourses within universities. The allegations against Professor Masud Mahmood has to do with making students uncomfortable by discussions such as the sexual attraction between a mother and a child. Anyone who has a basic orientation with literary studies will understand that what students found so objectionable here was nothing other than a classroom conversation on “Oedipus complex”. We had seen a similar incident in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka, where some students objected to the use of certain slides. These events have made us questions ourselves, “Do we need freedom in the academia?” We concluded that we did, so we are raising our voices to claim our right to academic freedom.
Do you know if the allegations against Professor Mahmood are true? If not, why are you protesting? Should the investigation not look into it?
Most definitely. Let me make something clear here once and for all: We are not against the investigation. Rather, we would like the investigation to go on. These are serious allegations, and I believe Professor Mahmood has also written on Facebook that the investigation is necessary to clear his name. However, we are of the opinion that the investigation has two aspects: criminal and ethical. The police is more than adequately equipped to look into the criminal dimension of it. However, as for the ethical practice in the classroom environment, we believe it is beyond the expertise of the police. Therefore, we have demanded that some eminent educationists be involved in the investigation process.
As long as the investigation is going on, we will never say that the allegations are completely false. Who are we to do that? Doubting the allegation is not a healthy practice, especially considering the fact that sexual harassment is rampant in Bangladeshi educational institutions. However, we have raised a few questions about the allegations too. For example, at first 22 students went to the acting VC of University of Science and Technology, Chittagong (USTC) with complaints that Professor Mahmood did not prepare them sufficiently for the exam and that he objected to their wearing hijab. We do not know why the acting VC did not start an investigation to look into these allegations, but he did not. Then students went to a minister with their complaints, and, surprisingly, these allegations were of sexual harassment. What we do not understand is if Professor Mahmood has indeed assaulted them sexually, albeit with words, why they had to change the allegations. We have come to believe that the general outrage against sexual harassment in educational institutions after the Nusrat-incident may have influenced the students to change the allegations. If that is so, these allegations are mere allegations lacking any ground. Also, some students among the 22 later denied that they had signed in the complaint. Something definitely does not add up here. There are many other questions that we have about the issue, so we demand a neutral investigation involving educationists.
Can you tell me a little bit about the role of media that covered the news?
See, if you only talk about the media that covered the news, you will not be able to appreciate the situation comprehensibly. One needs to talk about the media that did not cover the news as well! The allegations being extremely sensitive made the mainstream media approach the Professor Masud Mahmood issue with unprecedented caution. The general feeling of the entire country about sexual harassment in educational institutions post-Nusrat incident is responsible for this to a great extent, I believe. As a result, we experienced a blackout in mainstream media. No one other than banglanews24.com even published our statement where 500 artists, educationists, intellectuals and activists—including 300 university teachers—signed. Only the Prothom Alo, the New Age and a few other news organizations braved the sensitivity of the issue and did responsible journalism.
Meanwhile, the “gossip-column” media took up the issue with an interest in treating it with sensationalism and luridness. They did not care about the fundamental principles of journalism as they rarely included perspectives of all parties in their reports. These reports, as expected, went “viral” on the social media. What worried us the most is when some ultra-conservative and fundamentalism-friendly fake profiles started commenting on the issue. In the comment thread of each of their posts, there would invariably be a number of death threats. Many people began to fictionalize about Professor Mahmood and his other colleagues’ past misdeeds, their closeness to the ruling party and even Indian intelligence agencies. This we recognized as an attempt to exploit a social ambience into being where any harm to Professor Mahmood’s person would be interpreted as justified. We are fearful of a repetition of the incident of the killing of Dr. Rezaul Karim Siddiqee, who was a Professor of English at Rajshahi University and was murdered by extremists for his liberal views.
What are you thinking of doing next? What is in the future of “Students in Support of Professor Masud Mahmood”?
We have not yet come to a point in which we can talk about the future. Right now we are going to observe the situation closely even as we keep demanding the involvement of educationists in the investigation. We will decide what to do next once we see the reports of the investigation.
Even when the entire episode is over, I do not think we are going to disperse. We should remain united to protest against the assault on the next academic, artist or activist.