A software engineer by profession and a writer by passion Avijit Roy(1972-2015) was a leading Bangladeshi-American human rights activist, author and a pioneer in Bengali free-thought movement. In 2001, Avijit launched a virtual discussion group of freethinkers of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. This small discussion group would eventually lead to the inception of the first secular humanist website in the Bengali language, called ‘Mukto-mona.’ The literal English translation of ‘Mukto-Mona’ is ‘Free-thinker.’ As an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists & humanists Mukto-Mona gave a platform for the secular ethos of Bangladeshi culture to be reinvigorated. In an interview with a daily newspaper, Avijit described his organization’s aspirations by the following lines,
“Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality, and science. We argue for a rational and scientific approach to human problems as an alternative to religious dogmas, strongly defend freedom of thought and civil liberties, and, strive for the secularization of politics, society and educational system.”
In his youth as an undergraduate engineering student, Avijit was profoundly influenced by the works of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, pioneer of the Bengal Renaissance. In Avijit’s father’s words,
“It helped him come out of the mechanical attitude engineering students develop. As he came closer to nature and Tagore’s peaceful and spiritual establishment, they instilled a literary mindset within him.”
Late in his life, Avijit started an online renaissance of his own. He would also write an entire book about the unlikely friendship between Tagore and Argentinian writer Victoria Ocampo, which included Bengali translations of fifty letters between the two writers, done by Avijit. Ironically, he also wrote a critical piece on Tagore’s personal shortcomings. Given Tagore’s unparalleled influence in Bengali literature, this article was treated nearly as a blasphemous one by Tagore’s followers. For Avijit there were no prophets, only heroes and unlike prophets heroes make mistakes.
The country of Bangladesh where Avijit originally hails from has a constitution that guaranteed secularism as a founding principle. Since the military dictators seized power in 1975, they initiated a sustained process of Islamisation of the constitution and the society. In 1977, the founding principle of secularism was axed from the constitution and in 1988, Islam was officially proclaimed as the state religion. The space for free speech shrunk; the secularists were in retreat facing state oppression and militant insurgencies. Mukto-Mona gave an alternative platform to the secular, liberal voices of Bangladesh to be heard. Campaigns launched by Mukto-Mona such as the celebration of Darwin Day, Rationalist Day, World Women’s Day gained traction while attracting popular attention; many prominent secularists started contributing. It was through the Mukto-Mona platform Avijit met his future wife Bonya Ahmed who was moved by his writings. After completing Ph.D. Avijit would eventually move in with Bonya to Atlanta, Georgia. A science enthusiast herself, Bonya went on to write one of the best-selling books on the theory of evolution in the Bengali language.
By that time, Mukto-Mona was a fully fledged website that transcended the virtual sphere by undertaking several humanitarian projects. Avijit also inspired a new generation of young Bangladeshi science enthusiasts who contributed in popularizing science and scientific, rational thoughts.
Avijit’s political and philosophical writings and ideas drew inspirations from one of the greatest philosophers of Science and political critic, Sir Karl Popper. Just like Popper, Avijit was also an advocate of an open society and wrote critical pieces on Hindu religious figures like Swami Vivekananda and Secular prophets like Karl Marx which drew sharp criticisms from their respective followers.
In 2013, Avijit’s sincere efforts led to a global condemnation of the arrests of four Bangladeshi secular bloggers in the hands of the Bangladeshi police authorities. Describing Avijit as a personal hero IHEU communications director, Bob Churchill reminisces Avijit’s contribution during that time,
“Avijit Roy is a hero because not only was he an intellectual trying to put his message into society to change it for the better, but when that came under threat he worked as hard as he could behind the scenes, reaching out to NGOs, he became a kind of informal advisor to me at IHEU for a time, he was trying to protect the humanists and human rights defenders back in Bangladesh.”
In his short span of life, Avijit wrote ten books, numerous blog posts and opinion columns in leading newspapers. From literature to politics, from the theory of evolution to cosmology; through covering a wide range of topics, Avijit established himself as a polymath. But indisputably his most significant accomplishment would be the investigative book he wrote on Homosexuality, the first book in Bengali literature on this controversial topic that conclusively debunked the misconceptions and taboos regarding Homosexuality.
Avijit became a prime target for the Islamist militants who wanted to silence the movement he started by targeting its spearhead, Avijit himself. His latest visit to Bangladesh turned out to be his last one. On February the 26th, 2015 on his way back to his Dhaka residence Avijit alongside his wife Bonya were brutally attacked by assailants armed with machetes. Avijit lost his life, Bonya suffered serious injuries. Avijit knew the high stakes of his dangerous endeavor. He once wrote,
“Those who believe victory is earned without sacrifice live in a fool’s paradise. The moment we began writing about religious fundamentalism, we knowingly endangered our lives.”
Avijit made the ultimate sacrifice to prove the point he made. Avijit’s legacy still remains, Mukto-Mona continues to thrive despite tragic losses of two more Mukto-Mona bloggers in the similar fashion. And we the Mukto-Mona family remain united in our grief and are still undefeated.