Convention speech: Bonya Ahmed — Progress demands struggle, sacrifice

By Bonya Ahmed

I’m honored to announce this year’s annual Avijit Roy Courage Award. This is the second annual Avijit Courage Award and this year’s award goes to Avinash Patil.

He is the current executive president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), which means “Blind Faith Eradication Committee.” I am happy to mention that this award comes with $5,000. Thank you very much for coming all the way from India to accept this award.

I have been asked to introduce two of our fallen comrades.

I actually knew one of them very well — Avijit Roy. I lived with him for 13 years. I worked with him. I enjoyed life with him until it ended very abruptly. Thanks to FFRF for starting this award last year in his name.

The other person is Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, who founded MANS in 1989, the organization Avinash runs now. I did not know him personally, but I have immense respect for his work and the sacrifices he made for all of us. But both he and Avijit were killed for their work, for their writings and for their belief or, maybe we should say, for their nonbelief.

Avijit loved to write. That was his passion. He was a prolific writer. He wrote eight books and hundreds and hundreds of articles and blogs in such a short period of time. He was just 43 when he died. His books ranged from philosophy to science to literature.

The Islamic militants, who later marched with al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, mentioned that they targeted us — Avijit and me — for our writing, specifically for two of Avijit’s books: Virus of Faith and Homosexuality: A Scientific and Socio-Psychological Investigation.

Many of you already know that we were attacked by machete-wielding Islamic militants at a book fair when we were visiting our homeland for a book-signing trip in 2015. Avijit died in the hospital and I survived, with four machete stabs on my head and a sliced-off thumb and numerous wounds all over my body.

After the attack on us, Islamic militants vowed to kill one atheist blogger every month in Bangladesh and they managed to do so. The impunity was so high. The government stayed quiet. So, the Islamists murdered three other bloggers and managed to kill the two publishers of those two books. They actually managed to hack the two publishers in their offices. One died and the other one barely survived.

Let me tell the story of Dr. Dabholkar before I get carried away. We are giving the prize to Avinash and the MANS organization because of the sacrifices that the organization has made. And Dr. Dabholkar has given his life for it.

Dr. Dabholkar decided to become a social worker after working as a medical doctor for 12 years in Maharashtra in India. He founded MANS and campaigned against religious superstitions prevalent in India. He was the editor of a renowned Marathi weekly, and he fought against godmen. You know they are very big all over India and claim to perform medical miracles. He also relentlessly fought for the equality of Dalit — the Untouchables, and against violence rooted in the Hindu caste system. He received numerous threats, but as far as I know, he refused to take any police protection from the government. And he was gunned down and murdered Aug. 20, 2013.

Let me read one of his quotes. “Sowing seeds of reason in the mind is not an easy job. However, reason uttered repeatedly does take you a step ahead. The utterance converts into a movement. If people involved in the movement practice what they propagate, the movement culminates into a union, which is a good thing to happen. If, in addition, the union jumps into a struggle for change, nothing like it but climbing up these steps exhausts you considerably. I am treading this path with whatever ability I possess, knowing full well that it is endless.”

And endless it is. It does seem ever so endless today more than ever, doesn’t it?

There is nowhere to hide: Charlottesville to Istanbul, Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia, India to Nigeria. There is nowhere else to go. Or, maybe, it is too soon to despair. I also think that we should not give up hope, even if the battle feels increasingly difficult. I haven’t given up hope, yet. Human progress is never linear.

It demands immense sacrifice, struggle and dedication. Sometimes you have to take two steps backward just to make one step forward. Let’s not lose hope. I haven’t. May there be a day when we will not need any award such as the Avijit Roy Courage Award. I think that should be our goal. That is the best goal. That is the best way to honor the Avijits and the Narendras of the world. Thanks to FFRF and thank you all for being here.

Freedom From Religion Foundation