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Family secrets, state secrets

Rahnuma Ahmed

History is never more compelling than when it gives us insights into oneself and the ways in which one’s own experience is constituted.

Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to Dipesh Chakrabarty

I do not see my life as separate from history. In my mind my family secrets mingle with the secrets of statesmen and bombers. Nor is my life divided from the lives of others.

Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones

‘We hated it if anyone asked us about her’

‘MANY widowed mothers were forced to re-marry, some for reasons of social security,’ these were Amena’s opening words when I went to interview her. Amena Khatun works as a conservator and archivist for the Liberation War Museum. She was speaking of their family life after 1971.

Things did not always transpire as intended, she added. Her mother’s second marriage had been short-lived.

My father? He is Shahid Abdul Kader, he had a furniture business, it was new. But by then the war had started, and his friends and workmen had left to fight for liberation. I was a few months old, my other brother, the one younger to me, was not yet born. My elder brother was two and a half years old. I think my father was planning to go away, to join the struggle, but it happened before he could make arrangements for us. They took him away. We lived in Mymensingh, our area was full of Biharis, I think they could sense what was happening, and they targeted my father. Actually, it was a Bengali woman, a razakar, who came and called him. She came and said, so-and-so wants to talk to you. My father stepped out and found a group of Bihari men and women waiting for him. It was May 28, 1971.

My grandmother, it was her, my nanu who raised us. Her struggle was much greater. My mother? Oh, she was very young, only seventeen or eighteen, she hardly understood anything. She was forced to re-marry, this was later, in 1977 or 1978. She had no other choice.

For us kids it was a new experience, we had not seen a man before. My mama was five years older to me, he and my older brother, they were the only men in the house. My uncles came later but nanu didn’t like them, she was worried that they would take us away, put us to work on the farm, that we would have to give up our studies. My younger chacha had wanted to marry my mother but she didn’t agree to the proposal. She said, he was like a brother.

And in the middle of all this, here was this new man, we could tell that he was intimate with her. When he appeared, she was a different mother. Sometimes I think, did we deserve this? If my father had lived, life would have been very different.

By the time my mother gave birth to a daughter, that phase [her married life] was over. That little sister of ours was the most exciting thing that could have happened in our lives, she lit up our home, all our dreams centred around her. We couldn’t think of anything else. We didn’t want to.

But whenever we went to the village, people would say, she was born of your mother’s second marriage, wasn’t she? We hated the sound of those words. Of course, what they said was true, for them it was not unusual. They were just curious, they would keep asking us and I don’t blame them. But I hated it, bhaiya didn’t like it either. My sister? She was too young to understand. But how can you stop people talking, and so we stopped going to the village. We wouldn’t go, hardly ever.

Much later, right before my sister took her matric exams, we were forced to tell her. In a sense, she found out for herself. You see, her friends kept asking her, ‘But if you were born in 1971, how can you be this young?’

I guess we needed to grow older to come to terms with the truth.

‘A dirty nigger’. Racial prejudice and humiliation in the British Indian army
‘As a child, I remember hearing only idyllic stories of my father’s life in the British Indian army,’ writes novelist Amitav Ghosh, in a letter to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty.

But towards the end of his life, before he died in 1998, my father told me a very different story. During the siege of Imphal, he had turned away from the main battle to confront a South African officer who called him a ‘dirty nigger’. After this, other stories poured out, stories of deep-seated racism within the army, very different to the idyllic picture that Amitav had grown up with. He writes, why did my father (and, in some sense, all our fathers) avoid telling us these stories? Speaking of such things must have been difficult, he muses, especially because they were at odds with their vision of themselves as ‘high-caste, bhadra patriarchs’. He adds, what may seem to be mere instances of racism were not so, they represented the system itself. Western liberal thought, whether that of JS Mill, or Bentham, or any other nineteenth century British writer, is built on racism, writes Amitav.

His question is: if we reproduce these silences of history, are we denying or abetting in structures of exclusion and oppression?

Post-independence armies of South Asia

Did racism survive the departure of the white colonisers in 1947? Are post-independence armies of South Asia non-racial and hence, non-racist? Is it meaningful to talk of race and racial differences in our cultures?

East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi) scholars spoke of ethnic differences in racial terms. They said, Pakistan’s military commanders perpetuated the recruitment policies of their colonial masters. ‘Martial races’ – meaning Punjabis and Pathans – were over-represented in the national armed forces, whereas the majority Bengali population, and smaller minorities like the Baluchis and Sindhis, were largely excluded. Indian historians maintain, imperial institutions like the army and the civil service allowed particular forms of racist practices, because of their proximity to the ruling race. They also say, racism survived independence. The north-eastern provinces, known as the seven sisters, have been subjected to decades of racist oppression by successive Indian governments.

Is ethnic discrimination in Bangladesh racist? Educated paharis, who have suffered militarily, tell me that ‘ethnic discrimination’ as a term does not do justice to the horror of their experiences. I was speaking to a young woman whose father was hung upside down for days, and later died a broken man. And to a young pahari man who was detained for several weeks, and was severely traumatised because of what he was made to witness.

Family secrets can be state secrets. Our mothers and fathers need to tell us stories. We need to discover ways of talking about silenced histories. And about the silenced present.

First published in New Age 26th May 2008

May 27, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Un-intelligent manoeuvres: tales of censorship

rahnuma ahmed

Calling for an end to the emergency rules, editors and senior journalists of the print and electronic media yesterday protested against the interference of government and military agencies in the everyday task of the media. ..[t]he media has to work under limited rights, pressure and in fear of fundamental-rights-denying emergency rules since the president declared the state of emergency on January 11 last year.

VOA News, May 14, 2008

My Dilemma

IN THESE times, writing or speaking in defiance of censorship is often viewed with a tinge of suspicion. There must be higher-up backing. Or else, how could she, how could he… One also comes across those who say, see, this proves there is no Emergency. Not in the strict sense of the word. This government is not like any other government. They are different.

Times must be pretty hard, I think, when a generalised suspicion passes for analysis. When sycophancy becomes second nature. The problem with Emergency is that it breeds irresponsibility. Our rulers know what is best for us. We will speak up after the government has set the house in order, after things have been sorted out. After the elections are over. After Emergency has been lifted. After this, after that – it is a list that trails off into an indefinite future.

Too much abdication, too many ifs. Not only that. Emergency breeds a culture of fear. People are more likely to keep their mouths shut, to sound non-committal, to adopt an I-mind-my-own-business attitude, to churn out uniform phrases. The recent joint statement of the editors and senior journalists of Bangladesh (May 13, 2008), speaks of continuous monitoring and interference in the day-to-day running of print and electronic media, to a point where, as Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age put it, editors are no longer able to make ‘independent’ decisions.

And the source of interference? Some newspaper reports said, the editors spoke of ‘government agencies.’ In a daily I read, ‘civilian and military agencies.’ Yet another spoke of ‘government and military agencies’. A Daily Star report went a bit further, it said the editors had spoken of ‘a military intelligence agency’ (May 16, 2008), I saw people sitting up and taking note of the series of meetings being held at the National Press Club. I heard people utter the words `DGFI’, but I didn’t see it in print. I also heard, things are going to change from now on, heavy-handedness is likely to lessen, the editors’ demand created ripples. This, however, remains to be seen.

Since the declaration of Emergency, military interference in the print media has concentrated on changing priorities, on overseeing that particular news stories get reported, that others go unreported, or under-reported. These pressures are the more visible ones. But infiltration has occurred in more devious ways. A prime example is provided by confessions of politicians who allegedly pocketed public wealth. Most of these `confessions’, made under remand, have been printed in the dailies with tremendous enthusiasm. Not only in the tabloids, in the more serious papers too, without any mention of sources. As if the confession was made to the reporter, in person. A blogger has termed this “crossfire journalism,” because of its deafening one-sidedness. The accused is not given the opportunity of self-defense, to offer his or her side of the story. Interestingly, many of those accused have contested these confessions in court, they have claimed that these were made under duress. This does not seem to have caused much concern. I say this because I have not come across any retractions, nor have confessions ceased to be published. I have other concerns too. That the media does not sift through, that it does not investigate, that it reproduces whatever it is handed-out – as long as it is from a particular source – that I find very disturbing. Of course, not all newspaper editors have equally succumbed to the army’s campaign of calling the shots, but that is a separate issue.

In the case of private TV channels, interference has focused on news programmes, live discussion programmes, and also, nightly news review programmes, hosted mostly by journalists. In the latter two programmes, members of the audience raised questions. For instance, in Ekusheyr Shomoy, a panel of journalists acted as auditors to what the experts said. Many other programmes had live, viewer phone-ins. These features, in their own fashion, contributed to creating public spaces of democratic deliberation. (Of course, not all channels have been equally courageous, but that again, is a separate issue). From the interference that they face, it would seem that these spaces are perceived as threats. What does it threaten? Who does it threaten? These questions are sidelined, the emperor’s nakedness is not to be mentioned.

Military interference of these Emergency months has included a jealous guarding of its own image, of censoring photographs that threaten its sense of honour and dignity. Mahbubur Rahman, the former army chief was assaulted by party workers last year, strict instructions were given to newspaper offices that these photographs should not be published. The army has guarded its self-image of physical supremacy most viciously, as is symbolised by the furore over the photograph known as the `flying kick,’ taken during the Dhaka University student protests, in August 2007.

No timeline for the expiration of Emergency has been announced. Not yet. I would be lying if I said, everything seems to be fine, no deception seems to be involved. If I said, why worry?

Tales of censorship

The situation was far from ideal when political parties ruled the nation. Although newspaper ownership and content was not subject to direct government restriction, attacks on journalists and newspapers occurred frequently. Government efforts to intimidate them also occurred frequently. Political cadres would often attack journalists. Some were injured in police actions. For instance, according to a 2005 human rights report, 2 journalists were killed, 142 were injured, 11 arrested, 4 kidnapped, 53 assaulted, and 249 threatened. If one used similar indices of comparison for last year, the situation does not seem to have worsened. Thirty-five journalists were injured, 13 arrested, 35 assaulted, 83 threatened and 13 sued. A media practitioner was forced to sign an undertaking, another came under attack. (New Age, January 15, 2008).

But I think the terrain itself has changed, and hence, the terms of comparison need rethinking. Threats to the industry have surfaced that bring back older memories, Martial Law memories, even though we are constantly told that we have no reason to fear. These threats are substantial. The owners and directors of at least 5 TV channels, and 5 newspapers are facing ACC anti-corruption charges. The first and lone 24-hour news channel in the country, CSB, was taken off air last year, after the August protests. The closure of newspapers and TV channels, according to some observers, has broken the backbone of the media industry. It has caused massive unemployment among journalists, and others in media-related occupations. Wages are no longer regular. According to an insider friend, those working in a private TV channel received their wages and salaries for February last week only. In 5 or 6 newspapers, wages have not been paid for the last six months or so. The severe crisis in both print and electronic media is not only a financial one. In some senses, it is one of existence too. Existence as known thus far.

Journalists have been tortured for investigating security forces (Tasneem Khalil, Jahangir Alam Akash). It is rumoured that the owner of a private TV channel was picked up by security forces. He was left blindfolded, and released only after he had agreed to sign blank sheets of paper. Guidelines for talk shows have been issued. Names of blacklisted guest speakers have been circulated to private channels (white-listed ones too!). A faxed letter on plain paper asking Ekushey to close down its highly popular talk shows (Ekusheyr Shomoy, Ekusheyr Raat) was sent in end-January. Later, a similar letter was sent to most other channels. Sending plain paper directives, minus any letterhead, to newspaper and TV offices seems to be a new tactic of the military agencies. Leaving no footprints in the sand?

Tales of ownership

For the regime, the anti-graft drive has had some useful side-effects. The intelligence services are systematically acquiring shares in private media companies, by offering the release from detention of their owners in return.

The Economist, November 8, 2007

Is this true? Is there any way of verifying what is reported in the lines above? Why should the intelligence services buy up shares in the media industry? Any guesses?

Rumours have been floating of the intelligence agency brokering deals, of buying and selling shares in the media industry. If that’s true, how would that be in the public interest?

These are common enough questions that have bothered me, and all those I know who have read the article.

What intrigues me however is, the military intelligence agency already has vast powers at its disposal, powers that enable it to control the print and electronic media in this country, be a part of the conditioning factors that have led to the industry’s severe crisis, with an almost broken backbone, both financially and otherwise.

What further powers will ownership give? Should one look towards Pakistan’s milbus (military-business) to seek answers?

First published in New Age 20th May 2008

May 21, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Unidentified terrorists in the hills

rahnuma ahmed

Some external terrorists from outside Sajek have set these fires. There is no conflict between Bengalis and Paharis in this area. Those who set the fire don’t want the current communal harmony between Bengalis and Paharis to stay intact. Since they want to create a terrorist center in this area, they try to keep both sides agitated.

Major Kabir, second-in-command, Baghaihat zone (Fact Finding Team 1. Moshrefa Mishu et al, Report on 20th April Incident at Sajek Union.)

Bengali settlement in times of Emergency

BY NEARLY all accounts, Bengali settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has accelerated. It has intensified. Why?

Discovering the truth is never an easy task. More so, in times of Emergency. But our rulers forget, not everyone submits. ‘A happy slave is the biggest threat to freedom,’ says a postcard on my wall. Fortunately, the peoples of this land, neither Bengalis nor adivasis, have submitted. Never fully. Or, for long.

Five victims of Sajek – Pahari villagers – have come forward. They spoke out at a press conference in Dhaka, on April 27, 2008. Two separate fact-finding committees, consisting of writers, teachers, lawyers, student leaders and activists, human rights activists, left leaders, journalists, women’s group activists, visited the affected villages in Sajek, Rangamati. They spoke to Paharis and Bengalis. To settlers and civilians, to army personnel. They spoke to Paharis who had sought refuge in temples and forests after the arson attacks of April 20. Some still sleeping under open skies. They spoke to settler Bengalis too. To those who had taken refuge in the local market. To another settler, who had sought and found refuge in the nearby army camp itself. Those in the market were also being looked after by the army.

Pahari house razed in arson attack, Gongaram Mukh, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

Binoy Chakma, a Pahari victim, had said at the press conference, nearly ninety per cent of the villagers of Purbo Para, Gongaram Mukh, Retkaba, Baibacchora, the four Pahari villages that were burnt down, originally belonged to Longodu, Borkol, and Dighinala. But we were forced to leave our homes, said Binoy, because of army and settler attacks. Life in Baghaicchori, under Sajek union, was not easy. Army presence was continuous. It was stifling. But we managed. We managed to lead peaceful lives, to eke out modest livings. Things changed, however, with the declaration of Emergency, said Binoy. Warrant Officer Haroon told us, army posts will be built here. But later, small huts were built instead, in our land and garden. The settlers built them, the army helped them. We had set aside land for building a Buddhist temple, they took that away too. We protested, but they threatened us. Indra Chakma’s pineapple garden in Retkaba was destroyed. Ali, a settler, forcibly built a house on Indra’s land. Indra resisted, Ali and the soldiers dragged him to the army camp. If you protest again, they said, we’ll slaughter you like a sacrificial cow. There were other injustices, too. Rat infestation had left us with little food, the UNDP gave rice for 1,500 families. It was the UP Chairman L Thangar’s duty to distribute 20 kilograms for each family. But he gave only 8-10 kilograms to each Pahari family. When we asked him, he said, he had army instructions.

One of the fact-finding committee’s reports corroborates Binoy’s account, ‘…since 11 January 2007, the process of Bengali settlers grabbing Pahari land has accelerated.’ It also says land grabbing and Pahari eviction is taking place under army supervision. A weekly review of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (April 23, 2008) reports similar trends, ‘Since the imposition of the State of Emergency, the implantation of illegal plain settlers has intensified with the direct involvement of Bangladesh army.’

Between 1979 and 1983, Bangladesh’s military rulers sponsored migration of Bengali settlers into the Chittagong Hill Tracts. An estimated 500,000 plains settlers were provided land grants, cash and rations. As is clear from the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission report, Life is not ours (1991), the programme of turning Paharis into a minority was not made public then. Government representatives had repeatedly denied the existence of such a plan.

What does one hear now? Bengali settlement in the CHT is a thing of the past. The 1980s, yes, that was the settlement era. It was a mistake. The military rulers failed to realise it was a political problem, it should not be dealt with by force. Things are very different now. Now you may find some Bengalis going to CHT, they are following their family members. That is not settlement. How can one stop that? It sounds nice, the only problem is that it isn’t true. Settlement is still active. It seems to be at a final stage. Ina Hume, a daughter of the hills, and a careful observer of military repression wrote in 2005, a new road has been built from Baghaihat to Sajek. It borders the Mizoram hills of northeast India. She adds, there have been reports that the Bangladesh Army is involved in settling a further 10,000 Bengali families in the Kassalong Reserve Forest in Sajek. The writers of Life is not ours had noted, Pakistan, and later, the Bangladesh government had been uneasy about the borders with India and Burma being inhabited by a majority of the hill peoples. The Sajek incident, it seems, was destined to occur.

Need I say that the proposed settlement of Bengali families in the Kassalong Reserve Forest is in direct negation of the 1997 Peace Accord? Or, that the construction of the Baghaihat-Sajek road by the Bangladesh Army Engineer Construction Battalion, in the Kassalong Reserve Forest, clearly violates the Forest Act of 1927, and the Bangladesh Forest (Amendment) Act, 2000?

Four stakes vs Pahari homes

Most media reports in the Bangladesh press have stressed that losses occurred on both sides. Most reports mentioned that a larger number of Bengali homes were razed to the ground.

The fact-finding committee reports have been invaluable in providing a truer account of what happened. The report of the fact-finding committee led by Sara Hossain contains vivid descriptions of what Paharis lost as a result of the attacks. A middle-aged Chakma villager of Balurghat Para had told the committee members, ‘Our rice, clothes, pots-pans-plates have all been burnt. School books, birth registration certificates, SSC certificates, they’re all totally burnt.’ Several eyewitnesses and victims had said that their valuables were looted first, the houses set on fire later. A Daney Bhaibachora villager who had been interviewed had said, ‘The people who were setting things alight, they first took out from our homes, the TVs, beds, wardrobes, whatever they found, they looted, and at the end they torched the houses. Those who set the houses alight. They took everything.’ A Chakma woman had added, ‘I’ve heard that a TV was found in the Bangali Para. The Army has said that they will return the TV.’

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

The other committee report, the one led by Moshrefa Mishu, is also invaluable. It fleshes out what the Bengalis settlers lost. According to the writers, Bengali settler houses are temporary shelters. They consist of four stakes (khuti) pegged to the ground. There are hundreds of such homes in the Dui Tila area. They write, we spoke to Bengali inhabitants, who told us that they live here for short periods only. The report says, land grants to Bengali families are parcelled into smaller pieces meant for habitation, close to army camps, and larger pieces, located in far-away places. The report states, ‘…most Bengalis have two houses… Dighinala and Lichu Bagan are 12 kilometres apart…We interviewed settlers who told us that they had received 4 acres and 1/70th land in Lichubagan, and the remaining 1/30th land on Betcchari.’ The writers go on, it was the same in Dui Tila and Chongracchori. Settlers told us, they had 1/30th of an acre here, the rest, 4 acres and 1/70th land in distant mountainous areas.

Communal harmony: a myth in the making?

After the Sajek incident, both high military officials in Dhaka, and those lower in the rung, in the Hill Tracts, like the Major quoted above, have spoken of the communal harmony that exists in the Hill Tracts, that incidents like the Sajek arson attack threaten. These will not be tolerated, we have been told. A group of “external terrorists,” described by some as “unidentified terrorists,” is out to destroy peace and development efforts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The army has affirmed that such incidents will not be tolerated, that peace and communal harmony must be maintained at all costs.

Such affirmations ignore history. It makes nothing of tales of killingsperpetrated by Bengali settlers and security forces. To mention some: Logang cluster village massacre, Khagracchori 10 April 1992. Naniarchar Bazar massacre, Rangamati, 17 November 1993. Malya massacre, Langadu upazilla, 1992. It ignores instances of communal riots such as the Bhuacchari incident, April-May 2003.

Other Sajeks will occur, I guess, if we do not face up to the truth. Even in times of emergency.

First published in New Age on 12th May 2008

May 12, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , | 4 Comments

   

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