ShahidulNews

(Moved to http://www.shahidulnews.com)

Bangladesh, standing on the edge

Preface by Christian Caujolle

Expressions, hands, faces, presence and pain, tenderness and anxiety, light and encounters, questions and determination as well as a thousand other things run through Munem Wasif‘s photographs.

The way Wasif takes his photographs can be summed up into two ways: people and the frame. He definitely belongs to a humanist tradition, contemporary in content for the attention he gives to people and to the way they live, what they have to endure and all they bear in today’s pitiless world, disrupted, torn by drastic climatic changes and economic speculation. A world where speed is queen and profit king inconsiderately leaving on the wayside the rejected that it spawns. It is salutary that an eye such as Wasif’s reminds us that these things exist, that there are men, women, children, “little people” like us who have to withstand much more than we do.


In photography, the approach and the representation of suffering and exclusion are often entangled in a jumble of good intentions, generous in intention, they call for tearful compassion, with clichéd images that end up making us weary, forever repeating themselves, they end up by anaesthetising our capacity to react. Wasif produces the opposite effect. He makes us question and makes us concerned.

This is done with so little and at the same time goes to the essential. We can not doubt his commitment to those he photographs, the excluded, the victims, panic-stricken by a world ruled by the race for profit and blinded by immediate return based on solely commercial value. He puts this world into form, radical in its description, he imposes it and gives it to us to see clearly.

This is where the frame comes in. A way of focusing in on the world, to sum it up in a series of specific points of view, classic in their composition, forcing us to see and to perceive their intention.

Munem Wasif‘s frames are clean-cut, precise, almost cold. Without flourish. He asks us to look, to perceive, to take a stand. Therefore to act.

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Wasif’s work will be shown at Visa Pour la Image at Perpignan. He won the City of Perpignan Young Reporter’s Award for 2008. He graduated from Pathshala, The South Asian Institute of Photography, and works at DrikNews. His work is represented by Agence VU and Majority World.

July 29, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Photography, Photojournalism issues | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Another View

Lucia Chiriboga portrays the deep spirituality in Ecuadorian life. Long before Photoshop became commonplace, Lucia began creating complex images by subtle multiple exposures, as a way of weaving multilayered stories of her ancestors. ã Lucia Chiriboga/Drik/Majority World

It was a grand opening. The ‘Who’s Who’ of development in Britain was there, championing the noble cause – the Millennium Development Goals, making poverty history.

The Bob Geldof circus could perhaps be pardoned. Geldof is neither a development worker nor someone particularly knowledgeable about the subject. But for the organizers of the ‘bash’ at the OXO Tower on London’s South Bank to produce such a culturally insensitive event was revealing.

Apart from parading a few young black people from Africa, who extolled the virtues of ‘development’, there was little contribution from the Majority World. The key speakers, typically white Western development workers, spoke of the role that they were playing in saving the poor of the Global South. The token dark-skinned people, having played their part, were soon forgotten.

The centrepiece of this celebration was an exhibition entitled Eight Ways to Change the World. All the photographs were taken by white Western photographers. No-one questioned the implication of such an exercise. When I confronted one of the organizers he explained that the curator – a director of a Western photographic agency – had decided not to use Majority World photographers because they ‘didn’t have the eye’. The sophisticated visual language possessed by the Western audience was presumably beyond the capacity of a photographer from the South to comprehend, let alone engage with at a creative level.

New rules

This represents a shift from the position of 20 years ago when we started asking why Majority World photographers were not being used by mainstream media and development agencies. The answer then had been: ‘They don’t exist.’ Today our existence is difficult to deny. The internet; the fact that several Majority World agencies operate successfully; and that photographers belonging to such agencies regularly win international awards: all these things mean we are no longer invisible.

Now it’s a different set of rules. We have to prove we have the eye. A similar statement about blacks, women, or minority groups of any sort, would raise a storm. But when such prejudice is used against a group of media professionals from the South, who happen to represent the majority of humankind, no-one appears to bat an eyelid.

I have, of course, faced this situation before. There was, for example, a fax from the National Geographic Society Television Division asking if we could help them with the production of a film that would include the Bangladeshi cyclone of 1991. They wanted specific help in locating ‘US, European or UN people… who would lead us to a suitable Bangladeshi family’. The irony of making such a request to a picture agency dedicated to promoting local voices had obviously escaped them. We had gotten used to requests for iconic objects of poverty that international NGOs insisted existed in abundance and had to be photographed – but which locals neither knew nor had heard of.

The economics of suffering

Charities and development agencies need to raise money from the Western public. The best way to pull the heart strings – and thereby the purse strings – is to show those doleful eyes of the disadvantaged.

Perhaps photographers from the South cannot be trusted to understand this. Perhaps they are so hardened to such images of daily suffering that they are unable to appreciate the impact these sights might have on Western audiences – and the coffers of Western aid agencies.

But certain changes have been taking place, forcing various adjustments. Media budgets have become tighter than they were. Flying people to distant locations is expensive. Having Western photographers ‘on the ground’ can be dangerous in some cases – and costly in terms of insurance premiums. Better to have locals in the firing line. So, slowly, local names have begun to creep in. Certain rules still apply of course, such as the vast differentials in pay between local and Western photographers.

Stories about Nike regularly make the headlines, but the exploitative terms on which local photographers work rarely surface. The Bangla saying ‘kaker mangsho kak khai na’ (a crow doesn’t eat crow’s meat) seems to apply to journalism: criticism of the media is taboo. Not only do the workers on the media sweatshops have to work for peanuts, they need to know which stories to tell. None of this journalistic independence rubbish: gimme stories that sell.

This, of course, affects Southern photographers. When they know certain stories sell, they themselves begin to supply the ‘appropriate’ images. A man known to carry a toy gun in the streets of Dhaka is repeatedly photographed at religious rallies, and despite common knowledge that it is a fake gun, news agencies run the picture without explaining the nature of the situation. Numerous wire photographers have been known to stage flood pictures and in one famous instance, a child was shown to be swimming to safety in what was known to be knee deep water. The photograph went on to win a major press award.

Money also affects publishers. Smaller budgets require careful shopping. The Corbis, Getty and Reuters image supermarkets are rapidly squeezing out the ‘corner store’ suppliers and a small Majority World picture library simply can’t compete.

But there are other factors in the equation. Development isn’t simply about money. What about developing mutual respect; enabling equitable partnerships; providing enabling environments for intellectual exchange? What about creating awareness of the underlying causes of poverty? These are all integral parts of the development process. When all things are added up, cheap images providing clichéd messages do more harm than good. They do not address the crucial issue: poverty is almost always a product of exploitation, at local, regional and international levels. If poverty is simply addressed in terms of what people lack in monetary terms, then the more important issues of exploitation are sidelined.

Materially poor nations should have a say in how they are represented. This picture, taken in the early days of the Maoist movement, by Nepalese photographer Binod Dhungel, shows members of his country’s Maoist Movement long before it was breaking news. ã Binod Dhungel/Drik/Majority World

A broader picture

However, the type of imagery required from the Majority World is broadening. This is coming less from growing political sensibility and more from global economic shifts. Negative imagery is seen as a deterrent to foreign investment in emerging markets. With transnationals interested in cheap labour, and a wider consumer base, a different profile is now required to stimulate investor confidence. So, along with the standard fare of flood and famine, there are stories of Indian and Chinese billionaires and how they have benefited from capitalism.

Furthermore the new ‘inclusive’ media now take on more ethnic-minority journalists. But when they come over to do their groundbreaking stories, it is the rookie on the streets of Dhaka who provides the leads, conducts the research, translates, drives, fixes, and does all that is necessary for the story to emerge. If things do go wrong – as when Britain’s Channel 4 TV attempted an ill-fated exposé in Bangladesh in late 2002 – the Western journalists are likely to be home for Christmas while the local fixers face torture in jail.

Drik’s vision

Lacking the advantages of our Western counterparts, image-makers in the South have had to rely on ingenuity and making-do in order to move from being fixers to being authors in their own right. We have had to be pioneers. With one filing cabinet, an XT computer without a hard drive, and a converted toilet as a darkroom, we decided we would take on the established rich-world photo agencies. On 4 September 1989 Drik Alokchitra Granthagar was set up in Dhaka.

The Sanskrit word Drik means vision, inner vision, and philosophy of vision. That vision of a more egalitarian world, where materially poor nations have a say in how they are represented, remains our driving force.

The European agencies I had encountered wanted a minimum submission of 300 transparencies and told you not to ask for money for the first three years. This constituted a massive investment for a Majority World photographer, and virtually ruled out her entry into the market. We had a very different approach. If a photographer had a single good image which we felt needed to be seen we would take her on, try and sell the picture and pay her as soon as the money came in.

It allowed the photographer to buy more rolls of film and carry on working. The photographers didn’t have printing and developing facilities so we set up a good quality darkroom and trained people to make high quality prints. They had no lights so we set up a studio.

The only gallery spaces available were owned by the State or foreign cultural missions, none of which would show controversial work. So we built our own galleries. Few would publish pictures well so we built our own pre-press unit and published postcards, bookmarks and calendars which we sold door-to-door to pay for running costs.

Photography was largely male-dominated, so we organized workshops for women photographers. There were no working-class people in the media, so we started training poor children in photography. We couldn’t afford faxes or international phone calls, so we set up Bangladesh’s first email service and lobbied for the introduction of fully fledged internet. Professor Yunus, the Nobel Prize winner, was our first user. We set up electronic bulletin boards on issues important to us, such as child rights and environmental issues.

We started putting together a database of photographers in the South, and wrote off to as many organizations as we could, offering our services. No-one replied. Undeterred, we put together a portfolio of black-and-white prints, largely by Bangladeshi photographers.

On a rare visit to Europe, I visited the office of the New Internationalist in Oxford. Dexter Tiranti greeted me warmly. He had received our letter, but hadn’t given it too much importance. An agency in Bangladesh seemed too far distant for the NI to work with on a regular basis. Having seen the portfolio, however, Dexter sat me down at his desk and started ringing picture users across Europe. I remember feeling envious of this ability simply to pick up a phone and call someone in another country, but was grateful for the contacts. Dexter asked us to submit pictures for the NI Almanac. The next year we got a letter from him that stated: ‘The photographs are beautiful and the reason we are using only six is because we can’t really have too many from one country.’ Others Dexter had phoned that day, and many others we have contacted since, have responded similarly, and so picture sales slowly grew – but it was no easy ride.

Drik’s email network was put to use when writer and feminist Taslima Nasrin, pictured here in hiding, was being persecuted. ã Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Knife wounds and death threats

Our problems weren’t simply ones of surviving on slender means and competing against agencies based in London, Paris and New York. Our activism created problems on our home soil too. We had, by then, set up our own website and had helped to establish the first webzine and internet portal in the country. Our email network had been put to use when Taslima Nasrin was being persecuted. The website became the seat of resistance when pro-government thugs committed rape in a university campus. So the site, and later the agency, came under attack.

The day after our human rights portal www.banglarights.net was launched, all the telephone lines of the agency were disconnected. It took us twoand- a-half years to get the lines back, but that never stopped our internet service and we stayed connected. Later, Drik became the seat of resistance when the Government used the military to round up opposition activists. I was attacked on the street, during curfew and in a street protected by the military. I received eight knife wounds.

So we learnt to walk a fine line.

It wasn’t just the Government that found us unpalatable. The US embassy felt it couldn’t work with us because we opposed President Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh.

Letter by John Kinkannon (director of USIA in Bangladesh) to Mayeen Ahmed, coordinator of Chobi Mela (2000).

The British Council demanded we take down a show that talked about colonialism, and threatened that future projects might be jeopardized when we openly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Death threats, some real, some less serious and a whole range of sabotage attempts have been part of the path we’ve travelled.

Current strategies are more subtle. We know we will never be given work by certain agencies and that visas for some of us will be more difficult to get, but it is certainly not all negative. The main strength of Drik has been its friends and their support. None of what we have achieved would have been possible without the contribution of a large number of people, ranging from ordinary Bangladeshis who have rallied when it mattered, to influential people thousands of miles away who have provided moral and material support. Combining our compulsion to be socially effective with the requirement to be financially independent has remained our biggest challenge. It is a difficult balancing act.

A great high

Taking a principled position has other drawbacks. People work long hours for salaries below the industry norm. There are few perks. But working at Drik is a special experience; a great high. Not everyone can survive on these highs, of course, and job satisfaction doesn’t help pay the bills, so we need to be competitive and ensure a level of quality so that we can hold our own despite the political pressures.

Eighteen years down the road, we now have a workforce of around 60. Graduates from our school of photography, Pathshala, hold senior positions in major publications. The working-class children we’ve trained have gone on to win Emmys and other awards, and I believe Majority World photographers feel they have a platform.

The big agencies like Reuters and Getty can provide images at a cost and a speed impossible for independent practitioners to match, a very real consideration for picture editors under time pressure and working to tight budgets. The fact that Corbis (owned by Microsoft) is buying up picture archives like the Bettman is important for their preservation, but the images that now exist 200 feet below the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania are no longer accessible to the students, scholars and researchers. An important part of our visual history is now in the control of one person – Bill Gates.

Golam Kasem (nicknamed Daddy) was Drik’s oldest photographer when he died at the age of 103. His original glass plates date back to 1918. This 1927 image is one of many where Daddy records everyday life in rich detail. ã Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Fair trade

Father Paul Casperg, who has been working for many years with the tea plantation workers in Kandy, has an interesting story to tell. Nearly 30 years ago, in his Masters thesis at the London School of Economics, Father Casperg was able to show that an increase of two pence (four US cents) in the price of a cup of tea being sold on the British railways would, providing it went to the Kandy tea plantation workers, result in more income than the total foreign aid received by the Sri Lankan Government.

Father Casperg rightly concluded that it was fair trade that Sri Lanka needed, not more aid.

That is what fair trade imagery organizations like majorityworld.com and kijijiVision (see Action) are trying to do. By invoking ethical standards in the trading of images, these organizations address not only the distorted and disrespectful depiction of people of the Global South, but also the economic divide.

Organizations that call for Majority World governments to be more transparent and accountable need to reflect upon their own ethical standards when it comes to depicting and dealing with the South. Practices such as not allowing photographers to retain copyright or film are justified by the ‘convenience’ of distributing images. Such ‘convenience clauses’ are rarely applied to Western photographers, who know the law and can exercise their rights.

Light, flexible, potent

We are resisting, though. The new portal, majorityworld.com, supported strongly by its lobbying partner kijijiVision.org, has built on the extended groundwork done by Drik. DrikNews.com, though still very young, threatens to give the wire agencies a run for their money, and photographers in the South are pooling their resources, including developing close partnerships with like-minded Western organizations.

Recently, I was sitting with a small group of photographers, painters and filmmakers in a corner of the top-floor gallery of the Voluntary Artists Society of Thimpu (capital of Bhutan). At the end of the showing of a film on Chobi Mela IV – the festival of photography in Asia – projected on a bedsheet pinned on the gallery wall, the conversation veered to pooling resources in neighbouring countries. Sharing computers, scanners, and contacts, we talked of bus routes to neighbouring countries, and finding public spaces for showing work. What we needed was an online solution that would serve all Majority World photographers.

Having purchased expensive software produced in the West for selling pictures online, we were further bled by consultancy fees we had to pay every time we needed to adapt it to our situation. So, eventually, we developed our own software. It is an inexpensive but highly efficient search engine that local newspaper archives can use. Developed using largely open-source modules, it is constantly updated based on feedback from users from all over the globe and it has worked well on low bandwidth.

Groups in Bhutan, Peru, Tanzania and Vietnam recognize that the wire services and the big agencies have a different agenda. If it’s a guerrilla war against the corporations that has to be fought, then we need different tools. Light, flexible, inexpensive and potent ones.

A revolution is taking place. As new names creep into the byline, unfamiliar faces step up to the award podium and fresh imagery – vibrant, questioning and revealing – makes it into mainstream media, a whole new world is opening up. A Majority World.

Originally published in the New Internationalist Magazine in August 2007

Image take-over

In the 1990s independent picture libraries and agencies disappeared at an alarming rate as they were absorbed or driven out of business by larger ones. Dominating the field was Corbis, created by Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates. Corbis now has 24 offices in 16 countries, represents some 29,000 photographers and controls around 100 million images. Last year it acquired the Australian Picture Library, entered a partnership with IndiaPicture.com and opened a new office in Beijing. Its 2006 revenue was more than $251 million.

Other big players have included Getty Images, founded in 1995, which now has 20 offices worldwide and controls over one million images. Jupiterimages, a division of the Connecticut-based Jupitermedia Corporation, manages over seven million images online, while Reuters has an archive of over two million images.

In recent years the microstock photography industry, led by iStockPhoto and later ShutterStock, Dreamstime, Fotolia, and BigStockPhoto has emerged as a rapidly growing market. Using the internet as their sole distribution method, and recruiting mainly amateur and hobbyist photographers from around the globe, these companies are able to offer stock libraries of pictures at very low prices. Corporate giants Corbis, Getty and Jupiterimages have now muscled their way into this market too, adding to their everexpanding fortfolio of the world’s imagery.

Sources: Corbis-Corporate Fact Sheet, BAPLA, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Photo District News, StockPhotoTalk.

Belongings: felt, presented, challenged
Images from Bangladesh, Iran, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

A true Pathshala
The story of an extraordinary school, told by Sameera Huque and Shahidul Alam.

Lifecycle: with a few exits
Images from Nepal and Bangladesh.

Coping with pain
Images from India and Bangladesh.

Lifestyles: disappearing and aspired
Images from Bangladesh and Japan.

Action on Majority World photography
Contacts and websites for agencies that hold or promote Majority World photography.

July 26, 2008 Posted by | Drik and its initiatives, Photography, Photojournalism issues | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Jamaat’s farce unravels

rahnuma ahmed

A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation. The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat’s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat’s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth,
writes

Be what you would seem to be – or, if you’d like it put more simply – Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

The Duchess, in Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

IT WAS to be a convention of freedom fighters, his neighbour had told him. They had both fought against the genocidal onslaught unleashed by the Pakistan army in 1971.

On Friday, a weekly holiday morning, veteran freedom fighter Sheikh Mohammad Ali Aman had gone to the Diploma Engineers Institute in Dhaka. He had peeked into the auditorium. He had expected to see familiar faces, to hear cherished stories of loss and courage. Of a victory achieved, of justice denied. Of betrayals. Of trying the collaborators – the local accomplices of Pakistan army’s genocidal campaign – to right the wrongs, at least some. There were collaborators thought to be guilty of committing war crimes, but they had gone scot-free. Their political rehabilitation and brazenness in the last three and a half decades was like a wound that festers. Yet another brazen act, yet another shameless lie brings the pus to the surface. It keeps oozing out. Again, and again.

He was puzzled at the faces that he saw. None of the Sector Commanders were present. No familiar faces, faces that symbolise for him the spirit of the struggle, the spirit of the nine-month long people’s war. Mohammad Ali is a man of modest means, he earns a living by painting houses and buildings in Badda, Dhaka. Unable to recognise any of the imposing figures present inside the auditorium – ex-chief justice Syed JR Mudassir Hossain who was chief guest, energy adviser to the previous government Mahmudur Rahman, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Rifles Major General (retd) Fazlur Rahman, Wing Commander (retd) Hamidullah Khan, ex-director general of the Bangladesh Press Institute Rezwan Siddiqui, who was the special guest, New Nation editor Mostofa Kamal Mojumdar, general secretary of the Federal Union of Journalists Ruhul Amin Gazi, journalist Amanullah Kabir – he felt alarmed. And left. One can hardly blame him.

`So I went and sat on the lawn,’ Mohammad Ali said in an interview given later. ‘I saw some people come out, I heard them say, we don’t want to be part of a meeting that demands the trial of Sector Commanders. An ETV reporter came up to me and asked, are you a freedom fighter? Yes, I replied. I belonged to Sector 11, First Bengal Regiment, D Company, led by Colonel Taher. What about the trial of war criminals, what do you think? I said, I think that those who had opposed the birth of the nation, those who had committed rape, razed localities to the ground, murdered intellectuals, they are war criminals. They should be tried. Those who were chairman and members of the Peace Committees, they belong to Jamaat, and to the present Progressive Democratic Party. They should be tried, they should be hung. I think this is something that can be done only by the present government, a non-party government’ (Samakal, July 13).

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her…

They swooped down on Mohammad Ali. He was kicked and locked in a room for three hours. Before his release, his voter ID card was photocopied. ‘I do not wish to say what they did to me. It will bring dishonour to the freedom fighters,’ was all he said of his ordeal. ETV reporter Sajed Romel, also made captive, was released an hour later, after his colleagues rushed to his rescue. The camera crew, fortunately, had escaped earlier, with its recorded film intact.

Engineer Abdur Rob, a vice-president of Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad – the organisers of this farce – was asked why a veteran freedom fighter and an electronic media journalist had been locked up. He replied, ‘Impossible. Such a thing could not have happened.’ Prothom Alo’s reporter was persistent, it was filmed. We have it. ‘Well then,’ came the immediate reply, ‘it was an act of sabotage. Our people could never have done such a thing.’

New lies. Emergency lies

Soon enough, press releases were handed out by Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad detailing the sabotage story: Prothom Alo, Samakal, Jugantor, Inquilab, and Daily Star were guilty of spreading lies. Some persons had come to the national convention without any delegate cards, they had tried to barge in, JMP volunteers had wanted to see their invitation cards, their responses had been unsatisfactory. Instead of covering the main event, the ETV news crew had shot something else, it was staged by hired people and instigated by yellow journalists. These acts, deliberate and pre-planned, were aimed at wrecking the convention. They had failed. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad is an authentic organisation of freedom fighters. It is not affiliated to any political party. The liberation struggle is above party affiliation. Journalists are demeaning the honour of freedom fighters by propagating lies. They are creating disunity.

A later press release added more details: no one by the name of Mohammad Ali had been invited to the national convention of Freedom Fighters. The ETV’s interest in interviewing him proves that it was staged, it was a conspiracy aimed at foiling the convention. Politicians are attempting to capitalise on the incident. The JMP calls on all freedom fighters to stay united (Naya Diganta, 13, 15 July).

Newspaper reports, however, provide concrete details. Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad was formed on January 26 this year. After the Sector Commanders Forum had demanded the trial of war criminals. The JMP’s office is located in a room rented out by an organisation headed by ATM Sirajul Huq, ex-amir, Paltan thana, Jamaat. It is not registered with the liberation war ministry. This, according to legal experts, makes it illegal. Three high-ranking members of the Parishad claim that they had fought in 1971. These claims are false. Muktijoddha commanders of the respective areas do not know them. Executive committee members of the Parishad include men who contested parliamentary elections on behalf of Jamaat-e-Islami. Vice-president Engineer Abdur Rob had admitted to journalists, yes, the Parishad did receive ‘donations’ from Jamaat-e-Islami.

The story about Jamaat’s role in the liberation struggle, the liberation struggle itself, whether it was genocidal or not, whether war crimes should be tried or not, who was on which side, is an evolving one. What interests me particularly is how Emergency rule, and its raison d’etre of removing corruption and corrupt political practices for good, has impacted on Jamaat’s story. On its warped sense of history. Last October, as Jamaat’s secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid was leaving the Election Commission after talks on electoral reforms, he was asked about the growing demand for declaring anti-liberation forces, and war criminals, disqualified from contesting in the national elections. He had replied, the charges against Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh are ‘false’, and ‘ill-motivated’. There are no war criminals in the country. He had added, ‘In fact, anti-liberation forces never even existed.’ A day later, in an ETV talk show (26.10.2007) Jamaat-sympathiser and former Islami Bank chairman Shah Abdul Hannan had said, there was no genocide in 1971. Only a civil war.

And now this. A national convention of freedom fighters organised by supporters and activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. An outright appropriation.

The only problem is, Mohammad Ali saw through it. A single glance told him the truth. And, as Jamaat’s pack of cards came crashing down, the reaction was instant. It was violent. This, for me, was the second moment of truth. It testifies to Jamaat’s unchanged character, violence, an inability to engage with history, and to confront truth.

Old truths

Historical research which includes newspaper reports, speeches and statements made by those accused of war crimes, attests to the fact that Mujahid, as president of East Pakistan Islami Chhatra Sangha, and as chief of the Al-Badr Bahini, collaborated with the Pakistan army in conducting massacres, looting and rape. Also, that he had led the killings of renowned academics, writers and poets, doctors, engineers, and journalists, which occurred two days before victory was declared on December 16. Senior Jamaat leaders Abdus Sobhan, Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Abdul Kader Molla and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, who accompanied Jamaat’s secretary general to the Election Commission for talks on electoral reforms last October, are also alleged to have committed war crimes. According to the People’s Enquiry Commission formed in 1993, Jamaat’s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami, as commander-in-chief of Al-Badr, is also guilty of having committed war crimes.

Who needs Jamaat?

Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had accepted Jamaat as an ally during the anti-Ershad movement. After the national elections of 1990, Jamaat support had ensured the BNP its majority in the fifth parliament. The Awami League, which claims to have led the liberation struggle, joined forces with Jamaat to help oppose and oust the sixth parliament. In the seventh parliament, the Awami League inducted at least one identified war collaborator in the cabinet. And, in the eighth parliament, the BNP paid the ultimate tribute by forming government with Jamaat as a coalition partner.

But what about now? That this government, the Fakhruddin-led, military-controlled government, is giving Jamaat-e-Islami a kid gloves treatment has not escaped unnoticed. Jamaat’s amir Matiur Rahman Nizami was one of the last top-ranking leaders to be arrested. He was also one of the earliest to be released, that too, on bail. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of party supporters were allowed to gather on the road to cheer his release last week, while the banner of Amra Muktijuddher Shontan activists, who had formed a human chain the next day, to protest against the assault on Muhammad Ali, was seized by the police. The Bangla blogging platform Sachalayatan could no longer be accessed after a strongly worded article on the assault of Muhammad Ali was posted. Was it a coincidence? Or, are the two incidents related? When asked, ABM Habibur Rahman, head of BTCAL internet division, refused to comment. One of the founders, who lives in Malaysia, has confirmed that the blog can be accessed from all other parts of the world.

As the US expands its war on terror, its venomous civilisational crusade of establishing democracies in the Middle East, one notices how Bangladesh has gradually been re-fashioned as a ‘moderately’ Muslim country, in an area considered to be ‘vital to US interests’. Jamaat-e-Islami, in the words of Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is a ‘democratic party’. James F Moriarty, US ambassador to Bangladesh, in his congressional testimony (February 6, 2008), said US interest in Bangladesh revolved around the latter denying space to ‘terrorism’ (mind you, Islamic, not US, not state-sponsored).

Moriarty’s ideas echo Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami’s. In an interview given last year, Nizami said, Jamaat was important to keep Bangladesh free of militancy and terrorism (Probe, June 27-July 3, 2007). Interesting words coming from a person who had, three years earlier, as amir of the then ruling coalition partner and industries minister, denied the existence of militancy in Bangladesh. Bangla Bhai was the ‘creation of newspapers’, it was ‘Awami League propaganda’.

The US and Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh fashioning a new partnership on war on terror? chorer shakkhi matal, many Bengalis would say. The drunkard provides testimony for the thief.

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First published in The New Age on Monday 21st July 2008

July 21, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Quitting Is Leading Too

If only our own leaders (past and present), Mugabe, Bush and a host of others could learn! At the silver jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence, Madiba had set an example. He had called out to Khaleda (then the leader of the opposition) from the stage. An act of respect and reconciliation none of our leaders (including Khaleda) have learnt from.

Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership

The President and the Prime Minister attending the Silver Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence along with visiting foreign dignitaries President Demirel of Turkey, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and President Yasser Arafat of Palestine. © Abir Abdullah/Drik/Majority World

Nelson Mandela has always felt most at ease around children, and in some ways his greatest deprivation was that he spent 27 years without hearing a baby cry or holding a child’s hand. Last month, when I visited Mandela in Johannesburg — a frailer, foggier Mandela than the one I used to know — his first instinct was to spread his arms to my two boys. Within seconds they were hugging the friendly old man who asked them what sports they liked to play and what they’d had for breakfast. While we talked, he held my son Gabriel, whose complicated middle name is Rolihlahla, Nelson Mandela’s real first name. He told Gabriel the story of that name, how in Xhosa it translates as “pulling down the branch of a tree” but that its real meaning is “troublemaker.”

Nelson Mandela at 90

A look at the life and leadership of the world’s great hero.
Narrated by TIME’s Managing Editor, Rick Stengel

As he celebrates his 90th birthday next week, Nelson Mandela has made enough trouble for several lifetimes. He liberated a country from a system of violent prejudice and helped unite white and black, oppressor and oppressed, in a way that had never been done before. In the 1990s I worked with Mandela for almost two years on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. After all that time spent in his company, I felt a terrible sense of withdrawal when the book was done; it was like the sun going out of one’s life. We have seen each other occasionally over the years, but I wanted to make what might be a final visit and have my sons meet him one more time.

I also wanted to talk to him about leadership. Mandela is the closest thing the world has to a secular saint, but he would be the first to admit that he is something far more pedestrian: a politician. He overthrew apartheid and created a nonracial democratic South Africa by knowing precisely when and how to transition between his roles as warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman. Uncomfortable with abstract philosophical concepts, he would often say to me that an issue “was not a question of principle; it was a question of tactics.” He is a master tactician.

Mandela is no longer comfortable with inquiries or favors. He’s fearful that he may not be able to summon what people expect when they visit a living deity, and vain enough to care that they not think him diminished. But the world has never needed Mandela’s gifts — as a tactician, as an activist and, yes, as a politician — more, as he showed again in London on June 25, when he rose to condemn the savagery of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. As we enter the main stretch of a historic presidential campaign in America, there is much that he can teach the two candidates. I’ve always thought of what you are about to read as Madiba’s Rules (Madiba, his clan name, is what everyone close to him calls him), and they are cobbled together from our conversations old and new and from observing him up close and from afar. They are mostly practical. Many of them stem directly from his personal experience. All of them are calibrated to cause the best kind of trouble: the trouble that forces us to ask how we can make the world a better place.

No. 1
Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it
In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”

And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

No. 2
Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind
Mandela is cagey. in 1985 he was operated on for an enlarged prostate. When he was returned to prison, he was separated from his colleagues and friends for the first time in 21 years. They protested. But as his longtime friend Ahmed Kathrada recalls, he said to them, “Wait a minute, chaps. Some good may come of this.”

The good that came of it was that Mandela on his own launched negotiations with the apartheid government. This was anathema to the African National Congress (ANC). After decades of saying “prisoners cannot negotiate” and after advocating an armed struggle that would bring the government to its knees, he decided that the time was right to begin to talk to his oppressors.

When he initiated his negotiations with the government in 1985, there were many who thought he had lost it. “We thought he was selling out,” says Cyril Ramaphosa, then the powerful and fiery leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. “I went to see him to tell him, What are you doing? It was an unbelievable initiative. He took a massive risk.”

Mandela launched a campaign to persuade the ANC that his was the correct course. His reputation was on the line. He went to each of his comrades in prison, Kathrada remembers, and explained what he was doing. Slowly and deliberately, he brought them along. “You take your support base along with you,” says Ramaphosa, who was secretary-general of the ANC and is now a business mogul. “Once you arrive at the beachhead, then you allow the people to move on. He’s not a bubble-gum leader — chew it now and throw it away.”

For Mandela, refusing to negotiate was about tactics, not principles. Throughout his life, he has always made that distinction. His unwavering principle — the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote — was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists.

“He’s a historical man,” says Ramaphosa. “He was thinking way ahead of us. He has posterity in mind: How will they view what we’ve done?” Prison gave him the ability to take the long view. It had to; there was no other view possible. He was thinking in terms of not days and weeks but decades. He knew history was on his side, that the result was inevitable; it was just a question of how soon and how it would be achieved. “Things will be better in the long run,” he sometimes said. He always played for the long run.

No. 3
Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front
Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons herding cattle. “You know,” he would say, “you can only lead them from behind.” He would then raise his eyebrows to make sure I got the analogy.

As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. “Don’t enter the debate too early,” he used to say.

During the time I worked with Mandela, he often called meetings of his kitchen cabinet at his home in Houghton, a lovely old suburb of Johannesburg. He would gather half a dozen men, Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki (who is now the South African President) and others around the dining-room table or sometimes in a circle in his driveway. Some of his colleagues would shout at him — to move faster, to be more radical — and Mandela would simply listen. When he finally did speak at those meetings, he slowly and methodically summarized everyone’s points of view and then unfurled his own thoughts, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted without imposing it. The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. “It is wise,” he said, “to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

No. 4
Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport
As far back as the 1960s, mandela began studying Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans who created apartheid. His comrades in the ANC teased him about it, but he wanted to understand the Afrikaner’s worldview; he knew that one day he would be fighting them or negotiating with them, and either way, his destiny was tied to theirs.

This was strategic in two senses: by speaking his opponents’ language, he might understand their strengths and weaknesses and formulate tactics accordingly. But he would also be ingratiating himself with his enemy. Everyone from ordinary jailers to P.W. Botha was impressed by Mandela’s willingness to speak Afrikaans and his knowledge of Afrikaner history. He even brushed up on his knowledge of rugby, the Afrikaners’ beloved sport, so he would be able to compare notes on teams and players.

Mandela understood that blacks and Afrikaners had something fundamental in common: Afrikaners believed themselves to be Africans as deeply as blacks did. He knew, too, that Afrikaners had been the victims of prejudice themselves: the British government and the white English settlers looked down on them. Afrikaners suffered from a cultural inferiority complex almost as much as blacks did.

Mandela was a lawyer, and in prison he helped the warders with their legal problems. They were far less educated and worldly than he, and it was extraordinary to them that a black man was willing and able to help them. These were “the most ruthless and brutal of the apartheid regime’s characters,” says Allister Sparks, the great South African historian, and he “realized that even the worst and crudest could be negotiated with.”

No. 5
Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer
Many of the guests mandela invited to the house he built in Qunu were people whom, he intimated to me, he did not wholly trust. He had them to dinner; he called to consult with them; he flattered them and gave them gifts. Mandela is a man of invincible charm — and he has often used that charm to even greater effect on his rivals than on his allies.

On Robben Island, Mandela would always include in his brain trust men he neither liked nor relied on. One person he became close to was Chris Hani, the fiery chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing. There were some who thought Hani was conspiring against Mandela, but Mandela cozied up to him. “It wasn’t just Hani,” says Ramaphosa. “It was also the big industrialists, the mining families, the opposition. He would pick up the phone and call them on their birthdays. He would go to family funerals. He saw it as an opportunity.” When Mandela emerged from prison, he famously included his jailers among his friends and put leaders who had kept him in prison in his first Cabinet. Yet I well knew that he despised some of these men.

There were times he washed his hands of people — and times when, like so many people of great charm, he allowed himself to be charmed. Mandela initially developed a quick rapport with South African President F.W. de Klerk, which is why he later felt so betrayed when De Klerk attacked him in public.

Mandela believed that embracing his rivals was a way of controlling them: they were more dangerous on their own than within his circle of influence. He cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it. After all, he used to say, “people act in their own interest.” It was simply a fact of human nature, not a flaw or a defect. The flip side of being an optimist — and he is one — is trusting people too much. But Mandela recognized that the way to deal with those he didn’t trust was to neutralize them with charm.

No. 6
Appearances matter — and remember to smile
When Mandela was a poor law student in Johannesburg wearing his one threadbare suit, he was taken to see Walter Sisulu. Sisulu was a real estate agent and a young leader of the ANC. Mandela saw a sophisticated and successful black man whom he could emulate. Sisulu saw the future.

Sisulu once told me that his great quest in the 1950s was to turn the ANC into a mass movement; and then one day, he recalled with a smile, “a mass leader walked into my office.” Mandela was tall and handsome, an amateur boxer who carried himself with the regal air of a chief’s son. And he had a smile that was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day.

We sometimes forget the historical correlation between leadership and physicality. George Washington was the tallest and probably the strongest man in every room he entered. Size and strength have more to do with DNA than with leadership manuals, but Mandela understood how his appearance could advance his cause. As leader of the ANC’s underground military wing, he insisted that he be photographed in the proper fatigues and with a beard, and throughout his career he has been concerned about dressing appropriately for his position. George Bizos, his lawyer, remembers that he first met Mandela at an Indian tailor’s shop in the 1950s and that Mandela was the first black South African he had ever seen being fitted for a suit. Now Mandela’s uniform is a series of exuberant-print shirts that declare him the joyous grandfather of modern Africa.

When Mandela was running for the presidency in 1994, he knew that symbols mattered as much as substance. He was never a great public speaker, and people often tuned out what he was saying after the first few minutes. But it was the iconography that people understood. When he was on a platform, he would always do the toyi-toyi, the township dance that was an emblem of the struggle. But more important was that dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile. For white South Africans, the smile symbolized Mandela’s lack of bitterness and suggested that he was sympathetic to them. To black voters, it said, I am the happy warrior, and we will triumph. The ubiquitous ANC election poster was simply his smiling face. “The smile,” says Ramaphosa, “was the message.”

After he emerged from prison, people would say, over and over, It is amazing that he is not bitter. There are a thousand things Nelson Mandela was bitter about, but he knew that more than anything else, he had to project the exact opposite emotion. He always said, “Forget the past” — but I knew he never did.

No. 7
Nothing is black or white
When we began our series of interviews, I would often ask Mandela questions like this one: When you decided to suspend the armed struggle, was it because you realized you did not have the strength to overthrow the government or because you knew you could win over international opinion by choosing nonviolence? He would then give me a curious glance and say, “Why not both?”

I did start asking smarter questions, but the message was clear: Life is never either/or. Decisions are complex, and there are always competing factors. To look for simple explanations is the bias of the human brain, but it doesn’t correspond to reality. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears.

Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced. Much of this, I believe, came from living as a black man under an apartheid system that offered a daily regimen of excruciating and debilitating moral choices: Do I defer to the white boss to get the job I want and avoid a punishment? Do I carry my pass?

As a statesman, Mandela was uncommonly loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro. They had helped the ANC when the U.S. still branded Mandela as a terrorist. When I asked him about Gaddafi and Castro, he suggested that Americans tend to see things in black and white, and he would upbraid me for my lack of nuance. Every problem has many causes. While he was indisputably and clearly against apartheid, the causes of apartheid were complex. They were historical, sociological and psychological. Mandela’s calculus was always, What is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?

No. 8
Quitting is leading too
In 1993, Mandela asked me if I knew of any countries where the minimum voting age was under 18. I did some research and presented him with a rather undistinguished list: Indonesia, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Iran. He nodded and uttered his highest praise: “Very good, very good.” Two weeks later, Mandela went on South African television and proposed that the voting age be lowered to 14. “He tried to sell us the idea,” recalls Ramaphosa, “but he was the only [supporter]. And he had to face the reality that it would not win the day. He accepted it with great humility. He doesn’t sulk. That was also a lesson in leadership.”

Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. In many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life — and there were many who felt that in return for his years in prison, that was the least South Africa could do.

In the history of Africa, there have been only a handful of democratically elected leaders who willingly stood down from office. Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him — not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent. He would be the anti-Mugabe, the man who gave birth to his country and refused to hold it hostage. “His job was to set the course,” says Ramaphosa, “not to steer the ship.” He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.

Ultimately, the key to understanding Mandela is those 27 years in prison. The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional, headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and disciplined. He is not and never has been introspective. I often asked him how the man who emerged from prison differed from the willful young man who had entered it. He hated this question. Finally, in exasperation one day, he said, “I came out mature.” There is nothing so rare — or so valuable — as a mature man. Happy birthday, Madiba.

July 11, 2008 Posted by | governance | , , , , | 1 Comment

Paradise Found

It had been a hectic month. An assignment in Sri Lanka, followed by the World Press Photo award ceremony in Amsterdam and Martin Parr’s Sam Presser lecture. It had been many years since Martin had slept in our flat in Lalmatia, with his feet sticking out of the Bangla sized cane bed. Abir Abdullah a student from the first batch at Pathshala, was there for the launch of the book, “New Stories“. Other WPP students featured in the book, whom I had interacted with over the years Kemal Jufri (Indonesia), Mwanzo Millinga (Tanzania), and Sudharak Olwe (India), had also become established photojournalists. Many of them teachers in their own right.

A trip to Cornwall, for the ‘Majority World Summit‘, with my colleagues Colin Hastings and Rowan Watts followed. Then on to the Nordic Light festival, organised by my old friend Morten Krogvold. Though I had always admired Michael Kenna‘s atmospheric images, this was the first time we met. The Lanky Irishman and I decided we’d bring some mirth into this serious gathering, and swapped our ID tags, confusing everyone. His cousin Gilian Varley, gamely played along. We invented an Aunt Christine, who commented on how dark I’d become. Getting shorter would probably have been more difficult to explain.

Woman with cholera. West Dinajpur. Bangladesh 1971. © Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

Don McCullin was one of my heroes. We still had his hand-made prints of 1971 in our archives. The long evening chats with Don was a delight. He talked of his experiences in West Dinajpur, and the famous picture of the woman dying of Cholera.

It was comforting to know she had survived. I remember him talking of the exposure reading he had talken before the picture of the grenade being hurled. “Why die for the wrong exposure” he had simply said. William Klein‘s dry wit was as fresh as his photographs.

William Klien at Nordic Light Festival. Kristiandund. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I was envious of the energy of this octogenarian.

Then it was a pit stop at Heathrow airport to meet up with my sister and pick up my camera equipment before heading off to Tehran for the judging of the First Biennial of Islamic Photography. I had been looking forward to meeting up with James Nachtwey again, but he had to cancel in the last minute and I became the only foreign jury member. My old friend Bahman Jalali was in the Iranian jury. I hadn’t met Shadi Ghadarian since she had visited Chobi Mela III. She and Peyman Hooshmandzadeh now had a beautiful daughter Leila. Staying overnight at their place required all sorts of permission. I was apparently a guest of the president, and the special attention I received, meant limited freedom. I had worked out a system and managed to spend most of my stay at Ruchira Gupta‘s. Ruchira and Sunil took me on the Tehran gallery crawl, plus some interesting diversions like the reception at the magnificent garden of the Italian Ambassador, and the studio of the rebel artist Parvaneh Etemadi. Omid Salehi, the other Iranian photographer who had come to Bangladesh for Chobi Mela III, made it back in time from Kurdistan to my lecture at Saba, so it was a reunion of sorts.

I briefly returning to Dhaka before going to Mumbai for the finals of the Development Marketplace contest. Shabana Azmi, who was giving away the prizes was a friend of Parveneh and Ruchira, so we stole a few minutes on stage to talk of old friends. I was also able to meet up with old friends David and Charmayne De Souza, Swapan Mukherjee, Fawzan Hossain and Suchit and Annu Nanda. Another pit stop in Dhaka and then the trip I’d been waiting for. Madanjeet Singh‘s invitation to Srinagar in Kashmir.

It wasn’t the celebrity group that Madanjeet had invited that attracted me. Srinagar was a place I had longed to see. It wasn’t so much the beauty of Kashmir, or the Shalimar Gardens that intrigued me. I had photographed the earthquake in the Pakistani section of Kashmir. Knowing the relevance of the region to peace in South Asia, I wanted to find out for myself, what the Kashmiris felt. With Indian visas becoming increasingly more difficult to get, this was a chance I was not going to waste.

The former foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan had been a bridge partner when we were both playing in the Dhaka Club Blue team. We were then national champions, representing Bangladesh. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury had been part of our small group of people who had been active in trying to get Internet to Bangladesh. We were the three Bangladeshis in this gathering of South Asians. Photographer Ram Rahman and activist Harsh Kapoor were old friends, but there were the quirky incidents with people I knew less well, that livened up my stay. Like the midnight meeting with Chandrika Kumaratunga in the business centre of the Grand Palace.

Former president of Sri Lanka Chandrika Kumaratunga at business centre of Grand Palace Hotel in Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

While I helped her get connected to the Net, I remembered how elusive she had been when I had wanted to photographer her while she was president of Sri Lanka.

But the tension outside was difficult to ignore. Few Kashmiris would say anything out of place. At least at first encounter. But from the security checks before boarding the plane, the police registration upon arrival at Srinagar airport, the inability to use our mobile phones, the multiple layer check posts on the way to the hotel and the embargos on either leaving early or arriving late, one knew things were not Okay.

Military patrol in streets of Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

On our trip to Uri, the one trip we made out of Srinagar, the visual signs of Indian military presence was overwhelming. The convoys of military vehicles moving in both directions.

Military convoy on the road to Uri. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Soldiers in Paradise. Uri. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The enormous security team that chaperoned us through the city. The nervours soldiers near the line of control. All had the visible signs of occupation.

Sheep claim the right of way. Road to Uri. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There had been relative peace in Kashmir, and the economy had prospered during the lull in violence. The concert in Srinagar, by the Pakistani group Junoon, while enjoyed by the young crowd that attended, was criticised by others. Kashmir was far from unified, and opinions about the role of the Indian military and the role of the Kashmiri militants differed, but once you went below the surface, once there was a modicum of trust, they all spoke of one desire. Azadi (freedom).

Salma Ali was one of the new people I met. Quiet but determined, she tried to talk me into going with her to see the Pashmini weavers. I didn’t need much persuading.

New Indian Aeroplane. The shikara which took me across Dal Lake. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I had been told off for going on a Shikara (wooden boat) trip on my own. We decided to ignore the restrictions on early morning departures and went for a dawn Shikara ride. The boatmen never came, and apart from the pictures I took of the boats gliding through the mist,

Boatmen in Dal Lake clearing weeds early in the morning. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

or the friendly Kingfisher that perched nearby, I spent much of that morning talking to my new found friend. She had seen a different Kashmir. The following is Salma’s story.

Paradise Found

The Mughal Emperor Jahangir is said to have written about Kashmir, “Gar firdous bar rue zamin ast hamin ast, hamin ast, hamin ast” (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)

My first morning in Kashmir, I was awoken by a gentle, sorrowful sound. Thinking I was in a dreamlike stage between jetlag from a 20-hour journey and the excitement of coming to a place I never thought I would see in my lifetime, I tried to go back to sleep.

I couldn’t. It was 4:15 am, and the sound beckoned — softly, longingly, mournfully. I sat up in bed and gazed out the window, letting my eyes wander to the direction of the sound — behind the mountains to the east, beyond the Lake, between the mist and the darkness. It continued its lament, its gentle pleading. I opened the door to the veranda to listen more intently, wrapping myself in my shawl for warmth and protection. The song continued. It was in Arabic, perhaps verses from the Quran, I thought. But what? And why? I closed my eyes and listened. It seemed like the mountains, the lake, they were praying. Perhaps remembering times past, when heaven needed no protection; perhaps asking for forgiveness from all the misery they had witnessed. Everything was still, attentive — the chinars, the roses, the birds, the wind. It seemed they were listening too, and agreeing. The lament continued until the darkness turned to day, and then, as mysteriously as it had started, it quieted. I never heard it again. It’s safer to cry in the dark, when no one can see your vulnerability; to pray in the still of the night, so the day can wash away the pain.

Lady Mohini Noon introduced me to Mehraj bhai as soon as I arrived in Srinagar. Mohini and I happened to share a car together from the airport to the Grand Palace hotel, and our first get-to-know-you conversation somehow turned to shawls. She said her shawl-wala, from whom she has been buying shawls for more than 20 years (and her mother from his father before that) lives in Srinagar, and usually travels to Delhi to visit her when she is there. I thought to myself how amazing it would be to meet Mehraj and see his shawl collection. As if reading my mind, Mohini called Mehraj as soon as we arrived at the hotel. A few hours later, having secured special permission for him to enter the hotel gates given the tight security in the city during our stay, there he was with bundles and bundles of shawls, in every variety and color and texture, all wrapped up in cotton sheets. I was in heaven, in every sense of the word. I have been collecting shawls for years, from all corners of the world, and now to be in the birthplace of shawls, with shawl after glorious shawl being unwrapped in front of me, was a dream come true. We spent hours modeling pashminas and jamawars and kanis. But there was one in particular I just couldn’t take my eyes away from.

Salma in her new shawl. Grand Palace Hotel. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I had asked Mehraj if he would take me to the place where these shawls are made and teach me about the process, an age-old tradition which fewer and fewer practice. We planned to meet the next morning at 9:30 am. I was getting cold feet. Where would Mehraj take me, would I be able to get back to the hotel given the bund in the city that day, and in time for the afternoon events, and what about all the warnings from family not to wander off foolishly by myself. Determined to go, I decided to ask a fellow event participant to join me. He had a silver-gray tussle of a beard, and despite his gentle eyes, I thought he would suffice as a bodyguard — and he had a very fancy camera around his neck — perfect, he would take great pictures too, I thought. He graciously agreed and we were off to the Old City in Mehraj’s little white Toyota Innova. Little did I know then that I had just invited one of the world’s most renowned photojournalists to accompany me on my shawl jaunt.

We arrived in a narrow dirt lane outside a multi-storied brown-brick building where Mehraj used to live (his sister and her family live there now) which serves as shawl-making central. We walked up the narrow winding staircase to a small windowed room painted in blue with three hand looms. Gilam Mohammad, in a checkered shirt, was working on the loom to the right as we entered. He has been weaving shawls for 20 years. Shaukat Ahmad, in the dark striped shirt, had been doing this work for over 13 years. When I asked Shaukat if he enjoyed what he does, he hesitated but said, “I like this work, that’s why I do it.” When I asked him if he would want his children to learn his craft and continue the family tradition, he was more unwavering: “My hope is that my children do something else, hopefully they will get a government job. Someone is going to learn this craft after me, but not my kids,” he added. Shaukat and Gilam work at the looms eight to nine hours each day, their poor eyesight testament to their many hours of meticulous work. Asked how they feel about the fact that this tradition is no longer as prized as it once was, Mehraj Bhai quickly added, “I feel sad that so many countries are now making shawls by machine; that people are being cheated of quality and workmanship.”

Pedals of the looms used for weaving Pashmina. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

We walked around the corner to another home where two women, mother and daughter, were chatting and working. Mehraj bhai handed me a plastic bag of wool.

Woman with spindle. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The mother, Muglee, wearing a floral colored shalwar kameez and sitting against the wall with one leg outstretched, showed me how to clean the wool, to remove the soft hair from the coarse. Lovly, her daughter was spinning the wool into yarn on the charkha — painted blue to match the blue walls behind her. Wearing a black abaya, her head gently covered by a matching dupatta, she smiled as she worked, patiently showing me how to hold the wool, oh so gently, with one hand so it doesn’t break. It did, each time I tried. Lovly’s two children played around them, her daughter smiling constantly like her mom.

She kept holding out her hand so I would be sure to see the round circle of mehndi on her palm; her son was captivated with Shahidul’s camera. Shahidul took his picture and showed him his image on the screen.

In the next house, we met Muglee Bhat and her daughter Rushna. Muglee thought she was about 50. We couldn’t take our eyes off her. Her gentle smile, her graceful manner, her elegant features, and those eyes. Captivating. She didn’t quite understand why we kept taking her picture. And her daughter’s too. No one had ever taken a photo of them before. They saw themselves captured in pixels for the first time in Shahidul’s lens.

Mughlee Bhat being photographed for the first time. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Then we met Zahoor, the man who had woven the shawl that had captured my eye the day before. He was working on another one that seemed similar — with 200 tillis wrapped in different colored yarn splayed in front of him, following a numbered pattern on a piece of paper that was perched on the loom like a sheet of music.

Tillis used for weaving Pashmina. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

He had completed 20 inches so far. In seven months. The shawl I had fallen in love had taken him thirty months to make.

It was my last day in Kashmir and I hadn’t yet been on a shikara ride on Dal Lake. Shahidul and I decided to go early, when the light would be just right. We walked outside our hotel and waited by the edge of the lake, where two shikaras were moored. Shahidul started stalking a kingfisher.

Kingfisher at Dal Lake. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The kingfisher played hard to get. He persisted, tiptoeing closer and closer to capture the birds best side. Soon, it seemed the kingfisher was enjoying all the fuss. He started posing, turning this way and that. Even leaping into the lake to show off his fish-catching prowess. As we waited for the shikara drivers to arrive, we called out to the boatmen in the distance who started appearing, like ghosts, from behind the mist. “Bhai, hum ko be jana hai,” Shahidul yelled out, hoping they would take us along. “Thorey dher ke liya, aajao.” They didn’t oblige. We didn’t get to ride in a shikara that day, but it didn’t matter. With the mist gently rising from the lake and inching its way up the mountains, the graceful silhouette of boatmen tirelessly cleaning the lake, houseboats lazily lolling on the placid waters, majestic mountains protecting its dignity — we knew we had found what we had come for … it is here, it is here, it is here.

July 11, 2008 Posted by | World | , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Of Roses and Sexual Harassment

by rahnuma ahmed

`You should not have written about such sensitive issues in such indecorous language,’ faculty members at Jahangirnagar University (JU) told me and my ex-colleague, Manosh Chowdhury. It was 1997, four years before I left JU to become a writer.

We had written about the Provost of a Women’s Hall of Residence. He would target first year women Anthropology students. They handed in a memorandum to the University authorities detailing his abuse of power: he was rude to their family members when they dropped in for visits, he ridiculed what they were taught, and the teachers who taught them (this included us). What was not mentioned in the memorandum however, was that he would often barge into their dormitories. Sometimes, also into the wash rooms. The Provost’s misconduct later made it to the newspapers but what got left out was that he had dubbed three women students ‘lesbians,’ and another, ‘a cigarette smoker.’ We had included these in our article to map out the institutionalised nature of the Provost’s power, to draw attention to the systemic character of sexual harassment on campuses. We had written, The issue is not whether these women are `lesbians’. Women have been scorned on other occassions because they have ‘boyfriends’. Women returning to the halls in the evening are taunted, they are told they were `having fun in the bushes.’ Institutional sexual harassment is not about hard facts alone, it takes place through language, through words that ridicule and scorn. (`Oshustho Pradhokkho na ki Pratishthanik Khomota,’ Bhorer Kagoj, 9 July 1997).

We received no printed response, but hate mail instead. And a genteel comment on our `indecorous’ use of language. Our next piece was entitled, ‘What then does one call Sexual Harassment — A Rose?’ (Bhorer Kagoj, 24 August 1997).

The next year witnessed a student movement on Jahangirnagar campus, at forty plus days, the longest anti-rape campaign in South Asia. The University authorities gave in to student pressure, a Fact Finding Committee was formed. As events unfolded it became clear that a group of male students had been involved in successive incidents of rape which had taken place over several months, and that the University authorities had been reluctant to take action because of their political connections to the regime then in power, the Awami League. The movement was strong and unrelenting and gained tremendous popular support. Later, the university authorities meted out token punishment to those very students whom they had earlier protected, rather reluctantly.

A sit-in protest against rape in campus, brought out by the students union, in Jahangir Nagar University, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. August 24, 1998. © Abir Abdullah/Drik/Majority World

One of the demands of the 1998 movement had been the formation of a Policy against Sexual Harassment. Dilara Chowdhury, Mirza Taslima Sultana, Sharmind Neelormi and I had worked long hours for weeks on end, to produce a working draft. I remember, our draft had said, sexual harassment is any unwelcome physical contact and advance, declaration of love accompanied by threat and intimidation if not reciprocated, sexually coloured remarks, display of pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature…

Policy Against Sexual Harassment: A Torturous Journey

Ten years later.

It’s Friday night, well after ten, Anu Muhammod has just returned from Munshiganj, and I am fortunate to get hold of him. `So Anu, I hear that the Policy has not yet been ratified by the University Syndicate?’ I ask the professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University, a well-known public intellectual and activist, and a good friend of many years. With a twinkle in his eyes and a deprecating smile, Anu launches into the story.

Naseem Akhter Hossain and I forwarded the Draft Policy to the university administration in 1999. Naseem, as you well know was the Provost of a women’s hall, and one of the most dedicated members of the Fact Finding Committee. The university administration was absolutely terrified of the anti-rape movement. For them it was finally over, some of the students had been punished, they wanted to forget the matter. The next year, 17 of us forwarded it to JU administration, with a signed letter. And in those days, the 8th of March Committee was alive, teachers and students would sit and discuss women’s issues and male power, we would hold a rally on International Women’s Day, left groups, cultural groups would join in. It was an annual ritual, each year we would send the draft to the University administration requesting that they take steps to ratify it, to enforce it, each year they would tell us that it had been misplaced. This went on for several years.

Two years later the BNP led alliance came to power, and the elected Vice-Chancellor was removed from his position. Jahangirnagar University Teachers Association (JUTA) protested against the government action. Anyway, to cut a long story short, JUTA initiated a movement in protest against the government’s high-handedness, a common platform was formed, I was present at one of the Teachers Association meetings and took the opportunity to place the Draft policy. Everyone was charged, and the Draft was approved, so you now had JUTA forwarding it to the University administration for ratification. I inquired again the next year but by then we were back to the old ritual, it had been misplaced. But soon, there was another incident of sexual harassment, a BBA teacher, the accusations were proven to be true, he lost his job. We raised the Policy issue again, each movement helped to revive it. I spoke to Professor Mustahidur Rahman, who was then the Vice-Chancellor.

`Yes Anu, what did he say?’ I am very curious about the reasons forwarded on behalf of institutions, by people in positions of power, the language in which they resist measures aimed at ensuring justice. ‘What did Mustahid bhai say?’

Anu’s smile deepened. ‘He said, yes, of course, we must look into it. But we have so much on our hands. I spoke to other teachers as well, why do we need a special Policy, they said. The country has criminal laws, University rules stipulate that teachers must not violate moral norms, we also have a Proctorial policy. So why do we need a separate Policy against Sexual Harassment? In 2007, another movement began, against a teacher in Bangla department. He also lost his job later, and talk of the Policy was revived again. Actually, the women students went on a fast unto death programme, this was very serious, later Sultana Kamal, Rokeya Kabir, Khushi Kabeer, these women’s movement leaders came and pleaded with the students to break their fast. They did, but on the condition that I would personally take up the matter with the University administration. They said, we trust you, we don’t trust the administration.

After this, the University set up a Committee to review the Policy. I was on that Committee, so was Sultana Kamal. Legal points were added, the draft was brushed up, student organisations were invited to comment on it, also, the Teachers Association. But the teachers are not happy, many think that false allegations will be made, that it will be used by those who have influence, on grounds of personal enmity. I tell them that the Policy has clauses to prevent this from happening, any one who brings false allegations will be severely punished, no law of the land, against murder, kidnapping, theft, whatever has such built-in-clauses. Surely, that will be a deterrent? But it falls on deaf ears. The draft was sent to the Syndicate, it was not ratified. The members felt that it required more consideration.

And now, the latest incident, the one involving a teacher of the Dramatics department. I believe the Fact Finding Committee has submitted its report, there is yet again talk of instituting the Policy, but this time it’s serious. There is new VC now, but this time I think they can no longer avoid it. There is strong support for the Policy.

This is how things stand at present. I think the Policy, once ratified, will create history. It will set a strong precedent for similar policies at other places of work. In garments factories, I often say, for women, it’s not only a question of wages but being able to work in a safe and secure place, free of harassment and sexual advances.

`And what about other public universities,’ I ask, knowing fully well the answer. No, says Anu, there is no talk of a Policy, let alone a finalised Draft.

Jahangirnagar has a strong tradition of protest and resistance, our conversation ends on this note. I forget who said it. Was it Anu? Or, was it me? Maybe, both of us?

Voices of Female Students

Four women students of Drama and Dramatics department have accused the departmental chairperson, M Sanowar Hossain (Ahmed Sani), of harassing them.

One of them confided to her classmates, Sir has asked me to go and see him. Well, why don’t you? I am afraid. Why? Another woman said, he has asked me to go and see him too. You too? I don’t want to. Why not?

They talked and discovered that they were not alone in their experiences of sexual harassment, that it was shared. One of them said, as is the practice in the department, I had bent to touch his feet to seek his blessings, as I rose up he pulled me and kissed me on my forehead. Another woman student, similarly abused but silent until the four junior women stepped forward, spoke of how he had grabbed her and kissed her cheek. Another woman said, I was so scared when he said I would have to go to his office, but I was angry too, I knew what was going to happen, I told a friend, I’ll carry a brick in my bag. I want to mark him, so that people kow.

But the women also spoke of how they themselves felt marked. When I went back to the hostel and told the girls they wanted to know, what did he do to you? where did he touch you? how long did he hold you? I wept inside, she said. Why didn’t anyone say, where’s that bastard? Let’s go and get him. Such responses make it so difficult to come out. Why should I take on this social pressure?

The girls also said, if it had just happened to me, if I hadn’t discovered that there were other victims, I would never have spoken out. I don’t think anyone would have believed me.

Male Academia and Its Insecurities

Why do University authorities resist the adoption of a policy that will help institute measures to redress wrongs? That will afford women protection against unwanted sexual advances, thereby creating an environment that is in synchrony with what it claims to be, an institution of greater learning and advancement.

I think what lies hidden beneath academic hyperbole is, although the university, as other public and private institutions, appears to be asexual, in reality, it is deeply embedded with sexual categories and preferences. Men are superior, both intellectually and morally, this is assumed to be the incontrovertible truth. For women, to be unmasking and challenging male practices, aided by a Complaint Cell, members of which will listen to their grievances, extend support, advocate sanctions if allegations are proven to be true, is a threat that terrifies the masculine academic regime of power and privileges.

But sexual harassment is not a bunch of roses. It is serious, it needs to be taken seriously.

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An open letter to the Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University

First published in New Age on 7th July 2008

July 7, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

   

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