If the billions of dollars in aid to Bangladesh over the last
three decades had been given directly to the poor, it would
have made a major difference to their lives. As it is, the poor
continue to struggle while the rich flaunt their ever-increasing
wealth. Shahidul Alam visits the homes of people
at opposite ends of this great divide.
The guard at the gate hesitates before questioning me. My white friend walks on. Her right to entry is beyond doubt. A cough by someone nearer the door, and higher up in the chain of command, signals my credentials and the hesitant guard makes a smart salute. I’ve been here before. At the gate of the British High Commission or the office of the UN Development Programme, for example. These are places where the bideshis (foreigners) and the well-to-do Bangladeshis have ready access. My sloppy clothes and the fact that I did not alight from a fancy Mitsubishi Pajero were enough to give my position away. Besides, I walked differently, made eye contact with those outside the chosen circle, and was clearly not supremely confident of my position.
Hasib’s palatial home is in Baridhara, a part of town with the most intriguing architecture. Here Tudor houses rub shoulders with Spanish villas, with the occasional Greek columns thrown in. What are missing are the lavish gardens one might expect. Land is expensive here and homes are often built up to the edge of an individual plot and sometimes even beyond it. Only the very special ones have a patch of green, perhaps a swimming pool.
This is a land of tranquillity. No hartals (general strikes) affect the normal flow of life. The American International School where Hasib’s children study is perhaps more expensive than the average private school in Britain, but does give his heirs the sort of training needed to blend seamlessly into the high-powered positions they will surely come to occupy. The school holidays prioritize Hallowe’en over Eid. No adulteration of ‘higher cultures’ by local practices is tolerated here. The one discomfort that the inhabitants face are the slums by the edge of the lake, the hungry stares from across the metal fence, the huts between the palaces, that have not yet been cleared out. The dark glass of the Pajero does reduce contact, but even the air-conditioning doesn’t quite clear the smell.
The interior décor of Hasib’s home matches the fantasyland exterior. This is a home appropriate to a wealthy media person whose companies receive funding from UN agencies, who is an agent for a prominent US company in the energy sector, and who is well-connected to all the major political parties. Hasib is not a person you would want as an enemy. The presence at this party of the élite of the city, the aid givers and takers, and a sprinkling of ‘intellectuals’ testifies to his acceptance in the circles that matter. Smiling photographs with former leaders Mujib and Ershad, with the US Ambassador and prominent heads of state, adorn his office, though they are appropriately changed to suit the political clime. Ershad at his most powerful visited Hasib’s office, though he was later to comment jokingly in Parliament on Hasib’s smuggling links.
These are well-travelled people, and all that is best in the world outside is present here. Cut-glass chandeliers in abundance. Leather-bound classics neatly arranged in teak shelves. Expensive paintings, mostly by artists who have died, but also by Shahabuddin, the current enfant terrible, hang in gilded frames.
The well-dressed waiter snakes through the crowd distributing wine, beer and whisky, technically illegal in Muslim Bangladesh. This is a place for men of the world and emancipated women.
Nadia, Hasib’s wife, tosses her hair back in her revealing dress as she laughs with the US Ambassador. She gently acknowledges the minister as he walks by, excusing herself to talk to the editor of the most popular daily. She looks out for the World Bank chief, and relaxes as she spots him out by the swimming pool, talking to the head of the largest NGO. She only wishes she didn’t have to invite the MP who was found making bombs in his house. Such people give others a bad name.
The MP was a minor embarrassment to the ruling political party, especially as it had just embarked on a clean-up campaign. Fourteen-year-old Rimon was at the other end of the spectrum. He was one of several young men arrested when they were trying to make the clean-up campaign look good. They had to plant a knife in his hand in order to make the arrest. He had no previous record and the witnesses all denied in court that they had seen Rimon with weapons, but these were not insuperable problems. The fact that he was a minor was, on the other hand, a technicality that might have proved awkward. Fortunately he was too poor to make an issue out of being under- age or about being kept in jail for two years without a trial.
One could look at it as a democratic process. The system doesn’t really care about class, race or gender. If one has money, one stays out of jail. Without money, one stays in. Rimon’s mother Fatema works seven days a week as a domestic help in the home of a top civil servant. Low-paid and with no benefits, she has had to borrow over 20 times her monthly salary to try to get a fair trial for her son. The process of trying to bribe judges, paying high fees to lawyers and regularly paying the police is something she seems to have accepted. Her biggest sorrow is that the food she buys for her son doesn’t always get through to him, despite the bribes she pays to the wardens. ‘I used to serve food in four plates for my children. Now I serve only three. The pain burns within me every day.’
The justice you are likely to get is directly linked to the money you are able to muster. Hasib was suspected of smuggling gold, but no-one made too much of his going scot-free on that count. Now Hasib is into bigger things. An agent for a leading US gas company, his other hat as a major media baron comes in handy. Press releases by the US gas companies appear dressed up as news reports.
He has even ‘written’ a book. The senior professor and the archeologist who ghost-wrote it do not seem too perturbed by the mismatch between the book’s content and the official author’s credibility as a writer. At the press launch, leading littérateurs talked of the talent of the man, his contribution to society.
Rimon never even went to school. Long before his body had fully matured, he was pulling a rickshaw, helping to support the schooling of his two sisters and younger brother. Ironically, on a per-square-metre basis, his mother Fatema pays more rent for her shack than the standard rental in wealthy Baridhara. In many slums, access to water is a privilege you pay for separately. Sanitation, electricity and other amenities are all extras.
Being important vote banks, slums are controlled by local strongmen with affiliations to the major political parties. Fires rage through them on a regular basis: sceptics claim that this is a convenient way to evict unwanted residents. Sometimes fires precede a sell-out to developers.
At least Fatema has a roof of her own. More vulnerable are the domestic servants who live in their employers’ homes. Many of them are children or young women. Murder, rape and inhuman torture are commonly reported. A far greater number go unreported.
The slums are the entry points for the millions who converge upon the metropolis from the villages in search of work. In the countryside the divide between rich and poor is similarly reinforced by foreign money.
Wasim Ali, a wealthy shrimp farmer in Khulna, goes around in a gunboat warding off and occasionally killing trespassers. His guard points out the shrimps, saying ‘dollars swim in the water’. The World Bank assists Wasim and others in setting up shrimp-processing units and Japan buys much of the shrimp.
Lokhi Pal’s family, who used to grow paddy, were forced into selling their land to Wasim once the entire area became salinated due to the new embankments that had been built. ‘We had cows and a vegetable patch,’ she told me. ‘All we needed to buy was oil and clothes.’ Now they go during hat (the weekly market day) to a neighbouring village to stock up on food and basic supplies once a week. The family eats well for the first three days then hangs on till the next hat day. Still attached to their cow, they send it off to a nearby village to graze but have to pay for the privilege.
Back in the city Fatema worries about her son’s health, about the money she will somehow have to repay. She worries most that unless she finds some way to get her son out of prison he will soon end up embittered. Then when he does come out he could be forced to do the kind of thing for which he could be arrested again. Right now, however, she longs to have an extra mouth to feed. For Hasib and Wasim, of course, the dollars continue to swim freely.
co-edited this issue of the NI.
A state of danger
This is Shahidul Alam’s inside story, in words and pictures, of the intense struggle against repression which has been raging in Bangladesh, unnoticed by the Western media. Resistance work there is dangerous – photographers and journalists are regularly attacked and arrested.
This teargas was different. In 1990, people would bring buckets of water from their homes, we would wash our faces, and face the police again. This was some new formula. The only thing that worked was fire, and we held our faces close to a burning rag. We had been warned that the gas caused lung damage. We waited for the stinging to stop and got back to work.
There were other fears. This time we saw the police had submachine guns. We wondered who provided these guns and gases, and the smart armoured vehicles that sprayed hot water. We wondered how much they cost. I remembered an army officer proudly relating that they were UK-trained. Was that where they learned to apply electric shocks to the head, to dangle you from the ceiling by the ankles, and fracture your bones with mallets? Was that where they had been trained to scald faces with hot water and chilli?
It was a strange feeling to see the military patrols in the empty streets on election day, 15 February 1996. There were bunkers on the corners of all major roads. The machine guns followed you as you walked the streets. It was like 1971 again, when Pakistani soldiers roamed the streets, except that this time it was our army, propping up an autocratic regime by ensuring that this farcical election could go ahead.
It had now been over a year since the opposition parties had resigned from parliament en masse in protest. We had been naive in thinking that a civilian government, elected by a genuinely fair vote in 1991, would be any different. I remembered the people dancing in the streets when the dictator Ershad was deposed in 1990. The general had held on to power for nine years, and it had been a long drawn-out battle. But the characteristics of the ‘democratic’ government led by Begum Khaleda Zia which succeeded him proved to be all too familiar. The draconian Special Powers Act was never repealed despite the election promises. Then there was the entente with the Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalists, who had sided with the Pakistani Army in 1971.
Enraged by the Government’s rigging of by-elections, we realized that a caretaker government would be the only way to ensure a fair election. The resistance began anew. Farmers who protested the hoarding of fertilizers by government-sponsored dealers were shot. When police raped and strangled 14-year-old Yasmin there was a spontaneous siege of Dinajpur police station. It was time to take to the streets again.
On 31 January, a meeting called at the Teachers Students Centre to protest against military violence never took place. Police had raided nearby Jagannath Hall in Dhaka University and people were fleeing the campus. As we made our way through the teargas, we came across hundreds of police who had taken over the hall of residence. Students, most dressed in lungis, were cowering in a corner, tied together and crouching on the ground. Teachers’ protests were disregarded as 96 were herded into the small prison van. One student screamed out to friends for his identity card, in the faint hope that the official piece of paper might spare him. Those who had escaped arrest hurriedly took us to the students’ rooms. We saw the blood on the floor, the broken doors, the ravaged rooms. A student who had been beaten but had escaped arrest, huddled on his broken bed and would not speak. Another cried over his broken guitar. Those arrested, without warrant and without evidence, have yet to be released.
For the 1991 elections, the polling station in Lalmatia Girls High School had been in a festive mood. Huge queues had built up outside. Women had turned up in large numbers, unwilling to miss out on their first chance to cast their vote without coercion. This time round there was a deathly silence. Army and police trucks were stationed outside the empty school. When they spotted my camera, polling officers hurriedly occupied their seats, but there were no voters to be found. The evening news reported a massive turnout and a landslide win for the BNP (Khaleda Zia’s ruling party). Who was the news for? We all knew what was happening – surely Western diplomats could not be blind to what was going on?
Then the violence began to escalate. BNP hoods, supported by the police, took on both political activists and the general public. The total disregard for law and order made it difficult to identify which attacks were political and which were not. We kept in close contact and re-tested our escape plans.
The Government became desperate. Until then only minions had been arrested, but now they turned their attention to the big fish. They miscalculated. When Mohiuddin, the popular Mayor of Chittagong, was arrested, people could no longer be contained, and the port city was set alight. The unrest began to spread, and when the entire country became paralysed due to the opposition’s call for non-cooperation, even high-ranking government officials began to defect. By the time they realized their mistake and released Mohiuddin, it was too late.
We gathered in Shahid Minar, the martyrs’ memorial, which became a seat of resistance – just as it had been way back in 1952, when Bengalees fought for the right to speak our own language.
We knew that a fair election would not in itself solve the country’s problems. The major political parties differ little in terms of class or gender. We wondered if the official opposition, the Awami League, cared that over half-a-million garment workers had lost their jobs due to factory closures. We wondered why opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who was so keen to protect the property of ministers from protesters, had never intervened when workers went hungry.
But now was the time for solidarity: this movement was about removing an autocrat, rejecting a rigged election, challenging an illegal government. So we all worked together. And last night, 30 March, news reached the Janatar Moncho (People’s Stage) that the Prime Minister had finally stepped down. We did it! But the euphoria was short-lived. Soon they brought in bodies of yet more resistance workers killed that day, and the crowd silently wept.
So many have died so that we would not be denied our right to vote. It is our basic right, but this democratic movement’s definition of democracy is all too narrow. The Government’s resignation is a victory, a ray of hope to take into the dark days ahead. But the resistance is far from over.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia’s victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.
But the optimism is short-lived. Demonstrators take to the streets when the Government allies with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, whose leaders aided the Pakistani Army’s genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971. Under the watchful eye of authority, children of that war’s martyrs demand the trial of the war criminals.
Women feel they have most to lose if the Islamic fundamentalists gain ground. On International Women’s Day in 1994 Shamima Nazneed enacts a play by Tagore (Stri’r Potro, ‘The Wife’s Letter’) which shows the oppressive influence of the family.
The Government becomes increasingly repressive and starts to rig by-elections, leading all opposition parties to resign from Parliament. A general election is called and there is a brutal clampdown on dissent. This student is arrested on 31 January 1996 in a police swoop on a mainly Hindu hall of Dhaka University – he screams out to friends from the prison van.
Resistance hits the streets.
The opposition boycott of the election is complete: polling stations stand idle. Yet the Government reports a huge turnout of voters and a landslide victory. The contrast with the last election is painful as heavy security cordons guard Khaleda Zia while she addresses her followers. She is just visible over their shoulders in the centre, aloof and distant heir to an autocratic tradition.