She may well have been the best leader available. With a military dictator and a corrupt businessman as the alternatives, Benazir Bhutto, with her western admirers and her feudal followers, was clearly a front-runner. How she died will probably remain a mystery, but she was playing the game of death, and it was unlikely she would win every time.
It is difficult to write about people who have just died. Many are grief stricken at the untimely death of the former prime minister. Even her critics are shocked by the way she was hunted down. An insensitive piece would aggravate their pain, and one doesn’t generally speak ill of the dead. I remember as a child asking my mother “Amma. Do bad people never die?” A man not known for his strength of character had died, and newspaper reports had described him as an honest social worker. I am no longer of the age to get away with such questions. But even for those who have loved Benazir, I believe the questions need to be asked if this cycle is to ever stop.
It was 1995. They were troubled times in Pakistan. I had gone over to Karachi on the invitation of my architect friend Shahid Abdulla. There were no telephone booths at Karachi airport, or anywhere else in the city. The government was worried the MQM would use them for their communication. Sindh was at war with itself.
Shahid wanted me to run a photography workshop at the Indus Valley School of Architecture and Design that he was involved in. Those were the days when we had time for long conversations. We talked of many things. The gun-toting security men outside every big house in Karachi. Shahid’s meeting with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. His memories of Benazir. But the conversation would often veer to a person we both admired. Abdus Sattar Edhi, the humanitarian who had set up an unparalleled ambulance service all over Pakistan.
On the morning of the 10th October, I went over to see the man. He had an easy charm that came from living a simple life and having little to hide. He sat on his wire mesh bed, talking of how things started. We were regularly interrupted by people coming in with requests, and Edhi responding to minor crises. Then we heard about Fahim Commando the MQM leader, having been killed. Fahim and his comrades had apparently been caught in an ambush and all four had died. They had been in police custody, but the police had all escaped and not one of them had been injured. Edhi was not judgmental. Fahim was another man who needed a decent burial. As I watched him bathe the slain MQM leader, I could see the burn marks on the bullet holes on the commando’s body.
The extra-judicial killings during Benazir’s rule are well documented. The fact that no investigation was done when her brother Mir Murtaza was killed outside Bilawal House, the family home, fueled the commonly held belief that her husband Asif Zardari had arranged the killing. Even Edhi’s ambulances had not been allowed access. Not until Murtaza had bled to death. Anyone who witnessed the murder was arrested; one witness died in prison. Benazir was then prime minister.
Murtaza had been vocal against the corruption of Zardari. Benazir defended her husband stoically throughout. Despite the Swiss bank accounts, she assured people that he would be seen as the Nelson Mandela of Pakistan. With Zardari now tipped as the new chief of PPP, Pakistan’s Mandela and his Swiss bank accounts might well be the new force. Whether Pakistanis will see this polo-playing businessman as the saviour of the day remains to be seen.
Supported by the US, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been largely responsible for the break up of Pakistan and the genocide in Bangladesh. The current string pulling by the US has hardly made Pakistan a safer place. The western support of militarisation in Bangladesh and the growing importance of Jamaat is an all too familiar feeling. If Pakistan is an omen, it is a sinister one.
Perhaps Mrs. Packletide would have known how the former prime minister of this nuclear nation died. But the government’s attempts to cover-up will do little to quell the conspiracy theories. Like the Bhutto family, the military too have burned a lot of bridges in getting to where they are. There are too many skeletons in their closet. There is no going back, and no price too high.
Their fear of items being stolen, or not being returned, was considered preposterous. When the Honorable Adviser and his excellency the Charge d’Affaires had themselves, guaranteed the safety of Bangladesh’s most prized artefacts, surely the protesters could have no reason to oppose this arrangement. News of the missing crate, and the priceless statues it contained, had been suppressed, but the information leaked out. Could the guarantors please explain?
Mr. Jean Romnicianu, Charges d’Affaires, Ambassade de France à Dacca, met with Bangladeshi journalists at the French Embassy in the first week of December 2007. In response to questions about the possibility of goods being damaged, stolen, or not being returned, he stated emphatically, “What I am saying is that for at least 30 years, it has never, not once, happened within the framework of an international exhibition. This is an international exhibition with a signed agreement between governments, there is no scope whatsoever of that kind of thing.” “We will take care of the artefacts, until they are returned to the museum. All the insurance and everything is what is called nail to nail,” elaborating that it implied protection from the moment the artefacts left their original position in the museum, to the time it was returned to their original position.
Today we hear him on television saying “The responsibility of the French Goverment begins from the point where the items are in French cargo.”
“We are not going to put the artefacts at risk by unpacking them,” was also something the Charge d’Affaires had said that day. Today (Dec 24th 2007), the BBC quoted that the remaining crates had all been checked at the airport. So airport officials who have no knowledge of archaeology are permitted to open the crates, while neither members of the expert committee nor the people who are legally required to inspect the artefacts, are allowed to do so. These officials had also signed documents stating they had verified the contents of the crates, which they had obviously not been allowed to do, even though it made the documents presented, technically false.
“The Museee Guimet and our authorities in France have worked rather hard, I must say, even though it resulted in one mistake, in keeping all the controversies outside of the French papers, of the European papers,” the Charge d’Affaires had also said that day. So the cover up was taking place at both the Bangladeshi and the French end. Presumably it continues.
(Audio recordings of these statements are available and will be uploaded as soon as they have been digitised)
From Pukur Churi (stealing a pond) to Pukur Pare Churi (stealing by a pond). Search party looking for stolen artefacts by the pond at Zia International Airport. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
The empty crate. We had been told these were special crates that could not be opened, as they were very special. A 300 year old French company had been especially commissioned to pack the crates. The government and the French embassy decided to show improper documents rather than risk opening these special crates for proper inspection and documentation. Looks like a pretty ordinary crate to me. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
This was a story the state owned BTV had chosen to completely ignore. The rest of the media however, despite government efforts continued to report this important story. Despite the widespread protests and the media attention, the shipment was to go ahead. Both the Cultural Adviser and the French Charge d’Affaires, emphatically promised there was no question of items going missing or not being returned. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
One of the arrested security officers. What of the big fish that masterminded this theft? Or the people who authorised this shipment despite the proven irregularities? © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
It was the letter from Shanika, the girl I had found during the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, that reminded me of how we had forgotten all the other things that were going on. It was now Boxing Day. The Day the Tsunami had struck. Bodies are still being discovered after the Sidr cyclone. Demand for the trial of war criminals has moved off the headlines. Bodies of workers remain buried in the Rangs building rubble. It reminds me of how classed our struggles are. While we had united in protest when our archaeological heritage was being threatened, no such protest had taken place in solidarity with the workers.
It was Christmas day, and it is the wedding season in Bangladesh. People had gathered outside the musuem, as word had spread that the remaining artefacts were being returned. It was a very different mood, and the local flower shop was using the wide road to decorate a wedding car. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Media professionals outside museum gate watching the return of remaining 12 crates. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
It was the vigilance of Nisar Hossain (teacher at the college of fine arts, affectionately dubbed, ‘Sector Commander’ by fellow campaigners) and his friends that led to many of the irregularities being unearthed. Nisar being interviewed on the ATN channel. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The media played an important role in keeping the issue in the public eye. Munni Saha interviewing Nisar Hossain for a programme in the ATN channel. The discussions included a clear condemnation of the French Charge d’Affaires’ statement blaming the protestors for the theft. The programme will air at 11:00 am Dhaka time on the 26th December 2007. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
During an assignment for Help The Aged in Sri Lanka last month, I had sneaked a visit to Totagumuwa, in Hikkaduwa to see Shanika. The Tsunami had taken away her mother and her three sisters (including her twin sister). Photo: © Priantha (Shanika’s dad).
27th December 2007
Sylvie Rebbot, the picture editor of Geo Magazine in France, just sent me this press release last night. It was issued yesterday (the 26th December 2007) by the French Ministry of Culture. While it talks about the theft of the two statues, from Zia International Airport, there is no mention of the 10 crates that are already in Paris at the Guimet Museum.
Press Release by French Ministry of Culture (26th Dec 2007)
It was a bad day for cows
But the Bangladesh government had a supreme sacrifice in mind. When the most prized of your possessions needed to be sacrificed, and when the gods have changed to western powers, the four-legged creatures simply wouldn’t do. The nation’s most prized archaeological possessions were therefore bundled away in Homebound chariots to distant museums. The door to heaven’s gate might not have opened, but a Schengen visa and perhaps a few trips to Paris for some, had surely been assured.
It was well timed. The Eid holidays meant there would be no newspapers for two days. Most reporters would be away. The streets of Dhaka would be empty. Holidays meant there was no rush. No pesky public to worry about at opening hours. Still one needed to be sure. Bus no Dhaka Jo 11 1767, was on standby with riot police. The police jeep Dhaka Jo 11 4364 followed behind. Then the media that got in the way. With so many Eid events to cover, why had they gathered round the national museum? The sanctity of sacrifice should surely have been respected. Reinforcements in the form of another busload of riot police came in via bus number Dhaka Jo 14 1799.
Aisha had come with her parents to visit the museum. Like many others they were turned away. The museum was closed, at least to the public. The Eid holidays of museum officials had however been cancelled. The shippers were working overtime.
Police and plainclothes intelligence officials were present in abundance, their riot gear jarring with the bright new clothes of Dhakaites. Then it took another turn. Spitting and booing had failed to stop the Homebound trucks earlier. This time the protesters changed tack. Chains were put on the gate of the national museum. Visions of the Chipko Resistance
sprang to mind. In place of burglars breaking in, the comic view of government officials breaking their way out of the national museum to escape with museum valuables would have brought laughter in a trirotno drama (popular Bangladeshi sitcom). In the theatre of Bangladeshi governance, it was yet another tragedy.
“The benefits, for both countries, are cultural: it is a win-win situation where France gains a better knowledge of Bangladeshi heritage and Bangladesh gains a better image on the international cultural scene,” the French embassy handout had clarified.
The partially demolished Rangs building continues to be a grave for the buried Bangladeshi workers far down the priority chain. Presumably, that is a ‘Bangladeshi heritage’ the Parisians will not get to see.
The last time round, they had been playing one of my favourite Bhupen Hajarika songs. This time there was no music, and no one was smiling. Even the Bangladeshi flag failed to flutter on this Eid day. Video of trucks carrying artefacs out of museum. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Bangladeshi flag refuses to flutter as prized Bangladeshi objects are taken out of museum. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Why should the poor always have to pay for the misdeeds of the government, of the rich?
This question surfaced yet again when I stood outside Rangs building on the morning of Dec 12.
Rangs, one of the largest business houses in Bangladesh, had their building plans approved by Rajuk (Rajdhani Unnoyon Kortripokkho, i.e., Capital Development Authority), and they built a huge edifice. Approval for high rises are generally not given in this area due to flight restrictions. Six storied buildings are the limit. However, Rangs built a 22 storied building which no one could miss. Except Rajuk, of course.
That is how things stood until the present caretaker government came into power and rushed headlong into its drive against corruption.
€ Which officials in Rajuk had okayed these plans? And why? That has remained a secret. Has anyone in Rajuk been punished for approving these plans?
€ The Supreme Court ordered the demolition of the building, and Rajuk appointed Six Star, a ship-breaking company to carry out the work. Who made the decision? On what basis? What qualifications did Six Star have? Was any corruption involved? If so, will those involved be tried?
€ After the demolition disaster, Six Star, Rajuk, Rangs — will they be made accountable for their misdeeds?
Is a life worth only one lakh taka — the sum that the government will pay as compensation for those who have died?
‘They don’t give us our dead’
An elderly man sat 50 feet away from the Rangs building on a second floor veranda of a shopping market. After the innards of the building had collapsed, many workers had taken shelter in this veranda. The elderly man had come to Dhaka early this morning with his son-in-law, in search of his son’s body. He muttered something when I asked him if he had spoken to anyone here. I couldn’t make sense, and repeated my question. I could barely make out what he said, “They don’t give us our dead.” He told me he had come from Gaibandha, and I thought to myself, now we can be sure that one of those who have died is from Gaibandha.
A woman has rushed over from Modhukhali. Her brother has suffered a head injury. But thankfully, he is alive, and he will live. At least ten people from Modhukhali are thought to have died in the demolition disaster.
Hajari, one of the workers hired for demolition said, one of the building’s security men is missing. He had last been seen on one of the topmost floors of the building. “It all happened in less than 30 seconds.” Hajari and the other workers had scrambled down the floors to save themselves.
I spoke to some of the workers and it seemed that no one from Rajuk or Six Star, at least not any one in a position of authority had contacted them, or spoken to them, let alone reassured them. Class distances are such that the workers themselves had not gathered the courage to talk to Rajuk officials.
Six Star company, Hajari told me, had brought the main group of workers from Chittagong. Being a port city, Chittagong is a place where people from different parts of the country migrate to in search of work. Hajari’s home is Barisal but he has lived for many years in Chitagong. “Six Star,” he said, “they will provide compensation. They are ever-ready. In Chittagong dock, every month you get to see one or two workers die, such accidents keep happening.” Most of those who had survived the Rangs disaster had been sent back by Six Star. Only 50 workers had been kept back for the rescue effort.
Six Star was paying the workers daily wages and also providing meal charges. From tonight (Dec 12) , the company would also arrange workers’ boarding. This is what Hajari had told me but when I spoke to two other workers, they said they were not being paid their regular wages. Neither were labour shordars giving them money to buy food.
On the market verandah I came across another worker, who was released yesterday from Dhaka Medical College. He had received back injuries, so said the hospital slip. He did not have the money to buy the medicine that had been prescribed. Painkillers on an empty stomach would do him more harm than good. He told me that he had slept on a thin sheet of cloth the night before, and that his pain had increased.
An old story of anguish and suffering
As we talked with the workers and their relatives, I noticed an elderly, bearded man speaking nearby. He was noticeably agitated. I took him to be a demolition worker. I moved closer to where he stood and heard him say, “If they had been the sons of MPs and Ministers, would the dead bodies have been left hanging? People would have been running around breathlessly. We are cchotolok, why should anyone bother?” I later found out that he didn’t work for Rangs, that he worked somewhere else nearby. Listening to him was like listening to a broken record. I was reminded yet again of how helpless poor people are.
It should not have happened. It should not have been allowed to happen. It is something that should have caused a government’s downfall. It is amazing that such things keep happening. Almost daily. And ceaselessly.
At home, we read Prothom Alo. In terms of reporting, it is one of the finest newspapers in the country. I quickly skimmed the reportage on Rangs, once again today. None of the reports focus on who is to blame for the disaster, they tend to highlight the accident-al nature of the disaster. I see an editorial, but I do not have the time to read it. Those who read other newspapers will know how it has been reported in other dailies. Some may cite cyclone Sidr, or the harassment of university teachers as reasons for such reporting but I find it difficult to agree. I think the un-focused reporting is deliberate.
But I must not be too harsh. After all, it is news reporters who keep the story alive as those who are guilty hide behind screens of authority.
Tonight I have learnt that 14 coffins have been taken inside. Since then, family members of the workers have refused to leave the area. Many of them think that the authorities will get rid of the bodies. They have come from outside Dhaka, they do not belong here, they have no networks of familial or social support in this city. They can only gather and resist with whatever they have.
Will the authorities really get rid of the dead bodies? Will they not hand over to grieving family members the bodies of their beloved ones? You may think I am jumping to conclusions but it is true that the whole process is shrouded in secrecy, and that those in authority are trying to save their skin.
Yesterday afternoon as I stood outside Rangs Bhaban, I could catch the faint smell of decomposing bodies. The smell will get stronger. Fire Brigade workers, who are on standby, do not know when rescue efforts will begin.
I belong to the ranks of the ordinary people, I belong to those who are toothless and clawless. Yet I cannot help but think, those who are guilty must not be allowed to get away. At least, not this time.
Dec 13, 2007
[translation: rahnuma ahmed]
Bangladeshi journalists Priscilla Raj and Saleem Samad, who had worked for the Channel 4 team as interpreter and fixer, respectively, were also detained and charged with involvement in “anti-state activities.” Raj was released on bail in December 2002.
We rushed as soon as we received the tip off, sneaking away from our workshop on “Investigative Journalism for Television.” Working our way round the devotees praying on Panthapath we rushed to the National Museum.
It was a false alarm. The trucks had left, and the artefacts that were still left in the National Museum were safe. At least for the moment. The remaining week, my book launch in Glasgow,
the Prince Claus Fund Award ceremony in Amsterdam and the conference “Visible Rights” at Harvard, took me from a sunny afternoon in Scotland to the snow covered streets of Cambridge.
Though Jon Husband had helped me setup my blog, I had never met him before. Jeroen picked me up at Schipol, and Jon, Jeroen and I had dinner at the Bazar Middle Eastern restaurant in Amsterdam. December 10. 2007. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
There was good news in between. The Rajshahi University teachers being released was a great relief, but the deaths of workers at Rangs Building, and the slum fire in Begunbari reminded me how far my own life was from the reality of workers and slum dwellers of my land.
While the gatekeepers who rule our land remain untouched by the death of the poor. While media houses remain in the hands of wealthy business people. While opulent adverts by Grameen, Banglalink and Warid influence what gets reported in mainstream, the lives of media professionals like Priscilla Raj, Tipu Sultan, Probir Shikdar and Tasneem Khalil will continue to be under threat, The war criminals supporting the Pakistan Army had killed our intellectuals on the month of victory in 1971. December has another meaning for the workers and the slum dwellers who live under different military rulers.
As colleagues are out there trying to provide relief to the people affected by cyclone Sidr. As I talk at my book launch of “Nature’s Fury” in Glasgow. The mail from Kenneth Van Toll reminding us on World Human Rights Day, of the disparity in people’s lives provides food for thought.
The people of Bangladesh have some of the lowest ecological footprint in the world, but they are the ones who will pay the price for the effects of the world’s biggest consumers.
Today, poverty prevails as the gravest human rights challenge in the world. Combating poverty, deprivation and exclusion is not a matter of charity, and it does not depend on how rich a country is.
By tackling poverty as a matter of human rights obligation, the world will have a better chance of abolishing this scourge in our lifetime…Poverty eradication is an achievable goal.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
What The World Eats
Germany : The Melander family of Bargteheide
Food expenditure for one week : 375.39 Euro or $500.07
Favorite foods : fried potatoes with onions, bacon and herring, fried noodles with eggs and cheese,
pizza, vanilla pudding
United States : The Revis family of North Carolina
Food expenditure for one week : $341.98
Favorite foods : spaghetti, potatoes, sesame chicken
Japan : The Ukita family of Kodaira City
Food expenditure for one week : 37,699 Yen or $317.25
Favorite foods : sashimi, fruit, cake, potato chips
Italy : The Manzo family of Sicily
Food expenditure for one week : 214.36 Euro or $260.11
Favorite foods : fish, pasta with ragu, hot dogs, frozen fish sticks
Great Britain : The Bainton family of Cllingbourne Ducis
Food expenditure for one week : 155.54 British Pounds or $253.15
Favorite foods : avocado, mayonnaise sandwich, prawn cocktail,
chocolate fudge cake with cream
Kuwait : The Al Haggan family of Kuwait City
Food expenditure for one week : 63.63 dinar or $221.45
Family recipe : Chicken biryani with basmati rice
Mexico : The Casales family of Cuernavaca
Food expenditure for one week : 1,862.78 Mexican Pesos or $189.09
Favorite foods : pizza, crab, pasta, chicken
China : The Dong family of Beijing
Food expenditure for one week : 1,233.76 Yuan or $155.06
Favorite foods: fried shredded pork with sweet and sour sauce
Poland : The Sobczynscy family of Konstancin-Jeziorna
Food expenditure for one week : 582.48 Zlotys or $151.27
Family recipe : Pig’s knuckles with carrots, celery and parsnips
United States : The Caven family of California
Food expenditure for one week : $159.18
Favorite foods : beef stew, berry yogurt sundae, clam chowder, ice cream
Egypt : The Ahmed family of Cairo
Food expenditure for one week : 387.85 Egyptian Pounds or $68.53
Family recipe : Okra and mutton
Mongolia : The Batsuuri family of Ulaanbaatar
Food expenditure for one week : 41,985.85 togrogs or $40.02
Family recipe : Mutton dumplings
Ecuador : The Ayme family of Tingo
Food expenditure for one week : $31.55
Family recipe : Potato soup with cabbage
Bhutan : The Namgay family of Shingkhey Village
Food expenditure for one week : 224.93 ngultrum or $5.03
Family recipe: Mushroom, cheese and pork
Chad : The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week : 685 CFA Francs or $1.23
Favorite foods : soup with fresh sheep meat
He was charming, witty, and took blame upon himself. Adviser Ayub Quadri, was the Minister of Education, Minister of Primary and Mass Education and Minister of Cultural Affairs, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. He was the perfect guy to rely upon for damage control. The public school background showed, as did the many years as a top bureaucrat. He had been a member of the elite Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP). An old boys network that still holds clout in the subcontinent.
The Press Information Department (PID) auditorium on the 3rd floor of Building 9, in the Bangladesh Secretariat was packed. Unlike many other Bangladeshi events this press conference started on time. Squeezing through the footpaths, crossing fences, lifting my bicycle over rickshaws stuck in traffic, I had panted my way to the secretariat. The police at gate 2 had been too perplexed by a bicycle going through the gate to even stop me for papers. I arrived just as the first question was raised. It was a packed hall, and while I thought I would stay at the back, I realised that I needed to get up there to stand any chance of getting a question in. I sat on the floor in between the video tripods.
The journalists had done their homework. And while there were a few questions that were repetitive, by and large, they knew what they wanted. In response to a question about the alleged corruption charges against one of the government officials involved in the transaction, the adviser joked. “Well I am the person in overall charge. The police don’t seem to be after me for corruption.” Pretty answer. Pity it didn’t answer the question.
The large table with the adviser in the middle was imposing. The Secretary of Culture on the left and another officer on the right played a largely ornamental role. So did the entire row of officials in the back. They did however lean forward to whisper in the adviser’s ear from time to time. The question came up of the alleged transportation of the bronze casket in 1959 to France, which Mr. Zakaria, the ex Secretary of Culture had mentioned in a press conference on the 1st December. The adviser let the question slip, saying he’d heard of such accusations and was looking into it. A member of the back row broke ranks and retorted, “There is no such record.” Mr. Zakaria, also an ex director of the department of archaeology, had mentioned a 49 year fight to get back this prized possession, without success. A journalist mentioned the case of the 30 paintings of Mohammad Younus. They had been sent to Yugoslavia, on a government to government exchange. None had ever come back. Quadri again said he didn’t know. “Don’t know” was quite a common response to questions. Candid perhaps, but not particularly useful.
In answer to the questions about the irregularities regarding the loan inventory, the adviser did provide figures, but no documents he could back them up with. Questions from the floor pointed to the disjoint between the figures he quoted and the ones given in the government documents submitted to the court. That they didn’t correspond to the inventory produced by the French themselves. He promised to provide updated documents this very evening. Tomorrow morning at the latest. Why the government had provided documents to the court which did not tally with the shipment, was a question that never got asked, and was certainly not clarified. The mystery of calling a press conference, but not having these documents at hand was never solved by the guests.
“I have full confidence that the items will come back.” He said, taking the weight of the world on his shoulders. As to why Bangladeshis should have confidence in him, was one that was never clarified.
“The company that had packed the crates have been doing so for 300 years,” he mentioned. The doubters have been asking for the packers to be named ever since the beginning, but have not been given an answer. Those who had thought the press conference would enlighten them were disappointed.
Since only government members of the committee were present, there was no one to question the claim that everything had been done to please the committee. That the committee had been fully satisfied with the proceedings. The fact that the official letter by the committee, in the hands of the press, said something entirely different was a mere technicality.
The inconsistencies were the problem. We still don’t know exactly how many items are being sent. Neither do we know exactly what is being sent. The few specifics the advisor provided, that there were “50 silver coins, and 8 gold coins,” might have helped in purchasing supplies for an Everest expedition, but didn’t help much in evaluating either the value, or the specifics of a museum item. Especially when the court record states “50 punchmarked coins” in one entry and an unspecified number of “gold and silver coins” in another. Assuming the number of silver coins in the latter entry is non-zero, and that the punchmarked coins are all silver, we still have a problem. The French inventory specifies “93 punch marked coins.” Are the “gold and silver coins” non-punchmarked? Do they add up to the “8 gold coins” the adviser was referring to? 50 + non-zero number = 50 and 50 + 8 = 93 in Ayub Quadri’s arithmetic.
There are bigger issues. He generally accepted that the insurance value was low, but claimed that it was an academic issue in the case of priceless items. Especially since he was confident that they were all coming back. However the French press release, issued on the 25th September 2007, stated that the insurance value was 4 million euro. The adviser today clearly stated 2.6 million euro. So who are we to believe? We are after all talking of the most prized possessions of a nation. Consistent statements help remove doubt. The adviser’s “confidence” might work on a poker table, but does little to put a worried population at ease.
He brushed off the accusation about whisking off the items in a hurry, or that there was any question of impropriety or stealth in terms of going against court directives. When asked why such an important event, which was covered by all major independent media, was completely unreported on state television, he smiled. The gentleman on the right did speak up this time. He pointed out that the question was “irrelevant.”
Other questions remain. Gold and silver coins is one thing. In the documents presented to the court by the government, even one of the most valued items, the large (and extremely rare) bronze statue the Vajrasattva does include an insurance value (not always the case for other items listed) of 200,000 euro. This item too does not have an accession number.
Quadri was unruffled throughout, never losing cool. Always extremely pleasant. His only admission to some concern was in answer to a question about when the items would come back. He said in no uncertain terms, “April.” He added, “Until then, I will stay worried, and looking at the mood in the room, I can tell that you too will not rest.” I hope he meant 2007.
As a child, we would watch the candy floss man take a tiny spoonful of sugar, a dollop of colouring and would watch with amazement as the machine spun out a pink web, which he would twirl around a stick. One portion was only dui poisha (two paisa). A figure which we could realistically save up. The large pink fluff, folded on contact, and melted in the mouth, but did give a sense of attainment. We called it hawai mithai, sweet made of air. This candy floss press conference too, had little substance but plenty of form.
Whether the media kids will feel they got value for their dui poisha is something we’ll see in tomorrow’s headlines.
3rd December 2007. Dhaka.
Previous governments have killed farmers when they demanded fertilisers and seeds. Villagers have been killed when they had the audacity to demand electricity, resist open pit mining. Yesterday 14 cyclone affected people were detained for trying to present a memorandum demanding relief. We wonder what demands for saving our heritage will bring.