(Moved to

Of Mayors and Mice

karzai-mush-fakhruddin.jpg Afghanistan’s Ahmed Karzai (left), Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf (centre) and Bangladesh’s Fakhruddin Ahmed at the World Economic Forum at Davos. © AFP

The smile would warm the cockles of your heart. Especially if you were a CIA agent. This was exactly what was wanted. Happy obedient leaders. Democracy simply got in the way. Karzai, Musharraf, Fakhruddin. The new alliance. One new poodle.

It was summer 2006. The Talibans were getting ever closer to Kabul. Sitting in the Aina office in Choroi Malek Asghar, I was listening to Reza, founder of the Afghan media organisation. The recent anti-drug campaign was bound to have failed he claimed. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother was the chief beneficiary of the drug trade. The US $ 500 million or so spent on combating drugs, was more likely to have been spent on the now famous ‘corrupto mansions’ than on alternative livelihood for opium farmers.

I had felt at ease walking the streets of Kabul. My Arafat scarf and beard also helped. It was different for the ‘saviours’ of Afghanistan. They stepped from their secure offices into their secure vehicles and went to their secure homes. The saviours spend a lot of time in secure cars. The Lexus car that took me to the Serena hotel had five television sets. My Afghan friends call Karzai “The Mayor of Central Kabul.”

A month later I was across the border, in the earthquake zone in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir. I spotted flags with Iqbal, Jinnah and Mickey Mouse flying above one of the refugee camps. The significance of the cartoon character had escaped me. Chatting with my friend Zaheer back in Karachi, I brought up the subject. “Mushy Mouse” was his smiling reply.

mushy-mouse-1195.jpg Poet Iqbal, Founder of Pakistan Jinnah, and Mickey Mouse on a flag flying in Muzaffarabad. August 2006. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Mushy had come into power through a military coup, ousting an elected prime minister. He had suspended the constitution twice and arrested the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. On 3rd November 2007, days before a bench of the Supreme Court was to decide on a petition challenging the constitutional validity of his re-election as president, he had shut down all private television channels. He had also failed to protect the life of his chief political opponent, Benazir. The real Mickey might have run the country better.

There seemed to be no malice or sense of competition between the three US stooges in Davos. Emerging out of the darkness, hands held together in their solidarity of servitude, they positively glowed. Mushy was candid and genuine when he advised his peer Fakhruddin, the Chief Adviser of Bangladesh. “I think you are doing a great job. Carry on doing it no matter what anyone thinks, irrespective of human rights.”

This comedy of errors is a tragedy in the making and our adviser is being true to his script. Mushy would have been proud of Fakhruddin’s human rights record. The ban on media coverage of indigenous rights groups. The more recent ban on the outspoken journalist Nurul Kabir from TV talk shows and the written ban on the popular live programmes on Ekushey TV, neatly slot in with the suppression of free media that both Mushy and Karzai have practiced. Like most other bans, Kabir’s had no paper trails. No written instructions to deny. Just the phone calls from Uttor Para (the cantonment) that we have come to recognise. Our Chief Adviser might even be trying to get ahead of his senior poodles by teaming up with the Myanmar generals.

But Mushy Mouse and the mayor of central Kabul have already staged their sham elections. Our adviser’s play is yet to be played out.

January 27, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Global Issues, governance | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Rule of Law

The flower sellers and the popcorn venders were having a field day. The streets were jammed with traffic diverted from the University. Sales would be good.

complex-traffic-pattern-5114.jpg A range of different modes of transport plying Dhaka streets, makes the city roads difficult to negotiate. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Dhaka University turned into a cantonment,’ said Rahnuma’s text message. I was hurrying to the CMM court in Old Dhaka where the trial of the university teachers was taking place. As I pedaled through the gaps between cars, rickshaws, CNGs (gas run three wheelers) and thalagaris (push carts) I felt glad I was on a bicycle.

du-teachers-come-out-of-court-5163.jpg Dhaka University teachers leaving the CMM court in Old Dhaka. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ocassionally biking along the footpath, not strictly legal, I was slowed by the vending stalls and bus ticket counters that had sprung up. Legality was not such a big thing here.

streetside-bus-ticket-seller-5083.jpg Bus ticket sellers in New Elephant Road. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority

Last night, the guards had caught a guy stealing copper cabling. The thief was a “heroinchi”. They had roughed him up and let him go. Taking the guy to the police wouldn’t have helped. The police would have got richer and the guy would be out stealing again. People take law into their own hands. Bribes are common-place, violence is normalised, nepotism is ripe. Despite the rhetoric at the top, abuse of power is the order of the day. But there is a sub-text. It was wrong of the heroinchi to have stolen the cable, for me to have used the footpath, for the vendors to have taken over public pathways, for the policeman to have taken bribes. Except in my case, there were mitigating circumstances that made all of the other acts less of a crime. The heroinchi had his addiction to blame. The vendors had no other place to go, police salaries were impossible to live on. They might have found other solutions, but they broke the law instead. Unlawful, but not sinister.

I saw other things along the way. The policeman in Gulistan Mor puncturing the tyre of a rickshaw walla caught on a road reserved for cars.

policeman-with-tyre-stabber-5097.jpg Policeman with needle used to puncture rickshaw tyres. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


Policeman beating up rickshawalla. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

king-of-traffic-5111.jpg Policeman controlling traffic at Nawabpur Road. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

hand-brush-traffic-control-5125.jpg A bus conductor uses a brush handle to beat off nearby rickshaws or other ‘low grade’ traffic. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A policeman on Nawabpur Road, punching a rickshaw walla for some other reason. True, rickshaw wallas don’t always obey the law. But no policeman would have punctured the wheel of a car. No drug baron would ever be roughed up, no hotel owner would ever be shooed off his establishment.




police-van-bumper-5142.jpg Dilapidated police prison vans outside CMM court. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


Military microbus by ‘no parking’ sign near Rapa Plaza in Dhanmondi. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Few police cars would ever pass a fitness test. The more swank olive green cars, parked illegally, would never be challenged. When power is flouted with such abandon, corruption seeps to all levels. Ordinary people are simply too small to challenge the system. The rule of law must apply to all if it is to work. When the ruling party cannot be challenged, when a military rank gives total authority, when being in power means laws no longer apply, the law of the streets becomes the law of the land.

Much has been said about the students’ protest on campus in August 2007. Little has been said about the cause of the incident. The military cannot occupy a university campus in a free land. It is the duty of any self-respecting student, of any citizen, to challenge such army presence. The arrogance of the soldiers might have aggravated the incident. Their long held belief that they are above the law, surely led to the brutality that followed. But the original crime was one of occupation. And occupation, wherever found, must be resisted.

Why should university students bow to injustice? What values can future citizens uphold having silently accepted the loss of their freedoms? How can a teacher teach knowing he has turned his back to wards being illegally victimised?

back-door-5139.jpg The back door of a prison van waiting outside CMM court. 21st January 2007. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

To convict and then provide presidential pardon, is an act of self-deification by the government. Those with less clout will continue to languish in jail. A dark and violent jail they should never have entered. If the judiciary be truly independent, then it should call to the docks those who ordered a military occupation of our university. It should bring to trial those who use emergency rule to torture our citizens and muzzle the media. It should penalise those who judge others without subjecting themselves to scrutiny. The rule of law is essential for society to live without fear. For it to apply, it must start at the top.

January 23, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh | 8 Comments

Unruly Images

Masculinity, Public Memory and Censorship

rahnuma ahmed

Because it can be neither forgotten nor redeemed, the past must be changed. To redeem the past one must alter one’s relationship to it… If the problem.. [is that] of a one-dimensional political representation, then what it calls for is not work on the subject — or not just that — but… “political work on the symbolic.”
Linda M. G. Zerilli, The Abyss of Freedom.

Bissrinkhol Drissho: Pourush, Public Smriti O Censorship attempts to do that. To politically work on that which is symbolic. It came out recently, as a small booklet. My article is prefaced by a foreword written by Abdullah al-Mamun, who teaches Mass Communication and Journalism at Rajshahi University. He was released from prison nearly six weeks ago, alongwith three other teachers, Moloy Kumar Bhowmik, Dulal Chandra Biswas and Selim Reza Newton. They were granted presidential clemency on 10 December 2007. Incidentally, neither the teachers, nor their wives, had appealed for a presidential pardon.

They have been released from prison, but not from the farce that the government is carrying out with public university teachers, students and employees. The clemency covers conviction and punishment, but the government has not withdrawn the case against them. Mamun and the others appear in court on January 28, when appeal hearings begin.

The newly-appointed education advisor while talking to news reporters about the case against Dhaka university teachers, unwittingly exposed the farce. “Whatever be the verdict,” he said in all seriousness, the teachers will be “released soon.”

Whatever be this week’s outcome, these famous last lines will not be easily forgotten.

Not a straight-forward affair

Photographs. And people. The connection is not a simple one. `Hey, I didn’t know you had gone to Rajendrapur?’ `Just that once, the picnic was terrible.’ Photographs capture a particular moment, but to know whether that moment is something out of the ordinary, whether it represents a whim or a regular habit, we need people. We need testimony. Thus, what a photograph can tell us has its limits. Documentary photographs, at times, may not give us the feeling of recognition we expect, “Is that you? I would never have guessed.” Sometimes they may be pretty inaccurate. Also, there is the question of interpretation. “Hmm, looks like the two of you had snuggled up real close…” “No, no it’s the angle, he was at least five feet away.” As I said, the connection between people and photographs is not a straightforward affair.

Mishaps may happen. Ordinary people may feel piqued on seeing the results, “The light wasn’t good” or, “She’s a lousy photographer,” but rulers are less likely to take them kindly. Specially, if it unravels carefully-constructed identities. Group identities of patriotism and disinterested professionalism. Identities crucial to legitimising. Identities essential for individual ambitions.

Censorship is often thought of stereotypically. As a prohibition, a ban on disclosure. Mamoon, in his foreword to Bissrinkhol Drissho (henceforth Unruly Images) argues differently. He writes, censorship is relational. It is oppositional. Desired images, destined for circulation, are continuously produced and re-produced while undesirable ones are stifled. Both occur simultaneously to construct a reality that meets the expectations of rulers.

Dhaka University incident: unruly images

Unruly Images is about the regime of visual images, not flesh-and-blood people. In it I take a close look at two photographs generated during the Dhaka University protests of August 2007. The military-backed caretaker government came to power in January 2007. Soon after, a perceptible change took place in the world of visual representations, in the world of images. Military masculinity came to be foregrounded as a distinct form of masculinity, in opposition to civilian masculinity, its silent other. TV, both government and private channels, and the print media were the primary instruments used to effect the change. The act of foregrounding re-drew the difference between civilian and military as a primary one, something qualitatively different to the multiplicity of competing masculine images, leader, cadre, executive, mastan, businesman etc seen during the period of elected governments, 1990-2007. In military song video performances regularly screened on TV, military masculinity is portrayed as infinitely courageous, whether on the training ground, in the battle for liberation, or soldiering for peace in faraway lands. The army uniform emerges as a symbol of discipline, regularity, order, control, restraint, punctuality. In writing this, my concern is not with its truth, it is solely with images, with portraiture. The song-video images lack social depth. There are no folds, no seams, no hesitancies, and as such, they are propagandistic. Being fragile, they are unable to withstand the realities of life. They falter if not propped up by the state. Their fragility grieves the creators, their grief and pain is expressed in language founded on the state’s powers of coercion. As happened in the case of Dhaka University, in August 2007.

The publication of the first photograph, the censored one, created disorder in the world of images. To restore order, it became necessary to introduce the second image, Professor Anwar Hossain’s apology to the armed forces. This image was generously circulated, distributed and re-distributed, over and over again. The times however were tumultuous, one event rapidly followed the other. That the two photographs are linked, in a cause-and-effect fashion, was something overlooked. Looking at one image brings back memories of the other. It was an oversight. Such things do happen, even with the best of intentions.


If the first image is censored, how does one talk about it? How do I convey to readers what is in the photograph? How does one manoeuver around censorship restrictions?

Three sources exist, highly reliable sources, not-censored sources, that offer us a language to talk about them. One is Professor Anwar Hossain’s statement itself, a primary text, an authentic one since those to whom it is addressed have not raised any objections. Of the other two sources, one is to be found on the Bangladesh armed forces website (Dhaka Bisshobiddaloyer Shongothito Opritikor Ghotonatir Itikotha); the other is also military, but un-official

In Professor Anwar Hossain’s statement, one comes across the lines of opposition: army/military versus civilian. Civilian is expressed through different words, “students,” “Dhaka university,” “teacher,” “General Secretary of Dhaka University Teachers Association” ” guardian of the students.” These words give us an idea of place, time, the actors involved. A happening seems to have occurred, one that involves action and reaction. Professor Anwar mentions the word “attack” five times. I assume, from the logic of the apology offered, that a student has attacked a member of the army. The nature of the attack? The title of a BMF report found on its website indicates an unarmed attack, The “Flying Kicker” Identified (for those who don’t know, Bangladesh Military Forces Group is an independent, non-governmental, non-political and non-profit association of research on defence and strategic issues). “The” and “Kicker,” are telltale words that indicate one student, not many. Other words indicate one army member only, “an attack on a member of the army means an attack on the armed forces, as a whole”. He must have been in uniform, or else why would Professor Hossain say, “The agitated students even attacked [members of the] army in uniform” “If anyone attacks the uniform of a member of the army…”

I find the elision between “uniform”, “a member of the army”, and “the army as a whole” in Professor Hossain’s statement, and in the other sources, breathtaking. The elision is re-inforced in the mapping-out of the army: from the ordinary jawan at the lower rungs, to the army chief at the top. Map the text on to the image and one gets frightening results, a student becomes representative of Dhaka University as a whole, of the civilian sector as a whole. A hapless member of the army becomes representative of the army as a whole, of its honour and respect. In the process, a particular meaning gets attached to the army — the lack of courage. Images of valour and courage present in the war of liberation in 1971, in UN peacekeeping missions abroad, recede.

Why were the words that spoke of the students’ self-respect, the ordinary peoples self-respect censored? Why was Professor Anwar allowed to make a statement to the press? After all, he was in remand (allegations of physical and mental torture). Why was the elision permitted? It only serves to fracture national unity on civilian vs miltary lines.

The events at Dhaka university speak of a story of humiliation. Of revenge. Of arrogance and ill-conceived strategies. Of unintended consequences.

January 23, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | 3 Comments

Keeping the lamp lit

The newly appointed education adviser has my sympathy. He had spoken the truth. With scandals emerging about departing advisers, and accusations flying about the gross incompetence of the ‘PhD’ government, he must have felt the need to demonstrate the character of the cabinet.

Having lost the Candy Man, we now have an adviser who is candid in his remarks. “Regardless of the verdict of the court, the teachers shall be freed, ” he had said. Great news for the teachers. Sad news for justice.

But the candor of the education advisor is unlikely to inspire confidence in the government. He might equally have said, “regardless of the verdict of the court, we shall find Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia guilty,” or any other convenient outcome for the many flimsy cases against politicians, business people, students or any other member of the public. The fact that the government finds the judicial system irrelevant, while confirming people’s fears, does do away with their flicker of hope for justice. This was a lamp that needed to stay lit.

The anniversary party could have done without the media gatecrashers. The weeks leading up to the 11th January 2008, have been particularly difficult for the government. In August, it had taken violent protest by the students for the military presence in campus to be removed, but it is the fallout of the government’s heavy-handed response that they now need to deal with. Having closed the 24 hour news channel CSB

kakoli-prodhan-csb-news-6.jpg 24 hour CSB News TV channel after its closure. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Kakoli Prodhan

and intimidated others with barely veiled threats, they had expected an easy ride. But they had reckoned without the spunk of Bangladeshi media. BTV has long since become irrelevant. Cheek in jowl, private channel media activists have found creative ways to get the news to the public, and an informed audience has responded. I remember the phone calls ‘from above’ that came in while a talk show was going on. The savvy presenter responding smartly toned down his own questions, letting me speak as I pleased. It was a live show, and he could hardly have been blamed for the words I was using. The phone calls to the editor, the ‘invitations to tea,’ and the physical presence of army personnel have made honest reporting a harrowing task, but the news programmes are alive and well, and while they have economic pressures, they retain a loyal following.

Even newspapers that had decided to ride in the comfort of the military train are having to make face-saving critiques of a government facing derailment. It is the government, which is on the back foot. CSB is still closed, but the phone in callers, the letter writers, the bloggers and the talk show speakers have joined in the fray. This is media at its best.

Amnesty’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, made up for her initial failure to denounce emergency rule, “Amnesty believes that the government can waive some of the restrictions, even under emergency rule.” The media again had set the tone. She was far more forthright in the latter stage of her visit and pointed to the ubiquitous presence of the military in all public spheres, clearly stating that military rule was unacceptable.

I could smell the stench of decomposed flesh as I walked up the stairway of the partially demolished Rangs Building.


Loose concrete slabs and boulders still dangle precariously from the remaining metal rods of the Rangs Building. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

rangs-building-worker-0771.jpg Even in this unsafe condition, and while the body of a security guard is still buried under the rubble, workers remove rubble from the partially demolished Rangs Building. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The Rajuk administrators were themselves scared to be there, but being government officials they had little choice. They pointed me to a staircase that was relatively safe. Workers, not having my benefit of class, climbed the more dangerous ones. I wonder how it feels to walk past a deceased colleague, past the stench, the rubble, past rickety columns. What is it like to know one’s death will only matter to one’s nearest ones.

Yesterday police turned their batons on garment workers demanding outstanding wages and fires yet again engulfed city slums.

fire-in-slum-in-rayer-bazar-1712-px-600.jpg Fire in Rayer Bazaar slum destroyed around 2500 homes. January 12 2008. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews

sh-31.jpg Garment worker killed by collapse of factor building. © Shehabuddin/Drik/Majority World

The recent deaths of other garment workers and general demands to receive an acceptable minimum wage, all point to the disengagement from the public of a caretaker government that has failed to care.

We are in need of honest answers, and while the new education adviser revealed the government’s complete disregard for the judiciary, I suspect his honesty was the unintended byproduct of yet another exercise in spin. If on the other hand, his admission of the irrelevance of the judiciary was the beginning of a process of transparency, unpleasant though the truth might be, I welcome it. Admission of guilt does not in itself solve the problem, but it does begin to address it. Something they have so far singularly failed to do. They have blamed the ills of the nation on politicians and political parties. On bad democracy. The people are in no illusion about the improprieties of the past. But bad democracy can only be replaced by good democracy. There is no such thing as good autocracy, and pliant front men, no matter who they are backed by, can never be an answer.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, media | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Freedom of Expression Roundtable

Amnesty International launches Bangla website and discusses freedom of expression in Bangladesh

8 January 2008

irene-khan-and-shahidul-alam-at-drik.jpg Feature on Korean media

MEDIA ADVISORY: Amnesty International, Drik News and Drishtipat are hosting a seminar on freedom of expression in Dhaka on January 9th at 6 pm. Amnesty International Secretary General, Irene Khan, will talk to young journalists, bloggers and activists about the state of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The meeting will also discuss the important role that the media can play in protecting citizen rights and steps that can be proposed to the Caretaker Government to ensure a free space for human rights defenders and journalists. Irene Khan will also launch Amnesty International’s Bangla website at this event – The event will take place at Drik Gallery. There will be a live webcastasif-saleh-providing-live-text-feed-0926.jpg Asif Salef of Drishtipat, uploading the live text stream (text provided below). © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
irene-khan-at-freedom-of-expression-roundtable-at-drik-0940.jpg Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International speaking at the “Freedom of Expression” roundtable at Drik. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
journalist-akash-talking-of-persecution-by-military-0912.jpg Journalist Jahangir Alam Akash talking of being tortured by military while pursuing an investigation. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World. In an email Jahangir informs us: yesterday night, police went my previous house of uposhahor in rajshahi for arrest me, when i attend in a roundtable in dhaka in presence of amnesty international secretary general irene khan.participants-at-roundtable-on-freedom-of-expression-0914.jpg Participants at “Freedom of Expression” roundtable at Drik on 9th January 2007. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

irene-khan-talking-to-participants-of-freedom-of-expression-roundtable-at-drik-0947.jpg Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International speaking to participants at the “Freedom of Expression” roundtable at Drik. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Transcription by Asif Saleh/Drishtipat
Thanks to the technical team who helped set this up.


the secretary general of amnesty international irene khan is with us
Shahidul Alam introducing
Irene Khan is not only a Bangladeshi but also first muslim woman head of Amnesty
We will have this show in a different format than usual
This will be a discussion and not room for speech
We want to create dialogue
Shahidul thanking all.
Irene introducing speech with a history of Amnesty
Irene talking…when I am in bangladesh from higher level it seems there is a lively media
But there must be another story
I met the army chief today and expressed my views about freedom of expression
For years now we have picked up a steady stream of journalists who have been attacked and wounded
In times of change we desperately need room for freedom of expression.
I am going to try get a complete picture from every one.
Shahidul now saying we are going to try to keep the discussion small
My name is Akash
I used to work for CSB new
The roundtable is very important for me
I want to get a little bit of time for myself.
because my rights have been severely hampered
Akash describing the story of how his rights were violated
I reported a story in CSB news when a father was shot by RAB infront of his daughter and I got persecuted for this.
Akash describing the process in details….how he has been fleeing for 3 months
he has been living a crippled life for the past 3 months
The oppression that happened to me
Akash has broken down in tears
Describing the judicial process.
Even though the high court has given him bail but still the local court still has issued a warrant against me.
There may be a lot more Akashes out there
Jahirul Huq Tito , Manik Saha to name a few over the years.
I want to live a free life
I want to go back to my profession.
and work for humanity
I want to dream of a new Bangladesh…I don’t want the oppression that has happened against me to happen to any body else,
Irene is speaking
We knew about your case
When you were in detention, I explained your case very forcefully to the foreign adviser.
You said that you do not want justice but just want to live and that shows the desperation of the case.
I want to assure you that Amnesty will do every thing they can.
parvin Sultana asks whether irene feels that we have press freedom in Bangladesh
sanjib drong of adivasi forum speaks..
Describes the case of Cholesh Richil..who was killed on March in Modhupur.
by the joint forces
The killing on the indigenous community is always justified.
I want to request you to take up the case of cholesh richil and follow through.
The perpetrators know that if indignous leaders are killed then nothing happens and that is only going to encourage more killing
I would like Amnesty to find out at what stage the investigation reports are held
Irene speaks.
Irene: We have already picked up the case and already spoke to high level cases.
High level admins
There has been no prosecution on the case
A crime has been committed but no justice has been serveed.
Pavel partha speaks
I want to highlight the violence of the multinational companies.
Companies like Monsanto ..
Our natural resouces are being stolen,
cases like Phulbari is an example of what multinationals can do in the name of progress
Corporations are violating our rights
we want to know what Amnesty can do to highlight this…
Faruq Wasif of Prothom Alo speaks
thank you irene..
Your coming to Bangladesh and solving individual cases are not the solution
we want to highlight the case of 1971….Amnesty was silent during the war of 71
Similarly your stand in this visit was very mild.
Doesn’t it show a very tolerant view of Amnesty towards military regimes?
Omi Rahman Pial speaks from bdnews24…
I am a blogger
What is the limit of my work?
I see Akash in front of me and I fear what may happen to me and what I need to do so that it doesn’t happen to me?
We have lots of irregularities and working under lots of pressure…
I can’t publish news at the right time because our internet will be brought down , calls will be made etc.
Jornalist from Samakal
We are living in an era of depression rather than free expression
I want to hear from Irene — how is she explaining Bangladesh’s current state.
I want to understand the total role of Amnesty in current Bangladeshi situation.
Anisur Rahman from New Age speaks
Cholesh is from my village
Cholesh was a symbol of free expression as well.
Cholesh used to speak for others in the community.
That’s why Cholesh was targetted
They tried not to kill the person Chalesh but silence a whole community.
Garments workers are not getting their salaries but when they are protesting, they are being taken to court.
Also want to highlight the case of tasneem khalil
We don’t know where he is today,
He was a blogger and a journalist at Daily Star.
We are seeing freedom of expression only for a few folks in certain commissions of the government.
He is now talking about some inconsistencies on tax loop holes
not sure..why 🙂
those who are on the web…this is not alam…but asif.
Shahidul asks to keep things shorts
Biplab Rahman , a blogger and journalist speaks
highlights internet monitoring.
telephone tapping
I have done a lot of research on Chittagong Hill tracks
and I want to highlight why mobile network is not there is those 3 disrticts
Therer were towers placed by the telecom companies but it was taken down by the local armed forces
I wanted to highlight the cases of university teachers as well…and think they should be released
Tipu Sultan from Prothom Alo speaks.
The journalists outside Dhaka lives under severe restriction
All the news are screened by authorities
They can not send the news of fertiliser crisis because of joint forces restrictions
They regularly face the threat of extortion cases from the local forces
But the authorities in Dhaka know this but they still deny it.
BUt the Dhaka journalists are doing much better compared to them.
Yesterday there was a case like that in Thaurgaon.
Udisa Islam speaks
Freelancer ..used to be in tv
Another introduction of mine is — I am the wife a teacher who were detained in Rajshahi University,
I am hearing a lot of sad stories..
but what is the worth of presenting this here?
We need to share this stories with each other ALL the time
This I am saying as a grassroots journalist,.
Last Aug 22nd whatever happened in bangladesh, everyone knows
Similarly whatever happenned with the museum statues.
The media played a brave role there.
How were those published and not some other stories?
Journalists oppression goes on for years!!
Its not because of state of emergency
Tipu Sultan (another victim) was not created under State of emergency (SOE)
it will happen again and again.
We need to talk about the whys of that..
Are we going to talk about the 20 students that still in prison from the university crisis?
Hana Shams Ahmed of Daily Star speaks
I want to highlight the kind of censorship after 1/11
We are very demoralised
speacially after the arifur Rahman incident.
We are very demoralised…and we can talk any thing about religion or army,
priscila raj speaks
Want to highlight three things….
Extra judicial killings
How can we work with International orgs to stop creatiion of organizations like RAB
In cases of State of emergency the most suffered are the people who are the most vulnerable in the society the adibashies (indigenious community)
Lastly why do we never see the results of enquiry reports of the investivative commissions
Zaid Islam a photo journalist speaks
Sara Hossain speaks
I am here as a lawyer who represented some of these journalists who were victims in the last few years.
We need to talk about what we can do to stop this.
We always complain about internation conspiracy but we need to work in our own houses as well.
We don;t coordinate our work,.
I highlight time to the stories about slum dwellers and I send the reports to you journalists but no journalists show any interest..
But that is not the case if the story is about a big politician’s bail.
Amirul Rajib, a photo journalist speaks,
When a big crisis happens and media highlights the issue a lot but not many people are found to help them.
other than the family
We don’t have a infrastructure…
to handle these cases.
we all have to have our own personal network…
How can Amnesty help in all these cases to build an infrastructure.
to handle cases of oppression,
and also cases of regular engagement with the grassroots is needed from int orgs.
Anis highlights that no local journalist in Modhupur highlighted Cholesh’s case because they knew that that they will not survive if they highlighted that.
Ataur Rahman of journalists forum thanks to portray the current picture of bangladesh media today.
Amnesty needs to have a presence in Bangladesh.
I want to blame Amnesty for today’s crisis somewhat.
they need to have a presence in Bangladesh.
We have to look at what is happening in South Asia as a whole as well.
Amnesty needs to play a much stronger role.
Another question speaking about how unfairly he was sacked from Amnesty Bangladesh 5 years ago.
Najma Chowdhury from Shwadesh Khabor Weekly…
Do you think anything will change after your visit, Irene Khan?
Chandan Shaha from a weekly,,,
He highlights a case where a minister was sacked because of taking a bribe from a multinational
and wonders why the minister got sacked and nothing happened to the multinational.
Irrelevant talk about corruption of govt
Does Amnesty have a way to research these stories? Shouldn’t they already know these things?
Someone from Manusher jonno speaks
tallks about child rights in Bangladesh
what to do for children prisoner?
Shafiqul Huq Mithu speaks about jahirul Huq Tito in Pirojpur.
another journalist who has been taken in to jail by the admin.
Highlighting details of Tito’s ordeal with the court and but law enforcement agency.
Shahidul speaks,
Highlighting the permission that he had to take for the event..
at World press freedom day.
which says that there you can not criticise the govt in such cases.
We are violating law here by criticizing the govt…Shahidul mockingly reminds Irene,
You all highlighted a lot of cases here..
As journalist you tend to be in the present.
But the activists have to take a longer term perspective..otherwise it gets very depressing…
You all talked about today…but we need to talk about the past as well.
When you take a long term view of human rights, there is not a supported political system where human rights are violated…
go back from 1971…there is a thread of impunity where human rights violations have been left unquestioned
National Human Rights Commission is something that can be very powerful
Whether it is going to be a watchdog or a lapdog, it will all depend on how much pressure we ALL can create
A lot of people told me that this year extra judicial killiing have been reduced…but I am not satisfied by such replies.
We need to highlight why they are going on and what is being done to stop it.
ON freedom of expression..
Irene asking why all the draconian rules are necessary under state of emergency..
These rules are hanging like an axe?
for people..
One think that that has struck me after talking to a lot of people…
civil society and govt have understood clearly how they can use international laws and international civil society to protect the human rights in Bangladesh.
One thing to highlight is there is a worldwide network of human rights defenders.
Today’s event is being captured by people worldwide and that says a lot.
about this network,
We have an enormous opportunity in the internet to create a worldwide network..
that is why Amnesty is starting a Bangla Human Rights Portal for everyone.
I hope you all will take part in it and create a network.
What I am saying is not going to solve the problems.
But if we all create a noise together and work for change, change will happen.
We All need to work together.
on this.
We are hoping we will be able to make our website more interactive.
Irene talking about the question on economic and social rights.
and explaining the campaign on human dignity which focuses on poverty.
what is relationship with human rights and climate change , poverty etc …
This is just a partial transcript of the whole conversation that took place.
Faruk Wasif and Irene are having an exchange over whether West has monopoly on human rights
We are closing …
thank you all
Shahidul thanking,,,Naeem, Givan, Asif for organizing this and highlighting the collaboration of a lot of people.
Shahidul ends with saying that the movement is ours whether or not Irene Khan is there or not,

January 9, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh | 1 Comment


Recovering Memory. Recovering Dignity

It was 25th March, night. A Pakistani officer accompanied by soldiers entered their Dhaka University flat, dragged out Meghna’s father and and shot him. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta was a well-known academic. He bled to death slowly, five days later. As he lay dying in Dhaka Medical College Hospital with a bullet wound in his neck, surrounded by doctors too scared to treat him, he repeatedly told Bashanti, his wife, you must write. Write what? History, he replied. But I don’t know how to write history. Well, write literature then.

meghnas-family-400-px.jpg Jyotirmay Guhathakurta and Basanti Guhathakurta with seven year old daughter, Meghna and nephew Kanti in Gandaria, Dhaka, 1966. Bangladesh. © Bazle Mawla

I met Meghna in 1973, the year we started college. Later we went to Dhaka University together. As we became the closest of friends, I learnt that she would lie in bed each night and recollect the horror of that night in 1971. I would tell myself, I have to remember each incident, what happened, what followed. I must not let myself forget. Many years later, I remember asking her, “Megh, do you still do that? Re-collect each scene, each incident…?” “Yes, each night, after turning out the lights, I lie in bed and remember what happened, as it happened,” was her reply.

It is important to recover memories. To tell oneself that the world was not born this moment, to remind ourselves that we have long histories. Or else, says Uruguyan novelist Eduardo Galeano, we will become like the peoples of Chicago who do not know of the Haymarket martyrs, or that the First of May was born in Chicago. Galeano writes, Chicago has “deleted” the memory of International Workers Day, a day that is both a tragedy and a fiesta, a day celebrated the world over, one that affirms the right of the workers to organise. Our histories are both of betrayal, and dignity. We need to recover both.

The Gift of a Sewing Machine

Adivasi activist Choles Ritchil was returning from a wedding on March 18, 2007 when his microbus was stopped. He was arrested by half a dozen plainclothes men, and taken to Khakraid army camp. Choles, alongwith other Mandi families of Modhupur forest, were opposed to the eviction of 25,000 Mandi peoples from the forest through the government scheme (2003) to construct an eco-park. Despite Mandi opposition, Forest department officials began constructing a high wall that would section off 3,000 acres of forest land. In January 2004, police fired on peaceful Mandi protestors killing Piren Snal, and injuring 25 others. Public outrage at police brutality helped shelve eco-park plans, but Forestry officials later filed 20 false cases against the Mandis. Choles, widely-respected and prominent, was implicated in these cases.

choles-ritchil-portrait-noise-reduced.jpgCholes Ritchil. Photographer unknown

At Khakraid, Choles was tied to the grill of a window, and beaten mercilessly. Then his torture began. The next day, police officials handed over his dead body to relatives. In accordance with religious custom, his body was bathed before burial. Those who did so said that it bore horrific signs of mutilation. Photographs, hurriedly taken, serve to document the marks of torture.

body-of-choles-ritchil-b.jpg Mutilated body of Choles Ritchil. Photographer unknown

Nearly seven months later, on October 10, members of the Joint Forces arranged a small ceremony in the Tangail Upozilla office. Choles’ first wife Sandhya Rani Simsang was given cash, a sari and a sewing machine. His second wife Serpina Nokrek was also given cash, a sari and a sewing machine.

A sewing machine is said to signify connections. It connects the needle to the thread, stitches together separate pieces of cloth into a whole. But what does this sewing machine, born of torture and a mutilated body, connect? Mandi women’s eviction from the forest has also meant their eviction from indigenous traditions of weaving and sewing, traditions embedded in a matrilineal culture, says Pavel Partha*, an ethno-botanist and an impassioned researcher. The state has torn the lives of Mandi women away from Modhupur forest-which-is-their-culture. The extra-judicial killing of Choles Ritchil has torn to pieces the lives of Sandhya Rani, Serpina Nokrek, and their respective children. Tears that no sewing machine can repair.

They say torturers often wear hoods. They shy away from eye contact with their victims. A last vestige of humanity? Maybe. And if so, it certainly offers us crumbs of hope.

What happened at the Tangail gift-giving ceremony? Did the gift-givers look Sandhya and Serpina in the eye? How on earth did they get conscripted into the whole affair? Were they obliged to attend, to receive? Maybe those directly involved in Choles’ death were not present. After all, six army and civilian personnel, including Major Toufiq Elahi and Tangail Forest department official Abu Hanif Patwari were transferred soon after the death. A one person investigation committee consisting of a judge was also set up (has the report been completed, submitted? No one seems to know). The point I wish to make is that the institutional nexus — army camp, Forest department, thana, doctors, union council officials — within which Choles’ (and other adivasi) deaths have taken place, remains intact. That the gift-giving ceremony — an official event, funded by the public exchequer — took place within this nexus. The circumstances surrounding Choles Ritchil’s death is known to all, Mandi and Bengali alike. Pretences must have been necessary to pull off the ceremony. The presence of members of the Joint Forces, civilian administrators, elected representatives of the former goverment at the local level, professionals etc etc must have shored up those pretences.

I look forward to the Freedom of Information Act. I want to be able to read official files that contain an order to pick someone up. I want to know the language in which torture is camouflaged. I want to know the names of doctors who sign death certificates, the causes that are listed (death due to, surely not eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilation, removal of fingernails). I want to know how Forest officials are able to construct false cases implicating those who protest against the injustice of eviction.

We need to know more about the rules of governance to weave tapestries of resistance across ethnic divides.

Rangs building: The death of cchotolok workers

Not all bodies have been recovered from the Rangs building. Not yet. Two or three remain. A faint smell of death, of decomposed flesh, still hangs over the fourth floor area.

The bodies of all Sidr cyclone victims have not been recovered either, one keeps coming across newspaper reports of a child’s body found in a paddyfield, a father’s body being identified by his son. But that, I feel, is different. Difference hinges partly on the word nature, a word, that I admit needs to be re-thought in the context of global warming since ‘natural’ disasters are no longer natural.

Rangs is a profoundly urban disaster. Compounded by the fact that the hapless workers who died come from villages, the stories that frame their migration, ‘they came to the city in search of work’ hide continued urban enrichment at the cost of villages. Images haunt me as I read what is written in the newspapers: it happened in five seconds, the roofs came tumbling down, they do not give us our dead, I cannot go off with my brother’s dead body, there are others from Modhukhali, their mothers and sisters and wives are waiting too. My two brothers got buried in the rubble. They are no longer alive. They must have died.

tanvir-rangs-road-sweeper-4696-600-px.jpg Cleaners clearing debris outside the Rangs Building to make way for traffic. Early hours of the morning. 8th December 2007. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Zaid Islam

tanvir-rangs-workers-by-fire-4912-600-px.jpg Demolition workers who have set up their own emergency team, warm themselves at night. 8th December 2007. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Zaid Islam

I piece together the names of the dead. The names are scattered. Some crop up in the newspapers when bodies found are identified: Amirul 26, Zillur 24. Farid Mian. In other places, names of missing relatives mentioned by surviving workers. There are so many: Farid Sheikh, Delwar Sheikh, Jiru Molla, Kaijar Molla, Jahid Molla, Ruhul Amin, Mannan Shikdar, Abdur Rahim Sheikh, Daud Munshi, Jiblu. They are mentioned in passing, as if attached to bodies, to morgue identifications. A few days later, some more names. Some missing have now been found dead: Farid Mian 26, Zero Molla 25, Kaiser Molla 26, Mannan Sikder 35, Daud Munshi. A day later, another name, Abdur Rahim. Again very young, only twenty five. But, I think, what about Jahid, Jiblu, Firoj? A news item catches my eye: the Rangs group claims that security guard Shahid’s body is buried beneath the rubble. Four. It’s been nearly three and a half weeks now.

tanvir-rangs-5150-600-px.jpg The still fingers of an unidentified worker. The bodies of three demolition workers were found on the morning of the 9th December 2007. Rangs Building. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Zaid Islam

I cannot imagine the extent of the nightmare for family members who have been wandering about in the rubble of Rangs Bhaban, looking for traces of their beloved, maybe a pillow, the corner of a lungi, a shirt sleeve. Priscilla Raj, independent journalist, had written of an elderly, bearded man, standing outside Rangs, bitterly saying, “We are cchotolok, why should anyone bother?” He was right. No one did. There was no moddholok collective presence outside the building, no strong suport for Nirman Sromik Union’s demand that compensation for the dead be four lakh taka, not one. Dhaka’s moddholok, no doubt horror-struck, were witnesses to the disaster from a distance made safe by television and print media. I myself and many others were outside the National Museum. We were protesting archaeological artifacts being sent to Guimet. Those who joined in the wake outside the Rangs building were people like those dead or missing, part of the urban dispossessed. They witnessed grief at close quarters.

In this city’s landscape, the history of Rangs workers will be one of dignity. And ours that of betrayal.

Rahnuma Ahmed

New Age. 2nd January 2008


*Pavel Partha, “Odhipoti Shelai Machine O Fali Fali Shalbon” (A Dominant Sewing Machine and Rows of Shal Trees), unpublished.

January 2, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | Leave a comment