Text by Rahnuma Ahmed
Photos by DrikNews
BODIES of army officers had been found, they had been dumped in the sewage canals that lay underneath the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana. Two dead bodies had been the first ones to surface, far away, in Kamrangirchar.
Three civilians had died too, on the very first day. But as news of fifteen more dead bodies of army officers surfaced the next day, the civilian deaths seemed to pale away.
And then a mass grave was discovered in the BDR grounds. Thirty-eight dead bodies were unearthed, including that of the director general Shakil Ahmed. A couple of other bodies were found, killed and dumped in ponds, drains, and sewage lines.
As the long hours passed, the whole nation seemed to be holding back its breath, aghast at the enormity of what had happened. At the carnage that had accompanied the rebellion. People gathered around to listen to the radio, watched breaking news spots on television, read aloud newspapers. News travelled through word of mouth. Collective sighs of relief were heaved when family members who had been held hostage were released. But the discovery of more mass graves, the news of family members also having been killed, of the many scores still missing, leave people speechless.
Horror, incredulity, and a sort of numbness have set in. Scores still remain missing, as the gagging stench of decomposing flesh hangs over Pilkhana grounds.
How could the jawans go on such a killing spree to right the wrongs done to them? What on earth could have possessed them? These are questions that are repeated endlessly by people in all parts of the country. Yes, they did have grievances (over not being given full rations, not being sent abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, over low pay, unpaid daily allowances promised for extra duties rendered, recruitment from the army to the higher, decision-making positions, etc, etc) but surely, their course of action was disproportionate by all accounts. Not to mention, suicidal (as I write, the idea of disbanding the BDR is being considered).
Is there more to it than meets the eye? In a crisis as grave as the one that faces the nation now, where does one seek answers to the truth? It is better to know some of the questions than all the answers. But what if some of the questions being raised are seen, especially by powerful sections, as blaming the victims of the tragedy? Do we have the resources, the intellectual capacity, the political will, and above all, the courage, to raise the right questions? Will these be tolerated, in moments of such deep grief, where passions rage high?
Were unseen forces at work? Wild conspiracy theories are doing the rounds. Do these not block off hard-headed attempts at understanding whether unseen forces were really at work? Surely we need to know the truth, in the interests of the nation-state, and in the interests of the survival of the many millions who live within its boundaries. It is a nation whose citizens are proud of their hard-earned and fought-for independence, and of their sovereignty, notwithstanding the deep fractures that cause long-standing divisions.
I see women and children seated on the pavement or standing outside the BDR gates, keeping long hours of vigil, for news of their loved ones. I see a few faces break down in tears as yet another body is identified. I see some women reach out to console, while others, who still have shreds of hope, lower their heads in shared grief. Hoping against hope that their husbands, or fathers, or brothers or sons will return. Alive.
I see a mother holding up a wedding photograph of her missing son and his newly-wed bride. I grieve for them, just as I grieve for much-respected inspector general of police Nur Mohammad’s daughter, widowed, at two months. Scores remain missing, still.
I read of the Indian government’s offer to send a peace mission to give security to the Calcutta-Dhaka-Calcutta Moitree Express that runs between the two cities on Saturdays and Sundays, to be manned by Indian paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force, the Railway Protection Force, maybe, even the Border Security Force (The Telegraph, February 27).
I listen to balance in reporting being urged, particularly in the case of the electronic media, since the accusations of the BDR jawans had been highlighted on the first day of the rebellion in some of the private TV channels. It is being said, the other side’s version, that of the army officers, had not been sought, that it had not been reported. But surely the lack of press briefings, either from the government or the Home Ministry, or from the ISPR, contributed to this situation? I listen to a discussant argue that command failure, intelligence failure and corruption should not be mentioned. I cannot help but wonder, how does one seek out the truth where such a besieged mentality operates, where collective grief, horror and condemnation can be offered and accepted but only on terms that are acceptable to the recipient? Where narratives of grief and pain and horror seem to be overlaid with other narratives, that of the right to rule.
The dead cannot be brought back to life, nor can the brutal happenings be erased from the nation’s history. We can only console the bereaved. We can only learn lessons from it, as a nation.
It is the nation – as a whole – that grieves for the army officers, and their family members. It is the nation that must stay united, since the crisis seems grave enough to threaten our existence. It is the nation that must come together to seek answers, and to discover the truth. A unity of interests must prevail, rather than that of any particular institution. Or else, I fear, we would be doing injustice to those who lost their lives at Pilkhana.
Written 1 March 2009, published in New Age 6 March 2009
by Rahnuma Ahmed
`Still pictures are not still…’ said Mahasweta Devi. She was in Dhaka to inaugurate Chobi Mela V, and, fortunately for us, had expressed her wish to put up with Shahidul Alam, the director of Chobi Mela. Having Mahasweta Devi, and Joy Bhadra, a young writer and her companion, as house guests, was a `happening’. I will write about that another day.
Mahasweta Devi consistently used the words stheer chitro (exact translation is, `still images’). Still pictures, she went on, inspire us. They move us. They make us do things.
However, I thought to myself, many who are working on visual and cultural theory may not agree. Some would be likely to say, things are not as simple as that.
The effect of visual images needs to be investigated
The debate about the power of visual images has become stuck on the point of the meaning of visual images, on the truth of images. This, said David Campbell, a professor of cultural and political geography, doesn’t get us very far. He was one of the panelists at the opening night’s discussion of Chobi Mela V, held at the Goethe Institut auditorium (`Engaging with photography from outside: An informal discussion between a geographer, an editor and a curator/funder of photography’, 30 Jan 2009).
David went on, it is much better to focus on the effect of images, on the function of images, on the work that images do — and that, is how the debate should be framed. At present, attention is overly-focused on the single image, and what we expect of the single image. By doing this we have invested it with too much possibility, we place too much hope on it’s ability to bring about social change. The effect of visual images needs to be investigated, rather than assumed.
Amy Yenkin, another panelist in the programme, and head of the Documentary Photography project at the Open Society Institute asked David, Why do you think this happens? Is it because people look back at certain iconic images, let’s say images from the Vietnam war that changed the situation, that they try to put too much meaning in the power of one single image..? David replied, `In a way, I am sceptical of the power of single images, a standard 6 or 7 in the western world, that are repeated all the time. I was personally affected by the Vietnam war images, by the image of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm bomb, but I don’t know of any argument that actually demonstrates that Nick Ut’s photograph demonstrably furthered the Vietnam anti-war movement.’ He went on, `Now, I don’t regard that as a failure of the image, but a failure of the interpretation that we’ve placed on the image. It puts too much burden on the image itself.’
The discussion was followed by Noam Chomsky and Mahasweta Devi’s video-conference discussion on Freedom (Chobi Mela V’s theme), and I became fully immersed in watching two of the foremost public intellectual/activists of today talk about the meanings and struggles of freedom, and of imperialism and nationalism’s attempts to thwart it in common peoples’ lives.
But the next day, my thoughts returned to what David had said, and to the general discussion that had followed. On David’s website, I came across how he understands photography, `a technology through which the world is visually performed,’ and a gist of his theoretical argument. I quote: `The pictures that the technology of photography produces are neither isolated nor discrete objects. They have to be understood as being part of networks of materials, technologies, institutions, markets, social spaces, emotions, cultural histories and political contexts. The meaning of photographs derives from the intersection of these multiple features rather than just the form and content of particular pictures.’ .
In other words, to understand what happens within the frame, we need to go outside the frame.
Abu Ghraib photographs: concealing more than they reveal
A good instance is provided by the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuse photographs taken by US military prison guards with digital cameras, which came to public attention in early 2004. The pictures, says Ian Buruma, conceal more than they reveal. By telling one story, they hide a bigger story.
Images of Chuck Graner, Ivan Frederick and the others as “gloating thugs” helped single out, and fix, low-ranking reservist soldiers as the bad apples. As President Bush intoned, it was “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonoured our country and disregarded our values”. None of the officers were tried, though several received administrative punishment. As a matter of fact, the Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations specifically absolved senior U.S. military and political leadership from direct culpability. Some even received promotions (Maj. Gen. Walter Wodjakowski, Col. Marc Warren, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast).
The gloating digital images, no doubt embarassing for the US administration, probably helped “far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view.” They made “the lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules—William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—look almost respectable.”
But there is another aspect to the story of concealing-and-revealing. Public preoccupation with Abu Ghraib pornography deflected attention from the “torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film,” and from finding out who “the actual killers” were. By singling out those visible in the pictures as the “rogues” responsible, it concealed the bigger reality. That the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, as Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris point out, “was de facto United States policy.”
Lynndie England, who held the rank of Specialist while serving in Iraq, expressed it best I think, when she said, “I didn’t make the war. I can’t end the war. I mean, photographs can’t just make or change a war.”
True. Photographs can’t just make or change a war. But surely they do something, or else, why censor images of the recent slaughter in Gaza? To put it more precisely, surely, those who are powerful (western politicians, journalists, arms manufacturers, defence analysts, all deeply embedded in the Zionist Curtain, one that has replaced the older Iron Curtain) apprehend that the visual images of Gaza will do something? That they will, in all probability, have a social effect upon western audiences? And therefore, these must be acted upon i.e., their circulation and distribution must be prevented.
At times, their apprehension seems to move even further. Images-not-yet-taken are prevented from being taken. Probable social effects of unborn images are foreseen, and aborted.
Censoring Gaza images, for what they reveal
All of this happened in the case of Gaza. But before turning to that, I would like to add a small note on the notion of probability. I am inclined to think that it’ll help to deepen our understanding of the politics of visual images.
As the organisers of a Michigan university conference on English literature remind us (“Fictional Selves: On the (im)Probability of Character”, April 2002), the notion of probability went through a major conceptual shift with the emergence of modernity. What in the seventeenth century had meant “the capability of being proven absolutely true or false” as in the case of deductive theorem in logic, gradually altered in meaning as practitioners searched for rhetorical consensus, and the repeatability of experimental results, leading to its present-day meaning: “a likelihood of occurring.”
What might have occured if Israel had allowed journalists into Gaza? What might have occurred if the BBC instead of hiding under the pretence of “impartiality” had agreed to air the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza Aid Appeal aimed at raising humanitarian aid for (occupied and beseiged) Gazans? What might have occurred if USA’s largest satellite television subscription service DIRECTV had gone ahead and aired the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine’s `Gaza Strip TV Ad‘?
Could pictures of Israel’s 22 day carnage in Gaza, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, have sown doubts in western minds about the Israeli claim of targeting only Hamas, and not civilians? Could photos of bombed UN buildings, mosques, schools, a university, of hospitals in ruins, ambulances destroyed, of dismembered limbs and destroyed factories have forced BBC’s viewers to question whether both sides are to blame? Could pictures of the apartheid wall, the security zone, the checkpoints controlling entry of food, trade, medicine (for over two years) make suspect the Israeli claim that it had withdrawn from Gaza? Could photos depicting the effects of mysterious armaments that have burned their way down into people’s flesh, eaten their skin and tissue away, have given western viewers pause for thought? Could the little story of Israel acting only in self-defense, begin to unravel? Could pictures of Gaza in ruins have led American viewers to wonder whether there is a bigger story out there, and could it then lead them to ask why their taxes are being spent in footing Israel’s military bill (the fourth largest army in the world), to ask why they should continue to sponsor this parasitical state, even when its own economy is in ruins?
After all, as Mahasweta Devi had said, still pictures are not still. Still pictures (may) move us. They (may) make us do things. The powerful, know this.
First published in New Age on Monday 16th February 2009
by Rahnuma Ahmed
I feel like I’m witnessing the systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive. It’s horrifying.
— Rachel Corrie (1979-2003), a 23 year old American member of the International Solidarity Movement, killed by an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) bulldozer during a protest against the destruction of Palestinian homes in the Gaza strip.
The Americans, wrote Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East office in Cairo, to Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders” (2 June 1948). America’s role in the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, one that involved “a monumental injustice” to the Palestinians, writes Avi Shlaim, an Iraqi-born British historian of Jewish descent, was partisanal. This was bitterly resented by British officials. This, writes Shlaim, is the historical context, and it is essential that we remember this when we try to make sense of the senseless carnage in Gaza.
It is a slaughter that is relentless. A savage barbarity, utterly modern. Just like the Nazi holocaust.
Bomb attacks on civilian targets, including homes, schools, mosques, universities. Torn limbs. Sniper fire. Bullet holes in little breasts. Severed heads. I remember seeing a little girl on al-Jazeera. Curly locks framing her face. That was all, just a small head. There are other images, of scattered limbs, of buildings destroyed, of parents wailing. No place to go. No place to hide. Ambulances are fired upon. US-supplied F-16 fighter and attack jets rain down Operation Cast Lead bombs on unarmed civilians. There are indications, say defence analysts, that white phosphorus is being used. I watch an Israeli government spokesman reply on al-Jazeera, We do not use anything not used by the US government, or NATO. Brazenness. Complicity. Silence. People pouring out in the streets worldwide, `We are all Palestinians.’ Burning the Israeli flag, the Star of David. Roles reversed. Who is David, who is Goliath in this war of unequals, of primitive rockets against Israeli military strength annually resourced by $2 million, by the US, for the last 23 years. Upped, during the Bush administration to $21 billion in US security assistance, including $19 billion in direct military aid under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme. As Frida Berrigan notes, Israel remains the single largest recipient of US military aid each year. Holocaust in Gaza? US media screams of anti-Semitism.
Discourses of denial are accompanied by rhetorics of reverse discrimination and reverse racism, writes Mark Lawrence McPhail, in a study on racism. Subtle forms of individual and institutional contempt for the rights of the oppressed are ever-present.
Israel has the right to defend itself and its population from years of rocket attacks by Hamas. Hamas smuggles weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Israel has the right to bomb these tunnels, to secure its national interest. Israel withdrew from Gaza. It ended its occupation. It gave up its settlements and its military bases in Gaza. Hamas has used the Israeli disengagement from Gaza to launch attacks at Israel without any provocation whatsoever. Hamas, and not Israel, broke the June 2008 ceasefire. Hamas is a terrorist organisation. Israel does not kill Palestinian civilians intentionally. Hamas, and not Israel, is responsible for the deaths of Palestinians because it uses them as human shields. Denials pour out endlessly.
As the Australian Green Left’s website points out, try as you may, the statements of Israeli and US politicians do not match the pictures of devastation in Gaza. There can be only one explanation. They must be suffering from one of those conditions, a “Visual-Carnage-Responsibility-Back-To-Front-Upside-Down-Massacre-Disorder”.
But those who can call a slaughter what it is — a slaughter — keep pointing out repeatedly, Gaza is, in reality, the world’s largest open-air prison. Four decades of Israeli control has done “incalculable damage” to the economy of the Gaza strip. Most of its 1.5 million population are 1948 refugees, looking out on to land that was earlier, rightfully theirs. Gaza, as Shlaim notes, is not simply a case of economic under-development, “but a uniquely cruel case of de-development.” Israel has turned Gaza’s people into a source of cheap labour, and a captive market for Israeli goods. Israel withdrew all 8,000 settlers from Gaza in August 2005, destroyed their houses and farms, a withdrawal that was presented by Ariel Sharon as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But this withdrawal was not a “prelude to a peace deal” with the Palestinian Authority, but a prelude to further Zionist expansion on the West Bank, as evidenced by the next year’s settlement of 12,000 Israelis on the West Bank. As for Gaza, even though Israeli settlers were withdrawn, Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to Gaza. Palestinians had no control over moving in and out of Gaza. No control over either land, sea or air borders. No open access to services needed, no viable economic opportunities. Poverty rate in Gaza had reached 80%. Gaza’s people lived constantly under the threat of Israeli military incursions, shelling, targetted assassinations (remember Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, near-blind paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair, assassinated by an Israeli helicopter gunship in 2004, along with two bodyguards, and nine bystanders).
Those who can call a slaughter what it is — a slaughter — have also pointed out that Israel’s rocket crisis is “fabricated”. Jim Holstun and Joanna Tinker, in an Electronic Intifada article (6 January 2009) reveal that an Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs document, The Hamas Terror War against Israel shows striking evidence of Hamas’s good faith during the lull in hostilities. Two graphs, drawn up by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center, show that the total number of rocket and mortar attacks went down from 245 in June to a total of 26 for July through October. A reduction of 97%. But this was not sufficient. Israel violated the truce, it imposed on Gaza a terror-famine. Hamas still did not respond by launching rockets, not until Israel cancelled the truce on the night of 4-5 November by “sending an Israeli commando squad into Gaza, killing 6 Hamas members. Hamas responded by firing 30 rockets. Since the charts help to expose the `Hamas fires rockets’ for what it is, an outright lie, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs removed these from its website on the eve of the Israeli occupation forces ground assault on Gaza, on 4 January 2008. These have been substituted by a near-illegible graph in which the “labels obscure the data,” and the caption hides the de facto end of rocket and mortar fire during the calm until 4 November.
Other Western governments are also complicit in the slaughter. As Jim Miles points out, the Canadian government’s position is no different to the US position: Israel is the victim of Hamas terrorist aggression. Peter Kent, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said in early January 2009, Hamas rocketing was responsible for the initial development of the crisis. And then he went on to mouth words, regurgitated endlessly by the west’s leaders, `the deepening humanitarian tragedy’, `Canada is concerned about the loss of civilian life…’ The European Union president, the Czech republic, said on 3 January 2009, the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza was “defensive”, not “offensive” action. A coalition of Lebanese and Palestinian NGOs, on January 8, accused the European Union of being party to crimes against humanity by supporting Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza strip. They delivered a letter to EU’s offices in Beirut, addressed to EU’s Ambassador to Lebanon Patrick Laurent. It termed the 27-member bloc’s response to the “crimes” in Gaza, as being not only justificatory, but also, of becoming a “party to them, by providing them legitimacy.” EU officials dismissed the accusations as being based on “misinformation.”
And Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, deliberately avoided issuing a condemnation of the Israeli army bombing of an UNRWA school in Gaza, one in which Palestinian civilians had fled to seek shelter. Fifty Palestinian citizens were killed, ten others wounded. It was “unacceptable,” he said. It should “not be repeated,” he said. No words of condemnation either, for the killing of three UN workers, gunned down by IOF bullets. No wonder that Osman Barghouti, Palestinian human rights activist and commentator writes, Ban Ki-moon will surely go down in history as “the most subservient and morally unqualified Secretary-General to ever lead the international organization.”
And compliant Middle-Eastern governments, precious American allies, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the others? An online al-Jazeera poll shows, 94% of respondents think that some Arab governments were complicit in Israel’s attack on Gaza.
The list of political and military leaders — Israeli, American, European, and also Arab — to be tried for war crimes, is a long one. People, the world over, are compiling it.
First published in New Age on Monday 19th January 2009
January 18, 2009
I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.’
— Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party
It was a victory for electoral democracy.
I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn’t register with any political party’. Someone else’s photo, name, and father’s name graced the space where Saif’s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.
Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.
A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition — whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government — would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.
In the early hours of the morning, as AL’s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.
Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League’s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution — a ballot box revolution — had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.
There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.
I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia’s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government’s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.
At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ‘unprecedented rigging,’ or of the polls having been conducted according to a ‘blueprint’. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID’s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ‘bribe money’, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel’s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.
Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.
A ‘smooth transition’: impunity in the offing?
Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…
How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ‘inalienable’ fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy — be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.
Allying with bigger terrorists
The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army’s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ‘terrorists.’ A seamless whole seems to be in the making.
And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina’s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ‘the spirit of 1971’ will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.
After all, one cannot permit the feud between the two parties to destroy the nation. We must dedicate ourselves to higher causes instead. Our bodies and souls must be dedicated to the defense of empire, and to its interests.
`Shamorik, Beshamorik o Jameson’er Ccholke Pora Totto,’ Shomokal, July 4, 2007.
I had written these words nearly a year and a half ago. I wish I had been wrong.
The words were based on my readings of the `universalisation’ of the US empire’s interests throughout the world by means of armed coercion and ideological hegemony, and my interpretation of political events at home. At the sudden installation of the military-backed caretaker regime on 11 January 2007, and at the Chief Advisor’s vows: to crackdown on corruption and establish the rule of law, and to initiate strict reforms aimed at ensuring long-term stability and restoring democracy in national politics.
Before the installation of the Fakhruddin-led government, before the scheduled January 2007 national elections, even before late 2006 when some of the streets of Dhaka city had turned into battle-fields of opposing political parties, Western diplomats in Dhaka had been frenziedly active. Particularly the US Ambassador Patricia Butenis, and the British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury. But I must not fail to mention other western diplomats, those from the EU and from western European nations, from Canada, and from Australia. And how can one ever forget Ms Renata Dessalien, the UN’s Resident Coordinator? Even the blind, I felt, could not fail to notice the fury and madness that seemed to possess these western diplomats: holding discussions and meetings with politicians, some of these closed-door, making off-the-cuff statements to press and television reporters, constantly advising and preaching to the politicians, to the nation at large. On occassions, the Indian High Commissioner too, had joined in the fray.
It was a frenzy that did not abate with the installation of the interim government. It is a frenzy that still continues. Later entrants to this proselytising club have been the diplomats of some of the Muslim nations, happen-chance choir boys to western soloists.
I have friends who are cynical, who think that western diplomats posted in Dhaka — for them ‘outposts’ — are from far worse outposts themselves, that they do not possess much in the way of education, culture, and refinement, that they have probably not read the Vienna Convention and hence are totally unaware of the norms of diplomacy that are obligatory. One of them even said, maybe they don’t know of it’s existence? Hey, what about doing a questionnaire survey…? Another friend chipped in, you know, in some ways they are quite similar to our politicians, these diplomats are also surrounded by sycophants, by our politicians, writers, university teachers, lawyers, journalists, NGO and development-wallahs, they seem to hang on to every word that they say.
But I think these `reasons’ let them off too easily. I also see no reason to deny the bitter hostility between the two main political parties, a hostility that was aggravated by the 2004 assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina outside the Awami League party office in Gulistan. One that was further deepened by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s accusation that the `militants’ behind the grenade attacks were `accomplices’ of the AL. Of gnawing suspicions of poll-rigging, ones that became increasingly clearer as the parliamentary elections to be held under the caretaker government of president Iajuddin Ahmed in January 2007 approached. Accusations and counter-accusations have been heaped on to fractures that divide the nation, that are deeply embedded in the nation’s political history of autocratic civilian governments, preceded or followed by military dictators. A nation that faced a threat at birth when the US Seventh Fleet entered the Bay of Bengal in 1971, days before independence, and yet again, suffered more grievously, in August 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, and most of his family members, were assassinated. The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s name has forever remained linked with the coup’s conspirators.
I do not know whether any of the western diplomats had stoked the fires of intolerance that was on display on either side, in late 2006. But I do know from newspaper reports that Ms Butenis had been present at a luncheon meeting organised by the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership, where a video film on the violent events of 28 October 2006 was screened.
A question that is hardly raised, let alone discussed in `civil society’ forums, deliberating endlessly on the urgent need for national unity, is: is the unity to be forged against the west’s imperial interests, or is it to be accomplished to serve these interests further? What paths are open to us? What are the consequences of the paths that we tread upon, for us and for our future generations?
Footprints in the sand
The cat was let out of the bag by the World Bank’s Vice-President Praful C Patel, on a visit to Dhaka, in December 2007. “What [had] looked possible before,” said Patel, “like the minus-two approach,” no longer seems possible. The leaders of AL and BNP have a “very strong and powerful power base.” Rumors that the caretaker government was attempting to apply the minus two formula had been circulating for months, only to be vehemently denied. The government had insisted that it only sought to create a level playing field, one in which all political parties could participate freely and fairly. Strategies for restoring democracy to Bangladesh, it seems, were being planned most undemocratically.
And, of course, there was the slip made by the more-than-voluble British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who had commented on the Dhaka university student protests of August 2007, protests that had spread to other public universities and educational institutions, and was later brutally put down by the army with the imposition of curfew. “Initially spontaneous,” these protests, said Mr Choudhury, had signalled “something much bigger, something much sinister.” He had felt obliged to inform us, “A lot of money and co-ordination came into the equation.”
Ms Butenis has been succeeded by James Francis Moriarty, in the words of the well-known Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, “an American cowboy in a Nepali china shop.” Dixit should know since Mr Moriarty had been the US ambassador to Nepal (2004-2007), before being posted to Bangladesh. In response to reports of the infamous killings and destruction of property in Kapilavastu in the Terai by death squads, based on Latin American paramilitary “death squad” models, Moriarty is reported to have said, it was a reason for “optimism.” Later, when confronted with this report and asked for further comments, he had said, his main concern was that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was running out of bullets. As US ambassador to Nepal, Mr Moriarty is reported to have visited army camps, to have frequently given speeches about domestic political affairs, to have visited Nepal’s Terai region, to have instigated Madhesi leaders to take actions against the Maoists, and to have machinated to get the Seven Party Alliance to break their pact with the Maoists.
The US ambassador to Bangladesh, James F Moriarty, at a meeting with the foreign adviser to the military-controlled interim government, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury… Since arriving in Bangladesh, the mantle of frenzied diplomatic activity seems to have fallen on Mr Moriarty.
— Focusbangla photo
The US military involvement in Nepal is said to have increased considerably after Christina Rocca was appointed the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia in 2001. (Ms Rocca is familiar to many Bangladeshis, too). Millions of dollars have been pumped into building-up Nepal’s security forces, military exchange programs have been expanded, the Royal Nepalese Army has increased in numbers, from 35,000 before 2001, to 100,000 in 2005, with further increases of up to 150,000 projected for this year. Permanent headquarters have been built for US `advisers’ adjacent to RNA headquarters in Kathmandu’s city centre. The US army has trained Nepalese security forces in `special operations’ through its International Military Education and Training (IMET) Program. In 2003, Ms Rocca is reported to have tabled the proposition that RNA troops be sent to Iraq. This was politely declined by the Nepalese government, but it had gone on to request for “more weapons, helicopters, surveillance equipment that would enable the army to find and kill the revolutionary leadership, and the continuation of counter-insurgency training.”
Since arriving in Bangladesh, the mantle of frenzied diplomat-ic activity has fallen on Mr Moriarty, who has made visits from madrasas in Rangpur to the Kumudini Welfare Trust complex in Tangail, to holding meetings with AL, BNP, Jatiya party and Jamaat’s local-level politicians in Rangpur, discussing their present organisational structures, all in the interests of `strengthening democracy.’ There are other newspaper reports too. Recently, representatives of US Department of Homeland Security, US Pacific Command, and US Border Patrol completed a survey on border security in Bangladesh. According to reports, the Bangladesh government has not yet been informed of the details of the survey.
National unity? Of course. But in whose interests?
First published in New Age on 22nd December 2008
He couldn’t wait, he SMS-ed me from Dhaka airport soon after the plane had landed.
My media activist friend had returned from the annual South Asia Media Summit 2008, in Goa. ‘These guys are crazy. They were not interested in my presentation on cultural diversity but in the existence of jihadi terrorist camps in Bangladesh. That is all they wanted to know.’ We met up later, and he went on, You need at least a dose of scepticism when handling terror claims, but it’s become political football for the Indian media, the intelligence agencies and the politicians. It’s parallel to post-9/11 hysteria. It’s the same ‘fear politics’ that are at play in India.
This was two days before the 62-hour carnage in Mumbai began on November 26 night.
And, before the carnage had ended, before the dead had been counted, before the injured had been rushed to hospitals, the 9/11 framework was in full swing on most Indian TV channels. Montage after montage of smoke-encased buildings dubbed ‘Ground Zero’ were shown while wartime captions declared, ‘India at War’, ‘Another 9-11’.
A day later, in his first reaction to the attacks in Mumbai, India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh pointed the finger of blame beyond India’s borders. He did not mention Pakistan by name, but the inference was clear. The external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee was more explicit. Preliminary and prima facie evidence, he said, indicated a Pakistani connection.
Secularist nationalist warmongers not to be outdone in expressions of patriotism, joined extremist Hindutvas in clamouring for ‘tough action’, the need to teach the evil perpetrators ‘a lesson they will never forget’, launching punitive raids across the border, destroying jihadi camps, bombing Muridke in Lahore, capturing the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Some went further and said a full-scale war needs to be declared against Pakistan. So did guest panellist Simi Garewal who ranted on the NDTV, ‘We need to carpet bomb parts of Pakistan. Shock and awe. That is why America has not had an attack since 2001. That is what we need to do.’
But there are also voices of courage such as Shuddhabrata Sengupta who writes in Outlook that the Indian state and elements within the state have sinned as much as they have been sinned against. Criticising national amnesia, he reminds readers of the brutal slaughter of one hundred and twenty unarmed and peaceful Buddhist pilgrims in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka in May 1984 by the LTTE, an organisation that was ‘housed, armed, funded and nourished by the Indian state led by Indira Gandhi,’ and wonders should Sri Lanka then have carpet bombed Delhi and Chennai. And, he goes on, if a professional investigation into the horrific attack on the Samjhauta express reveals that the perpetrators were Hindu radicals assisted by rogue elements within the Indian military intelligence, would Pakistan be justified in ‘carpet bombing’ Pune, Indore, Jammu and other places that are linked to the cluster of organisations and individuals around outfits such as Abhinav Bharat?
Mumbai-based author-columnist Farzana Versey writes of class amnesia. Those who claim that there is no time for resilience anymore forget another dome that was broken down in 1992, they forget Gujarat in 2002. Those who rail against the government now had kept quiet earlier when the government and the police had backed local lumpens. The elite, says Versey, are unconcerned at other deaths in the Mumbai carnage, at the 58 deaths that occurred at the local train station, or the 10 others who died at the hospital, or the taxi driver who got burnt along with his vehicle. They protest now only because their cocktail party circuit at the Oberoi and the Taj are affected.
The Indian government’s accusation needs to be ‘taken with a grain of salt’, says Ayesha Ijaz Khan, London-based lawyer and political commentator. This is not the first time that the Indian government has blamed Pakistan, only to discover later that the accusation was false. Investigations have revealed that four earlier incidents – the Chattisinghpura massacre in March 2000, the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, the Malegaon blasts, and the Samjhauta express in February 2007 – when the Indian government had directly accused Lashkar-e-Taiba of having sponsored the violence, and Pakistan indirectly for harbouring the militant group, were caused by groups from within India. The Samjhauta express incident, which killed 68, mostly Pakistanis, is the most troubling as four months of investigation revealed that it was not Lashkar-e-Taiba but Lt Col Purohit, who was serving in the Indian army, and had links with Hindu militant groups was responsible for the attack. Also involved was Pragya Singh Thakur, member of ABVP, an RSS inspired youth group.
Others have pointed out that India should not tread on the US government’s post-9/11 path. That the passing of more draconian anti-terror legislation, curtailing of civil liberties, expansion of police powers, and the dismantling of democracy in the defence of democracy is not the answer to terror attacks. That the Indian government would be better advised to turn attention towards the real grievances of 800 million Indians, the routine discrimination of India’s Muslim minority, real economic disparities that are blinded by the spectacular consumerism of its upwardly mobile middle classes.
In reply to those Indians who argue that America is safe after the war on terrorism, there are many who point out that the world is much less safe, and that Americans too are much less secure. Scores of terrorist attacks have been carried out against American institutions in the Middle East, South Asia and the Pacific, more than a dozen in Pakistan alone since the first American strike was carried out on Afghanistan in October 2001. And, as William Blum has pointed out, since there was no terrorist attack in the US during the six and a half years prior to 9/11, one may conclude that the ‘absence of terrorist attacks in the United States is the norm.’
As accusatory fingers point at Pakistan, strengthened by the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Admiral Michael Mullen’s assertion that the terrorists in Mumbai were Pakistani nationals and members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, both Pakistani and Indian journalists, those who do not belong to the ask-no-questions camp, express doubts and raise questions. Nasim Zehra of Pakistan’s Duniya TV says: an Indian TV network interviewed one of the terrorists holed up in a hotel surrounded by commandos. Why was his phone not jammed? How did the terrorist call the TV reporter? Or did the latter call the terrorist? If yes, how did the she or he get the latter’s number? How was it possible for Pakistani terrorists to travel in fishing boats for over 500 nautical miles? And, as Ayesha Ijaz points out, India has 22 separate radar systems that monitor the coastal line between Karachi and Mumbai, it is a heavily patrolled area, one in which hundreds of Indian and Pakistani fishermen are regularly apprehended and arrested for illegal intrusion. Indian journalist Neelabh Mishra remarks on the strange coincidence of Pakistani terrorists finishing off the top leadership of the Anti-Terror Squad, including Hemant Karkare, involved in probing a supposedly Hindutva terrorist cell. Wondering about the circumstances in which the ATS leadership was led into a position of extreme vulnerability to terrorist fire, Mishra writes, ‘how is it that whenever the Hindu rightist extreme seems to be in dire straits as with the current Sadhvi-Purohit-Pandey terror investigations, some violent action undertaken supposedly on behalf of Muslims or Pakistan, as the case may be, comes to their aid and also vice versa?’
What is needed is a thorough investigation, one that is conducted without assigning premature blame on any organisation or country. And, as Sengupta urges, what is needed is for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis to join hands across the Indo-Pak divide, to say that they will not tolerate the nurturing of terror, hate and division through covert and overt acts of rogue elements both within their governments, which have a vested interest in continuing conflict and enmity, and that of non-powerful state actors.
Post-script: As I write, I come across the news that Dar-ul-Uloom, the most respected school of Islamic teaching in the subcontinent, has suggested that Indian Muslims avoid slaughtering cows on Eid-ul-Azha as a mark of respect to the religious beliefs of Hindus, and to pray for the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks and express solidarity with Mumbaikars.
But I come across another news item that reminds me of the fear politics that my media activist friend, back from the Goa conference, was talking about. Ten SIM cards were bought a month ago from three different locations in Kolkata and sent to Pakistan via Bangladesh, three of these were used by the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in Mumbai. I do not harbour any illusions about the present military-backed caretaker regime in Bangladesh, nor of the past governments either. None of the terror attacks that have occurred in this country has been credibly investigated. Public doubts exist that cannot be easily brushed off, doubts about the involvement of elements within the government, or of forces outside the government that were emboldened by state inaction. That is not my point, instead I wonder, how credible is this discovery of SIM cards? And in the absence of courageous officers like Hemant Karkare, DIG Ashok Kale and encounter specialist Vijay Salazar, who had been tasked with finalising the findings of both the Samjhauta Express incident and the Malegaon blasts, will thorough investigations of the Mumbai terror attack take place?
First published in New Age, 8th December 2008