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A Small Bridge to Cross

Landslides are dangerous. Things get buried. People get hurt. The 9th parliamentary elections was to return Bangladesh from a two year military backed caretaker rule to an elected Government. The gathering on the last campaign day was massive, but there were fewer women and more people with white caps than one expected. The BNP candidate in Paltan Maidan boasted of how EVERY household in his candidacy, had assured him of their vote. Awami League candidates, the previous day, postured similarly, but both sides probably felt there was a reasonable chance of winning. The two-year gap between BNP’s misrule and the elections, might have eroded some of the moral gains that Awami League would otherwise have had. Voters sometimes have short memories. A landslide election win for anyone was not on the cards.

The Bangladeshi voter however, is remarkably savvy. They voted out Bhutto in 1971. Despite genocide, it did lead to independence. Since then, in every reasonably free and fair election they have had, they have voted with their heads. Hasina’s lack of repentance about BAKSHAL and previous Awami League misrule cost her the 1991 elections. Khaleda’s police fired upon farmers demanding fertilisers. Even a rigged election didn’t help her in 1996. ‘Safe’ seats of numerous ministers were lost in the re-taken polls. Hasina blew it in her term with her thugs causing havoc on campus and her ministers demanding that journalists be beaten up. The votes went to BNP. Khaleda went overboard yet again, with corruption reaching new heights, and her sons unleashing terror. Rising prices didn’t help. Khaleda made an attempt at apology. It was too little too late. The pendulum swung. History does not appear to be either party’s strong point.

There has however, been a change in the recent script. Political skirmishes in the past, were largely between political cadre, and localised. A few cocktails might have been thrown, but since the killing of general Zia, there had been few assassination attempts. Until recently. Bomb attacks were a new thing. The capture of trucks laden with small arms. The vigilante groups in the rampage in the north. The targeted attacks on secular scholars, were new. Assassination attempts on Hasina took political violence to new levels. The BNP brought in its own vigilante. The black bandanas of the Rapid Action Battalion became another source of terror with hundreds of ‘crossfire’ deaths to their credit.

Against this backdrop, the landslide win of the Awami League, had analysts gushing with excitement. The superlatives flowed. People cheered this ‘historic victory’. A change of government generally starts with a witch-hunt, traditionally meted out to the opposition party previously in power. This caretaker government had stayed rather longer than usual. Given the documented torture of ‘rajkumar’ Tariq Zia (Khaleda’s son and the general secretary of her party), BNP’s return to power would not have been so comfortable for the incumbent government and its unofficial backers. Hasina’s promise of ratifying the misdeeds of this government meant she was the safer bet.

Accusations of the military having actively engineered the Awami League win is probably exaggerated, though news of intimidation was not infrequent, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But that too is history. Hasina’s position regarding her neighbours is more pertinent. She has already declared solidarity towards Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The relationship towards big brother India, will probably have more to do with the relationship with bigger brother USA. The US has always played a major role in recent subcontinental politics. The 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal was needed when the USSR was dominant. Today, the US, Israel and India are close allies, the war on terror being a collective pet project. A pliant military and a grateful Hasina will both play the game. The routing of Jamaat in the elections has to do with people’s sentiments. The war on war criminals to the war on terror is a small bridge to cross. The fluttering flag of democracy will obscure a few indiscretions along the way.

January 16, 2009 Posted by | Bangladesh, elections | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Remembering December 1971

Winter, War and Refugee Camps

Julian Francis

“So, what were you doing in December, 1971?”, asked a colleague the other day. Every year at this time, as well as in the month of March, I remember vividly the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In charge of OXFAM’s refugee relief programme covering 500,000 refugees, I was very worried about the onset of winter as many of the camps in which we were working were in very cold areas of North Bengal as well as Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. We were having great difficulty in getting supplies of warm clothes and blankets through to the refugee camps because the roads in the border areas had been choked with Indian military supplies in November and early December. Sometimes we used old Dakota aircraft and flew supplies from Kolkata to air strips in Cooch Behar and West Dinajpur, but that was quite expensive. At the beginning of December 1971, we were expecting a chartered aircraft from OXFAM-America full of medical supplies worth about US$ 900,000 which were difficult to obtain in India, but at the last moment it was diverted to Madras because of the outbreak of war and we had to clear the supplies through Customs and transport them to Kolkata.

After a few days of war, I remember sitting one evening on the lawn of the New Kenilworth Hotel, enjoying a beer after a long day’s work and managed to get the Pakistan Radio’s English News and the propaganda machine said that the Pakistan Air Force had scored a direct hit on the Kolkata telephone exchange and that the Howrah Bridge was floating down the Hooghly! I remember that it was on 7th December that we learnt with horror that President Nixon had ordered the US 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in an effort to prevent the Indian and Mukti Bahini forces from defeating the Pakistanis. Officially, this super flotilla – ‘the most powerful force in the world’ – was said to be going to evacuate a few American citizens from Dhaka, but the intention was clear. I remember how a well-known American doctor, working closely with us in the refugee camps, Dr Jon Rohde, broke down in tears when he heard the reports about the 7th Fleet coming to the Bay of Bengal.

As the fighting intensified, my main concern was not only to keep relief supplies moving to the refugee camps but to ensure the safety of all our staff. The young doctors from the Kolkata and Bombay medical colleges and the Gandhian workers from Orissa and Gujarat had to be withdrawn for their own safety.

We were sure in those early days of the short war that it would be over very soon and that Bangladesh would be free, but we were very aware of the great relief and rehabilitation needs for the future and so we were already calculating what sort of assistance OXFAM could provide and through which organizations we might be able to work. I see from a telex which I sent in December 1971 that it was estimated by some that Bangladesh would need half a million tons of rice per month and that there was an immediate need of 1,000 trucks, 500 buses and that “most shelter materials such as bamboos had been destroyed by the Pakistani Army. OXFAM was one of the first donors of BRAC, which is now probably the largest NGO in the world, and OXFAM also supported the early work of another outstanding NGO, Gonoshasthaya Kendra.

We were also able to procure 3 truck-carrying ferries and to assist the repair of many others. I remember that the Bangladesh Inland Waterways authority wanted to name the ferries after Liberation War martyrs but after my experience of getting to know the flora and fauna of Bangladesh and how they are part of the country’s poetry and music, we requested that the vessels be named after flowers. And so, Kamini, Kosturi and Korobi, were so named and they continue to ply across the river at Goalondo to this day, some 36 years later.

As soon as Bangladesh was free and the refugees started streaming home, we had to close down our work in an orderly way. One day in early February 1972, I was called out of the OXFAM office and there in the garden were about 300 people. I was worried that they had come with some grievance, but soon the reason for their visit was clear. From some waste wool and some wire these people, from a camp called Digberia, , had fashioned some ‘woollen flowers’ These were presented to me in a roughly made bamboo vase as a token of their thanks to OXFAM. They had come to say goodbye. It was such a moving moment.

These, then, are a few of my memories……..

Julian Francis who, since the War of Liberation, has had a long association with Bangladesh working in many poverty alleviation projects, is currently working as ‘Programme & Implementation Advisor’ at the DFID supported ‘Chars Livelihoods Programme’, RDA, Bogra

December 16, 2008 Posted by | 1971, Bangladesh | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mumbai 2008, India’s 9/11?

Rahnuma Ahmed

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.

A fire breaks out of the dome of the Taj hotel in Mumbai on November 26. AFP

A fire breaks out of the dome of the Taj hotel in Mumbai on November 26. © AFP

India’s 9/11?

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

December 7, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, governance, Media issues, Rahnuma Ahmed, World | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Through the cracks of a mirror

It was a moment that had been etched in her mind. In a workshop with Eugene Richards, one of the greatest photojournalists of our time, Dayanita had been asked, as had all the other workshop participants, to “photograph each other naked”. She was not comfortable with this, and questioned the value of such an exercise. “Trust me,” Eugene had said, “I want you to realise how vulnerable one can be facing a camera.” It was to be a turning point. Eugene might not have known, but it was this ‘vulnerability’ that Dayanita Singh chose to explore as her medium.

It would not occur to a grandmother to leave her children in an orphanage after the death of her sons and daughters-in-laws. Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

It would not occur to a grandmother to leave her children in an orphanage after the death of her sons and daughters-in-laws. © Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

It was as a curator of the show “Positive Lives” an exhibition on people’s responses to HIV/AIDS that I was first introduced to Dayanita’s work. As I looked through the archives at the respected Network Agency, I saw competent photo essays on sex workers in India. The work did not excite me. India, was known for its exoticism, its misery, its otherness. An Indian photographer, documenting the same stories that western photojournalists had established as the face of this great nation, was a disappointment. I could hardly dispute the images. She was a fine photographer, and while the prints I was shown lacked the quality one might have desired, the photographer was clearly one skilled in her art. That for me, was not the issue. I was later to discover that it was not the issue for this remarkable photographer either.

In Manipur the grandmother is affectionately called BOBOK. With the breadwinner of the family dead she will go out and beg on the street if necessary, but she will never throw out her grandchildren. If they are positive, she will care for them as long as they live.

In Manipur the grandmother is affectionately called BOBOK. With the breadwinner of the family dead she will go out and beg on the street if necessary, but she will never throw out her grandchildren. If they are positive, she will care for them as long as they live. © Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

The images Dayanita produced for Positive Lives were breathtaking. The exquisite composition and her sense of moment were the tactile elements that made her images stunning, but more persuasive was the humanity in her photographs. The tender relationships, the joy, the shared pain, the sense of belonging that she was able to nurture and portray. It was then that the trouble started, a trouble that I am glad I came across. We had meticulously gone through the issues of representing people with HIV/AIDS. They risks people faced due to stigma. The physical dangers the display of the images might lead to. Dayanita’s concern for the people she had photographed meant she had to protect them all the way. It was frustrating for me as a curator. To find pictures which were sublime in their construction, to be left behind, because the photographer felt there was too great a risk of repercussion. Too great a threat, of perhaps things going wrong. We put together a great show, but I knew, photographically it could have been much greater. I also knew we had done the right thing. Dayanita remembered too well, how vulnerable one could be facing a camera.

Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

© Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

I look back to the stroll through her flat in Delhi, the photographs taken by her mother, juxtaposed with her own. She had been questioning her own work for some time. Questioning her ‘success’ at producing images that regurgitated the “India” the west already knew. She chose to become a mirror to herself, and in that process begin a journey that would create a window to an everyday world. An everydayness that other photographers had shunned. Dayanita and her camera merged into one. She became the fly on the wall, the confidant, the muse. the critic. Before sub-continental literature had made its indelible mark, Dayanita was writing visual novels about middle class India. The glitzy, private, solemn, contradictory, celebratory world of the India today.


© Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures


© Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

She harnessed photography’s unique ability to record detail, its penchant for capturing the fleeting. Its ability to make time stand still. She made the ordinary, special, and the special, ordinary. She also made an important shift within the profession. Recognising that the medium had shifted from the Life Magazine visual spectacles, aware that the spaces for visual journalism had shifted, Dayanita, took on the spaces that other photographers had feared to tread. Her venture into museums and galleries, her indisputable presence as an artist, has challenged the traditionalists in the field of art, who had been unable to grasp the magic of this new medium. Her presence while imposing is also path breaking. A new generation of photographers will wake up to this wider canvas. Some will take it upon themselves to explore this new space. And the ripples will spread. Dayanita meanwhile will continue to nurture the vulnerable. Through the cracks of her mirror she will take us to the other side.


Indian photographer Dayanita Singh was one of the Prince Claus Fund laureates for 2008. Indian writer Indira Goswami (1942, Guwahati, Assam) was presented this year’s Principal Prince Claus Award of €100,000 on Wednesday, 3 December 2008, in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam. Other laureates were, Li Xianting (b. 1949, Jilin Province, China), Venerable Purevbat (b. 1960s, Tov Aimag, Mongolia) , Ousmane Sow (b. 1935, Dakar, Senegal), Elia Suleiman (b. 1960, Nazareth, Palestine) ,James Iroha Uchechukwu (b. 1972, Enugu, Nigeria), Tania Bruguera (b.1968, Havana, Cuba), Ma Ke (b.1971, Changchun, China), Jeanguy Saintus (b. 1964, Port au Prince, Haiti) and Carlos Henríquez Consalvi (El Salvador, b. 1947 Venezuela). Drik Picture Library has a special relationship with the Prince Claus Fund

December 6, 2008 Posted by | Photography, Photojournalism | , , , , | 2 Comments

Lucifer in Mumbai

Babui / Arjun

2008 November 29th, Sat.
Brooklyn, New York

Mumbai, city of such wealth,
And of such poverty!
Today, the jet-set here have felt
A new anxiety.

And yet, when we have sorted through
The bodies bathed in red,
How many workers will we view
Among the ones now dead?


Be it from bombers in the sky,
Or gunmen treading earth,
It is the poorer ones, who die
The most, yet leave no dearth.

And even when he seeks out those
In Oberoi and Taj, *
The gunman, with his bullets, mows
The lowly of the Raj.

The ones, who went from Mumbai slum
To earn their few rupees,
Lie murdered. Who will forward come
To help their families?

Now death unites the ones, who were
By birth and wealth divided.
For just a day, has Lucifer
All privileges voided.

And she, who partied at the clubs,
And swam in bluest pool,
Now lies, and rusting shoulder rubs
With maid, as fires cool.


The firemen came, at last, to quench
Those fires that long had raged.
And now, we smell the awful stench
Of corpses that have aged.

Whence came those ones, so zealot eyed,
With guns that spewed out death?
They did not know, the ones who died,
In Mumbai’s horror met.

* The Oberoi and Taj are names of famous hotels in Bombay.
The Taj is in a historic building by the sea-front. The Oberoi is
in a modern one, and is part of a chain, with branches in major
Indian cities as well as elsewhere.

Unusual interview, on CNN, with the materialistic “guru” and physician, Deepak Chopra, regarding the recent horror in Mumbai (Bombay).

Video CNN – Deepak Chopra on Mumbai Attacks

Video CNN – Farid Zakaria on Mumbai Attacks

Tariq Ali in Counter Punch on Mumbai Attacks

Bangladesh Open Source Intelligence Monitors

Stills and videos from Mumbai

November 29, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Paradise Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was envious of the energy of this octogenarian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradise Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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