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`Still pictures are not still…’ Fore-seeing the effect of visual images

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.

nick-ut-associated-press-pulitzer-terror-napalm

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?

May be.

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

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February 15, 2009 Posted by | Photojournalism issues, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Complicity in slaughter. Gaza

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).

US outgoing president George W Bush kisses Israeli foreign minister Livni as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and looks on. Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport 09 January 2008.  MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

US outgoing president George W Bush kisses Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert looks on. Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport 09 January 2008. © MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

//monirul.wordpress.com/2009/01/18/no-more-genocide/

A Bangladeshi child holds a candle lin front of the central Shahid Minar to protest the killings in Gaza. The protest was called by Sommilito Sangskritik Jot a Bangladeshi cultural organisation. Dhaka, Bangladesh. January 18 2009. © Monirul Alam/http://monirul.wordpress.com/2009/01/18/no-more-genocide/

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.

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First published in New Age on Monday 19th January 2009

Today in Gaza

I hear the screams

January 18, 2009

Israeli FM confronted at National Press Club

Journalists’ microphones turned off when Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni challenged in Washington

Israel, Palestine and the Hypocrisies of Power – an interview with Noam Chomsky

January 18, 2009 Posted by | Global Issues, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Is your liberation, also mine?

Rahnuma Ahmed


“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”

– Lisa Watson, aboriginal activist

1971

‘No, I don’t want to remember ’71,’ she blurted. It had sounded like a half-cry.

I did not ask my friend why she wanted to forget, there was a fraction of a pause, I rushed on, `But I can’t. I don’t want to. I live by `71. It gives me strength. It gives me a sense of direction.’

A campaign of genocide against defenseless people by the Pakistan army, the smell of burning flesh as settlements were encircled and fired upon in Dhaka city on March 25th, the horror of villages being razed to the ground, long lines of people fleeing in hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands to India, people who turned into refugees overnight, living in refugee camps and shelters provided by sewage pipes in Kolkata city. My friend and I share memories of death and destruction. Of fractured lives that have remained thus, forever.

We also share the indignity of betrayals by national leaders immediately after independence, and later, by successive military and civilian governments, by uninvited guests to dinner who have overstayed by nearly two years. Also, the indignity of being graced by a spineless president, installed specifically because of that defective streak by a government that was voted to power.

We share the indignity of growing economic disparities, of revolting displays of mindless consumption impervious to processes of impoverishment, and those impoverished. Of forcibly containing popular protests against the closure of mills, factories, and other avenues of employment, of long lines of cultivators waiting for fertilisers, spirited away by traders intent on getting-rich-quicker. Of Bengalis and indigenous peoples being uprooted from the land to serve the energy, and profit, needs of multinationals. Of caving in to World Bank and IMF instructions that go against national interests, and introducing legislation providing them immunity from legal action. Of the indignity of military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts for more than thirty years, to ‘pacify’ its indigenous inhabitants, and displaying the successes of these military policies to army visitors from abroad. Of strengthening forces intent on securing particular forms of patriarchal power and control over women, in modes unknown in the Quran (‘there can be no compulsion in religion’).

We share the indignity of seeing hundreds of thousands of poor people, fallen on the wayside to the road of `national’ development every year. Of garments workers being beaten to death on accusations of pilferage, of dead bodies being concealed, of ill-built factories collapsing, of earned wages not being given, of workers protests being fired on as expensively suited, coiffured-hair factory owners hold press conferences in their expansive, air-conditioned offices. Of swearing-in ceremonies by men, publicly-known to be war criminals of 1971, as government ministers.

We share the indignity of seeing crippled freedom fighters being wheeled-in and put on display at government functions, every independence and victory day. The indignities of rampant corruption, political squabbling and cronyism, of violence unleashed on civilian populations by civilian governments. Of stereotypical elisions concocted by rulers and their dim-witted intellectuals, 1971 forces=pro-Indians=lovers of Hindus vs Islam=Jamaat=rajakars, created to cement their strangle-hold on political power, concoctions that have resulted in making a mess of the nation’s history, making it more difficult to write other histories, histories that place peoples interests and common dreams at the centre.

These indignities and others, born of the political opportunism of both military and civilian rulers of Bangladesh have whittled away the magnitude of the truths of 1971. It has made it difficult for us to critically appreciate the value of national culture — simultaneously `the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history’ — in our liberation struggle. For national culture is, as Amilcar Cabral, poet and revolutionary leader of the national liberation movement of Guinea Bissau stresses, `an element of resistance to foreign domination.’

If one wishes, one can take solace from the fact that these indignities are not unique to Bangladesh, one can take solace from reading Frantz Fanon, psycho-analyst and revolutionary theorist of anti-colonial struggles, who had pointed out long ago that the interests of the new rulers in ex-colonies is not compatible with those who seek greater social change. That independence does not better the lives of the majority of the people. That the new national bourgeoisie is no different from any other bourgeoisie since it’s mission has ‘nothing to do with transforming the nation’.

So how can I blame my friend for wanting to forget 1971?

But I remember reading somewhere, the more one can dream, the more one can do. So we must hold on to the dreams of 1971, we must re-create them, to be able to dream anew. To be able to do.

Values and ideals, regardless of how just they are, when bandied repetitively become formulaic, they lose meaning, they lose the capacity to inspire, to provide direction. History and historic struggles can be the present only if one draws new meanings, meanings that are based on contextualised readings of the past. Martyred Intellectuals day was observed yet again this year, on December 14th, with calls for prosecuting war criminals responsible for the killings of intellectuals. But, as Nurul Kabir, the editor of New Age pointed out on Bangla Vision, that is not enough. Intellectuals were killed in the early stages of the liberation struggle to quell and contain popular revolt, they were killed at the eve of independence to cripple the nation intellectually, from its very birth. These courageous men and women, he said, had been a threat to the state of Pakistan from the 1960s onwards. If they had lived, it is unlikely that they would have turned into supplicants of the state. Our tragedy is that none of the intellectuals today are a threat to the state, a threat necessitating the need to silence.

And, I add, the sub-text of reading-history-made-safe is based on certain assumptions, namely, that liberation has already-been achieved, that ’71 is not the present but the past, that we should be disposed towards martyred intellectual men and women as objects of veneration, and definitely not as living sources of inspiration for continuing struggles, struggles that are relevant to, and forged from, new political realities.

Nationalism in Times of War on Terror

Contemporary history-writing, particularly some of those belonging to the post-modern genre, regard the nation state as being always, and in every case, oppressive. National liberation, in the words of some, is ‘a poisoned gift’. As I write these lines, I remember how a younger faculty member at Sussex university, had chided me when I stood chatting with him on a March 26th day, when I told him of how I missed home, and recounted to him Bangladesh’s struggle for national liberation. He belonged to a European nation, an older nation-state. For him, struggles of national liberation were over.

But since it is nations that are targeted, whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, since it is powerful western nations that prevent Palestinians from forming one in order to advantage the security interests of another, i.e., Israel, when the US war on terror expands into Afghanistan’s neighbouring nation, Pakistan, when one hears talk of building Bangladesh as a base of counter-terrorism, maybe we need to turn to Cabral, maybe we need to examine ’71 minutely, in order to understand what it is that had made `the element of resistance to foreign domination’ possible

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First published in New Age on 16th December 2008

Related links:

Remembering December 1971

1971 as I saw it

Bangladesh 1971

The month of victory

Jahanara Imam

1971 show in London

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?

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First published in New Age, 8th December 2008

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

Lalon and Terror. Re-configuring the Nation’s Political Map during Emergency

by rahnuma ahmed

Drifting in cage and out again
Hark unknown bird does fly
Shackles of my heart
If my arms could entwine
With them I would thee bind

— Fakir Lalon Shah, “Khachar bhitor ochin pakhi,”
translation by Shahidul Alam.

Baul sculpture, and the nation’s most powerful man

‘No decision is taken without the the army chief’s consent, that’s why we informed him,’ said Maulana Noor Hossain Noorani, amir of Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Bangladesh and imam of Fayedabad mosque, at a press conference. `He didn’t like the idea of setting up an idol either, right in front of the airport, so close to the Haji camp. It was removed at his initiative’ (Prothom Alo, 17 October).

The `it’ in question was a piece of sculpture, of five Baul mystics and singers. Titled Unknown Bird in a Cage, it was being created in front of Zia International Airport, Dhaka. Madrasa students and masjid imams of adjoining areas were mobilised, Bimanbondor Golchottor Murti Protirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Idols at Airport Roundabout) was formed. A 24 hour ultimatum was given. The art work, nearly seventy percent complete, was removed by employees of the Roads and Highways Department, and Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.

Artists, intellectuals, cultural activists, writers, teachers, students, and many others have since continuously protested the removal of the sculpture, both in Dhaka, and other cities and towns of Bangladesh. They have demanded its restoration, have re-named the roundabout Lalon Chottor, and accused the military-backed caretaker government of capitulating, yet again, to the demands of Islamic extremists, and forces opposing the 1971 war of liberation.

Soon after its removal, Fazlul Haq Amini, Chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) and amir of Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee (IABC) said at a press conference, if an Islamic government comes to power, all statues built by Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001) will be demolished, since statues are `dangerously anti-Islamic’. Eternal flames, Shikha Chironton (Liberation War Museum), and Shikha Anirban (Dhaka Cantonment) will be extinguished. Paying respect to fire is the same as worshipping fire.’ What about statues built during Khaleda Zia-led four party alliance government (of which he had been a part). ‘Where, which ones?’ Rajshahi University campus was the prompt reply. `Why didn’t you raise these questions when you were in power?’ ‘We did, personally, but they didn’t listen. We were used as stepping stones.’ Amini also demanded that the National Women Development Policy 2008, shelved this year after protests by a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties, should be scrapped (Prothom Alo, 18 October).

Noorani and his followers demand, a haj minar should be built instead, and the road should be re-named Haj road. ‘Men from the administration and the intelligence agencies,’ he said at the press conference, `wore off their shoes, they kept coming to us.’ (Prothom Alo, 17 October). Now where had I read of close contacts between Khatme Nabuwat and the intelligence agencies?

I remembered. A Human Rights Watch report, Bangladesh: Breach of Faith (2005) had stated that KN had close links to the ruling BNP through the Jamaat-e-Islami and the IOJ, its coalition partners. I remembered other things too. It was the same Noor Hossain Noorani who had said, Tareq Zia, Senior Secretary General of the BNP, was their “Amir and same-aged friend,” and had threatened police officials saying Tareq would directly intervene if Khatme Nabuwat’s anti-Ahmadiya campaign was obstructed. According to reports, highup intelligence agency officials (DGFI, NSI) had mediated contacts between the ruling party and the KN. He had met the DGFI chief in Dhaka cantonment thrice, Noorani had thus boasted to Satkhira reporters in 2005, a statement never publicly refuted by the intelligence agency (Tasneem Khalil, The Prince of Bogra, Forum, April 2007, issue withdrawn, article available on the internet).

What links does the present military-backed caretaker government, and more so, its intelligence agencies, have with these extremist groups? I cannot help but wonder. Is there more to what’s happening than meets the eye?

Other questions pop into my head. The Baul sculpture was not advertised, as public art should be. No open competition, no shortlisting, no selection panel. On the contrary, the contract seems to have been awarded as a personal dispensation. The only condition seems to have been that the sculptor must get-hold-of-a-sponsor. High regard for public art, for Baul tradition, listed by the UNESCO as a world cultural heritage, and for procedural matters. Particularly by a government whose raison d’etre is establishing the rule of law, and rooting out corruption.

Simplifying the present: from `1971′ to the `Talibanisation’ of Bangladesh

British historian Eric Hobsbawm terms what he calls the ‘short twentieth century’, The Age of Extremes (1994). I can’t help but think, things seem to be getting more extreme in the twenty-first century.

In his most recent book, On Empire. America, War and Global Supremacy (2008), Hobsbawm traces the rise of American hegemony, the steadily increasing world disorder in the context of rapidly growing inequalities created by rampant free-market globalisation, the American government’s use of the threat of terrorism as an excuse for unilateral deployment of its global power, the launching of wars of aggression when it sees fit, and its absolute disregard of formerly accepted international conventions.

The US government’s role in not only contributing to the situation, but in constituting the conditions that have given rise to extremes, of being the extreme, is disregarded by many Bangladesh scholars, whether at home or abroad. Most of these writings are atrociously naive, exhibiting a theoretical incapacity to deal with questions of global inequalities in power. Authors repeatedly portray American power — in whichever manifestation, whether economic or cultural, military or ideological — as being benign. Two images of Bangladesh are juxtaposed against each other, a secular Bangladesh of the early 1970s, the fruit of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle of 1971, and a Talibanised Bangladesh of recent years. `National particularities’ and ‘the dynamics of domestic policies’ are emphasised (undoubtedly important), but inevitably at the cost of leaving the policies of US empire-building efforts un-examined.

One instance is Maneeza Hossain, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, who, in her 60 page study of the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh politics, tucks in a hurried mention of US’ supply of weaponry to Afghan jihadists, and moves on to call on the US to shake off its `indifference’ to Bangladesh, to use its ‘good offices’ to help democratic forces within Bangladesh prevail (The Broken Pendulum. Bangladesh’s Swing to Radicalism, 2007.

Ali Riaz, who teaches at Illinois State University, author of God Willing. The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh (2004) provides another instance. International reasons for the rise of militancy are the Afghan war, internationalisation of resistance to Soviet occupation, policies of so-called charitable organisations of the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and (last, it would also seem, the least) `American foreign policy’. A token mention showing utter disregard towards 1,273,378 Iraqi deaths, caused by the invasion and occupation. 1971 was genocidal, but so is the Iraq invasion. On a much larger scale. Unconcerned, he goes on, policy circles in the US are `apprehensive’ about militancy in Bangladesh. Even now. The solution? He advocates open debates, particularly between the intelligence agencies and the political parties (Prothom Alo, 3 February 2008).

And then one comes across Farooq Sobhan who claims that president Bush has ‘taken pains’ to convince Muslims that the war against terror is not a war against Islam or a clash of civilizations (no, it’s a crime against humanity). Rather petulantly, he asks, why has Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, not figured prominently on the US ‘list of countries to be wooed and cultivated.’ Further, he writes, “High on the US agenda has been the issue of Bangladesh sending troops to Iraq“. Sending ‘troops’, like crates of banana, or tea? Surely, there are substantive issues — of death and destruction of Iraqis and Iraq, of war crimes — involved.

Re-configuring Politics during Emergency

Creating a level playing field so that free and fair national elections could be held, that’s what the military-backed caretaker government had promised. Twenty-two months later, after failed attempts at minusing Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, with their respective parties in shambles, thousands of party workers in prison, constitutional rights suspended due to the state of emergency, economy in tatters, police crack-downs on protests of garments workers, jute mill workers, women’s organisations and activists, on human chains against increasing prices of essentials, the only two forces to have remained unscathed are the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Muslim clerics, Islamic parties and madrasa students, those who protested against the Women Development Policy, agitated for the removal of Baul sculptures, recently caused havoc in the DU Vice Chancellor’s office protesting against newly-enforced admission requirements. Are these accidental, or deliberate governmental moves? I cannot help but wonder.

Several western diplomats — members of the infamous Tuesday Club, particularly ambassadors from United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the EU representative — and also the UN Resident Coordinator actively intervened in Bangladesh politics prior to 11 January 2007, in events that led to the emergence of the present military-backed caretaker goverment. Renata Dessalien did so to unheard degrees, leading to recent demands that the UN Resident Coordinator be withdrawn.

In a week or so, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon arrives in Dhaka, to see for himself electoral preparations, and extend support for the government. A visit that has nothing to do with politics, we are told. In the eyes of many observers, Ban is one of the most pro-American secretaries general in it’s 62-year history. He has opposed calls for a swift US withdrawal from Iraq, and is committed to a beefed-up UN presence in Baghdad. The UN staff committee has protested Ban’s decision saying it would `make the institution complicit in an intractable US-made crisis’ (Washington Post, 24 September 2007).

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact (`democratic party,’ Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State, 2006), Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats.

A beast in the guise of beauty? Time will tell.

On the Flight Path of American Power

I borrow the title from British-Pakistani historian Tariq Ali’s coming event: `Pakistan/Afghanistan: on the Flight Path of American Power,’ to be held at Toronto, November 14.

Seven years after the US led invasion, Pakistan, America’s strong military ally, is now “on the edge” of ruin. Pakistani political analysts repeatedly warn Bangladeshis that they see similar political patterns at work here: minusing political leaders, militarisation, milbus, National Security Council etc etc. I do not think that an Obama win will make any difference to the American flight path for unilateral power. As atute political commentators point out, Obama and McCain differ on domestic policies, not substantively on US foreign policy. A couple of days ago, president Bush signed the highest defense budget since World War II.

Maybe there should be an open public debate in Bangladesh, as Ali Riaz proposes, but with a different agenda: are we being set on America’s flight path to greater power by this unconstitutional, unrepresentative government, one which is more accountable to western forces, than to us?

October 29, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

National ID Cards: In the Interest of Surveillance?

by rahnuma ahmed

Official: “You ought to have some papers to show who you are.”
Protagonist: “I do not need any papers. I know who I am.”
Official: “Maybe so. But others are also interested in who you are.”

— Kafkaesque journey of American sailor who has lost his identity papers, B. Traven, The Death Ship (tr. 1934)

A non-fraudulent voter list, `a priceless gift to the nation’

Praise was due. And it was given.

Ms Renata Dessallien, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, at a function marking the celebration of the successful completion of voter registration, organised by the Election Commission on July 22, spoke of it in glowing terms. It was “a truly historic achievement,” because never before “have so many people been electronically registered in such a short time” in any other country in the world. What was impressive was the immense scale of the undertaking, the accuracy of the list, the elimination of duplicate and fraudulent entries. “If there were a Nobel Prize for voter lists, Bangladesh would be the clear winner!”

The Chief Advisor Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed termed it a “milestone,” one that would enable not only the upcoming elections to be “free, fair and credible” but also, future ones, by setting high standards. The Chief Election Commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda, called it a “memorable event in the annals of country’s history.” At an earlier event, “Celebrating the Halfway Mark of Voter Registration” held in early March, the Chief of Army Staff General Moen U Ahmed had voiced hopes that it would “lay the foundation for building a meaningful democracy.”

A similar nationwide voter registration venture had failed in 1997 because the names and pictures of most people did not match, and many had failed to turn up to register at the appointed time. The nation, as a result, had been Tk 115 crore poorer. A proposed integrated project of Machine Readable Passports (MRP) and National Identity Cards (NID) in 2005 had been budgeted at Tk 1,400 crore. Its completion would take 5 years, the first year would be a “test” period. The 2006 voter list, prepared by the past EEC Justice MA Aziz for the 2007 elections had been faulty, it had registered an excess of 1.2 crore voters, leading to a political impasse that helped usher in the current military-backed Fakhruddin government.

In comparison to all previous efforts, the current effort has yielded a faultless voter list, one that is computerised, consisting of a data-base of 80 million 500 thousand 723 voters with photographs and fingerprints. It has cost only Tk 424 crore, one-third of the 2005 estimate, and has been successfully completed in a mere 11 months. The Election Commission was the sponsor and the coordinating agency, the Bangladesh army was the operational agency. Together they coordinated the huge logistics in a “very tight time frame”, as Major General Shafiqul Islam, Military Secretary, Bangladesh Army, said in an interview to find Biometrics, `we required 12,000 laptops to be deployed throughout the country, 8,000 printers, paper, toner, train a staff of 18,000 computer and enrollment personnel, in a situation where on an average data was collected on 300,000 to 400,000 people daily.’ The resulting electoral rolls, perhaps one of the largest electronic databases in the world, will definitely be the largest among developing countries.

A survey of the voter registration process funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) announced it to be of international standard, in the words of one of the consultants, “a list of quality no less than that of America or England.” The UN is said to be considering replicating this model in other developing countries.

The current voter list, as one of the national English dailies commented in its editorial, is “a priceless gift to the nation.”

The National ID Card, `an offshoot’

The EC project was titled the Preparation of Electoral Roll with Photographs and Facilitating the Issuance of National Identity (ID) Card. In the words of Mike DePasquale, Chief Executive Officer of BIO-Key International Inc, a US-based company which is a leader in finger-based biometric identification and wireless public safety, the NID was “an offshoot” of the voter registration project — a “co-operative venture” between BIO-Key in the US, Tiger IT in Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh army.

Brigadier General (Retired) Shahedul Anam Khan, a defence analyst, thinks the government did well to undertake both projects simultaneously. Up to a stage, “the modalities involved for the preparation of both” like basic data collection and cross checking, are similar. The ID Card was a “spin-off,” which, if it had been put off for later, would have cost more.

But, for people on the ground, the two were not as separable. M Sakhawat Hussain, one of the Election Commissioners, puts it in words closer to how we, as potential voters, experienced it, “No one will be listed as a voter without the registration of the name on the electoral roll and no one will get the national ID card.”

Advocates of e-government are also advocates of national ID cards, for instance Farooq Sobhan, M. Shafiullah and others write in a Study of eGovernment in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, April 2004), “Bangladesh should take active steps to initiate a project for national ID” because it will provide an important base for the provision of eGovernment services “efficiently and in a personalized way,” to citizens who will have unique ID numbers. I came across several Bangladeshi bloggers who seemed to hold similar views. According to one, it would be “a solution to many problems,” a national database would hold information from voter lists to tax records, it would make easier many tasks from machine-readable passports to criminal investigations. According to another, the digitisation of national-level information would make governance procedures “more scientific.”

The EC has drafted an ordinance making national ID cards mandatory for citizens, ‘for getting any services from the government, its departments and institutions or from any statutory government offices.’ Twenty two services are listed, these include the issuance and renewal of passport, driving licence, trade licence, tax identification number, business identification number and bank account. It also states that nobody will get government subsidy facilities, allowance and relief if they do not have identity cards. Very recently, the council of advisors approved the formation of the National Identity Registration Authority Ordinance 2008. It authorises the home ministry to provide national ID cards. Under the proposed ordinance, the EC will hand over all information that has been collected — data and biometric features of the citizens — to NIRA, a statutory body. The ordinance declares false information, forgery, having more than one ID card a criminal offence, punishable by three months to seven years rigorous imprisonment, along with monetary fines.
That confusion exists among people in general — the beneficiaries of the national ID card — was revealed during the four city corporation and nine pouroshobha elections held recently. Voters had come to the polling centres with their national ID cards, and were confused over why the serial number of their ID cards did not tally with the voter serial numbers. This resulted in delays in vote casting, and in long queues. Voter identity cards had been given in the 90s, or torn-off slips containing registration numbers, and as a newspaper report states, during the recently-held local-level elections, the common perception had been that the `ID card was to be used for voting purposes.’ Reports say, polling officers had been similarly confused. M Shakhawat Hossain, Election Commissioner, blamed the media for publicising what in effect was a `national ID card’, as a `voter ID card’, even though, according to him, the EC had carried out a huge campaign to clarify the differences between the two.

The ‘largest biometric database in the world’

What is less public knowledge is that the four fingerprints of each voter that was captured with BIO-key’s fingerprint ID software, and FBI-certified fingerprint readers, has already generated over 300 Million ISO fingerprint templates. Combined with the 400 million projected to be generated, it will become by far the largest biometric deployment in the world.

Duplicate registrations are being accurately identified says Ziaur Rahman, Managing Director of Tiger IT BD Ltd. (Tiger IT), a company that is a leader in both prepackaged and customized software solutions and was BIO-Key’s “systems integrator on the ground,” at a speed of “one million matches per second on a single processor.” Tiger IT Bangladesh’s website provides further information on the national ID card (by the way, the domain tigeritbd.com was registered as recently as August 2007). The card includes a standard barcode which is encoded with ISO fingerprint templates, and PKI digital hash. These can be used to quickly verify the identity of the cardholder while ensuring the integrity and authenticity of the ID card. The Cognitec Facial Recognition Software has been used to capture facial images.

While Renata Dessallien enthuses over how “modern technology” enables the prevention of vote theft, and DePasquale prides on how BIO-Key’s patented technology is “performing better than anything else in the market for finger matching,” I have simple questions to ask: who owns my fingerprints? how will it be used? can NIRA transfer it to government departments within Bangladesh without my knowledge? or, maybe even outside the country’s borders? As the British government did when it passed more than 500 samples of DNA to foreign agencies, but when asked “no one seemed to know” to which countries.

The European Comission recently proposed the harmonisation of security features on passports across the European Union. The proposal, introduced in October 2007, requires Member States to take measures to introduce biometric features, including fingerprinting, on passports and travel documents. The fingerprints would be stored in a centralised database. The European Union Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx, who is in charge of safeguarding the personal data and the right to privacy of EU citizens, has expressed his concern since it fails to “adequately safeguard the right to privacy of EU citizens.” He says, the Commission failed to consult with his office prior to submitting the proposal, as required by EU law.

The current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh.

First published in New Age on Monday the 29th September 2009

September 30, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed, technology | , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments