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Insecure at last: the age of surveillance

by rahnuma ahmed

‘I am worried about this word, this notion — security. I see this word, hear this word, feel this word everywhere. Security check. Security watch. Security clearance. Why has all this focus on security made me feel so much more insecure?’

— Eve Ensler, ‘Insecure at Last: A Political Memoir.’

Tailor-made, to suit your needs

Surveillance often works innocuously. Consider this: billboards equipped with small cameras that gather details about passers-by — gender, a rough estimation of age, and how long she or he looks at the billboard. The cameras, it is said, use software to establish that the person is a billboard-viewer, it then analyses her or his facial features like cheekbone height, distance between nose and chin, to judge the person’s gender and age. Race is not used as a parameter. Not yet, but the companies say that they can, that they will. These details are transmitted to a central database. The purpose is to ‘tailor’ a digital display of the viewer, ‘to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman,’ and another to ‘a teenage Asian boy.’ To sell products more efficiently. More rationally. It does not intrude on privacy, so the argument goes, since actual images of billboard viewers are not stored.

These billboards are similar to websites such as Amazon, described as the largest (virtual) bookstore in the world, tailor-made to assist the customer, her needs and interests. I visit the website to look up books on feminist theory, I am shown bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, along with, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, also written by her, one that is, so I am told, ‘Frequently Bought Together.’ Simultaneously, five other products are displayed, that Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought. Down below are menus which, at a click, will display my Recent History, books recently purchased, or viewed by me.

The Surveillance Society

Surveillance, as a growing number of Western writers, journalists, artists, academics and human rights activists keep reminding us, is no longer ‘the future’. In the words of Henry Potter, London editor of Vanity Fair, ‘we are already at the gates of the surveillance society.’ According to a group of academics, writers of A Report on the Surveillance Society (September 2006), it exists ‘not merely from dawn to dusk,’ but for twentyfour hours a day, seven days a week. It is systemic, expressed not only through supermarket check-out clerks who want to see loyalty cards, or the coded access card that allows one to enter the office, or CCTV (closed-circuit TV) cameras, which in Britain, are ‘everywhere.’ A CCTV consulting firm puts the number deployed at more than 4 million, nearly as many as the rest of the world combined, minus the United States. The report’s authors write, ‘these systems represent a basic, complex infrastructure which assumes that gathering and processing personal data is vital to contemporary living.’ Surveillance is, in their words, a ‘part of the fabric of daily life.’

They write, it would be a mistake to think of surveillance as ‘something sinister, smacking of dictators and totalitarianism,’ or as ‘a covert conspiracy.’ Instead, it is the outcome of modern organisational practices, business, government and the military. It is better viewed as the progress towards efficient administration, as a benefit for the development of Western capitalism and the modern nation-state. Four hundred years ago, rational methods began to be applied to organisational practices, to ensure that the new organisations ran smoothly. It made informal social controls on business and governing, and people’s ordinary social ties ‘irrelevant.’ The growth of new computer systems after World War II reduced labour intensity, it increased the reliability and the volume of work that could be accomplished. Subsequent growth of the new communications system, now known together as ‘information technology’ (IT), is related to modern desires for efficiency, speed, control and coordination, and is global.

Capitalism’s push to cut down on costs and to increase profits has accelerated and reinforced surveillance. This, accompanied by the 20th century’s growth of military and police departments, and the development of new technologies, has improved techniques of intelligence-gathering, identification and tracking. Surveillance thus, has become part of being modern.

It is undoubtedly two-sided. It has its benefits: it helps deter traffic violations, tracks down criminals, medical surveillance programmes provide necessary information to public health authorities etc. But, the authors warn us, there are things that are ‘seriously wrong’ with a surveillance society. Large scale technological infrastructures suffer from problems, equally large in scale, especially computer systems where a mistaken, or an imprudent keystroke can cause havoc. For instance, twenty million ordinary peoples’ online search queries from AOL were released for ‘research’ purposes in August 2006. The names of identifiers were not tagged, but connecting search records with names took only a couple of minutes. Corruptions and skewed visions of power, not that of tyrants, but of leaders justifying extraordinary tactics in exceptional cicumstances, such as the endless ‘war on terror,’ can be disastrous. Many Muslim Americans have been branded as unfit for travel, or subject to racial profiling. Surveillance systems are wrong on three other counts: they are `meant to discriminate between one group and another’, as recent trends show, distinctions of class, race, gender, geography and citizenship are being exacerbated and institutionalised. Second, it undermines trust, something necessary to social relationships, breeding suspicion in its place. When parents start to use webcams and GPS systems to check on teenage childrens’ activities, or spouses check each others’ suspected infidelities, it speaks of a ‘slow social suicide.’ And third, surveillance systems associated with high technology and anti-terrorism distract us from pursuing ‘alternatives,’ from paying attention to larger and more urgent questions.

Fear internalised

Caroline Osella, a contributor to the ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists) blog discussion on recruiting anthropologists in the ‘war on terror’ (through the Human Terrain System programme), wrote of a personal experience that illustrates the ‘state of paranoid anxiety’ that grips people. As the mother of an 11 year-old, she had gone to a school meeting for parents to discuss a planned residential adventure school trip. She was astounded, she writes, to see parents not asking questions about activities planned, or practicalities like food, or other stuff to take along. Instead, questions revolved exclusively around security. School authorities were asked: ‘will an adult stay awake all night to monitor that kids are safe and not wandering?,’ ‘can the kids escape to the outside?,’ ‘can strangers get in?’ And she writes, incredible as it may sound, one father finally asked, ‘what guarantee can the school provide that paedophiles will not be able to break the perimeter fence and get into the site, where the kids will be sleeping unchaperoned in tents?’

It was surreal, Osella writes, to sit and listen to ‘reasoned and careful discussions’ of a totally fantastic scenario. It would be great, she says, to embrace some insecurity and uncertainty, and to accept the absence of ‘total control’ over our lives.

How does surveillance get naturalised? Mark Andrejevic, author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, believes that reality TV has played a part in transforming American attitudes toward surveillance. Producers of early reality programs such as MTV’s The Real World (1992) had a hard time finding people willing to have their lives taped nearly 24 hours a day for several months. Now, thousands of young people form audition lines in college towns, ‘more people applying to The Real World each year than to Harvard.’ New generations, Andrejevic says, are growing up viewing television shows that let anyone see the lives of others recorded voluntarily. There are other reality shows too, like COPS, where police chases of criminals is filmed. Increasingly, he says, the results of surveillance are seen as `entertainment,’ as being within the realm of the public’s right to know.

The mass collection of DNA data, and ‘policy’ laundering

The introduction of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in the UK has led to anyone being arrested on ‘suspicion’ of committing the slightest offence. After arrest, the police remove a DNA sample, which stays on the police database, even though the person may not be charged. Increasing by 40,000 samples per month, the database has surpassed more than 3 million DNA samples, a fifth of which belong to people of African-Caribbean origin. Who owns these DNA samples? ‘Once a database like this is established, the authority concerned tends to regard the information as being in its ownership, to be exchanged without reference to the subjects,’ writes Potter. The British government admitted that it had passed more than 500 DNA samples (I wonder whose, Arabs? Muslims?) to foreign agencies. But when asked to which countries, ‘no one seemed to know.’ The chairman of the Nuffield Bioethics Committee, Sir Bob Hepple anxiously commented, ‘We didn’t have any legislation to establish the DNA database and it has not been debated in parliament.’

Western governments, it seems are devising new strategies to circumvent traditional ideals of civic liberty, based on notions of freedom and privacy (mind you, not in its colonies). Dr Gus Hosein, senior fellow with Privacy International says, ‘illiberal policies’ are pushed through international treaty organisations. The British government brought into effect communications surveillance policies through the European Union, and ID cards through the United Nations. ‘The government returns home to Parliament, holding their hands up saying ‘We are obliged to act because of international obligations’ and gets what they want with little debate.’ It is a strategy that has led to the coinage of new words: ‘policy laundering.’

Having originated in the West, these surveillance systems are gradually extending outside it, to control, regulate and limit the lives of people in non-Western countries.

First published in The New Age on 15th September 2008

September 15, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The ‘soul-less’ war on terror

by rahnuma ahmed

…a particular kind of violence is intrinsic to imperialism, and imperialism is a danger not merely to the populations invaded but also to the soul of the imperialist. [italics added]

Talal Asad, anthropologist, Comment on ‘Clash of Civilizations’

AMERICAN patriotic journalist Thomas Friedman is a ‘small indication’, according to Asad, of the damage done to imperialist souls. Asad quotes Friedman, who wrote soon after the Iraq invasion: ‘The “real reason” for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Afghanistan wasn’t enough because a terrorism bubble had built up over there – a bubble that posed a real threat to the open societies of the West and needed to be punctured. …. The only way to puncture that bubble was for American soldiers, men and women, to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, house to house, and make clear that we are ready to kill, and to die… Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would be fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it, and because he was right in the heart of that world.’ Smashing. Hitting.

They could. And they did.

The ‘spurious reasons’ advanced by US President George W Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair were, of course, different. It was ‘to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people’.

Nearly five and a half years on, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in 1,255,026 Iraqi deaths (justforeignpolicy.org), 3.4 million internally displaced Iraqi refugees, 2.2 to 2.4 million Iraqi refugees living abroad. The number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the US is 3,222.

US military casualties number 4,150. Other coalition troops 314. Iraqi Security Force deaths number 7,924. Contractor deaths have reached 444. Three hundred and twenty thousand American veterans of the Iraq war have brain injuries. According to internal e-mails written by Dr Ira Katz, the Department of Veteran Affair’s head of mental health, suicide attempts among Iraqi war vets are about a thousand per month.

According to March 2008 estimates, the invasion and occupation has so far cost $526 billion. The estimated long-term bill is $3 trillion (Foreign Policy In Focus).

And the damage done to imperialist souls? It is beyond reckoning. It continues unabated.

Anthropology for warfare, or ‘culture’ spies.

The Pentagon has devised a programme for recruiting anthropologists in the ‘war on terror’. Situational awareness, it seems, is not enough. ‘Cultural awareness’ of the people invaded and occupied is needed to win the war. Lieutenant Colonel Fred Renzi, US Army (Military Review, Sept-Oct 2006), cites an incident to illustrate what is meant: Retired army Major General Robert Scales had asked ‘a returning commander from the 3rd Infantry Division how well situational awareness (read aerial and ground intelligence technology) worked during the march to Baghdad’. The reply was, ‘I knew where every enemy tank was dug in on the outskirts of Tallil.’ But the only ‘problem was my soldiers had to fight fanatics charging on foot or in pickups and firing AK-47s and [rocket propelled grenades]. I had perfect situational awareness. What I lacked was cultural awareness. Great technical intelligence…wrong enemy.’

The programme, known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) is run by the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). It recruits anthropologists, and other social scientists, to ‘understand the people among whom our forces operate’ (‘hit’ and ‘smash’), and also ‘the cultural characteristics and propensities of the enemies…’. The US military, according to the HTS website, needs to improve its ability to ‘understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed’. As Renzi writes, information is needed on indigenous forms of association, local means of organisation, and traditional methods of mobilisation which create ‘invisible’ networks (of support), and are available to America’s ‘adversaries’.

In other words, those occupied and conquered have not welcomed their liberators, the insurgency is strong, Iraq has turned into a quagmire.

The function of Human Terrain Teams will be to provide direct ‘social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis’. These will be used by brigade commanders and their staff ‘as part of the military decisionmaking process’. The programme is run by BAE, a contracting agency. The modus operandi is in many ways similar to Blackwater (a private military company, also known as ‘the world’s most powerful mercenary army’), since anthropologist ‘embeds’ are not people who are already in the military, but ‘contracted’ to work alongside the military, embedded in army units. The starting pay is over $100,000. It can reach a high of $300,000, a tax-free amount if the period of service abroad is more than a year.

The soul of anthropology

The involvement of anthropologists in US military projects is not new, as Nayanika Mookherjee points out in a discussion moderated by her in ASA Globalog (Association of Social Anthropologists). Its historical precedents are to be found in the colonial roots of anthropology. Not only that, she adds, it reminds anthropologists of Project Camelot, the social science research project initiated by the United States Army in 1964, aimed at assessing the causes of war, and preventing these through government action. According to critics, the project was aimed at strengthening established governments and crushing revolutionary movements in Latin America.

There is a critical difference, however, between anthropology’s previous and current engagement with counter-insurgency programmes. Anjan Ghosh, in his post to the ASA discussion says, since Human Terrain Teams are embedded with combat units, anthropologists ‘are directly involved with combat operations’. As part of combat units, anthropologists wear army fatigues and carry guns (Newsweek, April 21).

The project of embedding anthropologists to gather ‘ethnographic intelligence’ (Renzi) has ‘caused anger’, ‘uproar’, ‘intense debate’ in anthropological circles, and in the professional bodies of anthropologists. As David Price, who teaches anthropology at St Martin’s University in Washington, and author of Weaponizing Anthropology says, both sides are passionate. Both sides are worried ‘about the soul of their discipline’.

Embedding ethnographers with military units raises ethical issues. Price says, fundamental research ethics require that research subjects – those on whom, or with whom, research is being carried out – have voluntary, meaningful and informed consent, that they’re told what’s going to be done with the research, and that no harm should come to those who are studied. ASA’s president John Gledhill says working for the military would foster suspicion within universities worldwide. It would cause problems in the field. ‘If we are writing about sensitive areas, we anonymise place names and, often, people. If research enables people to identify human beings, there is no guarantee that nothing harmful is going to happen.’ And, of course, suspicion can spread, it can stick. ‘If people on the ground in foreign countries get the idea that some anthropologists work for the CIA, then they are not going to feel like being very friendly.’

Those who speak for HTS, like Felix Moos, an anthropology professor at the University of Kansas, deride the ‘divide between academe and the intelligence community’ because it is detrimental to national security interests at home and abroad. Those against cite the involvement of anthropologists in the Vietnam-era military project called CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), which mapped the human terrain, and identified suspected Viet Cong sympathisers. This later led to the assassination of 26,000 suspected Viet Cong.

The recent swing in British universities towards teaching and researching programmes on international security has been noted for its ‘affinity’ with the research agenda of UK funding bodies such as the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). Filippo Osella, one of the contributors to the ASA blog says the ESRC’s Radicalisation Programme, seemingly open-ended, focuses only on Muslims/Islam. It thereby assumes that existing forms of radicalism are internal to Islam as a religion, and that all Muslims are potential terrorists. ‘Radicalisation is thus seen as a Muslim social problem.’ This precludes analysis of radical state policies, of radical ‘Western’ state policies. How Muslims look at Western foreign policies is something that is taken for granted, it is part of a wider reluctance to engage with debates among Muslims that is taking place globally, on the role of western neo-colonialism.

Postscript: The US defence secretary, Robert M Gates (president of Texas A&M university before becoming defence secretary), in a speech had called on the Pentagon to embrace intellectuals. On the other hand, anthropologists circulated an online pledge calling on their fellow anthropologists to boycott Human Terrain Teams, particularly in Iraq.

The hitting and smashing in Iraq continues. The damage done to imperialist souls continues.

First published in the New Age on Monday, 1st September 2008

September 6, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

‘You cannot eat coal’: Resistance in Phulbari

by rahnuma ahmed

 
‘Only when the last tree has withered, and the last fish caught, and the last river been poisoned, will we realise we cannot eat money.’

Cree proverb

‘[the] uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the break-down of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.’

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1975

‘You cannot eat coal’

‘No, we do not want the coalmine. What will we eat?’ said an elderly woman. I was watching raw, uncut video footage from Phulbari, shot by media activists Zaeed Aziz and Farzana Boby, a couple of days after the killings occurred on August 26, 2006.

Another woman steps into the frame. She vents bitterly, we work daily for our subsistence, we eat from what we earn. That is all we have. If this land is turned into a coalmine, those who eat in exchange of daily wages, where will they go? Where will we live? How will we survive?

Zaeed and Farzana’s film, ‘The Blood-Soaked Banner of Phulbari‘, was released soon after the killings in 2006. I watch the beginning sequence. A crowd of men stand at the long-distance bus stand in Phulbari town, they talk to each other and to the film crew. ‘We are poor people,’ says a man, probably in his late-thirties. ‘If I lose my home, how will I earn a living? What use will be the coalmine?’ Who will it benefit?

I return to clips from their uncut footage. A younger woman is sitting in her courtyard, ‘No, I don’t have a husband, I live with my mother, I work with her. In the same place. If the coalmine comes, we, that is, us mothers-and-daughters, where will we go? We will be scattered from our relatives, we will lose our ties.’


The August 2006 protests in Phulbari © Andrew Biraj/Drik/Majority World

‘Where will we go?’ This question is repeatedly raised by villagers, by both men and women, old and young, by farmers, day-labourers, petty businessmen, schoolchildren, college-going youths, both Bengalis and adivasis, who belong to Santal, Oraon, Pahan, Mahali and Munda communities. By Hindus and Muslims.

‘Two coalmines have been built in neighbouring areas,’ one of the men standing at the bus-stand in the Blood-Soaked Banner documentary had said. ‘What development has it brought, tell me?’

I turn to Ronald Halder and Philip Gain’s film, ‘Phulbari’, an activist film released by SEHD earlier this year. Abdul Jalil of village Chouhati turns his face away in pent-up anger when asked how he has benefited from the coalmine in Barapukuria. ‘Benefit? How have I benefited? It has crippled me. I cannot describe the damage it has done. Those who have benefited from it have. We have been devastated.’

Azizunessa of the same village does not mince her words. She too has suffered from the Barapukuria coalmine. ‘We are poor people, we raise a cow, a goat or two. But the security guards, they do not let us enter, they do not allow us to cut even a blade of grass. So how does the coalmine that they have built, help us? How do I get my bowl of rice? They do not give me work in the coalmines. My sons have no food. How will they live? Only Allah knows what our situation is like. How our days pass. Or don’t. I did agricultural work, I winnowed paddy, I worked, I ate, I brought in one and a half seers of rice from the house I worked in, I fed the children. Work is not something that appears out of nowhere, that daughters-in-law can bring, that poor people can give each other. Why is it that the coalmine has stopped me from working, from feeding myself? The coalmine is protected by barbed wire fences, it is surrounded by high walls. Why?’ Who benefits from the coalmine?

The Phulbari coal project plans to extract coal using open-pit mining method in seven unions and one municipality in four upazilas of Phulbari, Birampur, Nawabganj and Parbatipur in Dinajpur district. The company behind the $1.4-billion project is Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British-registered Global Coal Management Resources Pls. According to Asia Energy, 40,000 people would be involuntarily resettled, 10,000 hectares, primarily of fertile agricultural land, would be required for mine and associated infrastructure. Activists say the number of people evicted is likely to be ten times more. The proposed coal project would divert a river, suck an aquifer dry for thirty years, the life span of the project. Dynamite explosion, environmentalists say, would cause noise and dust pollution, this would be increased by the trucks and trains that will haul away the coal to the port in Sundarban. To prevent flooding, huge pumps will pump out 800 million litres of water daily, from the mine. This will lower the groundwater in an area covering 500 square kilometres. Air and water pollution is likely to spread to surrounding water bodies. Asia Energy plans to create a huge lake after the project is over, but activists predict that the water is likely to be toxic.

GCM has a sustainable development manager who guides their approach. But the global record of mining operations rejects the sustainable development myth. Roger Moody, international researcher and campaigner against exploitation caused by multinational mining, writes in ‘Rocks and Hard Places: The Globalization of Mining’, lesser-developed countries, those with a high degree of dependence on mining, show slower rates of economic growth than their peers. Some countries, he writes, have been worse off. Potosi, a region that has been mined for silver for five centuries, is one of the poorest in Bolivia. Closer home is Orissa, Bihar and Jharkand which provide most of India’s minerals. Bihar has been for many years India’s ‘least developed’ state, while Orissa, in 2005, was ranked as the ‘poorest’ in the country. Mined regions even in advanced and middle-income countries have been the last to share in aggregated wealth. In 1870, Cornwall had 2,000 tin and copper mines. When the last pit was closed in 1998, Cornwall had the highest proportion of low-paid workers. Mineral-dependent economies, largely in Africa, are more likely to experience zero or even negative growth, since labour and capital move away from sustainable sectors to the extractive sector, and domestic products lose their competitive edge on international markets.

And of course, ‘understanding’ risks, albeit from a safe distance, is not the same as being willing to undergo it oneself. Recently, activists from the Alberta Environmental Network showed up at the Oil and Gas Investment Symposium in Calgary, Canada, held by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The event brought together 85 companies and 375 investors from Canada, the US, and around the world. Those present at the meeting were offered drinking water that Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation peoples claim is toxic. They experience high rates of rare cancers and auto-immune diseases, which they believe are linked to the development of the tar sands.

None of the producers/owners, investors, CEOs drank the water.

26th August 2006

On August 26, 2006, more than 50,000 people took part in protests against the proposed mine, in Phulbari town. People from adjoining towns and villages poured in. The Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force, opened fire on the protesters. Three young men, Tariqul, son of the municipal commissioner and panel chairman, Ameen, a young carpenter, and Salehin of the adjoining upazila Nawabganj died instantly. One to two hundred people are reported to have been injured in the violence unleashed by the BDR and police.

I turn to Zaeed and Boby’s uncut video footage. A woman describes angrily, ‘It was around maghreb, just before the call for prayers, the photographers had left, TV reporters too, that’s when they attacked us.’ To leave no photographic evidence? Another woman butts in, ‘We had chased out the police, I was so furious, I have never had the courage before, since that day I have learnt how to fight. Now, I have limitless courage. I am not afraid to die.’ The woman speaking earlier returns to her story, ‘The military [read BDR] began beating up people, they entered into our homes, they tore down the tin roofs.’ She is indignant, ‘These are people who are meant to protect us, they are law-enforcers.’ Another woman speaks up, ‘Did any of them die? They never do. Did any of them suffer any injuries?’

A woman who was badly beaten says, ‘The BDR entered our villages, they went from house to house. How dare they enter our villages? So we chased them out. But then they regrouped, they came after us. I couldn’t escape, they caught me and beat me very badly.’ The shot shows other women in the courtyard, nodding their heads as they listen.

Off-screen I hear a female voice, ‘Can the government ever defeat the janata?’ A woman wearing a printed sari on-screen says, ‘It is the government which breeds terrorists, they tear down the shops of poor people, they snatch away cigarettes and other items, they break these little cigarette stalls that are run by young boys for a living.’ Another off-screen voice, also a woman’s, speaks up, ‘Ordinary people are never terrorists.’

Most of the women, in no uncertain words, condemned Khaleda Zia, the then prime minister, for having sold out the interests of the country. What kind of a woman is she? Sending soldiers after us, dragging our husbands out of our homes. Does she want to make us widows? Their language was laced with four-letter words, often directed at her, at times at the then energy ministry adviser, Mahmudur Rahman, sometimes at the whole cabinet. I brought up the issue with Nurul Kabir, the editor of this paper. He said with a wry smile, ‘I am most respectful of subaltern languages, but wouldn’t it offend bhodrolok sensibilities?’ We laugh and talk about the gentrification of language, a class-ed mechanism of ruling. Who was it who had said there can be feelings without language, but no language without feelings? Was it not the historian Collingwood? I muse over issues of language, of home and belonging as I search the web and read through newspaper reports of the 26th, and after. I come across news reports stating the energy ministry adviser, Mahmudur Rahman, blamed a ‘small group of leftist parties without any influence whatsoever’ for orchestrating the deaths and injury to people at Phulbari. Asia Energy Bangladesh’s CEO Gary Lye’s words mirror Mahmudur Rahman’s, ‘It’s up to the government, but it would appear to us that the unforgivable events and the needless loss of life and suffering that took place in Phulbari are entirely the fault of the organisers.’

Those who campaign against the ruthless exploitative practices of trans-national mining companies say, increased investment results in human rights abuses, especially against rural communities which the companies want to dislocate and uproot. They also say that the role of the state in extractive sector governance and citizens’ protection diminishes, while its role in protecting and promoting the interests of trans-national corporations increases. One sees that happening in Phulbari, over Asia Energy’s proposed Phulbari coal project.

Mozammel member, a pourasabha member, says in defence of the project, ‘If the government wishes it, how can we prevent it from happening?’ People around him ask, ‘But why do you want the coalmine? Can you not see that it is not in the interests of the people?’ His answer is cruel and simple, ‘We are not for the people. We are for the government.’

The compensation story

In the Blood-Soaked Banner, a man who describes himself as a petty businessman says, ‘Yes, the coal project will bring benefits to some, to those who have built three-storey buildings in the town, those who have made plans of where to relocate, where to build new homes, the businesses that they will start, even, what kind of houses they will build for themselves.’ It will benefit those already-privileged, those who are townspeople. But not those who live off the land, those who make a living from agriculture, from day-labour, and the innumerable number of ways through which poor people make a living. In other words, the majority.

Abdul Jalil of Chouhati, Barapukuria was asked about the compensation that he had received from the government. ‘They gave it in little, little instalments, it took ages, the money dried up as I walked back and forth to collect it.’ Compensation is also tied up with land deeds and titles, a method of possession and ownership that is antagonistic to the adivasi tradition, and their claims to ancestral land. That is probably why Lawrence Tudu of Buski, Birampur says, ‘We will not leave this village, we will not leave our homestead, we will not leave the soil, if necessary, my remains will get buried under this soil.’

Poor people’s claims to compensation are entangled in bureaucracy, and in corporate controlled channels of profiteering. Corporations themselves evade responsibility and accountability as one sees in Magurcchara and Tengratila, where international oil companies have shown great reluctance to pay compensation for the miserable accidents that have occurred.

And compensation for killings? Ameen’s mother when asked said yes, I have received two lakh taka from the government, as compensation. And another twenty thousand from Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, the then opposition party (interestingly enough, it was the Awami League government that awarded the licensing agreement to Asia Energy, in 1998). But, she says, I hurt, I grieve for my son. I raised him, does compensation lessen my loss? Will money ever call out ‘ma’, or ‘baba’?

Democracy, a world of power

Democracy, writes historian and subaltern theorist Partha Chatterjee in his recent work, ‘The Politics of the Governed’, is no longer government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Twentieth-century techniques of governing population groups, widespread acceptance of the idea of popular sovereignty, the creation of governmental bodies that administer populations but do not provide its citizens with arenas of democratic deliberation, these conditions, says Chatterjee, give rise to democracy becoming a world of power. A world which has startling dimensions, and unwritten rules of engagement.

I see the people of Phulbari voice a collective identity, framed, at first, within the politics of electoral democracy. We have brought this government to power. How can they not do what we want? It is my vote that decides who will be the member of parliament. I elect the chairman. He must work for me, in my interests. A woman adds, what kind of a government is it that pushes us into waging movements? That destroys our peaceful lives, that takes away our sons? We want to return to our normal lives. Increasingly, people’s voices become more assertive. If the government does not value us, we will not value them either. If the government will not provide for us, we do not need this government. We do not need any government.

Amidst the strident assertiveness, a peasant’s words ring out clearly, ‘I am a khetmojur, I till the land. It is the crops I grow that feed the leaders. Am I more valuable, or they?’

Whether elected or un-elected, all governments, both leaders and state functionaries, need to be fed. They would be well-advised to listen to the voices of those who produce. After all, one cannot eat coal. Or money, either.

First published in New Age on 19th August 2008 

Other articles that refer to Phulbari:

Profits versus the Poor

A Beginner’s Guide to Democracy

Bangladesh Now


August 19, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CONVERSATIONS: BEING A WOMAN

Left leadership in Bangladesh

by rahnuma ahmed

[the relationship between class struggle and women’s liberation is] very close. Women were the first to be oppressed, and will be the last to be liberated when class oppression ceases. So the test of whether class oppression still exists is if women’s oppression still exists or not.

Comrade Parvati, central committee member and head of women’s department, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)

… communist men should know that the revolution and the gains of revolution can only be preserved and furthered when more and more women join and lead the revolution.

Comrade Parvati, CPN (M)

‘IF YOU look at efforts to develop women’s leadership aimed at establishing equal relations between men and women, the party leadership seems to think that it is a waste of time. That women’s contribution will somehow be lesser. I don’t know how, through which process, they come to that conclusion. And the one or two women leaders like us, those who have managed to make it to the top, we are looked upon as exceptional. On some occasions, we are lauded, on others, condemned.’

I was talking to Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum and convenor, Biplobi Oikko Front. In the twenty-five-plus years that I have known her, on the few occasions that we have met, nearly always we have fallen into each other’s arms and talked non-stop. About a whole lot of issues, garments workers wages, the mercilessly exploitative conditions under which they work, her party’s organisational work, the struggles of women workers as women, her own personal struggles, government persecution, the forty-odd cases against her. She has always been curious about my own work, what I am writing, what I am reading, and has always stressed the need to share ideas.

Mishu continued, there are many dedicated women, women who have ceaselessly devoted every living and thinking moment to the party, but they are not even central committee members. Look at the CPB (Communist Party of Bangladesh), Hena Das became a central committee member only when she was eighty. Or at Krishna di, she became a central committee member recently, in her sixties. Men? Oh, at a much younger age. Maybe at my age, I am forty-five now, in a few cases, even in their late-thirties. Do left women talk about these things, I asked. A bit, said Mishu. I remember, several months ago, Shireen apa (Shireen Akhter, joint general secretary, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal) took Zaman bhai (Khalequzzaman Bhuiyan, Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal) to task because Rousseau apa, Joly apa are not even central committee members. Even though they are such dedicated women, have tremendous leadership qualities and organisational capabilities. They are not even alternate members of the central committee. No woman has ever become a member of BSD central committee.

How do I dare to speak? Well, because I lead the Garment Workers Unity Forum, I work at the grassroots level. I am accepted. I think women comrades of other left parties, they might tell you one or two things but only off the record. Is it because of party loyalty, I interrupt. No, me, I am loyal too, I speak because I think it’s necessary. I think if they were to speak out they may well be suspended from the party. After all, how many heads does one have on one’s shoulders?

While transcribing Mishu’s interview, and in between breaks reading Comrade Parvati’s ‘Women’s Leadership and the Revolution in Nepal’, these lines catch my eye. ‘It is seen that revolutionary communist movements have always unleashed women’s fury, but they are not able to channelize this energy into producing enduring women communist leaders. The question has been raised again and again as to why there are so few women leaders in communist parties when Marxism offers such a deep penetrating analysis and solution to women’s oppression.’

This is Mishu’s question too, why are there are so few women leaders in the left movement in Bangladesh? What role have respective communist and socialist parties played in developing women leaders?

Where, I wonder, does one begin to seek answers?

‘Women agitation’

The other day I was so shocked, says Mishu. Ganotantrik Bam Morcha, at present I am the co-ordinator, held a meeting to review a human chain programme organised to protest against the rise in prices of essentials. A young Morcha leader, personally I like him a lot, he is very modern in his outlook, said, ‘photographers rush off to photograph Mishu apa. They want to present the protest as a “women agitation”. I think we should be careful. We should keep an eye out for others, for senior leaders around us.’

I was truly shocked, said Mishu. I raised two questions: what do you mean by women agitation? Does that mean only men can, and should agitate, that women cannot? Even though women garment workers are a majority, even though most of our party members are women workers? Do you mean to say that these women should retreat to the back when men raise slogans, and should fall silent? You ask women to be present at the front of rallies, but when their photographs get taken, you become unhappy, you say, it becomes a women agitation. Of course, I am aware of the politics of media representation, of turning events into women events, but surely that is a separate issue.

Why does a woman leader’s photograph create problems, but not a male leader’s? Why is it that when photographers raise their cameras at me, I become a mere woman, that I am not a leader, like any other leader? Mishu added, I told them, I do not think of Tipu Biswas, or Comrade Khalequzzaman as ‘men’, I think of them as my comrades. And anyway, how is it possible, amidst all that jostling, shoving and pushing, with the police coming down upon us, to keep an eye on who is where. I told them, unlike many other women comrades, I do not deny my womanness. Yes, of course, I am a woman. However, what intrigues me is why, and when, this gets raised as an issue.

Listening to Mishu, I think, so the left movement assumes that men are not gendered creatures. That men, by virtue of being men, have been able to rise above ‘mere’ gender concerns. That when they agitate, they do it on behalf of both men and women. That it is women who are particularistic, they can represent only other women. They alone are gendered. They alone are sexual beings. Familial beings.

Let me tell you of another incident, says Mishu. It happened when I was much, much younger. I was then president of the Chhatra Oikya Forum, the only woman president among forty or so student organisations. I was arrested, I was accused of possessing arms, and of attempted bank dacoity. A group belonging to the Sarbahara Party had been caught while committing dacoity at a petrol pump station in Gazipur, I had been publicly critical of that party, so when they were caught, they falsely implicated me. They said I had led the dacoity but had managed to escape by driving away in another car. Members of my student organisation, my sisters who were then new recruits to the party, had gone around asking left leaders to give a signed statement protesting my arrest, but they refused. They said, it was not a political matter. Nirmal Sen had wryly said, at least, we now have a woman dacoit in Bangladesh. My question is, how can my arrest, and the false cases not be political? Would they have uttered my name if I was a housewife? Some left members went to the extent of wondering aloud – I know for sure because one of them, a woman leader later asked me – were you romantically involved with any of the Sarbahara members? Did he implicate you because of an affair gone sour?

Listening to Mishu I think of Kalpana Chakma, a pahari leader, abducted by army personnel from her house in Marishya, twelve years ago. A similar story, that she was romantically involved with Lieutenant Ferdous, that she had eloped with him, had been spurn. That similar threads of reasoning, albeit a very gendered one, exist in discourses conducted by institutions one assumes to be poles apart, continues to amaze me.

Comrade in marriage

Comrade Parvati writes, women who have potential do not emerge as leaders of the revolution in Nepal because of the institution of marriage. The People’s War is changing the pattern but even within the PW, marriage and the decision to have children results in a lack of continuity of women’s leadership. Having children is a ‘unilateral burden’, the birth of each new child brings greater domestic slavery. Communist women complain that ‘having babies is like being under disciplinary action’, since they are cut off from party activities for long periods. Bright, aspiring communist women are lost to oblivion, even after marrying comrades of their choice. There is little support for women during their reproductive, child-bearing years. Women cadres are overtly or covertly pressurised into marrying since both men and women are ‘suspicious’ of a woman who is not married. Sexual offences, she says, are taken more seriously than political offences.

I ask Mishu, how have the social relations of marriage and sexuality impacted on women who belong to the left tradition in Bangladesh? And you yourself, you are single. Tell me, how have left women shaped and formed the project of women’s emancipation in their aspirations for bringing socialist change in Bangladesh.

What I have seen from my left student organisation days to now, at the Party level, women who are brilliant and beautiful, shundori and sharp, in the language of left men, are selected for marriage. The idea is, this will ensure that they will remain within the left. But, that is not necessarily the case, for they often disappear into domestic oblivion. I have also heard brilliant left men say, in cases where both comrades are equally qualified, have similar potential, both cannot be built up, one needs to be crucified. Well, adds Mishu with an impish smile, I myself have never seen men being crucified. Of course, people in the left always speak of the contributions of Jenny Marx, of Krupskaya, also of Leo Jogiches (Rosa Luxemburg’s comrade and lover). And I myself, I deeply respect and admire our male comrades, they have not sacrificed any less, they have endured, persevered against all odds, they are not lacking, it’s just their outlook, they are so terribly chauvinistic. Also, in a racist sense, you cannot imagine all the talk I overhear about forsha (fair) wives, and kalo (dark-skinned) wives.

Progressive men, communist men here, and I say this Rahnuma, in all seriousness, and with the utmost confidence, they do not practise equality between men and women in their personal lives. Neither towards their wives, nor their daughters, nor sisters. They emerge as korta (lord, master). I do not want to mention names, but daughters of left leaders have been known to be given away in marriage to good grooms, good meaning husbands with qualifications from abroad. I have discussed this with other women, and their experiences are similar. And what about party women who marry comrades, party leaders, I ask. Often, says Mishu, these women are new to the party, new to Marxist philosophy. In this situation, receiving a proposal and marrying so-and-so is perceived as bringing more status, greater prestige. They seem to form an elite by themselves.

What about the issue of sexuality? You are single, you have remained single, I return to an earlier thread of our conversation. This word is never ever mentioned, says Mishu. It is taboo. I have seen men sit and chat, they laugh among themselves, I can tell that they are talking about these things. I am sure if I had a couple of men friends, I would not have a leg to stand on in politics. There would be no space for me. After being released from jail, I hear the word ‘sacrifice’ being muttered, but I know there would be no space for me if I had lived differently. I would have liked it I had a male friend, of that I am sure. And what about male comrades, I ask. Is it different? But, of course, she replies. Many male comrades were single. It seems, they had women friends, but no one gossips about it. You mean their political image does not suffer as a result? No, says Mishu. You mean, in your case, they would call you characterless? Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to be called a ‘prostitute’. On hearing Mishu’s words, I wasn’t surprised either. As a university teacher, during the 1998 anti-rape movement on Jahangirnagar campus, an influential teacher who was furiously angry at my role in the movement had referred to me as a bessha. He had said it to another university teacher, who could not bring himself to repeat the word when he related the incident to me. Women are framed and located within a bou-bessha dichotomy, an everyday tool men use to whiplash female dissenters of patriarchy. Progressivist men dismiss it as ruchir obhab (tasteless), or nimno srenir bhasha (lower class language). The left cannot afford do it. The dichotomy itself is woven out of class-ed and gender-ed ideas. That, and its middle-class reception, both remain unexamined.

The left political tradition in Bangladesh, Mishu continues, is very masculine. That women can contribute to that tradition, both theoretically, and through their experiences as women, is something that is not seriously entertained. It is generally assumed that women can only inspire. They cannot lead. That women’s leadership can radically transform existing relations of power, this is not given any serious theoretical consideration. Men are considered to be theoretically superior. We women are adjuncts. That women’s participation, and women’s leadership can initiate changes in a masculine power structure, and that this is necessary, men in the left just do not give this any serious thought.

If we cannot create space to work together as comrades, if socialist aspirations for women are restricted to ‘yes, we must do something for the women too’, if socialist ideals of equality are not practised at every level, in the party, in the family, in personal lives, in marriage, it will not happen automatically. If I raise these issues I am accused of being a neo-Marxist, of being a feminist, but what my Marxist comrades fail to realise is that this is essential for the creative development of Marxism. Her face suddenly breaks into a smile as she says, at least they no longer tell me, the masses won’t accept you. I work at the grassroots level, unlike many. I have no problems in gaining acceptance. And yes, did I tell you, women members are expected to wear mostly white saris. You mean dress like widows? Why on earth, I ask. We burst out laughing.

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution, had said Emma Goldman, Lithuanian-born American international anarchist.

Women’s emancipation: a male script

Left men have created a framework. Women’s emancipation will have to be thought from within that framework. You will lead your life within that framework. If you do, you can preside at the next meeting. If not, regardless of the leadership qualities you may have, you cannot. I want to repeat, I respect my male comrades, I think very highly of them, they are not an oppressive lot, but I find it difficult to accept their framework of thoughts and ideas. Leaders of other parties will compliment me on my work, they will also expect me to seek advice from them, contrary to norms of party discipline. If I do so, I am a good woman, I mean an ideal woman leader. An ideal woman leader must be a good woman, as defined by dominant social norms. We are still expected to believe that once socialism is achieved, women will become emancipated. It will happen automatically. This is an over-simplification. If and when it does happen, we will advance only one step, women will gain a few rights. What will be achieved is macho socialism.

And what about women party members, I ask. I don’t think their experiences are very different. As newcomers, often they receive proposals. Such a situation may be upsetting. She may not like it. She may leave. She may become disillusioned. To say that women have to be strong enough to handle this, ignores the question of Party responsibility to tackle these issues head-on. To make creative space for women members. For those who are the party’s ‘other’.

Our long conversation comes to an end. I am reminded of Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai who had insisted that the emancipation of women requires not only the end of capitalism, but also a concerted effort to transform human interpersonal relations – of sexuality, love and comradeship – along with the struggle for social change.

============

First published in The New Age on Tuesday the 5th August 2008

August 4, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A tortured image

by rahnuma ahmed

I AM against torture. Nothing justifies torture. This is a principled stand, there are no ifs and buts.

But why is it that when I see a recent picture of Tarique Rahman, son of ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia, his face screwed up in sheer agony, I feel no empathy, no compassion? Why do I not allow myself to dwell on his pain? Why do I shut it out, turn to another news item, or turn the pages of the newspaper?

Why does a picture of this torture victim leave me cold?

His medical report (18.06.2008), records, among other illnesses, two fractured discs, D6 and D7. During a remand hearing on January 9 this year, Tarique claimed that he had been physically and mentally tortured. He was unable to stand in the dock, and had to be given a chair. Last week (15.06.08), his lawyer Rafiqul Islam Miah told an anti-graft court hearing that his client was in severe pain, that he could not stand or be seated for more than three minutes. The court was also informed that while in remand, Tarique had been tortured ‘in the most inhumane way’, he was ‘physically impaired’, and might be crippled for life if he did not receive immediate treatment, preferably abroad.

Several days later, a news item catches my eye, Tarique’s spinal problem is an old one, say intelligence agents (Shamokal, 24.06.08). They claim it dates back to 2005. The very next day, members of his medical board express their disquiet (Shamokal, 25.06.08). Dr Idris Ali, associate professor of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, BSMMU says X-ray, CT scan and MRI examinations have revealed disc fractures. The injury, he says, could have been caused either by falling down, or by a blunt instrument. A faculty member of the same department tells Shamokal, the 2005 report is not inaccurate. But the complaint, he says, was an easily curable one. Six weeks of rest; unlike his present complaint. Another medical board member, unwilling to disclose his name, says, to imply that Tarique’s spinal problem is a recurrence of the old one, indicates ‘a lack of respect’ toward the board’s expert opinion.

Around me I hear people muttering, ‘Why only two, they could have broken several more, for all I care.’ ‘I don’t feel sorry for him.’ ‘He deserves what he got.’ A CNG driver tells me, `Yes, this government is making a mess of things, but I can’t get over the pleasure of seeing him detained.’

Tarique was generally not liked. Not at all. Scores of grievances flew all around. He was a novice to politics but was nominated the BNP senior joint secretary general in one go. Not a minister himself, he was reputed to be the most powerful man in Bangladesh (from 2001-2006), to have run a parallel government from Hawa Bhaban. Cabinet members flocked there, they waited on him, attempting to curry favour with the man nicknamed the Crown Prince. His bunch of cronies milked many others dry. CNG auto rickshaw drivers of Dhaka city hated his guts. Many accused him of sucking their blood dry. The costs of new CNGs were set at 3,50,000 takas, instead of its actual price of 75,000 takas. This had led to CNG owners upping the daily rent from CNG drivers many times over, in order to recover their purchase costs. He was also reputed to be ruthless. I was talking things over with a close friend who insisted, ‘… and Tarique can’t get away by saying that much of it was fabricated by his political enemies. The fact that he did not try to undo people’s perceptions of him is itself very serious, after all, we are talking of institutional politics.’

I am against torture. I have always been against torture, and yet I have no sympathy for Tarique Rahman who, in all likelihood, is now a victim of torture.

This ambivalence in me is new. I see it reflected in others. People I know well, and also others who are new to me, who I come across in street corners, stores, tea-stalls – no, I don’t see anyone shedding tears over fractured discs. I do hear distress expressed over a passenger who was recently run over in Dhaka city, in an altercation over one taka with the bus driver and conductor. I hear sorrow expressed over other incidents that people read about in the papers but Tarique’s ill health? No. Is it part of the ill-famed minus-two plan? Who knows? I remember reading somewhere that ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia has agreed to leave, but stiff bargaining is taking place over who should leave first. It seems that the government wants her to leave first. Only then will her sons be allowed to go abroad for treatment. Political speculation is rife. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction. What concerns me more is our mixed feelings over torture.

Was this foreseen, that the torture of an intensely disliked political figure, one who was perceived by many to be the chief cause of the downward swing in the BNP’s popularity, would turn out to be a torture overlooked? Did this calculation feed into the decision to torture? If so, are not both parties equally sinful? How can chipping away at principles, that torture is inhumane, that it is evil per se, help to build a democratic society?

Is torture incidental?

Or is it systemic to the state in Bangladesh? Investigative studies carried out by both national and international human rights organisations, accounts delivered by scholars, activists and victims of torture, testify to the fact that torture and ill-treatment ‘particularly during the initial period of interrogation in police custody’ is all pervasive, that it is endemic in Bangladesh. This is equally true for all manners of regimes (civil, military) that have governed the land since independence. This is equally true for both single party, and alliance governments, that have ruled Bangladesh since the overthrow of the Ershad regime. Studies and accounts testify to the fact that the meting out of torture has, thus far, been inherent to the relations of ruling in Bangladesh. A more recent study (M Rafiqul and S M Solaiman, 2004) has argued that custodial tortures leading to deaths and irreparable bodily injuries increased alarmingly in the period after the October 2001 elections.

To turn to the issue of remand, according to the law, the venue of custody during remand can be no place other than the police station. But, as most Bangladeshis know, remand victims are often enough taken to the cantonment, or to unknown locations. Often, they are interrogated by police-army joint cells, notorious for their brutality and savagery. Incumbent governments exploit the police by getting them to arrest political dissidents. The police itself, on the other hand, exploit ordinary citizens, who are often enough randomly picked up, falsely implicated in cases, and then offered the choice of either paying up, or being put in remand.

Victims of torture speak of various methods that are applied: being given urine to drink when thirsty; being kept sleepless for days; being drowned in high-pressured water while hands are tied-up and faces covered; being hung upside down and beaten on the soles of the feet with batons and metal bars; of nails being hammered into fingers; hot water-filled bottles being pushed through the rectum; being beaten in a manner which damages the muscles but leaves no outward indication; pouring acid; drilling into the body with a drill machine.

A recently-published account of torture under remand is provided by Bidisha, ex-wife of ex-president HM Ershad (Shotrur Shonge Boshobash, May 2008). Her detailed account is chilling because of the brutality that it describes, a brutality that is deeply gendered, and sexualised (curiously enough, this was toward the end of Khaleda Zia’s regime). Midway through her account of torture, she wonders, the men who tortured me must have gone home to their wives and children. They must have caressed them as people do caress their loved ones. Could his wife tell, could their children tell what deeds these very hands had performed? I do not know whether the families of torturers here have to bear the brunt of what they do. Testimony from other places indicate that they do. Frantz Fanon, Algerian psychiatrist and theorist, in The Wretched of the Earth, wrote of a French police inspector who tortured not only colonised Algerians, but also his wife and children. ‘The patient dislikes noise. At home he wants to hit everybody all the time. In fact, he does hit his children, even the baby of twenty months, with unaccustomed savagery. But what really frightened him was one evening when his wife had criticised him particularly for hitting his children too much… He threw himself upon her, beat her and tied her to a chair, saying to himself “I’ll teach her once and for all that I’m master in this house.”‘

Torture is pervasive.

Dismantling the house of torture

Social classes are described as relationships of exploitation that endure. Likewise, torture in Bangladesh. It endures changes in government, in systems of ruling, in the legitimacy provided for ruling. Dismantling it won’t be easy. Those committed to doing so insist that the torturers be identified, and punished. Likewise, that those who are higher-up, those who order it, not be given any impunity.

And what about Tarique Rahman? Can we ever forgive him? Will his experience as a victim bring a sea-change in him? If and when he returns to a normal life, will he be remorseful? Will he turn into a defender of human rights? That remains to be seen.

First published in New Age on 26th June 2008

June 26, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , | 21 Comments

Unidentified terrorists in the hills

rahnuma ahmed

Some external terrorists from outside Sajek have set these fires. There is no conflict between Bengalis and Paharis in this area. Those who set the fire don’t want the current communal harmony between Bengalis and Paharis to stay intact. Since they want to create a terrorist center in this area, they try to keep both sides agitated.

Major Kabir, second-in-command, Baghaihat zone (Fact Finding Team 1. Moshrefa Mishu et al, Report on 20th April Incident at Sajek Union.)

Bengali settlement in times of Emergency

BY NEARLY all accounts, Bengali settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has accelerated. It has intensified. Why?

Discovering the truth is never an easy task. More so, in times of Emergency. But our rulers forget, not everyone submits. ‘A happy slave is the biggest threat to freedom,’ says a postcard on my wall. Fortunately, the peoples of this land, neither Bengalis nor adivasis, have submitted. Never fully. Or, for long.

Five victims of Sajek – Pahari villagers – have come forward. They spoke out at a press conference in Dhaka, on April 27, 2008. Two separate fact-finding committees, consisting of writers, teachers, lawyers, student leaders and activists, human rights activists, left leaders, journalists, women’s group activists, visited the affected villages in Sajek, Rangamati. They spoke to Paharis and Bengalis. To settlers and civilians, to army personnel. They spoke to Paharis who had sought refuge in temples and forests after the arson attacks of April 20. Some still sleeping under open skies. They spoke to settler Bengalis too. To those who had taken refuge in the local market. To another settler, who had sought and found refuge in the nearby army camp itself. Those in the market were also being looked after by the army.

Pahari house razed in arson attack, Gongaram Mukh, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

Binoy Chakma, a Pahari victim, had said at the press conference, nearly ninety per cent of the villagers of Purbo Para, Gongaram Mukh, Retkaba, Baibacchora, the four Pahari villages that were burnt down, originally belonged to Longodu, Borkol, and Dighinala. But we were forced to leave our homes, said Binoy, because of army and settler attacks. Life in Baghaicchori, under Sajek union, was not easy. Army presence was continuous. It was stifling. But we managed. We managed to lead peaceful lives, to eke out modest livings. Things changed, however, with the declaration of Emergency, said Binoy. Warrant Officer Haroon told us, army posts will be built here. But later, small huts were built instead, in our land and garden. The settlers built them, the army helped them. We had set aside land for building a Buddhist temple, they took that away too. We protested, but they threatened us. Indra Chakma’s pineapple garden in Retkaba was destroyed. Ali, a settler, forcibly built a house on Indra’s land. Indra resisted, Ali and the soldiers dragged him to the army camp. If you protest again, they said, we’ll slaughter you like a sacrificial cow. There were other injustices, too. Rat infestation had left us with little food, the UNDP gave rice for 1,500 families. It was the UP Chairman L Thangar’s duty to distribute 20 kilograms for each family. But he gave only 8-10 kilograms to each Pahari family. When we asked him, he said, he had army instructions.

One of the fact-finding committee’s reports corroborates Binoy’s account, ‘…since 11 January 2007, the process of Bengali settlers grabbing Pahari land has accelerated.’ It also says land grabbing and Pahari eviction is taking place under army supervision. A weekly review of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (April 23, 2008) reports similar trends, ‘Since the imposition of the State of Emergency, the implantation of illegal plain settlers has intensified with the direct involvement of Bangladesh army.’

Between 1979 and 1983, Bangladesh’s military rulers sponsored migration of Bengali settlers into the Chittagong Hill Tracts. An estimated 500,000 plains settlers were provided land grants, cash and rations. As is clear from the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission report, Life is not ours (1991), the programme of turning Paharis into a minority was not made public then. Government representatives had repeatedly denied the existence of such a plan.

What does one hear now? Bengali settlement in the CHT is a thing of the past. The 1980s, yes, that was the settlement era. It was a mistake. The military rulers failed to realise it was a political problem, it should not be dealt with by force. Things are very different now. Now you may find some Bengalis going to CHT, they are following their family members. That is not settlement. How can one stop that? It sounds nice, the only problem is that it isn’t true. Settlement is still active. It seems to be at a final stage. Ina Hume, a daughter of the hills, and a careful observer of military repression wrote in 2005, a new road has been built from Baghaihat to Sajek. It borders the Mizoram hills of northeast India. She adds, there have been reports that the Bangladesh Army is involved in settling a further 10,000 Bengali families in the Kassalong Reserve Forest in Sajek. The writers of Life is not ours had noted, Pakistan, and later, the Bangladesh government had been uneasy about the borders with India and Burma being inhabited by a majority of the hill peoples. The Sajek incident, it seems, was destined to occur.

Need I say that the proposed settlement of Bengali families in the Kassalong Reserve Forest is in direct negation of the 1997 Peace Accord? Or, that the construction of the Baghaihat-Sajek road by the Bangladesh Army Engineer Construction Battalion, in the Kassalong Reserve Forest, clearly violates the Forest Act of 1927, and the Bangladesh Forest (Amendment) Act, 2000?

Four stakes vs Pahari homes

Most media reports in the Bangladesh press have stressed that losses occurred on both sides. Most reports mentioned that a larger number of Bengali homes were razed to the ground.

The fact-finding committee reports have been invaluable in providing a truer account of what happened. The report of the fact-finding committee led by Sara Hossain contains vivid descriptions of what Paharis lost as a result of the attacks. A middle-aged Chakma villager of Balurghat Para had told the committee members, ‘Our rice, clothes, pots-pans-plates have all been burnt. School books, birth registration certificates, SSC certificates, they’re all totally burnt.’ Several eyewitnesses and victims had said that their valuables were looted first, the houses set on fire later. A Daney Bhaibachora villager who had been interviewed had said, ‘The people who were setting things alight, they first took out from our homes, the TVs, beds, wardrobes, whatever they found, they looted, and at the end they torched the houses. Those who set the houses alight. They took everything.’ A Chakma woman had added, ‘I’ve heard that a TV was found in the Bangali Para. The Army has said that they will return the TV.’

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

Bengali settler houses, Dui Tila, Sajek union. ©Udisa Islam, 27 April 2008.

The other committee report, the one led by Moshrefa Mishu, is also invaluable. It fleshes out what the Bengalis settlers lost. According to the writers, Bengali settler houses are temporary shelters. They consist of four stakes (khuti) pegged to the ground. There are hundreds of such homes in the Dui Tila area. They write, we spoke to Bengali inhabitants, who told us that they live here for short periods only. The report says, land grants to Bengali families are parcelled into smaller pieces meant for habitation, close to army camps, and larger pieces, located in far-away places. The report states, ‘…most Bengalis have two houses… Dighinala and Lichu Bagan are 12 kilometres apart…We interviewed settlers who told us that they had received 4 acres and 1/70th land in Lichubagan, and the remaining 1/30th land on Betcchari.’ The writers go on, it was the same in Dui Tila and Chongracchori. Settlers told us, they had 1/30th of an acre here, the rest, 4 acres and 1/70th land in distant mountainous areas.

Communal harmony: a myth in the making?

After the Sajek incident, both high military officials in Dhaka, and those lower in the rung, in the Hill Tracts, like the Major quoted above, have spoken of the communal harmony that exists in the Hill Tracts, that incidents like the Sajek arson attack threaten. These will not be tolerated, we have been told. A group of “external terrorists,” described by some as “unidentified terrorists,” is out to destroy peace and development efforts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The army has affirmed that such incidents will not be tolerated, that peace and communal harmony must be maintained at all costs.

Such affirmations ignore history. It makes nothing of tales of killingsperpetrated by Bengali settlers and security forces. To mention some: Logang cluster village massacre, Khagracchori 10 April 1992. Naniarchar Bazar massacre, Rangamati, 17 November 1993. Malya massacre, Langadu upazilla, 1992. It ignores instances of communal riots such as the Bhuacchari incident, April-May 2003.

Other Sajeks will occur, I guess, if we do not face up to the truth. Even in times of emergency.

First published in New Age on 12th May 2008

May 12, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , | 5 Comments