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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


‘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


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

The Silences We Maintain

11th September 2002. I was at Heathrow Airport, flying home to Dhaka.
Friends had warned me against flying that day, but I wasn't too
bothered and looked forward to the empty seats I could stretch out
on. In place of the flight notices, the loudspeakers made an unusual
announcement. It was a call for a minute's silence for the people who
died at the World Trade Centre and year ago. A minute's silence, and
then it was business as usual.

The piece that follows was written in February 2003, in the week
following the judging of World Press. Before the invasion of Iraq,
before the advent of embedded journalism. Later at the award ceremony
at the Oude Kurk, I was impressed by Wolffensperger's speech
(Chairman of the Board, World Press Photo), made in the presence of
the Dutch Prime Minister, where he clearly stated his position
regarding the attack on journalists and the media coverage during the
invasion. I was left wondering however, why we as a community have
never called for that minute's silence, for those killed in
Afghanistan or in Iraq, or the industry's silence on the killing of
its workers. We are responsible for the words that we speak, and the
images we produce. Who will take the responsibility for the silences
we maintain?

Much is made of the figures, but this is not a numbers game. While
the sheer volume of photographs is daunting, it is still in the end a
qualitative choice. How does one weigh one photograph against
another? What makes one compelling image more special than another?
What criteria do juries use to determine which one is best?

The parameters for the World Press Photo of the year are known; a
photograph showing outstanding visual qualities and representing a
news situation of global importance. News photographs are often taken
on the run, in situations of extreme stress, often in situations of
danger. Only outstanding photographers are able to create powerful,
moving, beautifully constructed images even under such conditions.
But their qualities need to combine with outstanding news-value to
create the most talked about press image of the year.

2002 was a year of waiting. Waiting for UN resolutions to be applied
equally to all. Waiting for aggressors to be punished. Waiting for a
war that the world abhorred but seemed unable to stop. Missing were
the moments that news networks paid millions to cover. Disasters in
western countries lacked significant death tolls. Nothing significant
had happened in the countries that mattered.

That is not to say that nothing had happened, or that the world was
at peace. In a world where all lives are not equal, some lives are
easily forgotten. Their daily plight does not count. Their struggles
are insignificant. No war machines come to their rescue. Unless
material interests intervene.

But riots, earthquakes and indiscriminate bombings have taken place,
and occupation continues. And there have been photographers who have
been there. At a time when defence pools, restricted access, and
editorial policy define the perimeters of journalism, some
photographers have gone against the grain and covered stories which
should have been news but weren't, about people who should have
mattered but didn't.

Clinging to the trousers of his dead father, a young boy cries for a
loss that is as universal as it is personal. The image talks of
humankind's eternal struggle against nature, and a community's
ability to stand by the afflicted. Yet, amidst all these people, the
young man is alone in his misery. The death he mourns might not
matter to a world that doesn't care, but to him, the world might well
have stopped. And one photograph preserved that moment, a silent
witness of an emptiness that speaks to us all. One photographer takes
on the challenge of questioning our definitions of news.

As for the judging itself, it was a complex, passionate, fervent
affair. Time and time again, we were humbled by someone's insight
into a moment, that had completely passed us by. Again and again, our
zone of comfort was invaded. We were shaken into responding to an
argument that questioned the values that we had always considered
unshakeable. Our tools of measurement were cast aside. We stood
naked, our prejudices exposed.

The photographers too stretched us. Images that explored the gaps in
our visual spaces, played with our sense of balance. War was
presented through lingering traces. Political systems presented
through emptiness and solid structures. Consumerism and decadence
exposed through garish images, unashamedly rejecting the classical
norms of image construction. Tender moments rendered without
sentimentality. And of course those stark images, where the
photojournalist, at the right place at the right time, but hopefully
for not too long, returned with the horrors of what man does to man.

When the credibility of our media, shrouded in propaganda, struggles
for survival, a few brave women and men continue to report the news
that is no longer newsworthy. This contest salutes their courage.

Shahidul Alam
21st February. Oldham.
Chairman of the Jury 2003

February 21, 2003 Posted by | Global Issues, World | , , , | Leave a comment