A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world.
Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography.
Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society.
John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”
London, 1969: The worldwide reaction to the Biafran war gave rise to the modern humanitarian-aid industry.
In Biafra in 1968, a generation of children was starving to death. This was a year after oil-rich Biafra had seceded from Nigeria, and, in return, Nigeria had attacked and laid siege to Biafra. Foreign correspondents in the blockaded enclave spotted the first signs of famine that spring, and by early summer there were reports that thousands of the youngest Biafrans were dying each day. Hardly anybody in the rest of the world paid attention until a reporter from the?Sun, the London tabloid, visited Biafra with a photographer and encountered the wasting children: eerie, withered little wraiths. The paper ran the pictures alongside harrowing reportage for days on end. Soon, the story got picked up by newspapers all over the world. More photographers made their way to Biafra, and television crews, too. The civil war in Nigeria was the first African war to be televised. Suddenly, Biafra?s hunger was one of the defining stories of the age?the graphic suffering of innocents made an inescapable appeal to conscience?and the humanitarian-aid business as we know it today came into being.
?There were meetings, committees, protests, demonstrations, riots, lobbies, sit-ins, fasts, vigils, collections, banners, public meetings, marches, letters sent to everybody in public life capable of influencing other opinion, sermons, lectures, films and donations,? wrote Frederick Forsyth, who reported from Biafra during much of the siege, and published a book about it before turning to fiction with ?The Day of the Jackal.? ?Young people volunteered to go out and try to help, doctors and nurses did go out to offer their services in an attempt to relieve the suffering. Others offered to take Biafran babies into their homes for the duration of the war; some volunteered to fly or fight for Biafra. The donors are known to have ranged from old-age pensioners to the boys at Eton College.? Forsyth was describing the British response, but the same things were happening across Europe, and in America as well. Continue reading “A Critic at Large – Alms Dealers: Can you provide humanitarian aid without facilitating conflicts?”
`A state within the state is now ruling the country.‘ Recently uttered by Dr Mizanur Rahman, National Human Rights Commission chair, these words, ominous as they sound, are of immense concern to the nation’s citizenry.
To those who love this country. Who feed off its soil, off the labour of those who plant, grow, nurture, feed us. What sense can one make of his words?
Dr Mizan was speaking at a roundtable on granting constitutional recognition to indigenous people but his words were occasioned by something else. An incident which is proving to be the turning point.
Yes, Limon. People across the nation are outraged. At the shooting. If possible, more so, at the subsequent cover-up attempts by some ministers, by a senior civil-military leadership nexus.
Cover-up? How else but by `criminalising’ the victim? Limon is a `terrorist’, his father’s a `terrorist’. The whole family is nothing but a bunch of terrorists.
Limon’s left leg had to be amputated after the 16-year old Jhalokathi college student, the son of an agricultural day-labourer, was allegedly shot in the leg by RAB’s officers on March 23. RAB claims, the shooting occurred during an `encounter’.
But the real problem, from RAB’s perspective, is that Limon has lived to tell the tale. Unusual, for RAB’s victims generally don’t. Human rights activists allege, since the formation of the elite anti-crime, anti-terror force in 2004, the number of extra-judicial killings has crossed a thousand. Continue reading “`State within the state.' Militarisation, and the women's movement”
A `death squad’ was the BNP-Jamaat government’s gift to the nation, a gift that has been nurtured and defended by two successive governments, each claiming to be vastly different to the previous one.
Claiming not only to be better, but morally superior.
The death-knell was struck more than seven years ago, on June 2, 2003, when the cabinet committee on Law and Order decided to form the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Those present were the committee president Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, law minister Moudud Ahmed, home minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, education minister Omar Farooq, and state minister for home affairs Lutfuzzaman Babar.
RAB was formally created eight months later, in March 2004, a composite force comprising elite members from the army, navy, air force, the police, and members of other law enforcement groups. It began full operations in June, the same year.
Remember Fakhruddin Ahmed, the ex-World Bank guy who led the military-installed caretaker government (2007-2008), who claimed to be driven by the objective of “holding a free, fair and credible election” which will truly reflect the “will of the people”? Who saw himself as a “champion or leader” motivated by the aim of “strengthening Bangladesh’s democratic order”? (Time, March 22, 2007).
Well, if you search the records, it turns out that around 315 persons were killed extra-judicially under his, and general Moeen U Ahmed’s, 23-month long emergency rule. Of these, the deaths of more than 250 persons were allegedly crossfire killings (`Bangladesh 2008. Insidious militarisation and illegal emergency,’ Asian Human Rights Commission, December 2008).
Even if, for arguments sake, these persons were hardened criminals, how is the democratic functioning of state institutions strengthened by officials of its elite anti-crime, anti-terror force behaving exactly as criminals do? Continue reading “The gift of a `death squad'”
The problem with Limon — from RAB’s point of view — is that he has lived to tell the tale. Usually, RAB’s victims don’t.
Take Rasal Ahmed Bhutto, for instance. A 34-year old shopkeeper, he was picked up by men in plainclothes outside a friend’s shop in Dhaka on March 3, 2011. A week later, men in vehicles, including ones marked RAB, brought Bhutto back to his neighbourhood. A volley of gunshots. Family members rushed out, they found him slumped against a wall. Dead.
RAB insists, there had been a shootout.
Or take Mohiuddin Arif, a? 32-year old surgery technician at Apollo Hospital, Dhaka. He was picked up from his home on January 24, 2010 by 3 plainclothes men who claimed to be officers from RAB-4. Arif died 10 days later, after having been transferred to police, after having been sent off to Dhaka Central Jail. When jail authorities informed his father that his son was dead, he rushed to the DMCH morgue. Arif’s legs were `smashed,’ `flattened.’ They had turned green. From repeated beatings? His skin had been scraped off from parts of his body. His feet were swollen, they looked as if they were falling apart.
According to police, Arif had been sacked from work on charges of corruption. Not true, say hospital authorities. According to police, Arif had taken part in a robbery. Not true. Arif’s time punch card shows he was on hospital duty when the alleged robbery took place.
Thirty-two thousand taka poorer — 16,000 allegedly to Pallabi police station in exchange for assurances that he wouldn’t be tortured, another 16,000 reportedly to a court clerk, CMM court, Dhaka in hopes of getting early bail — his family has decided not to file a case. What’s the use? I won’t get my son back, says his father (Human Rights Watch report, Crossfire, May 10, 2011). Dead men don’t tell tales.
But there are other problems with Limon. I mean, `problems’ from RAB’s perspective.
His innocence shines through, there’s no denying that. Thick black hair, a steady, unwavering look. Sad, but with a tinge of indictment. Look at what you’ve done to me. How could you? He comes from a humble background. His father, Tofazzel Hossain, a share-cropper cum day-labourer, left Saturia village (Rajapur upazilla, Jhalokathi district) this February in search of better work, better pay. He managed to find work in a wholesale fruit market in Savar EPZ, Dhaka.
A college student, Limon’s HSC finals were days away when the incident occurred. Bent on getting good grades, he’d been studying harder. He wanted to fulfill his mother’s dreams. To be educated, to make her proud of him. He worked in a neighbouring brick kiln, lowly work, menial work, which upper class kids in cities, heady with lifestyle concerns, the `d-juice’ generation, cannot imagine. Neither can their parents. Limon also tutored children, meagre earnings to supplement an unsteady household income. Limon Protest from Shahidul Alam on Vimeo. Continue reading “LIMON HOSSAIN: Shattered dreams, ruthlessness, and the govt's spinning factory”
As the idea gradually took hold, I thought, horror of horrors, what on earth will I tell Zaman (deputy editor, New Age)?
`Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ hartal’ had expanded. Initially, I’d thought of writing two parts but ended up writing five. Before that, my Weather series had kept unfolding week after week. It took more than two months to complete, and had, in all, 9 parts!
Given my infamous track record, it is no wonder that Zaman repeatedly asks me whenever I begin a series, as opposed to my one-off pieces, `Are you sure you’ll be able to finish it in so-many parts? Are you absolutely sure that the next one will be the last one?’
But to return to the Women Development Policy series, beside my embarassment over what to tell Zaman, there were practicalities involved as well. What could I call this new one? A sequel to the Conclusion? A post-Conclusion? Ohhh!
As I began devising excuses, I thought, why not blame it on my reader-friends. After all, one of them had sms-ed me, shesh hoeo jeno shesh holo na lekhata,it seemed not to end even after ending. Another had said on g-chat: I think you should write a post-script. If not right now, then later. The last section of your concluding part left me in a state of suspense. Post-script, hmm.
As I toyed with the idea, I thought of all the things that had gotten left out of the 5-part series because of space and time constraints. I also thought of a male friend’s playful banter about the name of the platform, `ShomoOdhikar Amader Nunotomo Daabi’ (SAND). `Hey, if equal rights is the minimum, what’s the max? Us guys are undoubtedly very supportive, goes without saying, but we need to know don’t we? For God’s sake, there are male interests at stake.’ To which the best answer I felt was to yell that his wife, who’d wandered away in search of something, come over and join us.
Laughter all around forced me to give up the idea of trying to explain that the ShomoOdhikar movement was not only about rights. Not merely about achieving equality with men. At least, that’s the way I see it. That men are not the standard, the norm, which frame women’s aspirations and struggles. That inequality is not only gendered, but is also class-ed, is ethnic (aspects of which are racialised). That it is built along communitarian lines. That these interweave in complex ways. No neat fits. No easy solutions. Given our long histories of deeply-founded, well-entrenched and overlapping systems of exploitation and social injustice, a mere overhauling will not do. Continue reading “A post-script”
what the government is doing to?this?16-year old kid (and his family)?is just?OUTRAGEOUS, we must protest, so please come! in solidarity/r
———————————————————————————————————————————————– Withdraw all fabricated cases against Limon immediately!
Mohd Limon Hossain of Jhalokathi, a 16-year old boy, who is the son of poor peasants is a victim of harassment and repression by state agencies.
Limon was an HSC examinee who supported his studies by working in a brick kiln, and tutoring students. He wanted to get an education to make his mother’s dreams come true, to lessen his day-labourer father’s economic burden. On 23 March 2011, during an operation RAB forces shot him in the left leg which later had to be amputated. But instead of admitting that it was a case of mistaken identity, fabricated cases of possessing illegal arms, taking part in a gunfight, attempting to murder law-enforcing officers have been filed against Limon. At present, the government is trying to prove that not only Limon, but his whole family are terrorists. We demand:
Withdraw all fabricated cases against Limon
Take clear steps to restore him to his college life with dignity
Punish the perpetrators, and compensate Limon for his injury and harassment
Until these fabricated cases are withdrawn, a silent protest rally will be held every Friday from June 3, 2011 in front of the National Museum (Shahbagh) from 4:00 – 5:00 pm.
teachers, writers, intellectuals, housewives, students, workers, cultural activists and
people from different walks of life
Masud Imran (Mannu), Jahangirnagar University
Naseem Akhter Hussain, Jahangirnagar University
Sayema Khatun, Jahangirnagar University
Landslides are dangerous. Things get buried. People get hurt. The 9th parliamentary elections was to return Bangladesh from a two year military backed caretaker rule to an elected Government. The gathering on the last campaign day was massive, but there were fewer women and more people with white caps than one expected. The BNP candidate in Paltan Maidan boasted of how EVERY household in his candidacy, had assured him of their vote. Awami League candidates, the previous day, postured similarly, but both sides probably felt there was a reasonable chance of winning. The two-year gap between BNP’s misrule and the elections, might have eroded some of the moral gains that Awami League would otherwise have had. Voters sometimes have short memories. A landslide election win for anyone was not on the cards.
The Bangladeshi voter however, is remarkably savvy. They voted out Bhutto in 1971. Despite genocide, it did lead to independence. Since then, in every reasonably free and fair election they have had, they have voted with their heads. Hasina’s lack of repentance about BAKSHAL and previous Awami League misrule cost her the 1991 elections. Khaleda’s police fired upon farmers demanding fertilisers. Even a rigged election didn’t help her in 1996. ‘Safe’ seats of numerous ministers were lost in the re-taken polls. Hasina blew it in her term with her thugs causing havoc on campus and her ministers demanding that journalists be beaten up. The votes went to BNP. Khaleda went overboard yet again, with corruption reaching new heights, and her sons unleashing terror. Rising prices didn’t help. Khaleda made an attempt at apology. It was too little too late. The pendulum swung. History does not appear to be either party’s strong point.
There has however, been a change in the recent script. Political skirmishes in the past, were largely between political cadre, and localised. A few cocktails might have been thrown, but since the killing of general Zia, there had been few assassination attempts. Until recently. Bomb attacks were a new thing. The capture of trucks laden with small arms. The vigilante groups in the rampage in the north. The targeted attacks on secular scholars, were new. Assassination attempts on Hasina took political violence to new levels. The BNP brought in its own vigilante. The black bandanas of the Rapid Action Battalion became another source of terror with hundreds of ‘crossfire’ deaths to their credit.
Against this backdrop, the landslide win of the Awami League, had analysts gushing with excitement. The superlatives flowed. People cheered this ‘historic victory’. A change of government generally starts with a witch-hunt, traditionally meted out to the opposition party previously in power. This caretaker government had stayed rather longer than usual. Given the documented torture of ‘rajkumar’ Tariq Zia (Khaleda’s son and the general secretary of her party), BNP’s return to power would not have been so comfortable for the incumbent government and its unofficial backers. Hasina’s promise of ratifying the misdeeds of this government meant she was the safer bet.
Accusations of the military having actively engineered the Awami League win is probably exaggerated, though news of intimidation was not infrequent, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But that too is history. Hasina’s position regarding her neighbours is more pertinent. She has already declared solidarity towards Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The relationship towards big brother India, will probably have more to do with the relationship with bigger brother USA. The US has always played a major role in recent subcontinental politics. The 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal was needed when the USSR was dominant. Today, the US, Israel and India are close allies, the war on terror being a collective pet project. A pliant military and a grateful Hasina will both play the game. The routing of Jamaat in the elections has to do with people’s sentiments. The war on war criminals to the war on terror is a small bridge to cross. The fluttering flag of democracy will obscure a few indiscretions along the way.
I?m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.?
? Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party
It was a victory for electoral democracy.
I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn?t register with any political party?. Someone else?s photo, name, and father?s name graced the space where Saif?s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.
Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.
A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition ? whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government ? would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.
In the early hours of the morning, as AL?s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.
Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League?s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution ? a ballot box revolution ? had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.
There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.
I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia?s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government?s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.
At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ?unprecedented rigging,? or of the polls having been conducted according to a ?blueprint?. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia?s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID?s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ?bribe money?, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel?s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID?s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.
Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.
A ?smooth transition?: impunity in the offing?
Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…
How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ?inalienable? fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy ? be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.
Allying with bigger terrorists
The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army?s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ?terrorists.? A seamless whole seems to be in the making.
And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina?s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ?the spirit of 1971? will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.
“I was born in Mirpur, Dhaka, and I have grown up here. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I went to my village home for the very first time. I loved it there. I met my grandparents from my mother’s and my father’s side, and they were very happy to see me. So I asked my mother, why did you leave everybody here and move to the city?”
The words were by Ruhul Amin, a boy the children from the “Out of Focus” group had written a story about, for the Junior Summit Magazine in their New Year issue in 2001. The “Out of Focus” group were no longer children, but young adults, and now my colleagues at Drik. The stories they have told me over the years continue to provide food for thought.
“Desh kothai?” is the most common question a new found Bangladeshi acquaintance will always ask you, unless they have been brought up abroad, or are yuppie urbanites. The question, ‘which land are you from’ is a way of placing you, determining your roots, establishing linkages, forming identity. While many Bangladeshis now live in cities, it is the ‘desh’ that they long for.
Come Eid, or any other of the many holidays we have, the cities become empty, and the rooftops of the outbound buses and launches are packed. Sadly, there are frequent accidents, and many deaths. But still they come to the city. In the hope for a job. In the belief that in the big city, things will change.
So it was that the streets of Dhaka city were quiet on election day. People had gone back to the villages, to their desh, to vote. Rahnuma’s brother Saif, was telling me of how they had to drive in voters in Richmond, in London, and they’d still end up with only 35% voting. Bangladesh’s enthusiasm for elections was exemplary. There was a good turnout all day, and while in every polling centre I visited, many complained about not having been able to vote, it was put down to faulty lists and inefficiency. There wasn’t the suggestion of foul play.
I met Dadon Mia, the beggar on the pedal chair who staked Satmajsid Road, at one of the polling booths. He didn’t have a fixed address, but his persistence had ensured he was included in the voter’s list. He had voted for the first time. A gentleman I had last seen in Malaysia, when I’d been doing a story on Bangladeshi migrant workers, remembered me. “Do you still cycle? he asked. Yes. “tahole ato mota kan?” (Why are you so fat then?). This Bangladeshi frankness might have been considered rude in other places. But here it was perfectly commonplace. It was with caring concern that he reminded me of my pot belly. The adviser Hossain Zillur Rahman smiled when we briefly met at Dhanmondi Girls School. I had been critical of Zillur in my writing, but on the occasions when we did meet, Zillur had always greeted me with a smile. There was no sign of violence, and apart from the irate, and sometimes tearful voters, who had been denied a vote because the list didn’t have their names, the polling seemed to go remarkably well.
As we stayed up all night, there was initial relief that the visibly corrupt, vote rigging BNP, had not come back to power (it would have given all the wrong signals), and then euphoria upon the knowledge that Jamaat had been routed. But as the enormity of the landslide victory for Awami League sank in, I remembered the? Sir Arthur C Clarke quote that my friend Nalaka Gunawardane often used. “Be careful what you wish for,” Sir Arthur would say, “it can come true.” I had voted for the Awami League. Not because I thought they would form a good government – there was ample evidence to suggest they were incapable of that – but because another five years of BNP misrule would have been intolerable. And since we certainly didn’t want military rule, the Awami League it had to be.
The initial rejection of the results by BNP sounded like the usual sour grapes. Why couldn’t they for once, lose gracefully? But then I started thinking of the excessively high turnout figures. We knew the military needed an Awami League win, but had they overdone it a bit? An Awami League majority was one thing, but could we survive an elected BAKSHAL? As media whispers (not published generally) began to talk of the unreported vendettas being played out across the country, of polling officers having been bought out, doubts began to enter my mind.
My earlier concerns of Jamaat returning to power, or Ershad becoming president again, paled when I considered the horror of an unbridled Awami League let loose on the Bangladeshi public. Sir Arthur had detested astrology, but he was rather good with his predictions. My wish had sadly turned true.