I am the rage I am the storm
My path I leave barren and shorn
Swaying in my crazy dance
I rejoice at all I face
Move at my own pace
I grapple my foe
I wrestle to die
I am the warrior, head held high*
He was a dreamer, a rebel, a lover, a poet. He moved strong men to tears and woke a nation to unite against tyranny. The British imprisoned him only to find his pen spewing venom from the prison cell. Yet, Kazi Nazrul Islam was a romantic, and his lilting songs, magical stories and even his fiery verse did more to bring together Muslims and Hindus than any peacemaker had ever done. The poor turned away from God?s door, the lover spurned, the weak, the meek, the downtrodden, all found refuge in his words and his music. Unlike the literary giant of the time – Tagore, Nazrul was uncompromising. He spoke of strife, and the peace of acquiescence was never his mettle. Mixing Persian, English and Hindi with his majestic repertoire in his native language Bangla, Nazrul called a nation to war against its occupiers, but also spoke out against the tyranny of religion and class. It was his haunting love songs however, that made Nazrul inimitable. Living the life he preached, he refused to conform. Marrying outside religion, shunning material comfort, and eventually rejecting our carefully defined sanity, he rebelled against a peace that required the acceptance of the status quo. Conflict was his muse.
Lalon, long before him, had traversed a very different terrain. The journey between the body and the soul. The metaphors of the bird and the cage, with the soul flirting with the body, elusive. tantalizing and ever so ephemeral. The sufi saint dealt with the conflict between the material world and the spiritual realm. But for Bangladeshis it wasn?t Tagore or Lalon or even Nazrul, but the struggle for language itself that galvanized the nation. Separated from India on the basis of religion when the British were forced to leave, East Pakistanis had always felt exploited by the West wing and discontent had been brewing, but it was when Jinnah declared that Urdu would be the national language of Pakistan that people took to the streets. The violent birth of Bangladesh, gave a nation with its own language, but Bangali nationalism too became the oppressor of other cultures and the indigenous people of the Hill Tracts have been brutally reminded ever since that they are the other. Their peace could only be earned at the cost of their identity.
Surendra Lal Dewan, was sad that his song had been stolen by the president, but that was not what pained him most. As director of the Tribal Centre in Rangamati, he was required to bring out Pahari women dressed in ethnic garb at regular intervals. They would dance in bright tribal costumes for tourists, visiting dignitaries and even curious Bangalis whenever the state needed to demonstrate Bangladesh?s tolerance and its ethnic diversity. In his song Dewan had spoken of a Bangladesh free of oppression and torture. That a military general, claiming the song to be his own, would use the same words to chant of an egalitarian Bangladesh pierced Surendra with his own words.
Even the naked halogen lamp that shone on the creaky planks that made up the stage near Ispahani Gate 1 had gone. It was the port town of Chittagong and there was no electricity. It didn?t affect Mustafa Kamal and the UTSA theatre group. A string of candles lit up the actors. The children came up close. Kamal wasn?t involved in national issues. He and his group performed to children and their parents, in the slums around Gate 1, and in many other parts of the country. The plays would talk of HIV/AIDS, dowry and land rights. The team would go out to villages and settle land disputes, or fights over someone?s loss of face, by getting the villagers to enact their strife in public. Their participatory plays used humour, love and the occasional risqu? dialogue to enthrall a rapt audience who found a momentary outlet from their tortured lives. But the plays were not simply about temporary relief. They introduced strategies for dealing with the tensions that built up between the landed and the landless, between the buyer and the seller, but also between friends, relatives and neighours. Kamal understood that conflict was a natural product of relationships. While controversies and grievances resulting from differences in values, competition for resources, or perceived threats, often result in conflict, its mitigation rarely depends entirely upon the solution of the problem, but might only require a release through rituals of protest.
Artificial barriers between nations, illegal occupation of lands, the struggle between the worker and the employer, the exploitation of women and children, and the suppression of minorities generate sparks that might set ablaze communities, and the fires needed to be doused. But there was more to art than being the key to the cage. Kamal worried that while his art might allay the tension, it might, through appeasement – like the empty rhetoric of politicians, like the opium fed to the hungry child, like the comfort assured in afterlife, like the promises of peace by generals – help perpetuate the greater wrong.
24th May 2007
* Translated and adapted from the poem ?The Rebel? by Kazi Nazrul Islam
Abridged from an essay written for the Prince Claus Fund for the 2007 Award Book on the theme ?Culture and Conflict?.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (b. May 25, 1899 ? d. August 29, 1976 ) was a Bengali poet, musician, revolutionary and philosopher who is best known for pioneering works of Bengali poetry. He is popularly known as the Bidrohi Kobi ? Rebel Poet ? as many of his works showcase an intense rebellion against oppression of humans through slavery, hatred and tradition. He is officially recognised as the national poet of Bangladesh and commemorated in India.
The birth date of Kazi Nazrul Islam, originally recorded on the basis of the Bangla calendar, is considered by some to be the 24th May 1899.
Farish had talked of situations “so full of all qualities of
loveliness and purity, such new regions of high thought and feeling?
that to the dwellers in past days it should seem rather the production
of angels than of men.” Madras Christian Instructor and Missionary
The Baroque music in the forests of Bolivia, did indeed sound like the
production of angels. Cecilia had brought us all over during the “VI
Festival Internacional de teatro Santa Cruz”. The church itself was
quite beautiful. Helmut’s comment, “At least the church did something
good”, rang in my ears. I see this beautiful land, one of the few in
South America where the indigenous people haven’t been largely
decimated. I see extermination of their religion, their language and
struggle to see how it was all dressed as civilization. I see the
ornate walls of the grand church and listen to the untold stories
screaming to be heard.
Thousands of miles away, a young Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif,
gives up the ‘respectable professions’ chosen for him and decides to
be a story teller. The third Pathshala alumni to be selected for the
prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass tells an ordinary story. One of his
growing up. But at a time when the only stories told are those told by
the conqueror, it is time the story tellers changed.
Santa Cruz, Bolivia
30th April 2007
I had arrived to this world at just past noon on an overcast, rainy day some seventeen years before the new millennium. Following my birth, my mother moved back to our ancestral home in provincial Comilla. My real growing up was to start there. This move would lay the foundations of the person I would become. Like any other boy of my age, growing up in a small town, everyday carefree life coupled with a complex web of friends and family made up my world. Meandering over wishful thoughts of flying airplanes, riding bikes at will, kicking battered footballs under the incessant rain, and later trying to make excuses to my mother were all an integral part of this time. I grew up with cousins and uncles all around me. This developed a close-knit relationship with my family and deeply instilled in me a feel of collective being. After completing my middle schooling in Comilla, as I was pushed between the honking horns and blinding lights of the capital, Dhaka, I left behind the easy life of small town settings, but something came with me. A sense of belonging to the people, the place, the innocuous values of small town life ? the closeness of it all ? came bundled with the person that was to start a new journey in the city. It was hard. The days of pace and nameless acquaintance was fixated with forgetfulness. Homesick for my mother and sister, the nights were crossed with bouts of restlessness. To make the best out of such a turbulent time, my uncle admitted me to a photography course. While the medium had not appeared in any formal mode before, growing up in a visually explosive country with riots of colors all around, it instantly grabbed my attention. In fact, more so than the formal academics, which experienced a roll of turbulence along this time, as days of frenzied fermentation of variant frames were followed by equally fantastic nights of soul searching within those ?newly discovered? worlds. Sounding as tacky as one might, but seeing everything through a new pair of eyes is how I felt! Even before I had started to look with my own eyes at the unsettling, new environment of the city revolving around me, I was peering down a looking glass that was to be the lens. It gave me a wider, yet probing look, and one may say, meaning, to the lives in trepid spin within and beyond my periphery. The common place humdrum of daily activity suddenly imposed a rather ?larger than life? frame upon me. Call me idealistic but to me life must hold more meaning than just a fat paycheck, the proverbial suburban home, and the prescribed way to the promised, prescribed happy life. To me exploring my dreams ? the ones that were born and not imposed ? and realizing it ? by pushing the very boundaries of reality and imagination ? as far as possible is the path to self-actualization. I often ask myself ? ?do we try to create a mirror world when we take a picture??, ?do we want to see something that might have passed us by otherwise?? Well, I think we do. And I have come to believe that that is the singular, yet important, reason I am drawn to photography. It gives me time and space to a stand, maybe even suspended in motion, to search and delve into myself and my surroundings. Till now, and in the coming frames, I explore the dreams that are yet to be born.
Munim Wasif. Dhaka
My first podcast
?No one ever comes back,? she said. She was baleful, half a tear welling on her eyes. I had no way of knowing when I might be back. I hugged her tight as she sat on my lap, but my words were not convincing. She had been promised many times before and knew not to be too wishful. The name ?Happy? seemed a difficult one to use to describe her. Yet minutes before Happy Akhter Nodi and I had been playing, laughing, teasing one another. She was probably around 10. She didn?t really know, and I couldn?t really tell.
Her mother had brought her over to the Sonar Bangla Children?s home three years ago. Happy had wanted to come herself. She wanted to study. To become a doctor. To serve people. But parting had been sad. Her mother had come to see her on previous new year days, but this time she?d rung to say she couldn?t make it. There was too much work over the holidays. Happy understood, but it didn?t make it any easier. She wanted to go to the fair, to buy toys, to dress up in a new sari. She wanted her mum. Happy was spunky, bubbly, naughty, and dying to be loved. I tried to tell her that her mother might come another day. We both knew I was pretending.
She was being protective of me. Making sure the other kids didn?t hassle me too much. She became my self appointed muse. The poem by Kazi Nazrul I was trying to sit and translate wasn?t easy and they were all impatient. There was a children?s poem in the book, which she remembered from school, but even that didn?t hold her attention. We both knew I would be leaving soon. The sun was coming down and I was waiting for that sweet light when I would photograph Putul (an older girl in the home) in the green paddy fields. I was there on an assignment, and needed to get back to work. I would then go back to Dhaka, and perhaps out of her life for ever.
?You will ring tomorrow, or I?ll never talk to you again.? This had been the biggest threat we knew as children. ?I?ll never talk to you again.? I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. It would be new year?s day, and it gave me some chance to make amends. She snuggled up to me and said, ?You have to give me a name. One just for us.? Despite her sadness, the name Happy had seemed very apt. She was a happy child. They must have given her the name knowingly. Her mother?s name Adori Begum, had also perhaps been a name she had been given. A woman who provided love. When I?d photographed Happy before, she was being her mischievous self. She?d put on a shawl around her head and looked much older than she was. Now she looked smaller than her age, and very fragile.
As the light went down, we went to the paddy fields together, holding hands all the way. Happy jealously warding off the other kids. The light was beautiful and Putul glowed in the green paddy. Then it was time to go. As we walked back she guided me through the bracken, protecting me from every thorn. As we came to a clearing, she looked me over and untangled a rubber band dangling from my pouch. It was a worn band, left over from an old baggage tag at some airport. ?I?ll keep this,? she said. ?Now, give me my name.? I whispered back ?Anmona?. It was all I could think of. This wistful girl, with the bright eyes, full of sadness, suddenly seemed so far away.
We said our goodbyes and as all the children rushed to hug and kiss and wave goodbye, Happy stayed back. Silently she repeated the word ?Anmona?. As the car moved out of the gate I could see her through the dust. She was holding on to a worn ragged baggage tag.
1st Baishakh 1414
Bangla New Year’s Day
With the characteristic swinging movement of the head interspersed with pendular oscillations that is characteristic of India, Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent Nepal, Madhav Lohani at the GMG counter in Kathmandu replied, “The flight is on time, but one hour delayed.” While similar, the movement has different meanings in these countries, but the wisdom of Mr. Lohani’s statement removed all ambiguity.
The 12:20 flight which had been rescheduled for 20:20, was now scheduled to depart at 21:20. The TV monitor meanwhile still kept up our spirits with the 20:20 departure time. I was meant to have been traveling on the Biman flight earlier in the day, but that flight too had been cancelled. No one from Biman had been on the counter to explain, so I only learnt of the news when a friendly porter confided in me. Had Mr. Lohani been there, surely his head would have nodded while he said, “The flight is on time but one day delayed.” Continue reading “On Time Delays”
It was 1985, when Jun Jun and I came over for our first trip to Nepal. I had nearly died of hypothermia in our trip to the Everest Base Camp, and Jun and a Japanese explorer had saved my life. My subsequent trips to Nepal have been marked by other drama. As I left for the airport yesterday, Navaraj, the tutor at Pathshala from Kathmandu reminded me that I was going to a new Nepal, one no longer under the rule of the king. Sapna, the human rights lawyer we interviewed in Kathmandu today, remarked wryly, that it was a Nepal ruled by many kings. With the Moaists now in government, one hopes that at the least the violence will go down. Too many lives have been lost.
The killings and disappearances in Nandigram in the largest democracy in the world, and the recent killing of the Adivashi Garo activist Choles Ritchil in the most brutal manner imaginable – ?Choles?s two eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilated, two hand palms smashed , nails of 3 fingers of the right hand removed, left hand thump finger nail removed, two palms had holes, upper right hand had severe wound, several blood stains on the back part of the body, in both thighs middle part there had been two holes, back part of the body had several black marks, several deep marks of wounds on both lower legs, there had been black marks on feet, no nail on thump of right foot, all fingers of two hands were broken.? – by the much lauded new regime in Bangladesh are worrying signs. With conventional media under threat, bloggers become the lonely and marked whistle blowers.
Majority world photographer and All Roads winner from Guatemala Sandra Sebastian is one of many activists in search for solutions.
I couldn?t believe that passers-by weren?t killed when a shooting occurred between drug traffickers on a busy day in one of the principal avenues in Guatemala City. Two presumed drug traffickers were murdered in their car, which had lots of AK-47 bullet-holes. There were hundreds of bullet-holes all around the avenue. The walls of a school and a bus stop where many people usually sat, were also riddled. Unfortunately two men died, but it could have been a massacre. How many people have to be killed before something is done?
I wasn?t the only astonished person. I took the picture because I want to document and leave a testimony of the time I live in and show the danger that ordinary people face. In the last year alone (2005) more than 5,000 people were killed in street violence in a country of 13 million people. The reasons? Delinquency, organized crime, drug trafficking, poverty, broken homes. I want to talk of the inefficient justice system and the impunity with which some operate. I want to point to the consequences, and hope people can understand and search for solutions.
Thirty five year ago, even longer perhaps, just a camera in hand, they had gone out to bring back a fragment of living history. Today, those photographs join them in protest. Peering through the crisp pages of the newly printed history books, they remind us, ?No, that wasn?t the way it was. I know. I bear witness.?
The black and white 120 negatives, carefully wrapped in flimsy polythene, stashed away in a damp gamcha, have almost faded. The emulsion eaten away by fungus, scratched a hundred times in their tortuous journey, yellowed with age, they bear little resemblance to the shiny negatives in the modern archives of big name agencies. They too are war weary, bloodied in battle.
So many have sweet talked these negatives away. The government, the intellectuals, the publishers, so many. Some never came back. No one offered a sheet of black and white paper in return. Few gave credits. The ones who risked their lives to preserve the memories of our language movement, have never been remembered in the awards given that day.
35 years ago, they fought for freedom. They didn?t all carry guns, some made bread, some gave shelter, some took photographs.
(c) Abdul Hamid Raihan
Abdul Hamid Raihan is one such photographer. A.S.M. Rezaur Rahman came upon him through a small interview on television. Unlike many other photographers, Raihan had preserved his negatives. And unlike many researchers, Reza had doggedly pursued. The exhibition, ?1971, as I saw it? is not a record of momentous events, but a rare glimpse of what everyday people might have witnessed under occupation and through victory.press-release-english-bangla.doc
Autograph ABP presents: The John La Rose Talk Series
Documentary Photography & Social Change: Mark Sealy in conversation with Lyndall Stein and Shahidul Alam at Amnesty International UK
Amnesty International UK
The Human Rights Action Centre
17 ? 25 New Inn Yard
London EC2A 3EA
6.30pm ? 8.00pm 29th March 2007, Phone +44(0)20 7033 1500, Nearest Tube: Old Street, Moorgate & Liverpool Street
In an age where our daily lives have been saturated by images of globalization there has been a revolt by NGO?s and arts organisations who are beginning to forge links and alliances to explore new ways of using visual culture to discuss issues that address a human rights agenda in the 21st century. It is in this context that Mark Sealy the Director of Autograph ABP will explore a conversation that looks specifically at the role photography has played in helping to bring global human rights issues to a wider constituency.
A student screams out to friends from a police van at Jagannath Hall, Dhaka University, after a police raid. 31 January 1996. (c) Shahidul Alam/Drik
Meanwhile Bangladeshi photographers shine at the 3rd China International Press Photo (CHIPP) Contest held in Shanghai from March 21 to 25, 2007
Former Pathshala student Munem Wasif, now working with www.driknews.com wins the bronze prize in the Daily Life category with a powerful piece showing modern forms of slavery, through his story on the workers in the tea gardens of Bangladesh.
Former student of Pathshala and University of Bolton and currently tutor of Pathshala – Andrew Biraj – wins the bronze prize in the Topical News category with his timely piece about the attempts by multinational companies to take over land of indigenous communities,
while photographer Shafiqul Islam wins an honourable mention in the same category for his piece on police brutality against women. Biraj and Shafiq are both contributing photographers of DrikNews.
Meanwhile on it?s independence day, Bangladesh moves towards the final eight in the ICC World Cup! However, while we celebrate these wins and the recent arrests of godfathers and the ongoing cleaning up operations, the new laws curbing public freedom continues to worry. The death of Garo activist Cholesh Ritchil (http://www.drishtipat.org/blog/2007/03/19/urgent-modhupur-eco-park-activist-killed-2/) in the hands of ?Joint Forces? makes us fearful of the consequences of absolute power.
Photographs Shahidul Alam
Text Rahnuma Ahmed
It was reported in the papers as suicide. On 10 January 1993 Nurjahan, a woman in her twenties from a struggling peasant household from the Maulvi Bazar district of north-east Bangladesh, was found dead from poisoning at her parents’ house in the village of Chattokchara.
Nurjahan Begum, 7th among 9 daughters, had been married five years before the incident. However, her husband abandoned her and she returned home to live with her parents. Later, her parents arranged another marriage for her, but since polyandry is forbidden by Muslim law, it was necessary to discover whether her first marriage had been properly dissolved. Nujahan’s father consulted the village imam (religious leader), who declared that she was free to marry. However, he revoked this later and claimed that the marriage was illegal because the first still stood. A shalish (village council for settling disputes and trying offending villagers) met to judge whether Nurjahan and any of her family members had broken the law. The shalish found Nujahan guilty of fornication, on the grounds that she was still married to her first husband; after debating the punishment, it decided that 101 pebbles should be thrown at Nurjahan and her second husband.
Pebbles were preferred to stones since the intention, reportedly, was to shame the couple rather than hurt or kill them. Nurjahan’s parents were also to be punished; the shalish decreed that they should be beaten with a broom. Nurjahan was made to stand in a hole that was then filled, half burying her, to receive her punishment. As she did so a member of the shalish approached her and castigated her for the shame she had brought on her family. She was not fit to live and should kill herself. Nurjahan was found dead the next day.
Nurjahan’s father: “This is where I found my daughter’s body.”
The affair was reported in a local newspaper. A campaign was launched by women’s groups to demand a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the death. Public outrage and the success of the campaign turned it into a landmark case;
Accused being taken to Moulvibazar court
The accused in Moulvibazar court
proceedings were brought against the imam and the members of the shalish only a year after Nurjahan’s death. He and eight others were subsequently found guilty of abetting the suicide and received the maximum possible penalty of seven years’ hard labour. The village shordar (leader) died of illness while in custody.
The accused in court jail.
Imam leading prayers in court jail.
Nurjahan’s father believes that his family was made to suffer because of a long-standing enmity between him and the shordar. A female relative of the shordar spoke ill of Nurjahan. “She was a bad woman,” she said. “She would be seen working outside her home.” A rickshaw-puller from Chattokchara came to her defence. “Yes, she worked outside her home. But what other choice did they have?” he argued. “The family is poor.” But he did harbour some doubts. “Why was the wedding held secretly? Why were we not invited?”
Nurjahan’s death has raised many issues for the Bangladeshi women’s movement. Her tragedy has highlighted the manifold forms of women’s subordination within rnarriage, the family and within the community. First, Nurjahan was abandoned by her husband. Then it was the imam who held the knowledge about whether she was free to marry, and he misled her. Finally, it was the members of the shalish, all men, who judged and punished her.
Shalishes have been known to fine and discipline members of the community; at the same time, there are also instances of women disobeying or ignoring and, in some cases, challenging shalish pronouncements. Nujahan’s death has given rise to questions about the sphere of jurisdiction of the shalish, which is a community body with no legal status.
Wife of one of the accused, waiting outside courtroom.
There are few reminders of Nurjahan herself. Of her belongings, a torn corner of a shari, and a shawl she was wearing when she died, have been put aside. Her few remaining clothes were being worn by women in her family. Her only other belongings, a pot and two pans. were being used by her mother.
The family has no photographs. Her grave, like that of the shordar is a small clearing on a hillock near the village, scarcely recognisable as such. The district commissioner promised that the site will be named “Nurjahan tila”.
Nurjahan’s sister at her grave.
The government, in turn, announced that a road would soon be built to Chattokchara. However, in all likelihood, this is probably more significant for visiting journalists and officials, than for her family.
14th December 1971. The stark dismembered face stared from the bricks in the Rayerbazar graveyard. It was a last ditch attempt by an occupation army to leave a nation they had been unable to subdue, crippled intellectually and culturally. Rashid Talukder’s iconic image was one of numerous outstanding photographs taken by Bangladesh’s best known photojournalist. The lifetime achievement award given to him was long overdue. Rashid Bhai joins other Bangladeshi photographers featured in the Festival of Photography in Asia Chobi Mela IV, whose images grace the much awaited Drik Calendar 2007.
Meanwhile a self appointed head of caretaker government chooses the month of our victory, to call in the military against the wishes of his own cabinet. Kudos to the caretaker advisers who chose to resign rather than going against the interests of the nation. Where ministers have shamelessly stayed on despite blatant exposures of corruption and malpractice, it is a rare example of self-respect.
The Drik calendar 2007 is in the press and is out next week when it will also be available on our website: http://www.drik.net/html/calendar.htm and in our online shopping mall: http://kiosk.mdlf.org/estore/publisher?id=21
Autumn was unkind, rude and remorseful
Spring become unmerciful, rude and murderous
Butterflies don?t die, they don?t live either
Photo: Momena Jalil
Dried Kash flowers at the bank of the Old Brahmaputra. “When I had my legs I could cross the river in one go.” Rajib. Bangladesh/Photo: Saiful Huq Omi.
People fishing in a group using traditional techniques. The fishing usually takes place in the dry winter season. Wetlands of Bangladesh/Photo:Rashid Talukder.
Every morning After Fazr, Keramat Ali sat here. His work ended at around 10 pm. After 22 years of service, he went back to his home town and his family. No pension and no savings/Photo: Syed Mahfuz Ali
This is a Road I have been seeing for ages, while I have been happy, sad, upset, romantic, high, low & while growing up. It fills me with memories. They call it the VIP Road/Photo: Gazi Nafis Ahmed (Adnan)
Dipa Thapa, 75, has two pet cats in Pashupati Bridhashram (an Old People?s Home). They are her only friends. Nepal/Shehab Uddin
In the countdown to the election the newly launched DrikNews, promises to challenge the stranglehold of western agencies AP, AFP and Reuters. www.driknews.com is the site to watch.
14th December 2006. Amsterdam
?Come out we won’t shoot?, they had yelled out over the megaphone. Not the most alluring of invitations, particularly when it is from a police van surrounding your flat at midnight. They had thought we were hiding someone and after searching our rooftop had come into our flat. As they left, I had gone out to take pictures from our verandah. Rahnuma had turned up the television volume to hide the sound of the shutter on my Nikon 501, but it still seemed to make a very loud click. Luckily, I wasn?t noticed. It was the 2nd December 1990. Ershad?s autocratic government was feeling the heat.
Two days earlier, after the Friday prayers, they had opened fire on the Baitul Mukarram mosque killing a man.
Lawyers had played an important role in our democracy movement. They had upheld writ petitions against the government, and when the government tried to flex its muscles, they came out in protest, united in their stand.
On this day, exactly sixteen years ago, barrister Shahjahan, Sarah Hossain and other lawyers were meant to meet at Drik. We were monitoring the government action, and were ourselves under scrutiny. My colleagues had warned me that plain clothed detectives were looking for me at the office. The detectives seemed to know we lived in Lalmatia, and my colleagues suggested that we stay elsewhere that night. Ma (Rahnuma?s mum), Rahnuma, Tehmina (a lawyer friend of ours) and I went over to Saif and Rini?s flat in Dhanmondi Rd 8. This was not the time for taking chances. The media too had played their role. When censorship became intolerable, they refused to publish. It was that night that Ershad had announced on television that he was going to step down. People were rejoicing in the streets. The following morning the first newspaper was out.
We all went out into the streets. Altaf on his motorbike, me on my bicycle, and the others in whatever transport they could find.
A little girl walked down Mirpur road with a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She too was celebrating the return of democracy. People were dancing in the streets. In Paltan, too often the scene of violence, people gathered in ones and twos.
Men and women in their sleeping clothes, some with children, gathered in the winter night. Chatpati wallas sensing a business opportunity appeared out of the fog. At about 1:30 am Shimul Billa, Bangladesh’s Shirley Temple, sang out ?Bichar poti tomar bichar korbe jara, aj jegeche ei jonota?.
The song ?O judge, the people have risen, it is now the day of your judgement?, was strangely prophetic.
And now in 2006, the chief justice of the supreme court intervenes to prevent a decision
going against a political party, lawyers ransack the court, a president with zero credibility heads a caretaker government, and of all people, Ershad himself is in the streets, demanding the removal of the current president, while Moudud, the chameleon survivor, then Ershad’s right hand man, now holds hands with the chief justice.
4th December 2006
It was a dramatic ending to Robert Pledge?s presentation. Via Topu and Omi, I?d received the news that the military had been called out. Robert wanted to finish the presentation, but once I?d announced the government?s decision, the auditorium of the Goethe Institut quickly emptied out. This particular Chobi Mela IV presentation had come to an abrupt end. It was 1987 revisited.
Noor Hossain had painted on his back ?Let Democracy be Freed? and the police had gunned him down on the 10th November 1987. But the people had taken to the streets and while we were scared the military would come out, there was no stopping us. It had taken three more years of street protests, before the general was forced to step down. The people had won. But then it had been a military general who was ruling the country. This was a civilian caretaker government. The general mistrust of a party in power, had resulted in this unique process in Bangladesh where an interim neutral caretaker government headed by a Chief Adviser (generally the most recently retired Chief Justice) and consisting of other neutral but respected members of the public were entrusted with conducting the elections. Why then the military? Yes, the president was a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, the largest party in the outgoing coalition government) appointee, there are ten advisors who are meant to be neutral.
A free and fair election hasn?t yielded the electoral democracy we had hoped for. After each term, the people have voted out the party in power, only to be rebuffed by a political system that has never had the interest of the people on their agenda. Still, the elections were held, and despite the fact that there had been one rigged election in 1996 (rejected and held again under a neutral caretaker government), an electoral process of democratisation, was slowly developing.
This time however, the total disregard for the electoral process has created a sham, and the three key people in this electoral process, the president, the chief adviser, and the chief election commissioner (CEC), are colluding against the people. The first two, being represented by the same person, was a BNP appointee. He also happens to be the head of the military. The CEC, now a cartoon character, had also been appointed by the BNP while it was in power. Coupled with a clearly flawed voters list, this has removed any hope of a free and fair election. Can the caretaker government genuinely conduct a fair election? I believe it still can, if given the chance, despite the president?s lack of credibility. But for that to happen, the military, the bureaucracy and the police need to remember that it is with the people that their allegiance lies.
However, it does depend upon the removal of the other obstacles. The election commissioner cannot constitutionally be removed, and his removal is central to the opposition demands. What then can we do? There is only one body higher than the constitution, the people themselves. The advisors need to be empowered if they are to pull off this election. Sandwiched between a partisan executive head and another partisan CEC, the advisers risk becoming irrelevant. The only way this can be checked is if people come out in droves. Not ?hired for the day? supporters but ordinary people committed to civilian rule, and a multi-party system.
It is we the people who need to take to the streets. And it is time we sent out the message to all political parties, that an entire nation cannot be appropriated. They need to be told that we did not liberate our country in vain, and despite the poverty and the hardship that we go through, we will not be cowed down, and will not blindly tow a party line, when the party itself has disengaged from the people. If tomorrow, every woman man and child takes to the street of Bangladesh, there is no power, not the military, not the president, not the advisers, not the CEC, not the BNP and not AL that can stop us.
There is hope yet. The advisers have had the good sense to reverse the home ministry?s unilateral decision to call out the army and the president and chief adviser has been challenged for taking such a step. Whether the advisers can continue to take such bold steps depends on our ability to bolster their nebulous position.
Blockades and hartals do hurt the economy, and ironically, it is the person in the street who is the most vulnerable. But faced with an attempt to take away the only chance she has to exercise her right to elect the government of her choice, she has little option left but to take to the streets. As the world is finding out, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and wherever else there is conflict, a military victory is never a victory. If the anger of the people is to be quelled, then the underlying causes of discontent need to be solved. Flexing the muscles of the military, will only put a lid on the boiling pot, and the longer the lid is pressed down, the bigger will be the eventual explosion. More have died today, and with every death, the flashpoint looms closer.
Chobi Mela IV has continued despite it all. The dancing in the all night boat party,
the heated arguments at every meeting point, the mobile exhibitions, all went on despite the turmoil. The presentations on the night of the 11th, with Yumi Goto, showing work by the children from Bandar Aceh, Neo Ntsoma showing her work on youth culture in South Africa, Chris Rainier showing his long term projects on ?Ancient Marks?, and the deeply personal, but very different accounts of Trent Parke
and Pablo Bartholomew, made one of the most intriguing evenings I can remember. The packed audience that had braved the blockade had perhaps an inkling of what was to come. Morten had a full house for his ?gallery walk? at the Alliance Francaise and Trent?s workshops were packed out. The grand opening was at the National Museum, where we had one fifth of the cabinet opening the show. Kollol gave a passionate rendering of his song ?Boundaries? written especially for the festival. The rickshaw vans designed to take the festival to the public, plied the streets of Old Dhaka, Mirpur and other areas not used to gallery crowds.
The chief guest, adviser C.M. Shafi Sami, the special guests adviser Sultana Kamal and Robert Pledge, photographers Morten Krogvold and Trent Parke and the scholarship recepient Dolly Akhter all spoke eloquently. Little did the audience know about the drama that had taken place the night before. With the museum functionaries doing their best to keep us from putting up the Contact Press Images show (http://www.chobimela.org/contact_press_images.php), we were under pressure, but working all through the night and sleeping on the museum floor, we managed to put the show up on time.
Last night, the empty streets, looked ominous as I dropped off Chulie, Robert and Yang, and people have been dying in the streets.
Since then we have had Morten Krogvold?s passionate presentation at the gallery walk at Alliance, Rupert Grey?s clinical dissection of the law and his dry British humour,
both at the British Council and the Goethe Institut, Saiful Huq Omi?s disturbing but powerful images of political violence, Cristobal Trejo?s poetic rendering of an unseen world, Richard Atrero De Guzman?s honest response to difficult questions about representation and my own presentation on natural disasters and their social impact have all been well attended, despite the tension in the desolate Dhaka streets. The evening presentations close tonight with an insightful film by Indian film maker Joshy Joseph, presentations by Norman Leslie and a behind the scenes look by the photographers at the Drik Photo Department, Md. Main Uddin, Shehab Uddin and Amin, Chandan Robert Rebeiro, Imtiaz Mahabub Mumit and Shumon of Pathshala and Mexican exhibitor Cristobal Trejo. The shows go on as they always do at Drik.
In 1991, a woman with her vote had avenged Noor Hossain’s death.
A fortnight ago, the city was in flames, and a stubborn chief election commissioner is stoking the flames again. It is a fire he and his allies will be powerless to stop.
Chobi Mela site
Blog by Australian curator Bec Dean
Short video on Chobi Mela IV