Reselling Your Soul to the Devil

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20th anniversary of Ain O Salish Kendra and National Museum auditorium, Dhaka. Bangladesh
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Fazle Hasan Abed (left), Muhammad Yunus (centre) and George Soros (right)
Muhammad Yunus, Amartya Sen, Fazle Hasan Abed, George Soros Sultana Kamal. I could hardly have asked for a better photo op. Well it is Christmas! If ever a nation was in need of a pick me up, this was it. The twentieth anniversary of Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) had a special significance. This was an organization that has been relentlessly fighting for the rights of the downtrodden. Despite the central bank predicting a 7 percent growth in the coming year, with both parties poised to contest the upcoming election choosing to woo the autocratic general the people had fought to overthrow, and the traditionally secular Awami League (AL) selling out to the Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM) for supposed electoral gains, the people needed the assurance that at least some still believed in a secular state and the interests of common people.
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Amartya Sen lauded ASK and women?s agencies for the role they had played in upholding the rights of women and talked of the importance of freedom of speech.
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Muhammad Yunus reminded the audience of ASK?s role in preserving the legal rights of the poor. Both Nobel laureates stayed clear of commenting on the decision that had been made by the major opposition party, which had just buried all of these ideas for political convenience.
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Sen gave an eloquent speech, weaving history and his own characteristic economic analysis to point to the role civil society could play in creating a more egalitarian world.
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His witty anecdotes about Salma Sobhan, the diminutive but feisty human rights activist who had founded ASK, and his frank accounts of the attempts by him and his friend, our own celebrated economist Rehman Sobhan, in winning over Salma Banu, before she became Salma Sobhan, was a warm and sincere tribute to one of Bangladesh?s finest citizens. But despite the joy of celebration, the mood in the audience was less than ebullient. The high court ban on fatwas had been a hard won battle and the gloom caused by AL?s entente with the other side of the fundamentalist coin, had left everyone shattered. My activist friends were surprisingly unperturbed. ?Well, they have unmasked themselves? said Khushi Kabir, ?it is time we woke up to what the parties really represent.?
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Sultana Kamal was similarly defiant but also brought up her concerns. ?It has always been our fight, and now we know what alliances to avoid. But they have effectively robbed me of my voting rights. If I now want someone in parliament to stand up for the rights of women, or the Ahmadiyyas, or for free speech, whom do I turn to? The candidates too have no choice. The few who might have wanted to enter the fray because they wanted to change things, now have no party to turn to.?
Politicians are not known for honesty and candour. AL?s win at any cost deal was defended by Abdul Jalil, the general secretary of AL who signed the document, as he tried to wriggle his way out of the hole he had dug himself into. ?It is an understanding based on an election strategy? and ?any decision is a fatwa? he rambled.
This particular election strategy seems to have left out the voters from the equation. The latest ?fatwa? by the Awami League is a ?decision? that will haunt them.

The Month of Victory

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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
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Autumn was unkind, rude and remorseful
Spring become unmerciful, rude and murderous
Butterflies don?t die, they don?t live either
Photo: Momena Jalil
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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.
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People fishing in a group using traditional techniques. The fishing usually takes place in the dry winter season. Wetlands of Bangladesh/Photo:Rashid Talukder.

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Enticing a prospective client. With roughly 25 customers needed for daily upkeep, competition is intense. Kandupatti brothel, Dhaka. Bangladesh/Photo: Shehzad Noorani.

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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

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?Mama, take my picture,? my niece Pinki asked me. It was already nearing dusk. I held my breath with the aperture open just enough, and pressed the shutter/Photo: Sheikh Motiar Rahman

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Sheep head for shelter at the onset of a storm in the Himalayan range in the Yarlung Valley. Eastern Tibet. China/Photo: Shahidul Alam

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She migrated from the Northern district to Dhaka for livelihood. As a sand worker at Gabtoli, she works dawn to dusk for seventy taka. Bangladesh/Photo: Partha Prathim Sadhu

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Men saw a large tree trunk in the naked afternoon sun. They don?t pick leaves in the gardens. Kapai Garden, Lashkarpur Tea Estate. Bangladesh/Photo: Munem Wasif

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Traders import cows from India prior to the Muslim festival Eid Ul Azha. A cow falls in the water while being unloaded from a boat. Aricha. Bangladesh/Photo: Abir Abdullah

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?These are the shacks we live in ? we call them ?Tali? ? there are 1873 families living here at this moment.? Rohinga refugees from Myanmar. Teknaf. Bangladesh/Photo: Mahbub Alam Khan

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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)

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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

Judge on the docks

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?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. inside-baitul-mukarram-mosque-f7-118-frame-no-24.jpg
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.
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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.
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We all went out into the streets. Altaf on his motorbike, me on my bicycle, and the others in whatever transport they could find.
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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.
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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?.
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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
Delhi

Stretching the Deadline

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An extra day! Not unusual in itself, but considering that a deadline had been announced so long ago, it seems a strange thing to ask for. What could happen in that extra day that could not have happened before? This extra day brings fresh violence, and while the advisers give us hope of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, it is unfortunate that yet more loss of life continues while the politicians do their tap dance. If the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is to step down, he should do so soon. The presence of a party appointee as head of state, head of military and head of government is bad enough. An appointee Chief Election Commissioner armed with a rigged voter list simply cannot be the basis of a fair and free election.
If there be a genuine belief in a multiparty system, the process must involve, putting in place a caretaker government with backbone, and accepting a free and fair election regardless of the outcome.
Providing electricity, ensuring wage increase for garment workers, eliminating rampant corruption and ensuring freedom from extortion and ?crossfire? are far better means of ensuring support, than empty rhetoric, paid goons and spineless sycophants in key positions. There is more blood on the streets today. It is time politicians were made accountable.
It was Nasreen’s birthday on the 18th, but though friends gathered in their Dhanmondi home and sang songs, and Jamila stayed her chirpy self, gloom pervaded the air. The article in the Daily Star brought up renewed doubts about corruption, cover-ups and selling out the country.
Pathshala alumni Monirul Alam is on vigil outside President House. The expectation is that the CEC will be bringing his resignation letter. Drik photographer Shehab Uddin is in Nepal following the peace agreement. Perhaps we too can hope for peace.
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Burning car at Russel Square, close to Pathshala earlier in the afternoon.
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Singing in Mirpur Road
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Protesting lawyers coming out of the Supreme Court
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Open air concert at Russel Square last night.
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Friends singing on Nasreen’s birthday
Chobi Mela IV continues despite it all. Rashid Talukder opened the splendid exhibition resulting from Morten Krogvold’s workshop, at Shilpakala Academy.
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Despite my scraggly beard, Torsten thought I was Father Christmas when I went to drop off the Chobi Mela gift packs at the Goethe Institut, insisting that he teach me the German song that Santa Claus would have sung.
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Two and a half years after the opening of the gallery, the airconditioners had still not been installed, but the viewers were not to be deterred, nor were the rag pickers outside Drik, Shanta and her friends, who decided the cool open space of Drik’s new gallery was the best place to try out their break dancing routine.
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I am sure my pictures on the walls enjoyed their dance. I know I did.

On One Eid Day

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Dr A.K.M. Abdus Samad, the director of the mental hospital in Hemayetpur, Pabna, was pragmatic. ?An average of 2% of all populations are schizophrenic, and of course there are many other mental ailments. In this country of 130 million, we have one hospital with 400 beds. What do you expect? The government allocation for food is 18 taka per day (about 45 US cents when we met in 1993). Many mental patients are hyperactive and need more food. A good portion of that 18 taka goes to the contractor, the remainder has to provide three meals a day. So what can I do? I make sure they get plenty of rice. That way they at least have a full stomach. We have little money for drugs, and virtually no staff for counseling, so we keep them doped. Then they don?t suffer as much.?
The other doctors had a different take. ?Pity you?ve come on a Friday they said. On a weekday we could have shown you an electric shock treatment.? It seemed to be a popular ?treatment?. To the uninitiated like me, the violent convulsions and the near comatose state the patients lay in afterwards didn?t seem to be the way to treat anyone. The care givers differed. The treatment was generally given to suicidal patients they said, and the way they saw it, it was ?better than letting them kill themselves.? I didn?t have much of an argument against that one.
I saw the group of visitors come round to the dorms at night and peep through the windows. It was well after visiting hours, but they had paid to get in and have a look at the ?pagols? (loonies). On Eid day, many would dress up and come to the peep show. Some patients did get visitors on Eid, a select few even got new clothes or special food, but for most, it was another day of waiting. Another day of hoping that someone close might come and take them away.
In every ward I went, someone would take me aside, and slip a note in my hand. Invariably, scrawled in that note would be an address. ?You must take it to them (their relatives). Tell them I?m OK. Tell them to take me away from here.? The first few times I did try and contact those relatives. Some addresses had people who recognized them, most didn?t. None seemed keen on responding. Eventually I gave up, but I would still take the notes. In Hemayetpur, even false hope seemed something worth giving.
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As another Eid approaches, I remember the child Shoeb Faruquee had photographed in Chittagong. It won him an award at World Press Photo, but I wonder where the child is now.
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Patient at mental hospital, Bangladesh
? Shoeb Faruquee, Bangladesh, Drik/Majority World

Mohammad Moinuddin had yet another story to tell:
http://www.newint.org/columns/exposure/2006/08/01/md-main-uddin/
magic-medallion-500px.jpg ? Md. Mainuddin, Bangladesh, Drik/Majority World
I was on an assignment at Domra Kanda, an asylum for the mentally ill in Kishoreganj, Bangladesh, where the only medications provided are these ?medallions? filled with spiritual spells and ?blessed water? from traditional spiritual healers. Illiteracy about medical treatments ? particularly those related to mental health issues ? misconceptions and limited health facilities mean that many parents resort to their faith in such medallions and other blessings from spiritual healers. The clinics which provide such traditional solutions do not offer scientific medications of any type and neither are they approved by any health authority. But for many Bangladeshis, faith in traditional healers and their treatments is more powerful, effective and easily available than scientific medication. The parents strongly believe that it is their faith in such spirituality that will cure their child and bring back the long lost peace and happiness to their family.
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In a world where normality is a virtue, I salute the few individuals who have chosen to be different.
Shahidul Alam
23rd October 2006. Dhaka
ps: Apologies to ZAK on my spelling of Eid: http://www.kidvai.com/zak/2005/11/its-that-time-of-year-again.html