Of pet dogs (and bitches)

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rahnuma ahmed

Last year, in June, she had left Dhaka and her pet dogs to take up her new assignment in Baghdad. Patricia Butenis has returned, this time on a private visit, to fetch her dogs, and to visit her old workplace.?Amader Shomoy, March 3, 2008??

Political speculation was rife. Was she on a special assignment? Was her visit timed to coincide with the ex-president of Pakistan Wasim Sajjad?s visit to Dhaka? Had Sajjad gone to Geeta Pasi?s home, the US charge d?affaires, where Butenis was staying, to meet with the latter? After all, Butenis had earlier been posted in Pakistan. Was she here to hold meetings with the opposition party leaders of Bangladesh? Or was it secret meetings with top military and civilian officials?

Not many newspapers had reported the pet dog story. US embassy sources had stressed that it was strictly a private visit, that she was not here on any special assignment, that her itinerary had not been made public out of security considerations. That she would return directly to Baghdad.

I read and re-read the newspaper reports. Butenis, it seems, had attended both private and official programmes. She had gone to a dinner given in her honour by the Canadian high commissioner. She had gone to a US embassy organised lunch at Dhaka?s Westin hotel. She had gone to the UNDP-organised ?Celebrating the Halfway Mark of Voter Registration? programme, attended by top Election Commission officials, senior-most military and civilian officers, political party leaders, heads of diplomatic corps, and foreign diplomats. I read the newspaper reports carefully. Renata Dessallien, the UNDP resident representative, had profusely thanked both the Election Commission and the army for the progress made. Bangladesh, she had said, was on its way to rescuing democracy, to putting it back on track. The UNDP would advise other countries to follow Bangladesh?s example, to make a similar ?golden voter list,? complete with voter photographs and national ID cards. Interesting. I returned to tracking Butenis, and found that she had also attended a meeting with US embassy officials in Dhaka. She had spoken of her seven-month-long experiences as the deputy chief of the Baghdad mission.?

But it was the pet dog story that intrigued me. I carefully went through some more newspapers. According to a high-up government source, before leaving Dhaka middle of last year Butenis had said she was leaving her ?pet dogs? behind. She would return to fetch them after she had settled down in Baghdad. Could this be the reason for her visit??The reporter didn?t seem convinced?(Shamokal, March 2, 2008).??

It seemed trivial, but I was piqued. One dog? Or two? Some reports had said ekta kukur (Jaijaidin, March 3, 2008). Others did not mention numbers. They used kukur, which is a collective noun. It could well mean several. A couple of other reports, these were later ones, made specific mention of two, duti posha kukur (Amader Shomoy,?Jaijaidin).???

Were they she-dogs? Or, he-dogs? Maybe one of each? I remembered Butenis had been a strong advocate of gender equality. I remembered the introductory words of her 2007 International Women?s Day speech, ?As we celebrate International Women?s Day this month, I hope everyone will take the time to recognise that women are uniquely valuable and productive members of our society?? I remembered her condemnation of economic discrimination against women, her stand against women?s trafficking, against domestic violence. But then I thought, surely this was stretching it too far? One may well be pro-women, but does that necessarily mean, one of each, in selecting pet dogs? And of course, pet-lovers have to take other things into account (whether they want their pets to have puppies, or get them neutered, a whole load of things).???

I was also worried over my choice of words. The female of the canine species? Terribly outdated. She-dogs? Clumsy. And then I remembered, the word ?bitch? is thought to be less offensive nowadays. I remembered that earlier meanings of malicious, spiteful, domineering have given way to feminist attempts to appropriate the word. Such as?Bitch magazine?(1996), billed as a feminist response to pop culture. I remembered third wave feminist attempts to inscribe new meanings. Bitch, as in women who are strong-minded. Assertive. In total control.??

But I speak of she-dogs. Not women.

Loving dogs

?

I grew up watching Lassie, an American TV serial in the mid- to late-sixties. Lassie, a Yorkshire collie, had seemed incredibly beautiful. Very dignified. Almost human.

It was later, much later that I tried to develop a critical appreciation of modern pet-hood as a western cultural phenomenon. As a kinship phenomenon. I thought of what Marc Shell, an anthropologist, had said. Pets in the west give their owners, ?pleasure, companionship, and protection, or the feeling of being secure.? Shell was writing of the mid-1980s. But was it always like this in western culture? From time immemorial??Jenkins?says, no. Lassie, says Jenkins, was a creation of 19th-century bourgeois imagination, of those who viewed the onset of modernity with a sense of nostalgic loss. As old social commitments gave way to ?alienated and individualistic urban life,? a dog became a ?man?s best friend.? Eric Knight?s Lassie, says Jenkins, stands at the nexus of two new ideas. Children, no longer sources of productive labour, are re-imagined as sacred and innocent. As repositories of parental affection. Dogs are also re-imagined. They are no longer domesticated animals valued for their productive labour, or their exchange prices. They are transformed into pets. Into repositories of sentimental value.?

I am still curious. Of course, I have nothing against pets, I have nothing against dogs, but I fee
l there is more to know. What about today, the 21st century? The love for pets, for dogs seems to have grown more intense, deeper. I want to know what western scholars, those who examine their own social and cultural practices, think. I want to know how intense love and murderous rage can coexist in the modern subject.?

I come across an article by?Heidi Nast, a critical animal geographer. Nast speaks of the here-and-now. She says pet animals have emerged in the 1980s, and more so in the 1990s, as ?highly commodified and valued objects of affection and love.? This, she says, coincides with the rise of post-industrial spaces, and with intense consumption, in the US, and other western countries (spreading outside the west too, in Hong Kong, China, Mexico, South Korea). She writes, the allure of pet animals resides in part ?because they can be anything and anyone you want them to be.? Pets, specially dogs, supersede children as ?ideal love objects.? They are more easily mobilised, need less investment, and to quite an extent, can be shaped into whatever you want it to be, a best friend, an occasional companion. Nast speaks of new shared-experience activities that bond pets and their owners (some prefer the word ?guardians?): dog yoga (or doga), which started in the US, in 2001. And, formal dancing with dogs, this began in Canada and England in the late 1980s. Nast agrees that pet-animal ownership is not radically new. That elites have pampered pet-animals for millennia. But, what is new is the degree of financial, emotional and cultural investment in pet-animals, its geographical scale, and the level of intensity. Things unheard of even twenty years ago.???

Reading Nast I learn that popular support for a national ?No-Kill? movement in US pet shelters emerged in the 1990s (where four million animals are annually killed). That the movement aims to stop euthanising adoptable dogs and cats, by spaying and neutering animal-pets, and working towards greater pet health and adoption rates. I learn that these social tendencies have led to a much greater popular interest in animal rights, a much broader popular participation in animal rights activities. And that this broadened interest has used the rights of animals to treat cultural groups with different sensibilities about the animal world, as the ?other.? Nast reminds us of Bridget Bardot, ex-actress, later a celebrity animal rights activist, who had spoken hatefully of the savagery of Muslims. Because of their slaughtering practices. All in the name of animal rights.???

Nast does not think that the affection-love with which pet-animals are treated is unproblematic. She thinks that the ?escalation in human cruelty to, and dominance over, humans? that the 21st century is witnessing is not un-connected to intense pet-love. She thinks, it derives from, it operates together with ideologies and logics of violence toward humans.??

I return to tracking the former US ambassador Patricia Butenis, but this time in Iraq. Tracking is now virtual, made much easier by the internet and its search engines.

Killing Iraqis

?

Baghdad – Mohammed Hafidh says he refused to accept an envelope filled with $12,500 in cash from Patricia Butenis, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Baghdad, as compensation for the death of his 10-year-old son, Ali.?

?I told her that I want the courts to have their say,? says Mr. Hafidh, whose son was among 17 Iraqi civilians killed in a Sept 16 shooting involving Blackwater USA security guards ? private contractors who were escorting a US diplomat at the time.???

Haythem al-Rubaie, who lost his son and wife in the same shooting, says he won?t even meet with Ms. Butenis, who offered cash compensation on Wednesday to seven of the victims? families, including Hafidh (The Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2007).

I wasn?t sure I had read it right. I rubbed my eyes. Ms Butenis herself going round offering cash compensation? The deputy head of mission herself? And I, in my utter na?vet?, had thought suchlike duties were performed by CIA officials. A?Washington Post?story helped explain matters: the Nisoor Square massacre had sparked outrage in Iraq. The embassy offers were unusual but reflected ?the diplomatic and political sensitivities raised by the shootings.? Hmm, I thought, rather quaint language. You wouldn?t think they were talking of massacres.

The Post story provided further information. A State Department official had asked Haitham (name differently spelt) what he thought was fair compensation for his wife and son. He had replied, ?They are priceless.? On being pressed, he had said, ?Like Lockerbie.? The families of victims of the Pan American bombing over Scotland had reportedly received $8 million dollars in compensation from the Libyan government. He had added, ?And you would have to deliver the criminals to an Iraqi court just like Libya delivered the criminals to the British.???

Being appointed the second-in-command of the Baghdad mission was undoubtedly a promotion. But being there sounds rather wretched, what is the English phrase? It?s a dog?s life

War diplomats

?

US diplomats would seem to agree.

?State Department employees serving in Iraq get their full salary plus 70% differentials for danger and hardship service. Got a family living in, say, western Europe as part of your last assignment? No problem. The State Department says they can stay there in housing provided by the government as you serve in Iraq. Or, if you like, move the family to a U.S. location of your choice with an allowance that comes on top of the other financial incentives. And for those Foreign Service strivers thinking of a posh future post in some place like London, Paris or Madrid, keep in mind that State Department employees who volunteer for Iraq are now guaranteed one of their five top picks for the next assignment following Iraq. And the U.S. embassy and Baghdad definitely wants you to know that Iraq duty will do you well in promotion consideration down the road? (Times, November 5, 2007).

But the perks were not enough. Forty-eight positions remained vacant. Late last year, the State Department was forced to issue a warning to more than 200 officers. Unless they volunteered, they would be forced into ?compulsory Iraq se
rvice.? Since then, 15 individuals have come forward, but 33 spots still remain vacant.?

I was amused. Not many seem to have been taken in by the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice?s idea of??transformational diplomacy??(January 18, 2006). ?We must begin to lay new diplomatic foundations to secure a future of freedom for all people.?

Wanted: dogs of war

The United States has always wished that Bangladesh take part in the Multi-National Force in Baghdad. We have always welcomed Bangladesh?s participation. But, [Butenis] added, the people internal to Bangladesh, the common people of Bangladesh are against the idea. It is a difficult decision for Dhaka. Had Dhaka been asked? Butenis did not give any clear-cut answer (Manab Zamin, March 4, 2008).?

In English, ?dogs of war? is an archaic term for soldiers, coined by Shakespeare. ?Cry ?Havoc!?, and let slip the dogs of war? (Julius Caesar, Act III, scene 1, line 270).???

The US needs dogs of war. Bangladeshis will not agree to their armed forces joining American-led occupiers in Iraq. Not in their name, no. But there may be other ways. Talk of?setting up a Muslim UN peacekeeping force?has been gently circulating for the?last couple of years. At some stage, that will probably be voiced as a compromise solution. Everybody will heave a sigh of relief. US forces will hunker down in?US mega-bases in Iraq, they will lead safe lives of occupation. Less body bags to be shipped home, while UN peacekeepers from moderate Muslim countries like Bangladesh maintain peace above ground.

If it so happens, they will be the dogs of war in an imperial occupation that has ravaged the cradle of civilisation.

First published in New Age 17th March 2008

she had a dream…

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Rahnuma Ahmed

“A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests….”
Begum Rokeya, Sultana’s Dream (1908)

New York, 1906

Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish woman, joined a group of shirtwaist makers. They wanted to form a union, but didn’t know how. Six young women, six young men and Clara formed Local 25. In those days, the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) was small. Most of its members were male cloakmakers.
Although Clara was determined to be a “good girl,” two days later she was talking union. The oppressive conditions at work made her angry. The forewoman would follow the girls to the toilet. She would needle them to hurry. New girls would be cheated, their pay was always less than agreed upon. The girls would be fined for all sorts of things. They were charged for electricity, needles, and thread. “Mistakes” would be made in pay envelopes, they were difficult to get fixed. The clock was fixed so that lunch hour was twenty minutes short. Or, it would be set back an hour. Not knowing, they would work the extra hour. Unpaid (Meredith Tax, “The Uprising of the Thirty Thousand”).
Clara took part in her first strike in 1907. At one of the union meetings, strikers argued about “pure-and-simple-trade-unionism.” Clara asked one of them what that meant. They went for a walk. Her first lesson in Marxism took place during that forty block long walk. “He started with a bottle of milk?how it was made, who made the money from it at every stage of its production. Not only did the boss take the profits, he said, but not a drop of milk did you drink unless he allowed you to. It was funny, you know, because I’d been saying things like that to the girls before. But now I understood it better and I began to use it more often?only with shirtwaists.” (Paula Scheier, “Clara Lemlich Shavelson”).
In 1908, the first Women’s Day was initiated by socialist women in the United States. Large demonstrations were held.
In 1909, a Women’s Day rally was held in Manhattan. It was attended by two thousand people. The same year, women garment workers staged a general strike. Known as the Uprising of the Thirty Thousand (or Twenty Thousand, depending on the source), the shirtwaist makers struck for thirteen weeks. The weeks were cold and wintry. They demanded better pay, better working conditions.

Bangladesh, 2008

Things are better now, says Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garments Sromik Oikko Forum (Shomaj Chetona, 1 January 2008). Of course, there are still problems. Workers wages are not paid within the first week of the month. Overtime payments are irregular. Festival allowances and festival leave is not forthcoming unless the girls take to the streets. The minimum wage (1,662.50 taka ?USD 24) is not paid. There is no earned leave. No weekly holidays. Girls do not get maternity leave. If they become pregnant, they get sacked. Appointment letters are not issued. No identity cards are given. They do not get government holidays . For unknown reasons, the eight hour work day, the result of the 1876 May Day movement, and other international movements organised by workers, is not followed in the garment factories. Safety standards in most factories, many of them located in residential areas as opposed to industrial ones, are horribly lacking. These factories, says Mishu, are “death traps.” These traps have killed five hundred workers. Electric short-circuits have led to fires, workers fleeing to save their lives have been trampled to death, locked exits have remained locked even during accidents, or poorly-built buildings have collapsed burying workers underneath the rubble. Mishu spoke of the collapsed Spectrum garment building in Savar, of factory workers in Tejgaon, and of KPS factory workers in Chittagong.
Things are a bit better now, says Mishu, who has been organising workers, and fighting for their rights for the last thirteen years. It was far worse in the beginning. Girls would be worked to their bones. They would work the whole night, but would not get their night bills. Nor would they be paid their overtime bills. Often, not even their basic salaries. There would be a lot of dilly-dallying over wages, aj na kal, this would go on for 2-3-4-5 months. And then, one fine morning the girls would come and and find that the owners had packed up and left. In the middle of the night. No wages, no overtime, nothing in exchange for many months of hard labour. Having a trade union to protect their rights was unheard of. Not only was there no maternity leave, if a girl’s pregnancy was `discovered,’ she would immediately lose her job. She would be forced to leave, penniless. Physical assaults, beatings, threats of acid attack, other forms of intimidation were common. Owners do not regard workers as their colleagues or co-workers, but as slaves. As their servants However, Mishu adds, things have changed. Not big changes. Tiny ones. (Sromik Awaz, 12 January 2008).
She goes on, I have seen many marriages break up. The factories had this outrageous attendance card system. It said, work hours are from 7 am to 5 pm. But, in practice, women worked till midnight. Or, till one in the morning. Why or how it is allowed to happen, I do not know, said Mishu. The 1965 law, the Factory Law says women workers work hours can only be from 7 in the morning to 8 at night. How that can be so blissfully violated in the case of garment factory workers, I do not know. Of course I understand, if there is a shipment yes, but surely there aren’t shipments the whole year round.
Yes, I was talking about work hours, said Mishu, when girls returned home late, of course, they would be returning from work but since the attendance card said work hours were from 7 to 5, husbands would be suspicious. I know of husbands who would beat their wives, who would drag her by the hair, yell abuses, “Where have you been, you whore?” And also, in our country, it is not safe for women to be out so late at night. Rapes, gang rapes, these happen. They still do. Inside the factory too, there is a lot of sexual harassment. There are other problems, there are no colonies close to the factories where the girls can live. They come to Dhaka city in search of work, leaving behind their families in villages, in townships. They live here in a mess, many to a room, or they take in a sub-let room. They can pay the rent, or the local shopkeeper for food items, rice, salt, oil, on getting their wages. If they can’t pay, they are harassed by the landlord, or by the shopkeeper. I know of girls who have been turned out of their rooms by the landlord, sometimes in the middle of the night. Because they could not pay their rent. I have seen girls in Adabor (Mohammodpur), I have seen them take refuge in front of Shaymoli cinema hall, in the verandas of local mosques, and yes, even beneath a tree. And, as you know, girls working in garment factories are very young, as young as 16. The oldest girls are in their early to mid-twenties.
Mishu said, the Emergency has affected the garment workers movement adversely. The May 2006 movement arose over piece rate payments. Payments were very low at the Apex factory. Workers protested, the police opened fire. Shohag, a young worker, was killed. The movement spread like wildfire, in Gazipur and beyond. It spread to Savar, to Ashulia. It erupted later again, in October. We achieved some, said Mishu, our demand for minimum wages, for setting up of a wage board. We also lost. The wage board would include representatives from both owners and workers. But both sets of representatives were to be selected by the owners! Eleven organisations had demanded a minimum wage of three thousand taka. But we were betrayed. Minimum wage was fixed at 1,162.50. But even that is not paid. Of course, we haven’t given up our demand for a minimum wage of three thousand taka. It is ridiculous to expect that workers can live, they can reproduce their labour power, at such low income levels.
The Emergency has adversely affected the garment workers movement. It has made things much worse. Before, because of one movement after the other, there was some hope. The factory owners had nearly agreed to trade unions. I don’t know what the ILO (International Labour Organisation) office is doing sitting here in Dhaka, I am sure they know that trade union activities are banned. That workers do not have basic democratic rights. As a result of the Emergency, we cannot put any pressure on the owners to follow the 2006 tripartite agreement. We cannot pressurise the government either. The owners are benefiting from the Emergency. They are sacking workers, they are implicating both workers and leaders in false cases. There are 19 such false cases against me in Gazipur, and 7 in Ashulia. Working people are increasingly getting very angry. Spontaneous movements keep bursting out in different factories. Whenever any protest takes place, you get to hear another round of conspiracy theories. Either the workers are conspiring. Or their leaders are conspiring. Or, it is an international conspiracy. Issues of social justice in the sector that owns three-quarters of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings, are sidelined.
As far as garment workers are concerned, this government is no different from other governments, said Mishu. It looks upon us as the enemy, as conspirators. It instructs the police to fire bullets at us. Things far worse happen to us. The Emergency has taken away our rights. It has increased the power of the owners over the workers. Our movement is part of the larger movement for democracy, not the state-sponsored one, but the people’s one. The real one. And of course, we wish to link up to other movements that oppress people.
Postscript: A hundred years ago, Sultana had a dream. The lion is bigger and stronger than a man. Just like men who are [generally] bigger and stronger than women. One can invent similar parallels. Like factory owners, who are richer than workers, and have state backing unlike workers. Other parallels also come to mind.
But in Sultana’s Dream there is a twist. Those who are stronger, and more powerful eventually lose. They are outwitted by their captives, who dreamt of freedom and emancipation.
First published in New Age 8th March 2008

A Beginner's Guide to Democracy

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Rahnuma Ahmed

I don’t often get brainwaves. But there was something about David Miliband?s interview, shown on a private TV channel, that inspired me. I don’t often watch TV either. It was just fate, I guess.

To be honest, it wasn’t only Miliband, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. There have been others. From Britain. From the US. From Australia. From Canada, Germany, the European Union. Some have been visiting dignitaries. Others were diplomats, some of them still posted here. They have given us a steady stream of advice. Some of it was sought, much of it volunteered.
On what to do. How to do. The practical steps involved. The people required. The mechanisms needed. The institutions that must be in place. The values to inculcate.
As a recipient of this sudden surge of Western interest in Bangladesh, a poor, hapless nation, led often enough by wretched, self-serving leaders, as a recipient of endless lectures on democracy, often embellished by locomotive metaphors (‘democracy derailed,’ ‘getting democracy back on track’), I have been at a total loss. So much is being expected of us. What are we to do? And, being part of the derailed ‘us’, what am I to do?
It was Miliband who showed me the way. I knew what I had to do before the interview was over. The relationship between Bangladesh and Britain should be a two way street. We should not only take, we should also give. It should be a modern relationship, as befits a modern world. We should be partners, that’s what he had said.
The mind works in strange ways. Suddenly I remembered Mohammod, a Palestinian friend of mine, from my Sussex days. The three of us, the third being my American flatmate, had been chatting in the kitchen. He had been invited for dinner. “You western people, you are People of the Book,” he had said. “How to cook, how to garden, how to mow the lawn, how to take pictures. For everything, you people have a book. You follow the instructions 1, 2, 3 of your little book.” His laughter had been irresistible. We had joined in. I myself less grudgingly.
Write a How To Do on Democracy? Or A Beginners Guide to Democracy? But why on earth? Why me, and for whom? Dare I?
I got hold of a CD copy of the interview, I transcribed it. I read the transcript several times. It’s not a lengthy interview, only twenty minutes or so, but of course, it’s quality not quantity that matters. It’s a question of having the right attitude, of having a positive frame of mind. I quickly marked out Miliband’s check list for Bangladesh: (i) full, free and fair elections this year (ii) buttressing institutions of a strong civil society (iii) an independent judiciary which treats all cases on merit without fear or favor (iv) a strong media that asks tough questions, and also (v) strong systems of education, health and local government, since the latter are important supports to the formal institutions of democracy.
Miliband was not asked tough questions. The interviewer was not a recognised journalist. Knowing English seemed to be more important. Being able to read questions off the cue card seemed to be more important. I don’t know how these things work, but the end result was there for all to see. No ruffles, no stress, no strain. No curiosity. Just sheer complicity. In the path to democracy project, a project in which Bangladesh is the eager learner, and Britain, as represented by its Foreign Secretary, has all the answers. Tempered, of course, with the appropriate dash of modesty (‘I have been in Bangladesh for six hours, I have to be careful about pretending to be an expert on Bangladesh’).
Complicity doesn’t just happen. It is an act of creation, and there is no reason to assume that a lot of effort isn’t involved. What were the ground rules at work in Miliband’s TV interview? My guesses are made on the basis of the effect that was achieved. That made it so tidy.
Rule 1: Take everything at face value. When Miliband says, British citizens of Bangladeshi origin “look very closely at developments in Bangladesh. They have family here, they worry about economic, social, political issues,” do not ask whether they are similarly concerned at developments in Britain. At the increasing loss of liberties. At Islamophobia. Do not ask how they are contributing to the movement for democracy in post 9/11 Britain, a Britain decidedly less democratic than it was earlier. Don’t take up the “two-way process” seriously.
Rule 2: Ask self-evident questions, these help to elicit self-evident answers. “What are your views on the road to democracy for Bangladesh? Or where are we on the roadmap for democracy?”, this is a good instance. It helped the Honorable Foreign Secretary come up with the checklist I mentioned above. Do not engage with his answers. When he speaks of Britain and Bangladesh’s “shared interests,” do not ask him whose interests he’s talking about. Whether that of the Labour government, or that of the British people. Do not ask him whether the Blair, or the present Brown, government genuinely represents the interests of the British people. Do not breathe a word about the million strong anti-war demonstration held in London several years ago.
When Miliband speaks of trade relations between Britain and Bangladesh, of Britain as an investor, do not raise the issue of Asia Energy (re-named Global Coal Management). Do not bring up the issue of Phulbari, of the strong and vibrant people’s movement against Asia Energy, against open pit mining. Do not quote the British High Commissioner’s statement, “Many of you will be aware of UK-based Asia Energy Corporation?s contract to mine coal at Phulbari, but may not know that other British investments in coal and power generation are also waiting for the green signal from the Government here. These new projects, when implemented, would double the value of the UK?s cumulative investment in Bangladesh.” Nor this one, “Yes, I will continue to lobby for new British investments particularly in the energy sectors in Bangladesh” (same speech).
When Miliband speaks of his passion for the environment, do not ask him why energy corporations do not calculate carbon costs when they declare their assets. When he says, “Don’t repeat our mistakes,” do not ask him whether that impacts on Asia Energy’s push for open pit mining. (Do not mention conflict of interest between the government and people of Bangladesh. Especially avoid mention of Dr. M Tamim, the Advisor’s Special Assistant for Power and Energy Ministry and his private consultancy).
Rule 3: Do not mention instances to the contrary. When Miliband says, “So the road to democracy first of all, needs to have full, free and fair elections,” ” the elections are seen to be a credible expression of the will of the Bangladeshi people,” “help make sure that democratic voices are heard through the ballot box not outside it,” do not raise questions about the overthrow of a popularly elected leader in Iran in 1953. Do not raise any questions about Hamas. Do not ask why 36 of the 39 Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council members that the Israelis abducted in 2006, are still detained. Why some of them haven’t even been charged. Do not say the un-sayable, that more Palestinian legislators are in prison than legislators from all the other parliaments in the rest of the world put together. Do not ask tough questions.
When Miliband speaks of the necessity of an “independent judiciary which treats all cases on merit without fear or favor, a strong media that asks tough questions,” do not bring up the Hutton report (2004) on the BBC, regarded by several national newspapers as an “establishment whitewash.” The report was considered to be uncritical of the government. Don’t mention former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet’s name either, and why Britain had refused to extradite him.
Rule 4: Treat history as irrelevant, trivialise it. Use it as a decorative word, as having no content. You can utter the words, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom share a very strong historical linkage, but steer clear of what that “linkage” involves — British colonialism, exploitation, historical struggles, injustices, movement for freedom.
Rule 5: Treat what is happening in the world as irrelevant. Do not talk of the blockade of Gaza, of Israeli settlements, of the West’s refusal to talk to Hamas, Israel’s apartheid practices, its land thefts, slaughter of Palestinian children. Of the slow genocide that it is inflicting on defenceless civilians, bulldozing houses, torture and assassinations. Of voices of protest. Of Rachel Corrie. Do not talk of Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Do not mention that a recent report cites as many as 6.6 million post-invasion excess deaths in Occupied Afghanistan as of February 2008. That post-invasion excess deaths in the Iraq War are now about 1.5-2 million.
Absolutely do not mention that UK playwright Harold Pinter, in his 2005 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech urged the arraignment of Bush and Blair before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. He had said, “How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?
Postscript:
In a recent address before an audience at Oxford University, in honour of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, David Miliband has said, “the goal of spreading democracy should be a great progressive project.” He refused to categorically rule out military action against Iran.
The road to democracy in Bangladesh as chalked out by her western partners seems to be signposted with the messages: Take everything at face value. Do not ask tough questions.
First published in The New Age on 4th March 2008

Being Ekushey

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blogger’s note: The 21st (Ekushey) February 1952, is one of the most significant days in Bangladesh’s history and represents the language movement of Bangladesh. UNESCO has declared 21st February as the International Mother Language Day.

——-

By Rahnuma Ahmed

Words or Deeds?

Apology to Aborigines

“The wrongs were done not through words but through deeds. The rights need to be done in exactly the same way. Much breath is wasted in polemic while peoples lives are twisted and broken out of sight of those who speak it.”
Zubair’s e-mail, published in New Age, Monday Feb 18, 2008 caught my eye.
I had turned the pages of the newspaper, but his words brought back memories of my school years. The infinite number of times I had said “sorry” to my mother only to be faced by sheer incredulity on her part. “Sorry bollei hoe gelo?” (So you say you are sorry and that’s it?).
It would be over little things. Everyday things. I had forgotten to put the milk back into the fridge. I had not locked the front door properly. While crossing her, my foot had accidentally touched hers. “Sorry.” I could not help but utter this little word that the Canadian nuns had taught us. This was the mid-sixties. I was studying at a convent in Chittagong. The sisters were patient. They would repeatedly instruct us, If you make a mistake, if the fault is yours, you must say, “I am sorry.” When I used the word at school, they would smile at me. Their smiles were kind and encouraging.
But things were different at home. My mother would immediately retort, Sorry bollei hoe gelo? I was always at a loss. I never knew what to say. What could I say? What should I say? Should I say, “But ma, this is what I am taught at school.” Or, “You are supposed to say this ma.” Or, much later, when I was in high school in Karachi, devouring Barbara Cartland, and Mills & Boons romances, should I have tried to explain “Ma, this is English etiquette, you have to say it. It doesn’t mean anything.” But I was sure all hell would break loose. I was sure she would pounce on my words and say, “Why say it then?” And of course I would be at a total loss.
Think before you commit a wrong, that is what she would say. “But ma, what if something happens accidentally? I didn’t want to, but it happened, still… what then?” She was quick to remind me, if you had been really mindful you would have been more careful with the glass jug. Then she would go on, “If it does, be ashamed, behave ashamed. Don’t go around, still strutting… And make sure it never happens again.”
The years had passed. I was on my own. I kept making mistakes. I kept mumbling sorry. But I was not able to forget my mother’s words. I felt there was something more to it. But what was it? Manners? Or rather, lack of? That was often implied, that they had more, we had less. I was quite unconvinced. There must be something else. Maybe it has to do with language. I was not sure. Philosophy, ethics? I was not sure. I used to read a lot, but I could not find any answers. I couldn’t forget her words either.
Many more years later, I came across John Austin’s work. In How To Do Things With Words, Austin, a philosopher of language says, language does not only convey information. It is a mode of action. Speaking involves acts: labouring, writing, cooking, cleaning, marrying, marching. And therefore, a theory of language is part of a theory of action. There are two kinds of utterances, constative, and performative (he revised much of this later, but that’s a separate issue). Constative ones are descriptive; they report. They are either true or false. For instance, the jug is made of glass. East Pakistan was part of Pakistan. The history of Aboriginal Australians is one of genocide. Performative ones are different. What is important here is the attitude of the person speaking — her feelings, perceptions, intentions. For instance, take the case of a groom who has uttered “kobul” (I do) at a marriage ceremony, but has not disclosed the fact that he has a wife and two kids. Both marriages are valid in Muslim law, but many would doubt his sincerity and honesty.
Following Austin I could see that when I said “I am sorry”, whether I meant it genuinely or not was more important than uttering the word. My thoughts returned to what ma had said. Was that what she was driving at? At the meaning? Or did her words belong to let’s say, a different moral universe? Hmm, I thought, it’s both yes and no. If something happened accidentally, against my will, then yes. I would have to be remorseful. Sincerely so. What were her exact words? Behave ashamed. But the other half of her lesson, that had been different. Think before you commit a wrong. Think. So that the need to say I’m sorry does not arise. I found Austin very interesting. I hadn’t thought a theorist or a philosopher of language would give importance to the speaker’s intentions, to her feelings. I hadn’t thought what a speaker, or writer, meant by kobul was part of the meaning of kobul. Linguistics no longer seemed boring.
I return to the present. I look at younger mothers who instruct their children to utter the word “sorry.” I remember a young friend who had come with her three year-old. He had spilt food, and she insisted, “Tell aunty you are sorry, tell her you are sorry for spilling the food.”
I feel slightly bemused when I read an article reporting a survey on the use of the word sorry by Britons (“Sorry to say,” BBC News 24). The article tells us that the word originated from the Old English word ‘Sarig’, which meant “distressed, full of sorow.” What had earlier been a hard to use word is now an “over-used figure of speech.” It is “common.” It is a “cheap and convenient way” of excusing inappropriate, anti-social behaviour. According to the survey’s findings, the average person in Britain says sorry often. Two-thirds of the time, they don’t mean it.
I am more convinced than ever. My mother must have meant something very fundamental when she had objected to the word “sorry”.

Getting it wrong?

The ex-law advisor to the current government Barrister Mainul Hossein will be remembered. For his unforgettable statements. One of these was to waiting journalists. Something to this effect, ‘If you exercised self-censorship yourself, we would not have to censor you, would we?’
Not all private TV channels have toed the line. Not all of the time. Recently, Shahidul was interviewed by one of the channels. Before the recording began, he was chatting with members of the crew. Talk soon turned to the emergency, the current economic slump, and to media restrictions. Talk turned to Ekushey TV, to the ban on Ekushey Shomoy, and Ekushey Raat. A member of the recording crew nodded his head and said sympathetically, [The problem was] oder self-censorshipta thikmoto hocchilo na. (They weren’t getting their self-censorship right).
It’s funny. It’s also very telling. We not only need to censor ourselves. We also need to pitch it right. Who does that benefit and how? What does apology do for those who apologise? That’s the question Eva Mackey, a Canadian anthropologist asks of “Sorry Day” ceremonies. These are enacted by local communities in Australia, and seen as part of a “people’s movement.” (“As good as it gets? Apology, Colonialism and White Innocence,” 1999). Her answer is, it accomplishes two things. It foregrounds 200 years of colonial violence, but the acknowledgement is made in order to erase genocidal actions. Simultaneously. Through a few simple words. Like magic. As such, it does a lot for the apologiser. They are able to construct themselves as innocent. The actions themselves are rendered “forgivable.” Before even being spoken, the acts are made forgivable. Not acts that can be punished, or avenged. Not acts that “fall outside the bounds of forgiveness altogether.” She asks, why do Canada and Australia’s attempts at cultural genocide not mean that they be ejected from the United Nations? How can a few simple words do so much? To understand that, says Mackey, we must see apology as a ?speech act.?
Paraphrasing Eva, my question is: what does our self-censorship do for those who rule? It constructs them as innocent. As uninterested in power. Until the playing field has been levelled. Made empty, for them. The only players.

Getting it right

Is the observance of Language Day a speech act? Mouthing words, saying niceties. Only for one day, each year. Thank you Salam, Rafiq, Barkat, Jabbar, Sofiur Rahman, nine year-old Ohiullah…. Thank you for giving us the Language Day. We are sorry you had to die though…
Or is it about re-creating meanings of love, sacrifice and struggle? For languages and their peoples. For the mother-tongues of other peoples of Bangladesh, the paharis and adivasis. Fighting not only for the survival of languages, but the peoples these languages belong to. Fighting for their physical and cultural existence. Fighting for their freedom from encroaching army camps. Fighting against open-pit mines and eco-parks. One foisted on us in the name of national security, the other in the name of development.
Is it about getting self-censorship right? Or getting it wrong. Again. And yet again.
We should not let Ekushey become a “speech act”. We should be Ekushey.
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First published on 21st February 2008 in New Age

Tortured Truths

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rahnuma ahmed

As a little child, when I was only three or four, I couldn’t understand how people could still see me if I shut my eyes.
Later, like most people, I grew up. I realised shutting my eyes didn’t make me any less visible to others.
Reading the recently-published Human Rights Watch report, available on the internet, The Torture of Tasneem Khalil. How the Bangladesh Military Abuses Its Power under the State of Emergency reminded me of my childhood follies. And I thought, hmm no one talks of military torture. Police torture, yes. RAB torture, umm, maybe. If you are foolhardy. Or if you are Jahangir Alam Akash, an outspoken Rajshahi journalist (see his just-published Ondhokarey Ponero Ghonta).
But military torture. No. DGFI torture i.e., torture at the hands (or boots) of military intelligence. NEVER. Unless one is Professor Anwar Hossain (Jobanbondi, Kara Deenolipi).
Talking of torture by state agencies, against its own citizens… but no hold it. Is the DGFI a mere state agency? Don’t keener analysts, those who don’t regurgitate dead political theories on TV, say that it has come to represent a state within a state?

Torture doesn’t reveal the truth

It was a medieval idea, that pain had to be inflicted on the body for truth to pour out. The purpose of modern torture is different. To instill fear. To crush political dissent. To wreak havoc and destroy lives. Often performed out of sheer habit. To assert supremacy. To possess nations. To build empires anew. The ticking bomb theory seeks to justify torture. What if a bomb timed to detonate at the rush hour has been planted in a crowded metro area. What if security forces have been able to identify and pick up the terrorists. Surely, to save innocent lives…
But reality is more complex. Torture doesn’t bring out the truth. Torture victims have repeatedly said that after a certain point they admit to nearly anything. To stop the pain being inflicted. Unless one is Khaled Shaikh Mohammed, described by US intelligence agencies as a 9/11 operational planner. Khaled was waterboarded, a torture technique where the prisoner is made to feel as though he is drowning. The interrogators used both hot and cold water. He was subjected to all kinds of deprivations, beatings, threats. They failed. He won the grudging respect of his interrogators. The high point was when they threatened to harm his children — a boy and a girl, age 7 and 9 — also captured. Khaled replied, “That’s fine. You can do what you want to my children, and they will find a better place with Allah.” He did give his interrogators some information, but as CIA expert Ron Suskind says, they were things that professional interrogators could have gotten otherwise. CIA’s torture methods, says Suskind, are “unproductive.”
Many liberal democratic governments in the West are embarrassed at having to employ torture. The war on terror, the horrors at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have given rise to convoluted descriptions of what is torture, how to measure torture, levels of acceptable pain. Often enough one comes across public officials quibbling over the legality of particular forms of pain and suffering inflicted. For instance, the newly-appointed US Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused to comment on whether waterboarding constituted torture. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Chairman, Mukasey wrote, “it is not an easy question.”
It’s funny how perceptions can change when questions are framed differently. “If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture,” is what US national intelligence chief Mike McConnell said in a New Yorker magazine interview.

Do not forget me comrade

“I think I owe my resistance to a variety of concepts. Love is one of them. Poetry. Despair also, but not in the sense of suicide or surrender. Sadness was also present. There was also an ethical dimension. I was raised to be unbreakable, there was no choice but to resist,” said Syrian poet and journalist Faraj Ahmad Bayrakdar, to the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar. Faraj was imprisoned and tortured for his political activities and membership of the League of Communist Action. Termed one of the world’s “forgotten prisoners,” he was released from prison 14 months before the end of a 15-year jail sentence.
The most painful torture method, said Faraj, was the German chair. He calls it the “Nazi chair.” The prisoner is tied to a metal chair, it is then folded backwards, so that it pressurizes the back of the prisoner. Once put on that chair, any full breath can kill. “He has to calibrate his breathing on the edge of pain between two half-breaths. His life is placed on that line.” Once Faraj had to be carried back to his cell on a blanket. On the way, he had a vision of Malek Bin Arrayb when it was his time to die. “I felt the similarities between him and me. I didn’t fear death, I was only sad.” He composed this verse:

I wasn’t alive
And I wasn’t dead
So I made my way for him
Oh, how the narrowness of this place
Shames me.

For others, composing poetry while in prison has provided a feeling of control. It has defeated feelings of helplessness. Muriel Dockendorff Navarrete was 23 in 1974. A poet, lyricist, and economics student, she was arrested by the DINA in Santiago, Chile, for her organizing activities. Married a year ago, she was never again seen by her husband, or other members of her family. Muriel wrote this poem for “Sandra,” a fellow torture-center detainee, on the inside of a cigarette packet:
I remember when I met you in the house of terror, of what you gave me and surrendered to me.
In those moments in which the light was a dream or a miracle. However, you were the light amongst the darkness.
We were as one in our misfortune. Today, after thousands of
misfortunes more, I can see you, as I did then, always looking forward.
We will see each other again through the fog that we will disperse.
Do not forget me comrade.

It also leaves messages for us, for those outside. We must not forget. Neither Muriel, nor “Sandra.” Nor all others tortured. We must work to disperse the fog.

You are the law. You are God

Nufar Yishai-Karin, Israeli clinical psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, interviewed 21 Israeli soldiers. They confessed to assaulting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Frequently. Brutally.
The majority of the interviewees confessed at some point or the other, that they “enjoyed [the] violence.” It broke the routine, they liked the destruction and the chaos. Violence and the sense of danger gave them a feeling of power.
One of the soldiers said, “The truth? When there is chaos, I like it. That’s when I enjoy it. It’s like a drug. If I don’t go into Rafah, and if there isn’t some kind of riot once in some weeks, I go nuts.” Another soldier explained: “The most important thing is that it removes the burden of the law from you. You feel that you are the law. You are the law. You are the one who decides… As though from the moment you leave the place that is called Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and go through the Erez checkpoint into the Gaza Strip, you are the law. You are God.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Tasneem’s account is “the most detailed public account of a
case of torture in Bangladesh.” There are other testimonies too. The truth has been told.
We can no longer keep our eyes shut.
New Age 18 Feb 2008

Unequal Comparisons

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by rahnuma ahmed

Female bodily mutilation

Hello, it was a woman?s voice. Yes, hello. Is that the post-grad room in Sussex University? Yes, I replied cautiously. Can I speak to Ayesha Imam? Well, no, she hasn?t come in yet. Do you want to leave a message…? Yes, could you please tell her I called, my name is… I am a TV producer. I?ll call again, after lunch, thanks. Okay, sure, I replied.

Ayesha came in late. She was well-known in university feminist circles, and much admired. We shared office space, and the rest of us would often receive phone calls intended for her. A call from Dakar inviting her to a Women Living under Muslim Laws conference. Or a call from Channel Four, inviting her to be a panellist. Keen intelligence, a cutting sense of humour, a Nigerian father and a Chinese mother. Beautiful ancestry, beautiful eyes. I passed on the message to her as soon as she came in. Ayesha frowned. Why, what?s the matter? They want to make a programme on FGM, female genital mutilation in Africa, but, well… how shall I put it… hmm what do I say? Well, what about….

Soon after lunch, the phone rang. I was working at the other end of the room but I could clearly hear this end of the conversation. ?Yes, of course I am very interested, but surely you are not thinking of making a programme on female genital mutilation only. I think there are broader issues involved, I think there?s a core issue, that of female bodily mutilation, and surely that?s a universal phenomenon. It manifests differently in Western societies… I mean, it?s not the same in all cultures, not the same interests everywhere… in some places it?s religion, or customs, somewhere else, there are commercial interests, there?s advertising, and yes also, medical science. The issue is female bodily mutilation, I think that?s how male-centredness is secured in social life. I am sure you are thinking of covering all aspects in your programme, clitoridectomy, infibulation of course all these, but also let?s say, hmm, you know Western practices, like silicone breasts, liposuction, collagen implants in lips? Of course, in choosing these, Western women exercise their freedom, and African women are forced into submission, they have no say etc, etc, but surely we can go beyond these ideas, delve a bit deeper??

A wicked smile hovered on Ayesha?s lips as she told me, ?She didn?t sound enthusiastic today.?

The producer did not get in touch with Ayesha later. Maybe her funding sources had dried up. Maybe she couldn?t get hold of a sponsor. Or maybe she didn?t like the comparison between Middle Eastern/African, and Western women.

This was 1993.

A special alien

She is American and teaches photography. She had come with her husband and two other friends for dinner, about three weeks ago. As they were leaving, she asked me, ??and when do we get to see you in New York?? I immediately replied, ?In that police state? No, never.? I quickly turned to Shahidul and egged him, ?Go on, tell her about your Special Alien status. Tell her what you went through in your last visits to the US.? Shahidul didn?t need much persuasion. ?There was a long line at the airport, I think this was 2005, they took my fingerprints, my photograph, asked a lot of questions. I was led into another room, a large room with long queues. Latinos, Asians, Africans.? ?Any whites?? I butted in. ?Just a few. When it was finally my turn, more questions. Why had I come? For how many days? Where would I stay? Who would I meet? Had I ever visited America before? How many times? Why? Would I be travelling to other states? Why? I could see that he had all the answers at his fingertips, from the visa form I had filled in at the US embassy in Dhaka. But I guess, they hope to tire you out, so that you slip. They took my fingerprints and photograph again, as if my prints, my face had changed in a matter of hours!

?When I left the States I didn?t know that I?d have to go through the same process. When I entered the US again, on another visit, they looked into their computers and warned me, if you fail to exit properly the next time, you?ll be banned for life. Yes, that?s what they said! And y?see, when you are departing, the NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) room for visitors who are exiting is located somewhere else, it?s not the same room, or even the same terminal. Pretty confusing. And in each airport, it?s some place else. Looking for it is a hassle. I remember missing my flight. I had to go through security check, go out of the building, get registered as a Special Alien, this means questions, fingerprints, photographs, then come in again, into the main airport building. Three security checks, in all. And that?s how it?s been, since then. But it depends on who you get, at one of the airports all the officials were Latino, they were very nice. They had to do their job but they weren?t gung-ho, no, not at all.?

?How can you live there?? I couldn?t help asking her. ?And of course, you must know about these detention centres that are being built, for… what is it called, ?new programmes.? What on earth do they mean? Are they going to put American Muslims into these centres? Like they did with the Japanese Americans during World War Two??

She said, ?Well, nowadays, back home I myself feel like an alien. A Special Alien.?

Of course, Shahidul?s alien-ness has material consequences (fine, deportation), that hers doesn?t. Not that she is to blame. Since 9/11, America?s terrorism policy has been reshaping its immigration policy. Muslims, whether those who intend to live there permanently, or those who enter the US on a temporary basis, ?for tourism, medical treatment, business, temporary work, study or other, similar reasons,? are subjected to greater scrutiny, to a profiling regime. In order to ?safeguard US citizens and America?s borders,? the US government has packed off even foreign nationals to its gulag, the Guantanamo. Even citizens of nations where the US is not an occupying power (Syria, Kuwait, Algeria, UK, Canada, Australia).

To paraphrase Karen C Tumlin?s words (California Law Review), Muslim visitors to America are special suspects first, welcome newcomers second. If at all.

Unequal claims

The chief adviser Dr Fakhruddin met the press for the first time on November 14 after taking office on January 11, 2007. He said, ?I don?t think the common people are facing any problems due to continuation of the state of emergency.? (New Age, 15 November 2007)

I love statements like that. Not that I think he was being insincere. He comes across as being pretty genuine, in an earnest sort of way. At times, he does seem a bit perplexed. But then, these are difficult times.

No, I do not doubt his sincerity. It?s not that, it?s something else. When he claims to know how common people are, how does he know? Enveloped and cushioned as he is ? as they are ? by our constitutional rights being suspended, by emergency laws, by joint forces, remands, a muffled media, sycophants, by pats on the back by Western murubbi diplomats, how does he know how common people are? How cyclone Sidr survivors who had demanded relief felt on being interned by the police? What everyday shoppers think when powdered milk prices shoot up by 100 takas within a week? What do those who queue for rice at BDR shops want to do after having inched their way up only to be told that supplies have finished?

Reading what Dr Fakhruddin thinks reminds me of something Patricia Hill Collins, black social theorist, had written. I dig it out. Collins, in her discussion of standpoint theory, had quoted Rosa Wakefield, an elderly domestic worker. Wakefield was assessing how the standpoints of the powerful and those who serve them, like her, diverge. Her words, ?If you eats these dinners and don?t cook ?em, if you wears these clothes and don?t buy or iron them, then you might start thinking that the good fairy or some spirit did all that… Black folks don?t have no time to be thinking like that… But when you don?t have anything else to do, you can think like that. It?s bad for your mind, though.?

Rosa knows.

New Age February 4 2008

Unruly Images

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Masculinity, Public Memory and Censorship

By Rahnuma Ahmed

Because it can be neither forgotten nor redeemed, the past must be changed. To redeem the past one must alter one’s relationship to it… If the problem.. [is that] of a one-dimensional political representation, then what it calls for is not work on the subject — or not just that — but… “political work on the symbolic.”
Linda M. G. Zerilli, The Abyss of Freedom.
Bissrinkhol Drissho: Pourush, Public Smriti O Censorship attempts to do that. To politically work on that which is symbolic. It came out recently, as a small booklet. My article is prefaced by a foreword written by Abdullah al-Mamun, who teaches Mass Communication and Journalism at Rajshahi University. He was released from prison nearly six weeks ago, alongwith three other teachers, Moloy Kumar Bhowmik, Dulal Chandra Biswas and Selim Reza Newton. They were granted presidential clemency on 10 December 2007. Incidentally, neither the teachers, nor their wives, had appealed for a presidential pardon.
They have been released from prison, but not from the farce that the government is carrying out with public university teachers, students and employees. The clemency covers conviction and punishment, but the government has not withdrawn the case against them. Mamun and the others appear in court on January 28, when appeal hearings begin.
The newly-appointed education advisor while talking to news reporters about the case against Dhaka university teachers, unwittingly exposed the farce. “Whatever be the verdict,” he said in all seriousness, the teachers will be “released soon.”
Whatever be this week’s outcome, these famous last lines will not be easily forgotten.

Not a straight-forward affair

Photographs. And people. The connection is not a simple one. `Hey, I didn’t know you had gone to Rajendrapur?’ `Just that once, the picnic was terrible.’ Photographs capture a particular moment, but to know whether that moment is something out of the ordinary, whether it represents a whim or a regular habit, we need people. We need testimony. Thus, what a photograph can tell us has its limits. Documentary photographs, at times, may not give us the feeling of recognition we expect, “Is that you? I would never have guessed.” Sometimes they may be pretty inaccurate. Also, there is the question of interpretation. “Hmm, looks like the two of you had snuggled up real close…” “No, no it’s the angle, he was at least five feet away.” As I said, the connection between people and photographs is not a straightforward affair.
Mishaps may happen. Ordinary people may feel piqued on seeing the results, “The light wasn’t good” or, “She’s a lousy photographer,” but rulers are less likely to take them kindly. Specially, if it unravels carefully-constructed identities. Group identities of patriotism and disinterested professionalism. Identities crucial to legitimising. Identities essential for individual ambitions.
Censorship is often thought of stereotypically. As a prohibition, a ban on disclosure. Mamoon, in his foreword to Bissrinkhol Drissho (henceforth Unruly Images) argues differently. He writes, censorship is relational. It is oppositional. Desired images, destined for circulation, are continuously produced and re-produced while undesirable ones are stifled. Both occur simultaneously to construct a reality that meets the expectations of rulers.

Dhaka University incident: unruly images

Unruly Images is about the regime of visual images, not flesh-and-blood people. In it I take a close look at two photographs generated during the Dhaka University protests of August 2007. The military-backed caretaker government came to power in January 2007. Soon after, a perceptible change took place in the world of visual representations, in the world of images. Military masculinity came to be foregrounded as a distinct form of masculinity, in opposition to civilian masculinity, its silent other. TV, both government and private channels, and the print media were the primary instruments used to effect the change. The act of foregrounding re-drew the difference between civilian and military as a primary one, something qualitatively different to the multiplicity of competing masculine images, leader, cadre, executive, mastan, businesman etc seen during the period of elected governments, 1990-2007. In military song video performances regularly screened on TV, military masculinity is portrayed as infinitely courageous, whether on the training ground, in the battle for liberation, or soldiering for peace in faraway lands. The army uniform emerges as a symbol of discipline, regularity, order, control, restraint, punctuality. In writing this, my concern is not with its truth, it is solely with images, with portraiture. The song-video images lack social depth. There are no folds, no seams, no hesitancies, and as such, they are propagandistic. Being fragile, they are unable to withstand the realities of life. They falter if not propped up by the state. Their fragility grieves the creators, their grief and pain is expressed in language founded on the state’s powers of coercion. As happened in the case of Dhaka University, in August 2007.
The publication of the first photograph, the censored one, created disorder in the world of images. To restore order, it became necessary to introduce the second image, Professor Anwar Hossain’s apology to the armed forces. This image was generously circulated, distributed and re-distributed, over and over again. The times however were tumultuous, one event rapidly followed the other. That the two photographs are linked, in a cause-and-effect fashion, was something overlooked. Looking at one image brings back memories of the other. It was an oversight. Such things do happen, even with the best of intentions.
censored-rahnuma-blog.pngapology-rahnuma-blog.png
If the first image is censored, how does one talk about it? How do I convey to readers what is in the photograph? How does one manoeuver around censorship restrictions?
Three sources exist, highly reliable sources, not-censored sources, that offer us a language to talk about them. One is Professor Anwar Hossain’s statement itself, a primary text, an authentic one since those to whom it is addressed have not raised any objections. Of the other two sources, one is to be found on the Bangladesh armed forces website (Dhaka Bisshobiddaloyer Shongothito Opritikor Ghotonatir Itikotha); the other is also military, but un-official http://www.bdmilitary.com/.
In Professor Anwar Hossain’s statement, one comes across the lines of opposition: army/military versus civilian. Civilian is expressed through different words, “students,” “Dhaka university,” “teacher,” “General Secretary of Dhaka University Teachers Association” ” guardian of the students.” These words give us an idea of place, time, the actors involved. A happening seems to have occurred, one that involves action and reaction. Professor Anwar mentions the word “attack” five times. I assume, from the logic of the apology offered, that a student has attacked a member of the army. The nature of the attack? The title of a BMF report found on its website indicates an unarmed attack, The “Flying Kicker” Identified (for those who don’t know, Bangladesh Military Forces Group is an independent, non-governmental, non-political and non-profit association of research on defence and strategic issues). “The” and “Kicker,” are telltale words that indicate one student, not many. Other words indicate one army member only, “an attack on a member of the army means an attack on the armed forces, as a whole”. He must have been in uniform, or else why would Professor Hossain say, “The agitated students even attacked [members of the] army in uniform” “If anyone attacks the uniform of a member of the army…”
I find the elision between “uniform”, “a member of the army”, and “the army as a whole” in Professor Hossain’s statement, and in the other sources, breathtaking. The elision is re-inforced in the mapping-out of the army: from the ordinary jawan at the lower rungs, to the army chief at the top. Map the text on to the image and one gets frightening results, a student becomes representative of Dhaka University as a whole, of the civilian sector as a whole. A hapless member of the army becomes representative of the army as a whole, of its honour and respect. In the process, a particular meaning gets attached to the army — the lack of courage. Images of valour and courage present in the war of liberation in 1971, in UN peacekeeping missions abroad, recede.
Why were the words that spoke of the students’ self-respect, the ordinary peoples self-respect censored? Why was Professor Anwar allowed to make a statement to the press? After all, he was in remand (allegations of physical and mental torture). Why was the elision permitted? It only serves to fracture national unity on civilian vs miltary lines.
The events at Dhaka university speak of a story of humiliation. Of revenge. Of arrogance and ill-conceived strategies. Of unintended consequences.

Remembering

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Recovering Memory. Recovering Dignity
It was 25th March, night. A Pakistani officer accompanied by soldiers entered their Dhaka University flat, dragged out Meghna’s father and and shot him. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta was a well-known academic. He bled to death slowly, five days later. As he lay dying in Dhaka Medical College Hospital with a bullet wound in his neck, surrounded by doctors too scared to treat him, he repeatedly told Bashanti, his wife, you must write. Write what? History, he replied. But I don’t know how to write history. Well, write literature then.
meghnas-family-400-px.jpg Jyotirmay Guhathakurta and Basanti Guhathakurta with seven year old daughter, Meghna and nephew Kanti in Gandaria, Dhaka, 1966. Bangladesh. ? Bazle Mawla

I met Meghna in 1973, the year we started college. Later we went to Dhaka University together. As we became the closest of friends, I learnt that she would lie in bed each night and recollect the horror of that night in 1971. I would tell myself, I have to remember each incident, what happened, what followed. I must not let myself forget. Many years later, I remember asking her, “Megh, do you still do that? Re-collect each scene, each incident…?” “Yes, each night, after turning out the lights, I lie in bed and remember what happened, as it happened,” was her reply.
It is important to recover memories. To tell oneself that the world was not born this moment, to remind ourselves that we have long histories. Or else, says Uruguyan novelist Eduardo Galeano, we will become like the peoples of Chicago who do not know of the Haymarket martyrs, or that the First of May was born in Chicago. Galeano writes, Chicago has “deleted” the memory of International Workers Day, a day that is both a tragedy and a fiesta, a day celebrated the world over, one that affirms the right of the workers to organise. Our histories are both of betrayal, and dignity. We need to recover both.
The Gift of a Sewing Machine
Adivasi activist Choles Ritchil was returning from a wedding on March 18, 2007 when his microbus was stopped. He was arrested by half a dozen plainclothes men, and taken to Khakraid army camp. Choles, alongwith other Mandi families of Modhupur forest, were opposed to the eviction of 25,000 Mandi peoples from the forest through the government scheme (2003) to construct an eco-park. Despite Mandi opposition, Forest department officials began constructing a high wall that would section off 3,000 acres of forest land. In January 2004, police fired on peaceful Mandi protestors killing Piren Snal, and injuring 25 others. Public outrage at police brutality helped shelve eco-park plans, but Forestry officials later filed 20 false cases against the Mandis. Choles, widely-respected and prominent, was implicated in these cases.
choles-ritchil-portrait-noise-reduced.jpgCholes Ritchil. Photographer unknown

At Khakraid, Choles was tied to the grill of a window, and beaten mercilessly. Then his torture began. The next day, police officials handed over his dead body to relatives. In accordance with religious custom, his body was bathed before burial. Those who did so said that it bore horrific signs of mutilation. Photographs, hurriedly taken, serve to document the marks of torture.
body-of-choles-ritchil-b.jpg Mutilated body of Choles Ritchil. Photographer unknown
Nearly seven months later, on October 10, members of the Joint Forces arranged a small ceremony in the Tangail Upozilla office. Choles’ first wife Sandhya Rani Simsang was given cash, a sari and a sewing machine. His second wife Serpina Nokrek was also given cash, a sari and a sewing machine.
A sewing machine is said to signify connections. It connects the needle to the thread, stitches together separate pieces of cloth into a whole. But what does this sewing machine, born of torture and a mutilated body, connect? Mandi women’s eviction from the forest has also meant their eviction from indigenous traditions of weaving and sewing, traditions embedded in a matrilineal culture, says Pavel Partha*, an ethno-botanist and an impassioned researcher. The state has torn the lives of Mandi women away from Modhupur forest-which-is-their-culture. The extra-judicial killing of Choles Ritchil has torn to pieces the lives of Sandhya Rani, Serpina Nokrek, and their respective children. Tears that no sewing machine can repair.
They say torturers often wear hoods. They shy away from eye contact with their victims. A last vestige of humanity? Maybe. And if so, it certainly offers us crumbs of hope.
What happened at the Tangail gift-giving ceremony? Did the gift-givers look Sandhya and Serpina in the eye? How on earth did they get conscripted into the whole affair? Were they obliged to attend, to receive? Maybe those directly involved in Choles’ death were not present. After all, six army and civilian personnel, including Major Toufiq Elahi and Tangail Forest department official Abu Hanif Patwari were transferred soon after the death. A one person investigation committee consisting of a judge was also set up (has the report been completed, submitted? No one seems to know). The point I wish to make is that the institutional nexus — army camp, Forest department, thana, doctors, union council officials — within which Choles’ (and other adivasi) deaths have taken place, remains intact. That the gift-giving ceremony — an official event, funded by the public exchequer — took place within this nexus. The circumstances surrounding Choles Ritchil’s death is known to all, Mandi and Bengali alike. Pretences must have been necessary to pull off the ceremony. The presence of members of the Joint Forces, civilian administrators, elected representatives of the former goverment at the local level, professionals etc etc must have shored up those pretences.
I look forward to the Freedom of Information Act. I want to be able to read official files that contain an order to pick someone up. I want to know the language in which torture is camouflaged. I want to know the names of doctors who sign death certificates, the causes that are listed (death due to, surely not eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilation, removal of fingernails). I want to know how Forest officials are able to construct false cases implicating those who protest against the injustice of eviction.
We need to know more about the rules of governance to weave tapestries of resistance across ethnic divides.
Rangs building: The death of cchotolok workers
Not all bodies have been recovered from the Rangs building. Not yet. Two or three remain. A faint smell of death, of decomposed flesh, still hangs over the fourth floor area.
The bodies of all Sidr cyclone victims have not been recovered either, one keeps coming across newspaper reports of a child’s body found in a paddyfield, a father’s body being identified by his son. But that, I feel, is different. Difference hinges partly on the word nature, a word, that I admit needs to be re-thought in the context of global warming since ‘natural’ disasters are no longer natural.
Rangs is a profoundly urban disaster. Compounded by the fact that the hapless workers who died come from villages, the stories that frame their migration, ‘they came to the city in search of work’ hide continued urban enrichment at the cost of villages. Images haunt me as I read what is written in the newspapers: it happened in five seconds, the roofs came tumbling down, they do not give us our dead, I cannot go off with my brother’s dead body, there are others from Modhukhali, their mothers and sisters and wives are waiting too. My two brothers got buried in the rubble. They are no longer alive. They must have died.
tanvir-rangs-road-sweeper-4696-600-px.jpg Cleaners clearing debris outside the Rangs Building to make way for traffic. Early hours of the morning. 8th December 2007. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Zaid Islam
tanvir-rangs-workers-by-fire-4912-600-px.jpg Demolition workers who have set up their own emergency team, warm themselves at night. 8th December 2007. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Zaid Islam
I piece together the names of the dead. The names are scattered. Some crop up in the newspapers when bodies found are identified: Amirul 26, Zillur 24. Farid Mian. In other places, names of missing relatives mentioned by surviving workers. There are so many: Farid Sheikh, Delwar Sheikh, Jiru Molla, Kaijar Molla, Jahid Molla, Ruhul Amin, Mannan Shikdar, Abdur Rahim Sheikh, Daud Munshi, Jiblu. They are mentioned in passing, as if attached to bodies, to morgue identifications. A few days later, some more names. Some missing have now been found dead: Farid Mian 26, Zero Molla 25, Kaiser Molla 26, Mannan Sikder 35, Daud Munshi. A day later, another name, Abdur Rahim. Again very young, only twenty five. But, I think, what about Jahid, Jiblu, Firoj? A news item catches my eye: the Rangs group claims that security guard Shahid’s body is buried beneath the rubble. Four. It’s been nearly three and a half weeks now.
tanvir-rangs-5150-600-px.jpg The still fingers of an unidentified worker. The bodies of three demolition workers were found on the morning of the 9th December 2007. Rangs Building. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Zaid Islam
I cannot imagine the extent of the nightmare for family members who have been wandering about in the rubble of Rangs Bhaban, looking for traces of their beloved, maybe a pillow, the corner of a lungi, a shirt sleeve. Priscilla Raj, independent journalist, had written of an elderly, bearded man, standing outside Rangs, bitterly saying, “We are cchotolok, why should anyone bother?” He was right. No one did. There was no moddholok collective presence outside the building, no strong suport for Nirman Sromik Union’s demand that compensation for the dead be four lakh taka, not one. Dhaka’s moddholok, no doubt horror-struck, were witnesses to the disaster from a distance made safe by television and print media. I myself and many others were outside the National Museum. We were protesting archaeological artifacts being sent to Guimet. Those who joined in the wake outside the Rangs building were people like those dead or missing, part of the urban dispossessed. They witnessed grief at close quarters.
In this city’s landscape, the history of Rangs workers will be one of dignity. And ours that of betrayal.
Rahnuma Ahmed
New Age. 2nd January 2008
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*Pavel Partha, “Odhipoti Shelai Machine O Fali Fali Shalbon” (A Dominant Sewing Machine and Rows of Shal Trees), unpublished.

Justice for Nurjahan

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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.
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Nurjahan’s father
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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;
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Accused being taken to Moulvibazar court
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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.
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The accused in court jail.
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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.
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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”.
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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.