Fire in Sonar Bangla

Khaleda Zia?s snub to Pranab Mukherjee does not matter in the long run. But she is making a strategic blunder by staying aligned with Jamaat

By?Salil Tripathi First Published in Live Mint:?Fri, Mar 08 2013

When President Pranab Mukherjee visited Bangladesh earlier this week, its opposition leader Khaleda Zia (above) of the BNP did not meet him, because of public strikes that her ally, Jamaat-i-Islami, has been calling to protest the verdicts of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal. Photo: AFP
When President Pranab Mukherjee visited Bangladesh earlier this week, its opposition leader Khaleda Zia (above) of the BNP did not meet him, because of public strikes that her ally, Jamaat-i-Islami, has been calling to protest the verdicts of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal. Photo: AFP
Earlier this week, when President?Pranab Mukherjee?visited Bangladesh, its opposition leader?Khaleda Zia?of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) did not meet him, because of public strikes that her ally, Jamaat-i-Islami, has been calling to protest the verdicts of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal. The BNP called another strike this week in sympathy with the Jamaat, whose leaders are, one by one, being convicted of war crimes by the Tribunal. Continue reading “Fire in Sonar Bangla”

NISCHINTAPUR DEATHS: Killers at large

by rahnuma ahmed

Grieving for lost ones. Tazreen fashion, Nischintapur, Ashulia, November 25, 2012 ? Taslima Akhter

EVERYTHING SEEMED to come to a standstill as the death toll in the factory fire at Nischintapur kept rising. Death isn’t a question of numbers, even a single death which could have been prevented, is one too many. But still, the numbers were staggering.
Sunday’s newspaper headlines had said, nine. But as the day unfolded, the death toll shot up unbelievably; the numbers were conflicting — 110, no 124, later, down to 111. They still conflict, for, family members say some loved ones are still missing.
Numbing numbers. I stare at them blankly. I look at my partner Shahidul and wonder, what, if he’d been one of the 111 or so dead? I reach out and touch him. No, its nothing, I say, when he looks up. Continue reading “NISCHINTAPUR DEATHS: Killers at large”

Part VI Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?

by rahnuma ahmed

Yesterday, I had ended with the words, “there is still hope.”
But, of course, hoping doesn’t mean that one daydreams, or fantasises. Or, becomes cynical when things don’t turn out the way one had wished.
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” — words attributed to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, imprisoned by Mussolini. To see the world as it really is, underpinned by the will that humans have the courage to change it. One thus needs to dispassionately examine what occurred later. But before doing so, let me turn to the cat- out-of-the-bag story.
The ‘minus two plan’ was officially confirmed by the World Bank South Asia vice-president Praful C. Patel. While visiting Dhaka, at the end of 2007, he said, “What [had] looked possible before, like the minus-two approach, does not seem possible today, because the two ladies have [a] very strong and powerful power base.” Continue reading “Part VI Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?”

Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ's hartal

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by rahnuma ahmed

Islami Oikya Jote procession, `We reject inheritance law which changes Quranic devolution of shares'

Apnader naamte hobe, he said, after I’d mentioned the personal exigencies which led to my two-week absence from these pages. He’s a good friend, a careful and discerning reader of what I write.
You [women] must enter the fray. He was shocked at the recent daylong country-wide shutdown called by the Islami Ain Bastobayon Committee (Committee for the Implementation of Islamic Law).?And equally shocked at the response, or lack of, by women’s organisations.
[But] I’m in the fray, I replied, chewing a morsel of chicken and rice. I was having lunch at New Age. As he nodded his assent somewhat distractedly, I debated whether I should remind him of the collection as well, which I had collated and translated several years ago, a task begun and accomplished when the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami led government was in power, when serial bomb blasts, blamed exclusively (the role of state intelligence agencies is still unclear) on Muslim radicals, killing dozens, maiming scores more, occurred over a period of several years, initially termed a “media creation” by the-then government.
The volume, Islami Chintar Punorpothon: Shomokalin Musolman Buddhijibider Shangram, 2006 (Reinterpreting Islam: The Struggles of Contemporary Muslim Intellectuals) consisted largely of interviews, some essays and public lectures of contemporary philosophers and intellectual/activists, nearly all of whom are believing and practicing Muslims. They debated issues and challenges facing them, ranging from imperialism to the notion of an Islamic state, modernity, terrorism, minority rights, the need to re-imagine the relationship between the creator and the created, (according to some) a need to re-imagine the creator Himself, the method of reading and interpreting the Quran, gender relations, hijab, polygamy, sexuality, homosexuality, rationality etc. etc. Despite differences among Islamicly oriented political parties and groups in Bangladesh, most vocal, and receiving the greatest media attention, were those who spoke of “capturing the state.” That Muslims elsewhere debated a large array of issues seriously and critically, was unknown to Bangla readers in print.? I had considered it urgent to broaden the intellectual space within which debates over Islam and what it meant to be a Muslim are conducted, and because, as I would quip to friends, if Islam is now imperialism’s battleground, surely, one must not make oneself absent from the field. Or we may end up lending our shoulders to imperial guns being fired in the cause of the war on terror.
Memories surfaced of my publisher’s apprehensions prior to the publication which fortunately came to nought. The moment passed. I didn’t mention it to my friend.
I had gone to New Age to tell Nurul Kabir, editor of this daily, that I had watched him on TV the night before, that his analysis of the politics of the Policy, and of the April 4 hartal, was most illuminating. He had pointed out that Islami Oikyo Jote leader Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini’s allegation?the Awami League-Jatiya Party led government had gone “against the Quran by adopting such a policy”?was false. That the government had back-pedalled, that the 1997 draft of the Women Development Policy proposed by the-then Awami League government had stipulated that women should receive “equal” shares, not half that received by her brother, whereas the Policy, updated and finally passed by the cabinet last month, had been revised. It now says that a woman should “exercise full control” over her earnings, inheritance, credit, land, and income derived from commerce. This particular phrasing, insisted Kabir, means that equal inheritance is no longer on the score-card.
And yet IOJ (actually, a faction, which also happens to be a component of the four-party opposition alliance) had opposed the Policy (in addition to the High Court’s ban on fatwas, and the National Education Policy) on the grounds that it gave women equal shares. Their banner reads, We reject inheritance law which changes Quranic devolution of shares (see photo). According to Islam, declared Amini, “a woman can never be equal to a man.” While Sheikh Hasina was correct in pointing out that there was “nothing in the women development policy that contradicted the Quran and Sunnah,” that Amini was “misleading” the people, (New Age, April 4, 2011), the prime minister, said Kabir, had been reticent about the details.
The silence of women’s organisations is deafening. It’s because of a combination of several factors, he’d said. Larger women’s organisations are allied to the Awami League. Their silence expresses their political subservience to the ruling party’s interests, at the cost of sacrificing women’s interests. In addition to this, the NGO-isation of women’s organisations in the 1980s has meant that women’s issues pursued are donor-driven and project-based. Funding is crucial, he said. Seeking funds is time-consuming.
It was a shame, insisted my friend and Kabir, over lunch. Why were women’s organisations not out in the streets protesting Amini’s fabrication? How could they not rise up in protest at the AL? government’s betrayal given that they had struggled for “equal shares” to inheritance for many years? Why did they not insist that equal shares be re-inserted into the Policy? By lending its tacit support to the hartal, the BNP too, they asserted, was a party to the betrayal, as were women’s organisations affiliated to the BNP. Khaleda Zia had cautioned the government to not attempt anything which would hurt the religious sentiments of the people. It could lead to chaos and anarchy, she said, while adding that the country had made significant progress in women’s development.
It could be argued, said Kabir on TV, that the government stood to benefit from the hartal. Having incurred the displeasure of western governments at its recent treatment of Grameen Bank’s Dr Yunus, “the blue-eyed boy of Washington,” the hartal against the government’s (purported?) position on equality for women would, in all likelihood, lend credence to Sheikh Hasina’s pronouncements that she was a bulwark against Islamic militancy. Unlike her political opponents, i.e., the BNP-Jamaat government, which had “turned the country into a haven for terrorists and militants” during its rule (2001-2006). It would be music to western ears, it would enable her to curry favour back with western rulers.
It could also be argued, said Kabir, that the government was fully aware of the benefits of the hartal. Is it not strange, he asked, that a Dhaka court which had issued summons’ and arrest warrants against Amini on March 31?in two cases, one for defamation (Amini had threatened to “pull down” the prime minister), the other for sedition (he had indirectly uttered a “death threat” against the prime minister)?soon retracted both orders? According to press reports, the chief metropolitan magistrate said, the magistrate had made a “mistake” because he was “new” to the job. The greenhorn was advised to lift both orders. He readily complied.
Being for, or against the Quran, is highly emotive. The bipartisan nature of political allegiances runs through the gamut of all institutions of state and society, from the administration to the judiciary, the army, state intelligence agencies, and onwards, to universities, schools and colleges, trade unions, business associations, neighbourhood clubs, and so on. I find both party parochialism, and unproblematic understandings of modernity, secularism and religiosity, deeply perturbing as they foreclose a deeper understanding of history, both colonial and post-colonial. Of historical processes that were accompanied by forces of coercion and compulsion as well as instilling desires, that have made us what we are, and what we aspire to be. And unless one understands one’s past, how can one dream and struggle for tangible futures?
It would be amiss of me if I were not to acknowledge that intolerance, at times, bordering on hysteria, which prevent us from conducting reasoned discussions, are partly due to the events of 1971 when Bengali collaborators had claimed to speak in the name of Islam, as had Pakistani rulers. To the events of 1975 and after, the killers of Sheikh Mujib had been rewarded, alleged war criminals had not only been politically reinstated, they had been installed as rulers, in 2001. These set of memories have been paralleled by bouts of amnesia among those who lay a monopolistic claim to 1971. Of forgetting that Sheikh Hasina had sought Golam Azam’s blessings after 1991 elections; that the Awami League had entered into a pre-electoral deal with Khelafat Majlish in 2006. The rest of it, in my opinion, is due to intellectual laziness.
It is this that prevents us from re-examining our history, that leads those who claim to be the thinking sections of society (as opposed to those whom they view as being the illiterate masses, who need to be led and guided) to nurture common-sensical assumptions. Ones that feed off the binary dichotomy of religion versus secularism. For instance, it is unproblematically assumed that British rule was progressive for women because it led to increased secularisation, whereas the truth of the matter is that the process of Islamisation in the Indian subcontinent was initiated by the British colonial state when it gradually applied the principles of Islamic law. This meant that Muslims either decided, or were compelled by the courts, to order their lives and relationships, in accordance with the principles of that part of the sharia which westerners call “family law” i.e., marriage, divorce, rules of inheritance etc.
Another common-sensical assumption, deeper to British rule=secular, one that prevents us from critically examining the present too in our search for gender equality, is that secularism is neutral, it is devoid of relations of power. More specifically, of gendered relations of power. But that is not the case, and it is these issues that I will delve into, next week.
[concluding instalment next week]
Published in New Age Monday April 11, 2011

`Revenge is sweet!' The politics of eviction

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

“…my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite.?I have to break that terrible chain.”
(Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirit, 1982).

But to break the “terrible chain” of vengeance, our leaders would have to recognise it as such. As terrible.
Our leaders would have to learn to see it not through the eyes of their political sycophants? ranging from lawyers to writers, journalists, academics, bureaucrats etc., etc.?but through the eyes of the public, who, by the way, are not fooled.
I watched news on a private TV channel the night of the hartal, called by the BNP the day after Khaleda Zia had been evicted from her Dhaka Cantonment house on 13 November. The news reporter asked different people, some waiting at Dhaka city bus stands, with children, bags and baggage ready to go home for Eid, others standing in long queues at ticket counters in Kamalapur rail station, several others searching in vain for motorised transport, may be to do last-minute Eid shopping. I watched all those interviewed, except one, unequivocally blame both parties for the hartal. They blamed both sides, not only the BNP, as the government seemed to have hoped.
The government should not have evicted her, they said. The BNP should not have responded by calling a nation-wide hartal, they added. A common refrain seemed to be, they couldn’t care less about us.
Top legal experts, those not belonging to the ruling party’s enchanted circle of lawyers, have said, the government should have waited for the Supreme Court ruling. Eminent jurist M Zahir has said, since the Supreme Court had fixed November 29 for hearing Khaleda Zia’s leave to appeal petition, the government should have waited for the court’s decision. It should not have acted hastily. While jurist Shahdeen Malik clarified the issue further, if there is no pressing need to implement the earlier judgment, it is customary to wait for the court’s verdict once an appeal has been filed. The purpose of the High Court verdict?that Khaleda Zia should vacate her house in 30 days?was not to lead to “chaos and instability” (Daily Star, November 14 2010).
The government does not seem to have cared about its international bhabmurti (image) either, a point that it invariably raises, like all other governments, to discredit political dissent. The BBC spoke of popular concerns that the eviction may revive “bitter rivalry” between the two women leaders known as “battling begums” (November 13). While The Economist headlined it’s piece, `Bangladesh. Politics of hate. An ancient vendetta continues to eat away at public life’ (18 November 2010). Despite a huge majority in parliament, the AL is `obsessed’ with the BNP, it is “stuck in a divisive politics based on personal grievances that go back nearly four decades.” It added, “Shrewdly Sheikh Hasina has allocated the vast plot surrounding Mrs Zia?s home for housing for the families of 57 military officers killed in a mutiny early last year, soon after the AL swept to power.”
Why should Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League always have to be broad-minded? Does not Sheikh Hasina too, have feelings and emotions like Khaleda Zia? Does only the BNP have a monopoly on wreaking vengeance? writes journalist Bibhuranjan Sarkar (`Khaleda Zia dekhaben shongkirnota ar Hasina dekhaben udarota!’)?while London-based columnist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury seems more cautious as he warns the AL not to tread in the former BNP government’s path of deviancy. Restoring Bangabandhu’s image as the father of the nation and undoing distortions made to the nation’s independence history is needed, not drilling holes into Ziaur Rahman’s murals at Bangabandhu stadium in the middle of the night (`BNPr durbrittoponar onukoron dara deenbodoler protisruti shombhob noy’)
Newspaper reports indicate that the BNP leadership plans to launch a tougher anti-government movement after Eid, there is also talk of the possibility that BNP parliamentarians’ may tender their resignation en masse. The Awami League government seems to have finally succeeded in maneuvering its rival party into a tight corner, into launching a movement (merely) for recovering its leader’s house, a movement that renders all other issues, national issues, subsidiary. But the mirror image of this, of course, is that it has maneuvered itself into a tighter corner with its inability to deliver anything else to the nation. Control escalating food prices. Ensure gas and electricity supply. Decent wages for garment workers. Reign in the leaders and members of its student and youth organisations who seem to be exclusively pre-occupied with extortion, tender manipulation, sexual harassment, factional infighting and vandalising examination centres for recruitment to public posts. A deteriorating law and order situation which has given rise to acts of public vigilante-ism. Restoring the civil administration’s confidence after the Pabna debacle. Put an end to extra-judicial killings etc. etc.
Anything else but bitter rivalry. The politics of hate. Ancient vendetta. Divisive politics. Shrewdness.
Was evicting Khaleda Zia from her home a turning point in national politics, leaving the public in no doubt that times, unfortunately, have not changed? Does the future signal an inexorable downhill-all-the-way slide in the AL government’s popularity? As did the BNP-Jamaat government’s popularity after the August 20 2004 grenade attacks on the AL rally, aimed at eliminating the top AL leadership including Sheikh Hasina? Or, the revulsion felt by any decent person towards Khaleda Zia’s macabre delight in celebrating her fabricated birthday each August 15th, the day Sheikh Mujib was assassinated alongwith nearly all family members.
There seemed to be a perceptible change in public mood on hartal day. `Shala public ke bojha daey’ is a popular saying in Bangladesh dating back to the British colonial era, and shala public seemed not to be taken in by the government’s rhetoric about the urgency of eviction in order to uphold the rule of law. Shala public seemed to know fully that the eviction does not serve to better either the public’s present, or, its future. That it is part of the same inexorable rite of vengeance.
Khaleda Zia insists that she was forcibly evicted from her home, that her bedroom door was broken down, that she was forced to leave in the clothes she was wearing, that she was subjected to verbal abuse, that the law-enforcers dared to utter words to the effect that if she did not leave willingly, she would be carried out physically. An ISPR (Inter Service Public Relations) press release has alleged that her account was a blatant lie, that it was false and motivated. That she was abusive, calling the armed forces personnel “ungrateful dogs” and the “nation’s enemy.”
There are no independent accounts of what occurred on the day the eviction took place as journalists (alongwith her lawyers) were not allowed to enter the cantonment. However, members of the media were taken on a guided tour of her house the next day, when the premises should actually have been, or remained, sealed.
What concerns me is how Khaleda Zia’s persona has been constructed through the ISPR’s news release, statements made by a government minister, and other high-ranking AL leaders. The ISPR press release says, `she was not up by 9:30,’ `later at 11:00 a.m., she came to know that the authorities had come to ask her to vacate the house,’ `she started getting ready casually and spent two hours for makeup and other related activities’ implying that she is indolent, has no clue of what goes on inside her house, is frivolous and vain. Shamsul Hoque, state minister for home affairs, replying to questions raised by the media said, `if she was really dragged out of the house, why was her sari not ruffled up and her lipstick not messed up?’ implying that she was a blatant liar. What Khaleda Zia chooses to wear and how she dresses up is not the issue, or at least it is not my issue, what concerns me is that the “bitter rivalry” seems to extend to personal looks, and appearance. But why? Does it create psychological insecurities? And of course, one can hardly fail to notice the symbolic violence behind the state minister’s mention of ruffled up sari, messed up lipstick. Official discourses that accompany the eviction beg the question, was the illegality of the allotment at stake? At all?
During the guided tour of her house, an army officer reportedly requested a journalist to open a drawer of her bedside table in her bedroom, leading to the discovery of pornographic material. What does this indicate? That the ruling party’s `obsession’ with Khaleda Zia is a sexual obsession (since it extends to sexualising her), that army officers too, are presumably involved in this, and that all this can occur during the reign of a woman prime minister? Intelligence agencies are widely believed to have planted incriminating material during house searches, most recently, this occurred during the military-installed caretaker government’s rule (2007-2009). Is this what took place after Khaleda Zia was evicted? One of the complaints made against the former prime minister is that living in the cantonment has an adverse political effect on the army, that the national army should be kept apart from politics, so that civilian, political rule reigns supreme. Does it?
In The House of the Spirits Alba’s struggle was not against the military regime, but against her initial desire for vengeance after having been raped, tortured and imprisoned in a concentration camp. By beginning to question her hatred, she was able to rise above the inexorable rite of vengeance.
Our leaders too, need to break the terrible chain of vengeance. We have to compel them to do so. Through exposing both acts of state terror and thick walls of sycophancy. Through resisting leadership cults, whether governmental, or oppositional. Through forcing them to serve the public’s interests, not their personal enmities and hatreds.
Vengeance is best left to the gods, not mere mortals.
Published in New Age, 22 November 2010

Elections 2008. Victory, impunity and terror

Rahnuma Ahmed


I?m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.?
? Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party

Electoral democracy

It was a victory for electoral democracy.

I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn?t register with any political party?. Someone else?s photo, name, and father?s name graced the space where Saif?s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.

Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.

A young voter in Dhanmondi Girls High School in Dhaka, shows the ink stains on his thumb, as evidence of having voted. 29th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
A young voter in Dhanmondi Girls High School in Dhaka, shows the ink stains on his thumb, as evidence of having voted. 29th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition ? whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government ? would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.

In the early hours of the morning, as AL?s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.

Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League?s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution ? a ballot box revolution ? had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.

There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.

I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia?s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government?s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.

At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ?unprecedented rigging,? or of the polls having been conducted according to a ?blueprint?. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia?s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID?s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ?bribe money?, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel?s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID?s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.

Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.

A ?smooth transition?: impunity in the offing?

Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…

How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ?inalienable? fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy ? be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.

Allying with bigger terrorists

The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army?s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ?terrorists.? A seamless whole seems to be in the making.

And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina?s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ?the spirit of 1971? will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.

No tax on words

Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.


My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.
An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.

Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I remembered crowding around Hasina and Khaleda during the 1991 campaigns. Ershad had just been removed and there was hope in the air. Whoever won, we would have democracy. At least that was what we felt then

As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad.
Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad. He had painted on his back "Let Democracy be Freed". ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.

Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.

Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.
At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hopefully the misadventures over the last two years has taught the military that the Bangladeshi public is a tough nut to crack. Even these two arrogant leaders face a more robust media and a more questioning public than they’ve been used to. Delower and Siddique Ali might not get the democracy they deserve, but their love for democracy, will eventually force a change.
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

More election pictures at DrikNews.
Current election photos from www.driknews.com
Current election photos from www.driknews.com

Colliding with the State

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Lisa Botos from the Time Magazine office in Hong Kong, had done most of the hard work. Permissions had been obtained and the protocol arrangements had been made. The shoot was on. Having gone through the security hoop at the prime minister?s secretariat, I had settled in at the waiting room along with my colleagues photographer Aminuzzaman from Drik and writer Alex Perry and William Green from Time. That was when the trouble started. Officials rushed to usher me out of my seat. I was wondering what other security alert I had triggered off. My faux pas was somewhat more embarrassing. I had been sitting on the prime minister?s chair.
I had only been allocated a few minutes for the cover shoot, which went well despite one of my lamps blowing on me, but luckily the prime minister had agreed to our suggestion that we follow her on her trip to Pabna. I scurried to change gear for the outdoor shoot. Emptying memory cards, handing over existing images to to take to the library, a quick visit to the loo, were all things that needed to get done, except that I was told ?hurry, she is on her way to the helicopter.? Dumping equipment into my camera bag, handing over my laptop to, I stuck my digital wallet into the pile and made a dash for it. The loo would have to wait. That was when a strong arm jutted out in the corridor. The security guard had prevented me from running into the prime minister! Alex calmly asked me if I had run into other heads of state before. ?Only once? I had said, as I had nearly bumped into Mahathir while running up the stairs at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur. But that was a long time ago.
It was a long and eventful day and one I must write about, but for the moment you?ll need to settle for the cover image of the current Time Magazine (10th April 2006 issue) and Alex?s writeup.

A State of Danger

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The material that follows has been provided by the?New Internationalist



A STATE OF DANGER

This is?Shahidul Alam’s inside story, in words and pictures, of the intense struggle against repression which has been raging in Bangladesh, unnoticed by the Western media. Resistance work there is dangerous – photographers and journalists are regularly attacked and arrested.



In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia’s victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.

But the optimism is short-lived. Demonstrators take to the streets when the Government allies with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, whose leaders aided the Pakistani Army’s genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971. Under the watchful eye of authority, children of that war’s martyrs demand the trial of the war criminals.

Women feel they have most to lose if the Islamic fundamentalists gain ground. On International Women’s Day in 1994 Shamima Nazneed enacts a play by Tagore (Stri’r Potro, ‘The Wife’s Letter’) which shows the oppressive influence of the family.

The Government becomes increasingly repressive and starts to rig by-elections, leading all opposition parties to resign from Parliament. A general election is called and there is a brutal clampdown on dissent. This student is arrested on 31 January 1996 in a police swoop on a mainly Hindu hall of Dhaka University – he screams out to friends from the prison van.

Resistance hits the streets.

The opposition boycott of the election is complete: polling stations stand idle. Yet the Government reports a huge turnout of voters and a landslide victory. The contrast with the last election is painful as heavy security cordons guard Khaleda Zia while she addresses her followers. She is just visible over their shoulders in the centre, aloof and distant heir to an autocratic tradition.