Reflections on Bengali motherhood and storytelling

BISWAJIT’S PUBLIC MURDER
By rahnuma ahmed

Zohra Begum, mother of Emdadul Haque; the latter has been identified from photographs and video footage as being one of the Bangladesh Chatra League activists who beat and hacked Biswajit Das, a tailor, to death on December 9, 2012 during a hartal called by the BNP.? bdnews24
Zohra Begum, mother of Emdadul Haque; the latter has been identified from photographs and video footage as being one of the Bangladesh Chatra League activists who beat and hacked Biswajit Das, a tailor, to death on December 9, 2012 during a hartal called by the BNP.? bdnews24

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ALTHOUGH Bengali culture would have us believe otherwise, motherhood is not something — regarded by some as an instinct, by others, as a virtue — that is timeless and unchanging. It is social and historical. Continue reading “Reflections on Bengali motherhood and storytelling”

March 12 Rally

We were, we are, we'll stay, was the slogan on recent Awami League posters. BNP haven't quite gotten to three generations yet, but the dynasty game is certainly one both parties want to play. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The government was hell bent on preventing the opposition rally. Trains, buses and launches were all stopped. Ordinary passengers were beaten up and prevented from off loading at stations and ferrys. The police were out in full force in the city, checking on people to make sure they were not opposition supporters heading for the rally.
Continue reading “March 12 Rally”

If you cannot protect your people, why should the sun rise on your country?

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By Prasanna Ratnayake

Missing for over 300 days

Source: Groundviews

On 25th November, far away from my motherland, I rang Sandya Eknaligoda to ask her, How are you? Yesterday was the 300th day that her loving husband has been missing. And for all Sri Lankans, one of our best cartoonists, writers, journalists, painters and activists has been missing for 300 days.
Sandya told me that a group of about 60 people met yesterday at the Temple of the Innocents with lotus flowers and oil lamps to do a simple ritual for Prageeth. This little monument in front of the Parliament was commissioned by Chandrika Kumaranathunga Bandaranayake?s government, designed and built by the artist, Jagath Weerasinghe, to remember victims of the late 80s/early 90s Southern insurgency. It had been long neglected, its meaning forgotten. Soldiers, whose job is to protect the coming and going Parliamentarians, had been using it as a place to piss. But friends cleaned it up and made it the place to be together on Prageeth?s 300th day.

Prageeth Ekneligoda

My mind has been scrolling through the decades during which Prageeth and I have known each other. These are a few of those moments with my missing friend:
In the years of 60,000 dead, the late 80s and early 90s, Mawatha (The Way) magazine was struggling to make sense of our country?s vortex of insanity. Bahktin, Bukharin, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, all were being studied as fuel for our political thinking, trawled for a social analysis that might help us understand. It was 1990 and I had cycled into town, Galle in the south of Sri Lanka, to buy vegetables for my Auntie. I secretly bought a copy of Mawatha, rolled it carefully into the Government newspaper and hid it beneath the vegetables in the bottom of my basket because there were checkpoints every 500-1000 meters. Back at Auntie?s, I found a private place to read. This is where I first met Prageeth, in his writings for Mawatha 20 years ago.
The next time was in person in 1992 in Colombo. A group of us, young and middle class, used to meet to discuss politics, culture, democracy, human rights ? everything ? how to make things better, practical steps, what to do about our disastrous country. Prageeth was always present, mostly silent, closely observing.
Later, in 1992-4 we had a movement we called Freedom from Fear, confronting the cycles of violence in our world, against the killings and disappearances, trying to create a properly democratic space. Prageeth drew two portraits that became iconic images. One was of Richard de Zoyza, the popular actor, journalist and TV presenter whose slaughtered body had been found on a beach south of Colombo. Looking pensive, chin resting on his hand, his face, beard, and glasses aligned, Richard?s gaze was focused on the viewer. The other portrait was of Ranjini Thiranagama, the Tamil academic and human rights activist, founder member of the UTHRJ (University Teachers? Human Rights Organisation Jaffna), who had been killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These pictures became the emblems of our group.
My fourth moment was working together later in the 90s on the Values of Dissent publications for the Civil Rights Movement. Prageeth was designing the covers and layout, creating the visual concept for the series of books we produced.
In 2007, while abroad, I was reading Prageeth?s pieces on the LankaeNews website; sharp insightful writings about the fundamental issues behind the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, revealing the deeper meanings, the subtexts and hidden agendas.
Later in 2007, the last time we met in person, we talked a lot about education, the future of the next generation, his kids, and the daughter of a friend. As we said goodbye, Prageeth warned that we have to be very careful. ?These people know how to play the game with the world. They themselves were once democratic and human rights activists ? this regime is full of them!?
Now he is abducted, disappeared, missing for 300 days.
There was a first time: a year ago he was abducted and then released because they ?got the wrong person?. This second time they have dragged him into the vortex of Sri Lanka?s nightmare.
I am looking at the photograph of this little 300 Days ceremony. What can I read in it? I see many people with whom I have been involved the whole of my lifetime; people who fight for equal rights, for human rights, against abuses, war and corruption. There are small differences: people have got a bit old, there are fewer of them; many have been killed, exiled or silenced. But those in the photo, their eyes and faces are so bright, strong and energetic. They look like they have the inner strength and energy to fight for even more decades.
Beyond this photograph of people gathered for Prageeth at the Temple of the Innocents, I see in my mind the Sri Lankan Parliament so nearby. Most of the Parliamentarians sitting there, Ruling Party and Opposition, are responsible as perpetrators, colluders, collaborators and beneficiaries of the violence, the arrests, the abductions, disappearances, tortures, wars, corruption and impunity that has cursed post-independence Sri Lanka.
In one of his poems about Hitler?s Germany, Berthold Brecht asked: If you cannot protect your people, why should the sun rise on your country? In Sri Lanka people from all communities are being abducted, disappeared, tortured and killed. It pains me to say that my friend Prageeth is one amongst tens of thousands. There is a famous poem of Martin Niemoeller about those who dared not speak out when others were being taken. In Sri Lanka, whether you speak or not, whether you act or not, they will come for you.
[For a related article on Prageeth, read ?for The Missing by Gypsy Bohemia]
Related articles: “Crossfire”

The Candy Man

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He was charming, witty, and took blame upon himself. Adviser Ayub Quadri, was the Minister of Education, Minister of Primary and Mass Education and Minister of Cultural Affairs, Government of the People?s Republic of Bangladesh. He was the perfect guy to rely upon for damage control. The public school background showed, as did the many years as a top bureaucrat. He had been a member of the elite Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP). An old boys network that still holds clout in the subcontinent.
The Press Information Department (PID) auditorium on the 3rd floor of Building 9, in the Bangladesh Secretariat was packed. Unlike many other Bangladeshi events this press conference started on time. Squeezing through the footpaths, crossing fences, lifting my bicycle over rickshaws stuck in traffic, I had panted my way to the secretariat. The police at gate 2 had been too perplexed by a bicycle going through the gate to even stop me for papers. I arrived just as the first question was raised. It was a packed hall, and while I thought I would stay at the back, I realised that I needed to get up there to stand any chance of getting a question in. I sat on the floor in between the video tripods.
The journalists had done their homework. And while there were a few questions that were repetitive, by and large, they knew what they wanted. In response to a question about the alleged corruption charges against one of the government officials involved in the transaction, the adviser joked. “Well I am the person in overall charge. The police don’t seem to be after me for corruption.” Pretty answer. Pity it didn’t answer the question.
The large table with the adviser in the middle was imposing. The Secretary of Culture on the left and another officer on the right played a largely ornamental role. So did the entire row of officials in the back. They did however lean forward to whisper in the adviser’s ear from time to time. The question came up of the alleged transportation of the bronze casket in 1959 to France, which Mr. Zakaria, the ex Secretary of Culture had mentioned in a press conference on the 1st December. The adviser let the question slip, saying he’d heard of such accusations and was looking into it. A member of the back row broke ranks and retorted, “There is no such record.” Mr. Zakaria, also an ex director of the department of archaeology, had mentioned a 49 year fight to get back this prized possession, without success. A journalist mentioned the case of the 30 paintings of Mohammad Younus. They had been sent to Yugoslavia, on a government to government exchange. None had ever come back. Quadri again said he didn’t know. “Don’t know” was quite a common response to questions. Candid perhaps, but not particularly useful.
In answer to the questions about the irregularities regarding the loan inventory, the adviser did provide figures, but no documents he could back them up with. Questions from the floor pointed to the disjoint between the figures he quoted and the ones given in the government documents submitted to the court. That they didn’t correspond to the inventory produced by the French themselves. He promised to provide updated documents this very evening. Tomorrow morning at the latest. Why the government had provided documents to the court which did not tally with the shipment, was a question that never got asked, and was certainly not clarified. The mystery of calling a press conference, but not having these documents at hand was never solved by the guests.
“I have full confidence that the items will come back.” He said, taking the weight of the world on his shoulders. As to why Bangladeshis should have confidence in him, was one that was never clarified.
“The company that had packed the crates have been doing so for 300 years,” he mentioned. The doubters have been asking for the packers to be named ever since the beginning, but have not been given an answer. Those who had thought the press conference would enlighten them were disappointed.
Since only government members of the committee were present, there was no one to question the claim that everything had been done to please the committee. That the committee had been fully satisfied with the proceedings. The fact that the official letter by the committee, in the hands of the press, said something entirely different was a mere technicality.
The inconsistencies were the problem. We still don’t know exactly how many items are being sent. Neither do we know exactly what is being sent. The few specifics the advisor provided, that there were “50 silver coins, and 8 gold coins,” might have helped in purchasing supplies for an Everest expedition, but didn’t help much in evaluating either the value, or the specifics of a museum item. Especially when the court record states “50 punchmarked coins” in one entry and an unspecified number of “gold and silver coins” in another. Assuming the number of silver coins in the latter entry is non-zero, and that the punchmarked coins are all silver, we still have a problem. The French inventory specifies “93 punch marked coins.” Are the “gold and silver coins” non-punchmarked? Do they add up to the “8 gold coins” the adviser was referring to? 50 + non-zero number = 50 and 50 + 8 = 93 in Ayub Quadri’s arithmetic.
There are bigger issues. He generally accepted that the insurance value was low, but claimed that it was an academic issue in the case of priceless items. Especially since he was confident that they were all coming back. However the French press release, issued on the 25th September 2007, stated that the insurance value was 4 million euro. The adviser today clearly stated 2.6 million euro. So who are we to believe? We are after all talking of the most prized possessions of a nation. Consistent statements help remove doubt. The adviser’s “confidence” might work on a poker table, but does little to put a worried population at ease.
He brushed off the accusation about whisking off the items in a hurry, or that there was any question of impropriety or stealth in terms of going against court directives. When asked why such an important event, which was covered by all major independent media, was completely unreported on state television, he smiled. The gentleman on the right did speak up this time. He pointed out that the question was “irrelevant.”
Other questions remain. Gold and silver coins is one thing. In the documents presented to the court by the government, even one of the most valued items, the large (and extremely rare) bronze statue the Vajrasattva does include an insurance value (not always the case for other items listed) of 200,000 euro. This item too does not have an accession number.
Quadri was unruffled throughout, never losing cool. Always extremely pleasant. His only admission to some concern was in answer to a question about when the items would come back. He said in no uncertain terms, “April.” He added, “Until then, I will stay worried, and looking at the mood in the room, I can tell that you too will not rest.” I hope he meant 2007.
As a child, we would watch the candy floss man take a tiny spoonful of sugar, a dollop of colouring and would watch with amazement as the machine spun out a pink web, which he would twirl around a stick. One portion was only dui poisha (two paisa). A figure which we could realistically save up. The large pink fluff, folded on contact, and melted in the mouth, but did give a sense of attainment. We called it hawai mithai, sweet made of air. This candy floss press conference too, had little substance but plenty of form.
Whether the media kids will feel they got value for their dui poisha is something we’ll see in tomorrow’s headlines.
3rd December 2007. Dhaka.
———
Previous governments have killed farmers when they demanded fertilisers and seeds. Villagers have been killed when they had the audacity to demand electricity, resist open pit mining. Yesterday 14 cyclone affected people were detained for trying to present a memorandum demanding relief. We wonder what demands for saving our heritage will bring.

Demagogues at Airports

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He looked worried as most passengers would do, waiting for luggage that should have arrived. It had been a while since EK005 from Dubai had landed at Heathrow terminal 3. Belt 2 was almost empty. They announced that one lot of bags was yet to arrive. There was hope yet.

Nawaz Sharif at Heathrow

Now that we were the only two passengers left, we made eye contact. With a faint nod he registered my recognition, as celebrities often do. He asked me in Urdu, where I was from. Dhaka, I muttered, and we shook hands. He found no need to introduce himself as Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan. I resisted the temptation to ask him about his property in London, or the proposed tryst with Benazir.

This had occurred before, once at terminal 4 when General Ershad, the former president of Bangladesh had arrived. No fanfare, no waiting crowds, people walking by. I wondered how it felt. They both had absolute power when they ruled, and had used it with abandon. I remembered our resistance in the streets, the police brutality, the teargas. Noor Hossain and Milon’s death. Despite all the rhetoric about their closeness to the people, fending for themselves at the airport terminal was probably as near as they ever got to seeing what it was like on the other side.

7th June 2006

Biarritz

When a Modem Costs More Than a Cow

Bangladesh?s history is that of colonization, oppression and genocide. It is less than thirty years since several million people were killed and many more became refugees in perhaps one of the greatest atrocities of modern times. There were two basic tools that have engineered and enforced this domination, technology and language. Our war was based on language, and it was technology that provided the military, the muscle.

With technology and language both being owned by the wealthy, class divides are intrinsically linked to this hegemony. How then do we see the most dominant of modern cultures, the Internet? The ownership of the Net is almost entirely Northern globally, and exclusively urban and elite locally. The hype surrounding the Internet and the top down approach with which it is meant to provide deliverance, hides the politics of corporate ownership, the way in which this media is controlled, and the simple fact that for the majority of the world the Internet doesn?t exist, and for many others in the South, it is barely effective.

The propaganda surrounding this imperialist tool, fits in well with the stated objectives of our colonial rulers: ‘ Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possible have.’ ?Minute by J Farish dated August 28, 1838, quoted in B.K.Boman-Behram, Educational Controversies of India, p. 239

Language forms the biggest barrier to computer literacy in Bangladesh, and when less than 15% of the population has access to electricity, and a far smaller fraction owns computers, it is clear that only the wealthy will have access to this technology. Here, a modem costs more than a cow. Yet this technology and this associated language both exist. We must stare this dual hegemony straight in the face, but we cannot, dare not, let this technology pass us by. To find creative routes to turn this technology to our benefit is our greatest challenge.

The Internet can be a subversive tool. It remains the only medium which gives scope – relatively inexpensively, and without the support of the gatekeepers ? for a lone voice to be heard. It is this unique characteristic that we have to nurture. The bigger players have the money, the clout, the physical strength and the social control to bludgeon their way through, but they do not have the flexibility, the ability to pop up and disappear at will, the speed of action or the elasticity to slip through the holes, that the well trained individual has. Given the important proviso of access, the Net is fast, cheap, and difficult to stop. It is the Net that we must use, to fight its own dominance.

Cultures dominate by creating norms that are not questioned by creating ?accepted practices? that become tools of oppression and by defusing the need for critical analysis. Consumer forces convince us of the need for bigger RAM, faster processors and software that gives us greater choice. Wildly disproportionate pay scales, between locals and expatriates and between English speaking and non English speaking co-workers teach us the importance of fluency in English. Indecent consultancy fees that siphon back most of what is provided as aid, make us believe that western values and skills are what one must strive to attain. Dominant cultures define who is primitive and who is civilized. The dissenting voice that questions the goodness of donor efforts, quickly discovers the reach of donor funds. One must not stand in the way of progress, particularly when that progress is backed by individuals whose personal wealth is greater than that of entire nations they are trying to civilise.

Now we are to behold a literature so full of all qualities of loveliness and purity, such new regions of high thought and feeling? that to the dwellers in past days it should seem rather the production of angels than of men. Madras Christian Instructor and Missionary record (1844) Let us examine these ?productions of angels? in Bangladesh in greater detail. Networking has traditionally been a strength of global organizations, multinationals, international donor agencies and NGOs, and large local NGOs. International telecommunications has been way beyond the means of small local players. Even interconnectivity amongst themselves has often been too difficult to maintain.

It was to address these specific issues that Drik set up a small Email network in 1994. Our server was a used 286 computer, and the phone line was shared for voice, fax and data. We used Fidonet, and rang Amsterdam (our gateway to the Internet) only twice a day, but even that transformed the way we worked. Our clients included large and small NGOs, government ministers, western embassies, The World Bank, students, corporations, activists. There were frequent power cuts, the telephone lines didn?t always work, a thunderstorm destroyed most of our modems, and we ourselves were only semi-skilled. Still our network grew. And though we were paying our Dutch counterparts 30 cents per kilobyte for transmitting files, we were making the system pay. We setup fax gateways, and an Email club where more experienced users taught the others how to use Email to extract information from the net, how to compress files to save on transmission costs, and how to decode files that looked like garbled messages.

Our oldest user, photographer and writer Golam Kasem, had just turned 103 and had never seen a computer before. I would cycle over to his house in Indira Road with a printout of a message from his grandson in Canada and next day peddle up to collect his reply. I remember the frail old man, straightening up the computer printout and adjusting his thick glasses as he held the paper by his tungsten lamp. Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen received a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists and was charged with blasphemy by the Government. We needed to move quickly – to create national and international pressure so Taslima could come out of hiding to alert friends overseas, PEN (the international writers support group) and Amnesty International and the campaign took off. Our fragile network was working.

There were other ways in which the technology was being used. The Daily Star newspaper set up a ?Live from the Internet? column. Readers who had no access to either computers or the Internet would write to the Star, which the newspaper would relay to Internet chat groups. The responses would get printed in the column. These hybrid off-line techniques became an important means for our communication. We setup electronic bulletin boards and a whole set of discussion groups sprang up. Important campaigns were initiated through these virtual conferences, and the network became a seat of resistance.

When full Internet services became available however, networks such as ours were quickly ditched. The government ignored us and gave permission only to large corporations and major NGOs. Interestingly, Grameen Bank, BRAC and Proshikha, three giant NGOs who used to get connectivity from us, set up their own ISPs. In Bangladesh, they owned the Internet. The conferences disappeared, and local networks that we had painstakingly setup rapidly vanished. We were being squeezed out of the market. Unable to compete at an economic level we found alternative means for providing support to our users.

The ISPs were not interested in servicing non-urban users. We maintained our off-line service, which could still service people with DOS based machines, with analog lines, living in remote areas. We leased lines from these NGOs and used them to transfer data to the Net, reducing our transmission costs. We began setting up new discussion groups and mailing lists. Most importantly, we set up our own web site, which we used to support our campaigns. We moved from providing connectivity which we could no longer provide reliably, to providing content.

Recently, when women students at a nearby university began a campaign against campus rape, our web site became a principal tool for advocacy. Pressure that was exerted internationally and nationwide added to the massive physical protests by the students forcing the establishment to conduct an enquiry. Five students of the ruling party were indicted. At it?s peak, our site was getting over 5000 hits per day. Articles were sent to the newspapers, and we began publishing things they had censored out. We were learning to wield our new weapon. We had been concerned by absence of working class and rural representation in mainstream media.

At about the time we set up our Fidonet network, we began providing photojournalism training to working class children. The going was never smooth and we made many mistakes, but these children progressed remarkably.

Excited by what the children had achieved, we tried setting up a distance education programme for rural Bangladeshi children. We set up a server in a town called Sylhet in the North East of Bangladesh. Using microwave links we then connected schools in nearby villages (using computers bought collectively by students and by us) to the server, A dial up link to Dhaka provided Internet mail. Sylhet has a lot of migrant workers who have gone overseas, and Email reunited these families. We are now helping develop multimedia training modules for teaching vocational skills. We tried linking the education programme with an afforestation scheme and even tried setting up a commercial service that would help subsidise the project. Things didn?t work as well as we had planned, but enough progress was made to interest other players in the project.

The focus however already seems to be shifting from the basic grass roots work that we had set out to do. Now that the big boys are interested, the transformation they may bring, might have the same effect as the changes they introduced to the Internet scene. A major cause of the high connectivity costs in our region is the monopoly of the telecom sectors in all our countries. This is not merely a national issue, but is linked to the unequal trade terms between nations of the South and the North. Alliances between global telecom players and local governments have resulted in local consumers getting shortchanged.

Vested interests have often required entire nations to follow technological solutions totally unsuited to local requirements. We began using the Net to pool together a team of regional IT professionals. We pleasantly discovered that our collective knowledge base could easily cut through the hogwash that the governments and corporations used.

The other useful collective decisions we were able to make related to developing local language tools, from standard UNICODE formats to OCR for local languages. Since many of our languages have common roots we found that work being done by several people across local borders could provide a lot of synergy. An area that has to be addressed, particularly where the international donor community is involved relates to the mind set that ?appropriate technology? is necessarily ?low technology?. It is fashionable to design ergonometric rickshaws, and better spinning wheels. When we talk of Internet or IT there is the feeling that it is inappropriate for poor people and cannot have a role in ?poverty alleviation?.

It is important to recognize that poverty cannot be addressed unless one addresses exploitation and distribution modes within society. This applies not only to regional power relationships but also to global imbalances. Politicians rarely feel accountable to voters and hide behind the lack of transparency of the government sector. Major decisions that affect community life are taken behind closed doors, where the people most affected have no access. Though the constitution grants equal rights to all citizens, legal, medical and educational rights are only realized for the minority in power, with women and children of poor communities, pegged at the other end of the spectrum, rarely aware of these rights, let alone being in a position to extract them from society.

Where information is power, denying information to marginalized communities, actively prevents the rural poor from overcoming the unequal power structures that they are trapped within. While it is in the interest of the powerful in society to restrict such access, it is also in the interest of the powerful nations to deny access and maintain domination. The unrestricted flow of general information is an essential pre-requisite for an egalitarian society

Shahidul Alam

Dhaka, 30th April,1999

First published in bytes for all