Propaganda, and the suppression of dissent

rahnuma ahmed

I have not acquired any fortune but I have my paternal estate and the pension of a Subedar. This is enough for me. The people in my village seem to respect me, and are now fully satisfied with the ease and benefits they enjoy under British rule.

Thus wrote Sita Ram in From Sepoy to Subedar, first published in 1873, sixteen years after the first war of independence (the British still refer to it as the Indian Rebellion, or the Indian Mutiny).

Sita Ram wrote the manuscript at the bidding of his commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Norgate in 1861, his son passed it on to the Englishman; the manuscript is supposed to have been written in Awadhi, Norgate translated it into English. An Urdu translation is also heard to have surfaced the same year. Few copies are known to have been sold, until 1911 that is, when a Colonel Phillott created a new syllabus for Hindustani exams, taken by colonial officers to test their knowledge of the language. Phillott himself translated the book into Urdu, and from then onwards, the autobiography of Sita Ram, who worked in the Bengal Native Army of the East India Company for forty-eight years (1812 to 1860)—became a ‘key text’ for British officers. The book was still part of the curriculum in the 1940s, it was translated into Devanagari in the same decade; a new and illustrated edition of the book (Norgate’s English translation), was brought out by James Lunt, as late as 1970. Continue reading “Propaganda, and the suppression of dissent”


Dhaka University, Shaheed Minar and CP Gang’s ‘bessha’ banner
by Rahnuma Ahmed

The online group CP Gang's banner reads (translated) 'Resist these so-called civil [society] liars and anti-Independence intellectual prostitutes in order to uphold the true history of the liberation war to the younger generation.' Those whose faces are crossed out are, from left to right, journalist Mahfuzullah, Dhaka University professors Asif Nazrul and Amena Mohsin, North South university professor Dilara Chowdhury, lawyer Tuhin Malik, writer and columnist Farhad Mazhar, Saptahik editor Golam Mortuza, New Age editor Nurul Kabir, and daily Manabzamin editor Motiur Rahman Chowdhury. A human chain at the Central Shaheed Minar organised by the Muktijoddha Sangsad Santan Command, Dhaka on October 17, 2014.
THIS story begins with the sudden and unexpected death of professor Piash Karim on October 13, 2014, of cardiac arrest. Piash, who had returned to Dhaka in 2007 after teaching for nearly two decades at an American university, had joined BRAC University and was teaching in the department of economics and social sciences. Dr Amena Mohsin, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, and Piash Karim got married in March 2013; high-school student Drabir Karim, Piash’s son from his first marriage, was part of their family. Earlier known in his circle of friends for his left-leaning views, Piash gradually gravitated towards the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a centrist party and the ruling Awami League’s arch-enemy. He began frequenting television talk shows, popular, as no real debate takes place in the parliament. (The popularity of TV talk shows has drastically declined, however, with the silent black-listing of dissident voices; a couple of analysts have reportedly left the country). His comment that the Ganajagaran Mancha, initially composed of a small group of bloggers and activists calling for the hanging of war criminals of 1971, later mushrooming into a sea of people at Shahbagh square in Dhaka city and spreading nationwide, was developing ‘fascist’ undertones, earned him widespread denunciation. The movement was then riding high. Continue reading “HISTORY AS ETHICAL REMEMBRANCE”


Reclaiming Ekattur: fashi, Bangali

By Rahnuma Ahmed

EVEN THOUGH I was dying to, pressing work — to do with other activist engagements, the Tazreen factory fire, communal attacks in Ramu — forced me to stay away the first few days from the youth uprising which began at Shahbagh on February 5. The spontaneous sit-in, rapidly gathered into its fold hundreds of thousands of people who, driven by a deep sense of injustice, have felt compelled to go to Shahbagh to ‘right’ the wrongs of history committed in post-independence Bangladesh: war collaborators of 1971 have not only been unpunished in the ensuing four decades but have been reinstated politically, financially and socially at the national level. Continue reading “YOUTH UPRISING AT SHAHBAGH”

Eating up children

by rahnuma ahmed

Local residents help firefighters battle the deadly factory blaze at Smart Exports, Mohammadpur, Dhaka, January 26, 2013 ?AP
Local residents help firefighters battle the deadly factory blaze at Smart Exports, Mohammadpur, Dhaka, January 26, 2013 ?AP

Josna, isn’t Josna feeling cold?
I didn’t know what to say as I sat beside Josna’s mother on the curb, outside the Emergency department of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). It was slightly chilly, the last cold wave of January was making its appearance felt.
The breeze seemed to blow away her words, but only as far as outside appearances went. They clung to the inner recesses of my mind.
I shivered, but not because of the cold. Josna, 16 years old, a garment factory worker at Smart Exports in Mohammadpur Beribadh area, was lying cold, on a metal trolley inside the morgue. Continue reading “Eating up children”

Reflections on Bengali motherhood and storytelling

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

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”

Airport blues

The hartal (general strike) today put a spoke in the works. Our driver Joshim needed to drop me off at the airport and be back at base before sunrise. The young tailor Biswajit Das having been brutally murdered in full view of the police and the media, meant we could take no chances. Joshim had been sleeping downstairs in order to be at ours at such a ridiculous hour. Rahnuma rang him at 4:00 am, and soon a groggy Joshim, Rahnuma and I were off to the airport. Rahnuma and I have never had the luxury of seeing each other off, but it didn’t feel safe for Joshim to be heading home on his own. So Rahnuma volunteered to be body guard on the return trip.

Passengers walking to the Shahjalal International Airport. Early morning, Tuesday the 11th December 2012. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There was no traffic. At least none that we could see through the incredibly dense fog. The headlights made things worse with the fog itself being lit up by the headlight and shining the light right back at us. Without the headlights, once could at least barely make out the edges of the road. The risk of being beaten up by thugs in the street, had been replaced by the risk of getting run over by a fog blinded truck. At least we had a vehicle of our own and the option of travelling as we pleased. Continue reading “Airport blues”


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”

Ramu violence: A fanoosh is not a balloon

by Pragyananda Bhikkhu
Translated by Rahnuma Ahmed

Translator’s note: Young Bangladeshi Buddhist monk Pragyananda Bhikkhu, of Ramu Shima Bihar, wrote “Ramu Shohingshota: Fanoosh kono balloon noy”, which was published in Dainik Cox?s Bazar, November 4, 2012 in light of the controversy created over setting afloat fanooshes as part of the celebration of Prabarana Purnima, the second largest Buddhist religious festival; to be noted, this year’s date coincided with the monthly anniversary of the communal attacks ?of September 29, 2012, which destroyed innumerable Buddhist monasteries, temples and homes, allegedly caused by an offensive photograph discovered in the facebook account of Uttam Kumar Barua, a Bengali Buddhist youth, several hours before the attacks occurred. According to press reports, the attacks were visibly incited by local leaders and members of the ruling Awami League (AL), the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami; the attackers included those belonging to these political parties, and also, other Muslims, both local inhabitants and outsiders. News reports have highlighted the “inaction” of police officials and the local-level administration. Both ruling AL and the opposition BNP agree that these attacks were “planned” and pre-meditated.
The fanoosh controversy, as Pragyananda clearly explains, was the result of administrative interference in religious ceremonies and rituals; the Buddhists of Ramu had decided not to? observe their rites of virtue this year as they were “heartbroken” and grieving over their losses.
Relief and rehabilitation (tran) actions taken by the government are satisfactory, but ones concerned with deliverance (poritran) are not, writes Pragynanda, since the issue of delivering justice to Buddhists in Ramu has by all accounts become “mired in the quicksand of [party] politics.”
After reading his article, I had requested Pragyananda to elaborate on several things including worship rites regarding fanoosh, he responded to my request in writing, sections of which have been incorporated in this translation. — Rahnuma Ahmed?

Pragyananda Bhikkhu, Buddhist monk, Ramu Shima Bihar.

ACCORDING TO some, a fanoosh is a light, its resemblance to a dole has led some to call it a dolebaji (large bin for storing rice). But in Buddhist vocabulary, a fanoosh is known as a sky light. Prince Siddartha (later Gautam Buddha) renounced kingdom, kingship, greed, a life of luxury and riches in his quest for freedom from suffering; he left his sangsar on a blessed day in the month of Ashar when it was full moon [purnima]. Continue reading “Ramu violence: A fanoosh is not a balloon”

CONCLUDING PART: Govt response to communal attack in Ramu

by?rahnuma ahmed

In today’s column, I basically deal with three issues, firstly, a brief review of the government’s administrative responses, these suggest that higher-ups have ‘settled’ on making the officer-in-charge of Ramu thana the “fall guy” for the devastating waves of attacks on Buddhist temples, monasteries and houses on September 29; secondly, my examination of the report of the probe committee formed by the home ministry to investigate the occurrences in Ramu inclines me to think that the committee has produced a report according to the home minister’s requirements and guidelines as outlined in his public speeches instead of? investigating impartially as the committee is duty-bound to; third, in order to create appearances of communal harmony post-Ramu, government officials, ruling party members and ideologues, mostly Muslims (plus a few Buddhist quislings), have participated in government-funded Probarona celebrations this year, which has led to the (forceful) de-linking of religious rituals from a set of embodied practices which are a part of the Buddhist tradition; it bespeaks of government interference (hijacking), which again, is unconstitutional (freedom of worship).

Fanooshes being released on the eve of Prabarana Purnima during a so-called solidarity event held at Shoparjito Swadhinota, Dhaka University on October 28, 2012. The programme was organised by Prabarana Udjapon Parishad ? New Age

Continue reading “CONCLUDING PART: Govt response to communal attack in Ramu”


By rahnuma ahmed


A Libyan man explains that the bloodstains on the column are from an American embassy staff member who grabbed the edge of the column while he was evacuated, after an attack that killed four Americans on 11 September 2012. ?AP

?Collateral damage?, according to the US department of defense, is damage or injury caused to those who are not lawful military targets, i.e., to non-combatants.
They occur nevertheless…, in the course of action…, but because they were unintended or incidental, the inflictors are to be let off.
In other words, “collateral damage” is deployed to indicate that the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan etc., caused by CIA’s drone-fired missiles — people attending a wedding party, mourners attending funerals of those killed by drone attacks — is ?not unlawful.? They are unintended, they are incidental. They are, as such, ??collateral? deaths. Sorry for all the killings folks, but war is war.
The term, as Orwell reminds us, is a euphemism. Deliberately crafted to prevent us from feeling repulsed, from being morally outraged at the loss of life, at senseless slaughter.
Can the death of J. Christopher Stevens, US ambassador to Libya, and that of three embassy staff, be dismissed as ?collateral? deaths?
For, after all, the present situation in Libya, post-Gaddafi, as detailed in an Amnesty International report, seems to be pretty grim:
[The militias] are killing people, making arbitrary arrests, torturing detainees and forcibly displacing and terrorizing entire communities, often solely for reasons of revenge. They are also recklessly using machineguns, mortars and other weaponry during tribal and territorial battles, killing and maiming bystanders. They act above the law, committing their crimes without fear of punishment. (Libya: Rule of Law or Rule of Militias, Amnesty International, 2012).
The presence of these militias, says Amnesty, ?threaten[s] the very future of Libya.?
The US Ambassador was presumably not ignorant of the state of affairs. For, according to a CNN news report, a local security official (member of the February 17th Brigade), Jamal Mabrouk, had warned American diplomats in Benghazi three days before the ?assault on the US consulate, that, the security situation was ?deteriorating.? It was not conducive for ?international business.? It had worsened because of the ?growing presence of armed jihadist groups in the Benghazi area.? It is ?frightening.? It ?scares us.? (More details emerge on U.S. ambassador’s last moments, CNN, September 15, 2012).
The findings of the Amnesty report — the militias ?act above the law,? they commit ?their crimes without fear of punishment? — is confirmed by Libya’s president. A CNN reporter had asked Mohamed Magariaf, when visiting the heavily damaged consulate, whether the government was not capable of controlling extremist groups. ?You are not far from the truth,? was his reply.
There are other reasons, as well, for the US Ambassador to have been knowledgeable.
He was not new to Libya, having served as the US envoy to Libya’s rebels from April 2011. Stationed in Benghazi — the rebel stronghold, the cradle of the Obama administration supported anti-Gaddafi rebellion — Chris Stevens’ is generally acknowledged to have been a “key player” in the uprising. Or, as I would put it, to not having been new to terror.
To, for instance, terror unleashed from the skies, for, NATO had conducted 24,140 air sorties on Libya, with strike sorties numbering 9,010.? Pro-democracy forces could not have disposed of Gaddafi — who had autocratically ruled Libya for forty years — so quickly if it hadn’t been for the air strikes.
Western leaders maintain however, that their intention was humanitarian, of “protecting” Libyans (by bombing, i.e., killing Libyans).
But as alternative news sources had then revealed, Libya’s “pro-democracy” rebels were led by “former” al-Qaeda affiliated brigades, who were supervised by NATO Special Forces, composed of US Navy Seals, British Special SAS Forces and French Legionnaires. The latter’s identity was not disclosed, they were kept out of photo ops, they blended into the heavily-militarised Libyan landscape, they were reportedly behind major operations directed against key buildings including Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound. The rebel forces, on the other hand, had also included teenaged, untrained, trigger-happy gunmen.
The “liberation” of Tripoli was carried out by by “former” members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LFIG), who reportedly disbanded later. According to CNN, they had repented; Michel Chossudosvky terms it switching labels, former terrorists were no longer “terrorists” but “pro-democracy activists” (Global Research, August 28, 2011).
The commander of the assault on Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who had fought the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan — the fighters were then known as the Afghan mujahideen, funded by the CIA and Saudi Arabia, its leaders feted by then US president Ronald Reagan in the White House — when asked whether the militants planned to hand over control to the National Transitional Council, which had been recognised by Western governments , reportedly made “a gesture of dismissal without answering.”
After his appointment as US ambassador to Libya this May, Chris Stevens had said in a video released by the US State Department, ?I was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights.?
The Libyan people. No mention of “former” al-Qaeda affiliated brigades. No mention either, of NATO Special Forces, of US Navy Seals, British Special SAS Forces and French Legionnaires.
He’d added, ?Now, I’m excited to return to Libya [as the Ambassador] to continue the great work we?ve started, building a solid partnership between the United States and Libya to help you, the Libyan people, achieve your goals.?
After his death/murder, we now see the Libyan president say, “foreigners” were involved in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Suspects have been imprisoned; the Libyan authorities are sharing intelligence with American officials. He was silent however, about who were these foreigners, or where they had come from (NBC, September 15, 2012).
At first, the consulate attack was assumed to have spun out from protests by Libyans who were furious at the anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims.” But this was soon discarded. US officials, quoted by news outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, Russia Today, and the Washington Post, said, they believed the attack was pre-meditated. Makes sense, for, as commentators point out, who brings along rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and heavy machine guns to a spontaneous protest about a YouTube video? The mortars, which were later fired at the secret safe house where the US embassy staff had been evacuated, were very accurate. “Too good for ordinary revolutionaries,” said Captain Fathi al-Obeidi, of the February 17 Brigade, who took Libyan troops and an eight-strong American rescue team from Tripoli, to the safe house, “It began to rain down on us, about six mortars fell directly on the path to the villa.” (Gregory Patin, Embassy attacks, protests: Are they really about a movie?, September 15, 2012).
But far more alarming questions seem to face the US administration: how did the better-than-ordinary revolutionaries know the address of the safe house? Well in advance too, it would seem. Had insider sources leaked this confidential information? It is a reminder of what are known as green on blue killings, as Afghan soldiers increasingly turn their guns on western ?forces, but, already, in Libya? It had taken the Afghans more than a decade, whereas, the Libyan “revolution” is merely a year old.
Despite all indications that the attack on the consulate was pre-meditated, acknowledged as well by the US government, the Obama administration has now reverted to the official story line, “the current global situation is all over a YouTube video.”
There is an added reason for insisting that it’s the video and nothing else, for as protests spread globally — with protestors having been killed to protect US embassies and diplomats, with attempts to storm other western embassies as well ?– it is increasingly clear that Muslim rage is fundamentally against US foreign policies. That, these protests have mushroomed into a “new wave of anti-Americanism” (Reuters).
This is vigorously being denied by the Obama administration, as is quite clear from ?White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s words, “This is a fairly volatile situation and it is in response not to United States policy, not to obviously the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video, a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.”
Much is being made of Google having turned down the request made by White House to pull down the anti-Islam film clip. Google has responded by saying it has restricted the clip in compliance with local laws, the video is being censored in India and Indonesia, blocked in Egypt and Libya, that it would not give in to “political pressure.” What is however being ignored by mainstream western media, is that clips which allegedly show the American Ambassador having met a fate similar to that of Gaddafi’s — sodomised, lynched and killed by an angry mob — are unavailable. One is met by the message, “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy against spam, scams and commercially deceptive content. Sorry about that.”
The video story must stick, because on it hinges continuing Western depictions of Muslims as being “irrational” and “fanatic,” which, are put into play to lessen, if not justify, feelings of revulsion and moral outrage at the senseless slaughter of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and so on. The video story is aided by preaching and hectoring by the likes of Ed Hussein, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, who informs us that “Heresy and blasphemy are essential parts of free and democratic societies” in an article headlined, “Arab Spring nations don’t yet grasp freedom of dissent” (CNN Special, September 14, 2012).
CNN has other talking point headlines as well, “Was the Arab Spring worth it?” — leading me to wonder whether this is indicative of a shift, over fears of the “new wave of anti-Americanism.”
To return to the official story about the Ambassador’s death, it has changed. Preliminary news reports had said that he had probably died when his car was attacked en route to the safe house. But we have later been informed that the Ambassador died of smoke inhalation, caused by firing. CNN tells us, his body was found in a suite at the consulate which was protected by a large door with steel bars, its windows too, were protected by steel bars. That, his body was discovered after looters broke into the room, that he was taken from the consulate to the Benghazi medical centre by locals, “unresponsive and covered in soot by the fire” (CNN, September 15, 2012). But the photo (see picture 2) widely available on the internet, published in some western dailies as well, show no signs of him being covered in soot. What really happened? Will the details be suppressed? To save the face of America’s political and military leadership? News reports say that ambassador Stevens will be cremated, will that be before, or after, a post-mortem? Surely necessary, because we cannot after all, treat an American ambassador’s death lightly. As mere “collateral damage.”
Corriere della Sera (English, Evening Courier), one of the oldest and most reputable Italian newspapers. Caption accompanying the photo, translated into English says, The staff at the US embassy in Benghazi tries to save Ambassador Chris Stevens after the attack by protestors against a film on Mohammed was considered blasphemous. Photographer unknown

The US has since dispatched a Marine Corps anti-terrorist security team to boost security in Libya, moved two Navy destroyers towards the Libyan coast. It has also deployed military teams to 17 or 18 locations in Muslim majority countries, ones that are of “strategic interest to Pentagon,” to respond to unrest.
While president Obama promised that the ambassador’s killers will be brought to “justice”, secretary of state Hillary Clinton seemed to moan, “Indeed, I asked myself, how could this happen, how could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”
Hopefully, she and other members of America’s ruling class will figure out the answers soon. Better late than never.
Published as, ” US AMBASSADOR TO LIBYA KILLED. Collateral Damage,” in New Age, Monday, September 17, 2012