Tortured Truths



rahnuma ahmed

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

Torture doesn’t reveal the truth

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

Do not forget me comrade

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

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

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

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

You are the law. You are God

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

Unequal Comparisons

by rahnuma ahmed

Female bodily mutilation

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

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

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

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

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

This was 1993.

A special alien

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unequal claims

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

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

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

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

Rosa knows.

New Age February 4 2008

Unruly Images


Masculinity, Public Memory and Censorship

By Rahnuma Ahmed

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

Not a straight-forward affair

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

Dhaka University incident: unruly images

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


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

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

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

Justice for Nurjahan


Photographs Shahidul Alam
Text Rahnuma Ahmed

It was reported in the papers as suicide. On 10 January 1993 Nurjahan, a woman in her twenties from a struggling peasant household from the Maulvi Bazar district of north-east Bangladesh, was found dead from poisoning at her parents’ house in the village of Chattokchara.
Nurjahan Begum, 7th among 9 daughters, had been married five years before the incident. However, her husband abandoned her and she returned home to live with her parents. Later, her parents arranged another marriage for her, but since polyandry is forbidden by Muslim law, it was necessary to discover whether her first marriage had been properly dissolved. Nujahan’s father consulted the village imam (religious leader), who declared that she was free to marry. However, he revoked this later and claimed that the marriage was illegal because the first still stood. A shalish (village council for settling disputes and trying offending villagers) met to judge whether Nurjahan and any of her family members had broken the law. The shalish found Nujahan guilty of fornication, on the grounds that she was still married to her first husband; after debating the punishment, it decided that 101 pebbles should be thrown at Nurjahan and her second husband.
Pebbles were preferred to stones since the intention, reportedly, was to shame the couple rather than hurt or kill them. Nurjahan’s parents were also to be punished; the shalish decreed that they should be beaten with a broom. Nurjahan was made to stand in a hole that was then filled, half burying her, to receive her punishment. As she did so a member of the shalish approached her and castigated her for the shame she had brought on her family. She was not fit to live and should kill herself. Nurjahan was found dead the next day.
Nurjahan’s father
Nurjahan’s father: “This is where I found my daughter’s body.”
The affair was reported in a local newspaper. A campaign was launched by women’s groups to demand a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the death. Public outrage and the success of the campaign turned it into a landmark case;
Accused being taken to Moulvibazar court
The accused in Moulvibazar court
proceedings were brought against the imam and the members of the shalish only a year after Nurjahan’s death. He and eight others were subsequently found guilty of abetting the suicide and received the maximum possible penalty of seven years’ hard labour. The village shordar (leader) died of illness while in custody.
The accused in court jail.
Imam leading prayers in court jail.
Nurjahan’s father believes that his family was made to suffer because of a long-standing enmity between him and the shordar. A female relative of the shordar spoke ill of Nurjahan. “She was a bad woman,” she said. “She would be seen working outside her home.” A rickshaw-puller from Chattokchara came to her defence. “Yes, she worked outside her home. But what other choice did they have?” he argued. “The family is poor.” But he did harbour some doubts. “Why was the wedding held secretly? Why were we not invited?”
Nurjahan’s death has raised many issues for the Bangladeshi women’s movement. Her tragedy has highlighted the manifold forms of women’s subordination within rnarriage, the family and within the community. First, Nurjahan was abandoned by her husband. Then it was the imam who held the knowledge about whether she was free to marry, and he misled her. Finally, it was the members of the shalish, all men, who judged and punished her.
Shalishes have been known to fine and discipline members of the community; at the same time, there are also instances of women disobeying or ignoring and, in some cases, challenging shalish pronouncements. Nujahan’s death has given rise to questions about the sphere of jurisdiction of the shalish, which is a community body with no legal status.
Wife of one of the accused, waiting outside courtroom.
There are few reminders of Nurjahan herself. Of her belongings, a torn corner of a shari, and a shawl she was wearing when she died, have been put aside. Her few remaining clothes were being worn by women in her family. Her only other belongings, a pot and two pans. were being used by her mother.
The family has no photographs. Her grave, like that of the shordar is a small clearing on a hillock near the village, scarcely recognisable as such. The district commissioner promised that the site will be named “Nurjahan tila”.
Nurjahan’s sister at her grave.
The government, in turn, announced that a road would soon be built to Chattokchara. However, in all likelihood, this is probably more significant for visiting journalists and officials, than for her family.