WIKILEAKS BANGLADESH – I

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People’s Resistance to Global Capital and Government Collaboration is Vindicated

Rahnuma Ahmed

In reality, WikiLeaks leak of diplomatic cables from US Embassy, Dhaka reveal nothing new, they only serve to confirm what many of us across the world knew.
But before writing about open-pit coal mining and Asia Energy’s US$1.4 billion Phulbari project, I’d like to remind readers that in `Is there more to WikiLeaks than meets the eye?’ I agreed with skeptics who thought Julian Assange, director of WikiLeaks, had been “compromised.” That the “selective” nature of the data suggests WikiLeaks has possibly been “manipulated” by interested parties (New Age, Monday Dec 6, 2010). Since then, stronger reasons have emerged.
WikiLeaks’ enlistment of the “very architects of media disinformation”?The New York Times, the Guardian, der Spiegel?to “fight media disinformation” is suspect, writes professor Michel Chossudovsky (Dec 13, 2010). While Julie Levesque raises crucial questions about how the whistleblowing site and Assange “demand transparency” from governments and corporations around the world, but fail to provide basic information about their own organisation (Dec 20, 2010).
However, notwithstanding this, given that the documents’ authenticity are not denied by the White House, it is essential that we scrutinise them closely and “expose” the systems and structures of power (Andrew Gavin Marshall). That we expose US diplomacy as a cover for furthering imperial interests, that we expose national leaders as collaborators in this project. Further, that we vindicate those who have insisted that national development is often a cover for subjugating the nation’s and peoples’ interest. A mask which hides personal greed, and party ambitions.
The list of those exposed is long: US ambassador James F Moriarty; American and British-owned companies (Asia Energy/Global Coal Management); prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s energy advisor; members of parliament. But the cast of characters is much larger, they include ministers, bureaucrats, Petrobangla, BAPEX (Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration & Production Company), PDB (Power Development Board), major political parties, experts, intellectuals, law-enforcing agencies, doctors and significant sections of the media.
A WikiLeaked cable from US embassy, Dhaka shows that Moriarty urged Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the prime minister’s energy advisor, to authorise coal mining in Phulbari, saying that “open-pit mining seemed the best way forward” (Guardian, 21 Dec 2010). But for whom? He privately noted that “Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has sixty percent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the Ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months.” According to the cables, Chowdhury admitted to Moriarty that the coal mine was “politically sensitive in the light of the impoverished, historically oppressed tribal community residing on the land” but agreed to build support for the project through the parliamentary process.
This leak confirms the insistence of the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, that efforts to extract Bangladesh’s natural resources are commandeered by global capital to benefit multinational and transnational companies (MNC/TNCs), and their national accomplices. It confirms that long histories of impoverishment and oppression of local communities are not only to be ignored, policies leading to their extinction are to be approved by the government. That resistance, both nationwide and local, is to be circumvented through processes initiated by the nationally-elected parliament.
The proposed Phulbari Coal Project, through creating one of the biggest open-pit coalmines in the world would destroy 10,000 hectares including productive farmland in an area that serves as an “agricultural breadbasket” for Bangladesh. According to the 2008 Expert Committee Report commissioned by the Bangladesh government, nearly 130,000 people would be forcibly evicted from their homes and lands. Members of the National Committee say, numbers evicted are likely to be ten times more, environmental consequences promise to be disastrous. A dramatic increase in coal-based energy production will increase greenhouse gas emissions, and greatly aggravate the country’s vulnerability to climate change. Interestingly, Sheikh Hasina urged donors?US, European Union, World Bank, Asian Development Bank?to increase the pledged climate fund in February, but spoke only of building cyclone shelters.
Asia Energy, before metamorphosing into GCM, was forced to shut down its operations after paramilitary forces opened fire on peaceful protests of thousands gathered in Phulbari, killing Salekin, Tariqul and 14 year old Ameen, injuring hundreds, on 26 August 2006.

The rally at Phulbaria in Dinajpur culminating the Long March organised by the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports,?October 24-30, 2010. ?Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Moriarty pushes for re-opening the Phulbari project in July last year, the energy advisor agrees. Let’s look back and see what happened. On September 2, the National Committee calls for a siege of Petrobangla, “a den of MNCs.” Police suddenly launch an attack on the peaceful procession. Baton charge, kicks, punches. Very brutal. Anu is targeted in particular, blows aimed at his head are foiled by brave young activists. Members of the public are outraged, both government and opposition leaders, including Khaleda Zia, rush to the hospital.

Anu is admitted to Square hospital, incidentally, owned by the Square Group, whose managing director Tapan Chowdhury, was power and energy adviser to the military-installed caretaker government (2007-2008). No broken bones, but heavily swollen feet from police kicks. Doctors advise plaster casts for a month. The Health minister Dr Ruhul Haque visits Anu on the 5th day, his casts are suddenly removed, he’s issued a discharge certificate for having “improved satisfactorily” though he couldn’t stand up. Needless to say, healing was very painful and prolonged (Doctoral Complicity, New Age, Nov 9, 2009).
The agriculture minister Motia Chowdhury, prime minister’s advisor H T Imam visit Anu in hospital. Sheikh Hasina returns from China on September 6, discussions will be held with the National Committee. The government will not violate the national interest. Reassuring words, but the Committee learns on 9 September that immediately after her return Hasina approved the file for signing the contract. Khaleda Zia had extended her moral support to the Committee but after receiving a visit from the US ambassador falls silent.
The so-called `battling begums’ (The Economist), and their followers, unitedly fall in line with the US Ambassador’s suggestions.
The acute shortage of electricity is a “manufactured” crisis, insists B D Rahmatullah, former director general of the Power Cell (ministry of power, energy and mineral resources). Derated power plants need to be rated, the PDB chairman knows this very well. But repairing and maintaining government power plants, setting up new ones, doesn’t produce perks, you don’t get to own a house abroad. Niko and Chevron’s agents have penetrated the Ministry, they want to extract the most in the shortest possible time. The IPP (Independent Power Producers) policy was prepared after a tour to Washington financed by the World Bank. There’s corruption in Malaysia and India too, but our engineers are willing to sell their country just for a ticket abroad, they don’t stand up to the Indians like they do in Nepal, Malaysia and Bhutan. The cross-border electricity initiative between India and Bangladesh will cost 1,200 crore takas, it’ll provide 500 megawatts, whereas a similar power plant could’ve been built here for only 600 crore takas. It demonstrates the government’s subservient attitude towards the Indian government (Budhbar, Aug 18, 2010).
None of the higher-ups in the energy ministry have rebutted what Rahmatullah said. Nor has the energy advisor sued Nurul Kabir for libel. A TV anchor had gently warned him recently, to which Kabir had replied, he would welcome it, it would provide him with the opportunity of pleading his case before the court.
Governments change but power structures and vested interests don’t, say Anu and Rahmatullah. I agree. The AL government awarded Asia Energy its licence in 1998. Khaleda Zia’s regime cracked down on Phulbari’s protestors in 2006. Her energy adviser, Mahmudur Rahman (currently imprisoned) blamed “a small group of leftist parties without any influence whatsoever” for orchestrating the deaths and injury. Sentiments echoed by Asia Energy’s CEO, “the fault [lies entirely with] the organisers” (`You cannot eat coal.’ New Age, Aug 19, 2008).
The energy advisor’s promise of building support for open-pit mining materialises further.

Finance minister AMA Muhith in his 2010 budget speech stresses the need for creating a favourable public opinion toward open pit-mining. Petrobangla chairman demands at least two open-pit coal mines be started. The land ministry has begun land acquisition at Barapukuria to open its coal deposit; it is offering locals high compensation.
The parliamentary sub-committee on energy and power visits open-pit coal mine in Germany in late October. Headed by Shubid Ali Bhuiyan, it includes the chief whip, 4 MPs, the energy and mineral resources secretary. They are “highly impressed.” The sub-committee recommends open-pit coal mining on Nov 29.
Anu, you must name names, I insist, they must be exposed. In his characteristically diffident manner Anu describes, it’s a long-drawn concerted campaign, a thick web, many people, diverse forums, same message; it’s in the interests of national development. Whether it’s Hossain Monsur, Petrobangla chairman on TV, or Nuh-ul-Alam Lenin, an ex-CPB member, now publicity secretary of AL, blaming a handful of people `absolutely devoid of common sense.’ Or secretaries, joint secretaries providing training to government officers at the PATC. Then there’s a fortnightly magazine called Energy and Power, its editor is Molla Amjad, with 2-page spreads advertising Asia Energy. Chevron, too. Power is not a commodity that consumers buy, why the need to advertise? Businessmen too, but not all, he adds. Some are opposed to handing over control to foreign companies.
Newer leaks (24 December night) reveal that Moriarty met Chowdhury, sought assurances that US-based Conoco Phillips (from among 7 bidders) be awarded two of the uncontested blocks in the Bay of Bengal, that Chevron be permitted to improve the flow in Bangladesh’s main gas pipeline. The Bangladesh government “complied,” Conoco got the contract 3 months later, in October 2009 (Business Standard/India).
New Age contacts foreign minister Dipu Moni, prime minister’s energy adviser Chowdhury seeking their comments on the Wikileaks disclosure. They avoid questions. On Thursday and Friday, they stop receiving calls. Nor do they respond to text messages (Dec 25, 2010).
Where could one find a richer cast of characters falling over their feet to be handmaidens of global capital, working hard against the interests of the nation and its people, including the so-called `battling begums’?
Salam, people of Phulbari, for you are our true leaders.
Published in New Age, Monday December 27, 2010
Related links:
Wikileaks cables: Bangladesh Gas
More?Long March Images
Long March
You cannot eat coal: Resistance in Phulbari
A beginner’s guide to democracy
Bangladesh Now
Profits versus the poor

Drik: Photo power

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By Satish Sharma

The shutting-down of two photographic exhibitions in Dhaka?s Drik Gallery in just the last few months proves that Bangladesh?s censors, unlike lightning, can strike at the same place more than once ? especially where Drik?s photographic practices are concerned. But then, Drik seems to have become a lightning rod inviting censure, and this will not be the last time either. Not if I know Shahidul Alam and his commitment to pushing photography in what he calls ?the majority world?. If actually being knifed has not stopped him, nothing will.
The British Council in Dhaka had once tried to shut down a Drik exhibition by Roshini Kampadoo because it ?hurt the image of Britain?. And in November last year it was the turn of the Chinese embassy in Dhaka that wanted an exhibition on Tibet, also in Drik, to be closed. When a personal visit by the Chinese Cultural Counsellor and his cultural attach? bearing gifts (calendar, a silk tie and tea) didn?t work, they invoked worsening diplomatic relations and brought to bear the weight of the Bangladeshi government, Special Branch police and even parliamentarians. But Alam didn?t buckle, instead inaugurating the exhibition in the street after the gallery was locked up by the police. He shut it down the next day, however, as a protest against the interference.
Alam?s new exhibition and installation, ?Crossfire?, should have been safer from threats of closure. It was not photojournalistic documentary or even an Americanised ?documentary style?. It showed no dead or disappeared people. Much more conceptual, it allegorically invoked the disappeared through subtler and quieter means. But because it dealt with ?crossfire? deaths by specially raised Rapid Action Battalions (in India, one would call these ?encounter deaths?), it drew fire ? and closure, and protests against the closure.

The ever defiant Mahashweta Devi, confronts Shah Aalm, the officer in charge of Dhanmondi Thaka, outside the Drik entrance. ? Taslima Akhter

Armed police barricaded the gates of Drik Gallery to prevent the exhibition Crossfire, organisers opened the exhibition on the streets outside of the Drik Gallery.?March 22, 2010. ??Saikat Majumder/DrikNews/Majority World

There is something about photography that invites censorship. The power of the photographic image simply has to be controlled, it seems ? one way or another. If ideas of aesthetics, beauty and spiritual values don?t work, governments pass and use anti-terror laws. And internationally applicable anti-terror laws, with the attendant globalised cultural control, are now beginning to have a universal presence, reach and influence.
Shahidul Alam steals a kiss from Mahasweta Devi after the roadside opening of Alam's Crossfire exhibit. CNN reporter Ric Wasserman and New Age Editor Nurul Kabir, look on. ???Saikat Majumder/DrikNews/Majority World

Shahidul Alam speaks at roadside opening of "Crossfire" exhibition outside Drik Gallery. Guest speakers Mahasweta Devi (centre) and Nurul Kabir (right) were also present. ??Taslima Akhter

The symbolic opening of "Crossfire" was through Mahasweta Devi unlocking handcuffs on Shahidul Alam's hands, to cries of "To the end of crossfire" from the crowds. ??Saikat Majumder/DrikNews/Majority World

Any critical photography is subtly suppressed by evoking ideas of photography as a ?fine art?, and by inducing self-censorship before it is more pointedly and politically policed through action by the state?s security services. Self-censorship, I believe, was at the heart of the lack of any decent coverage, by Indian photographers, of the Emergency and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
The desire to control the photographic message is, however, universal. And that desire is as old as the medium itself. From colonial control of the photography during the 19th century to anti-terror laws in the era of the global ?war on terror? to control the photographic images of the 21st century, little seems to have changed. The power of photography to control and manipulate perception of the world?s raw realities is too important to be left unchallenged. It is noteworthy that these do not even have to be powers from one?s own country. Perception management is a global political strategy with a global reach; it is globally practiced.
Alam managed to evade police and sneaked inside Drik Gallery to join a video conference with Jean Francois Julliard, secretary general of Reporters sans fronti?res (RSF) in Paris. ??Saikat Majumder/DrikNews/Majority World

Enraged students from Charukola, the Fine Arts Institute in Dhaka University formed a human chain to protest to forced closure of Drik gallery. March 23, 2010. ??Amdadul Huq/DrikNews/Majority World

Human chain by students of Charukala. March 23, 2010. ??Amdadul Huq/DrikNews/Majority World

"Closing down Drik Gallery is the same as banning painting" says poster at human chain outside Charukala. March 23, 2010. ??Amdadul Huq/DrikNews/Majority World

In February, Uzbekistan convicted a photographer for ?slandering the Nation?. Umida Akhmeddova had been documenting the daily struggles of ordinary people, and was accused of ?portraying the people as backward and poor?. Her ?photo album [did] not conform to aesthetic demands? and ?would damage Uzbekistan?s spiritual values?, said the expert panel appointed to look at her work.
The Abu Ghraib photos were not shot by professional photojournalists, yet special laws were passed by the US Congress to prevent their dissemination. Most of the pictures and video footage still remain out of reach ? legally secured, not only by the special acts of the US Congress, but also through the raising of issues such as the right to privacy of the ?victims? and their oppressors, and by wives of the soldier-photographers who raised issues of personal copyright to prevent these photographs from being seen more widely.
Anti-terrorism laws are also being used to prevent photography in Britain?s streets. Photographing the most well-known monuments has become suspect, with even professional press photographers being harassed by local police. Street photography, we have to remember, has a long and proud tradition, and the streets have a central space in the practice of urban photography. Even photography as a safely sanitised art form, a documentary style, is not a safe practice. But then, safety is not what should drive photography. It needs to recover and secure its critical spaces ? its critical power.
Satish Sharma is a photographer, critic and occasional curator. He was a former tutor at Pathshala and currently lives in Kathmandu.
The article was published in Himal Southasian
Related links:
Sri Lanka Guardian
Earlier post on Crossfire

20 Years of Drik

Twenty years.

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How does one articulate a history spanning two decades in a few lines? The truth is, you can’t. Which is why we are sharing with you some of our proudest moments in the best way we know how – with images.

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This exhibition is not about the number of years that have passed, but the milestones achieved and the battles won. It is about the new paths we have forged from the unlikely location of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

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While we try to show cherished snippets of our past, there are others that we have to keep in our memory. The people who have helped us, the mistakes we made, the things we had to believe in with all our heart – these things are more challenging to visualise, but just as important.

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Drik was set up to be a platform for voices from the majority world, and on this special occasion, we are proud to introduce the first in the Golam Kasem Daddy Lecture Series.

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Twenty years.


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For some, it could seem like an eternity. For us, this is just the beginning.

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Violence against Women and Girls: Breaking Taboos

rahnuma ahmed

She jumped down from the police van and tried to escape. It stopped, they hunted her down by torchlight, dragged her back and drove off. Men, gathered around the tea stall, wondered why the car had stopped. Curious, they walked up to the spot. A golden coloured sandal, a handkerchief, and broken bits of bangle lay there.

Yasmin: raped and murdered by the police

She was only fourteen years old, her death was brutal. Gang-raped by policemen, and later, killed. Yasmin, a domestic wage worker, employed in a Dhaka city middle class home, longed to see her mother. Leaving her employers home unannounced, she caught the bus to Dinajpur, got down at Doshmile bus stoppage, hours before dawn on 24 August 1995. A police patrol van driving by insisted on picking her up. Yasmin hesitated. One of the police constables barked at those gathered around the tea stall, We are law-enforcers, we will drop her home safely. Don?t you have any faith in us?
Hours later, a young boy discovered her bloodied dead body, off the main road. The police who came to investigate stripped her naked. Bystanders were outraged. Recording it as an unidentified death, they handed over her body to Anjuman-e-Mafidul Islam for burial.
The dead girl was the same girl who had been picked up by the police van, when this news had spread, a handful of people took out a procession. In response, the police authorities held a press conference where a couple of prostitutes turned up and claimed that the dead girl Banu, was one of them, she had been missing. District-level administration and local influentials joined in the police?s attempts to cover up.
Spontaneous processions and rallies took place demanding that the police be tried. Yasmin?s mother recognised her daughter from a newspaper photo, lifeless as she lay strewn in an open three-wheeled van. As a peoples movement emerged, police action, yet again, was brutal. Lathi-charge, followed by firing, killed seven people. Public outrage swelled. Roadblocks were set up, curfew was defied, police stations were beseiged, arrested processionists were freed from police lock-ups by members of the public. Outrage focused on police superintendent Abdul Mottaleb, district commissioner Jabbar Farook, and member of parliament Khurshid Jahan (?chocolate apa?), the-then prime minister Khaleda Zia?s sister, perceived to be central figures in the cover-up. Shommilito Nari Shomaj, a large alliance of women?s organisations, political, cultural and human rights activists joined the people of Dinajpur, as Justice for Yasmin turned into a nationwide movement.
In 1997, the three policemen, Moinul Hoque, Abdus Sattar and Amrita Lal were found guilty. In 2004, they were executed.
Yasmin of Dinajpur is, for us, an icon symbolising female vulnerability, and resistance, both her own (she had tried to escape), and that of people, both Dinajpur and nationwide. She serves as a constant reminder that the police force, idealised in state imaginings as protector of life and property should not be taken for granted, that women need to test this each day, on every single occasion.
In the nation?s recent history of popular struggles, Yasmin?s death helped to characterise the police force as a masculine institution, it gave new meanings to the Bangla proverb, `jey rokkhok shei bhokkhok,? he who claims to protect women, is the usurper, the aggressor. A taboo, sanctioned by state powers, was broken.

Bidisha in remand: sexual abuse

`Go and get a shard of ice. Insert it. It will all come out.?
In her autobiography, Bidisha, second wife of ex-President Hussain Mohd Ershad, later-divorced, writes, I wondered, what will they do with that? Insert it where? (Shotrur Shonge Shohobash, 2008).
Under the influence of what she assumes was a truth serum, injected during remand at a Joint interrogation cell housed in Baridhara, Bidisha writes, the pain was unbearable. A horrible burning sensation coursed through my body, my eyes threatened to burst out of their sockets. If I opened them, it felt like chilli powder had been rubbed in. If I closed them, balls of fire encircled my pupils. My breathing grew heavy. I felt like I was dying, but I couldn?t, I was falling asleep, but I couldn?t. My tongue grew thick. I wanted to say everything that I knew, and things that I didn?t. Questions flew at me from all directions, some of them pounded me from inside my head.
But, Bidisha writes, I stuck to what she knew. I stuck to the truth. Her interrogators got tired. One of them ordered the ice, and ordered someone to leave the room. Was it the policewomen, Bidisha wonders. A strong pair of hands gripped her shoulders, another climbed up her legs, up her thighs, ?like a snake.? But they stopped, disappointed. `I don?t think we can do it. She?s bleeding.?
She writes, but my periods had ended days earlier, why should there be blood? I remembered, it must be the beatings at the Gulshan police station, by the officer-in-charge Noore Alam. She was pushed and as she fell, someone grabbed hold of her orna. Pulled and pushed, her orna soon turned into a noose, she could no longer breathe, her tongue jutted out. She was hit hard with a stick on her lower abdomen, through the daze she could see that he was uniformed. I fell on the floor like a sack. I was barely conscious. I was kicked and trampled with boots on my chest, head, back, and lower abdomen.
During interrogation, the chief interrogator Joshim had repeatedly shouted at her, Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do to you? Ten-twelve men had been present when the truth serum was injected. Well-dressed, fashionable clothes, expensive watches. Whiffs of expensive after-shave. Trim hair, cut very short. As she repeatedly stuck to the truth, Joshim threatened to hang her upside down, like Arman, he said, who was being tortured in the next room. She was threatened with rape by members of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion). During another round her left thumbnail was prised open and torn away, by something like a pair of pliers. They held my eyelids open so that I could see. Relief came only when the call for prayers sounded, since the men scurried away to pray.
Interrogation sessions were video-recorded, each interrogator had an audio recorder. I remember hearing, be sure to get all the details on camera. I remember someone adding, Who?ll think she?s had three kids? What a figure! The cassette?ll make him happy. Make who happy? she wonders. Toward the end of the three-day remand, one of the men entered and said, It?s over. I?ve talked. To who? asked one of the interrogators. One of the Bhaban men. (I presume, Bidisha means Hawa Bhaban). She was forced to declare on camera that she had not been tortured, to sign written declarations, and also blank sheets of paper.
She was in custody for 23 days in June 2005, because of two cases filed by her husband, and two by the government. What were the allegations? Her husband, the ex-President, first accused her of stealing his cell phone, money from his wallet, and vandalising household furniture. Then she was accused of having different birth dates on two different passports. And lastly, of having stashed away large amounts of money in foreign bank accounts.
Interested quarters tried to make light of the incident, they said, it was a ?purely family affair.? Those in the political know, for instance Kazi Zafarullah, Awami League presidium member, claimed that the ruling BNP had masterminded the event to prevent Ershad from forging unity with opposition political parties since elections were due next year (New Age, 6 June 2005). I was repeatedly asked during interrogation, writes Bidisha, why had I said that the Jatiya Party should form an alliance with the Awami League? Why not with the BNP? (`because they were unable to govern properly, people were furious, Jatiya Party popularity was bound to fall?). Bidisha was expelled from Jatiya party membership, she lost her post of presidium member.
Parliamentary elections under the present military-backed caretaker government are scheduled to be held in December 2008. Jatiya Party (JP) has joined Awami League (AL) led grand alliance for contesting the elections. According to newspaper reports, Ershad is eyeing the presidency.

Pahari women: rape under occupation

Even after the signing of the 1997 Peace Treaty between the government and the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti), the Chittagong Hill Tracts remains one of the most militarised regions of the world. During the period of armed conflict, according to international human rights reports, sexual violence was inflicted on indigenous women and their communities as part of military strategy. Bangladesh Army personnel have been accused by paharis of having committed extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and abduction. In August 2003, over 300 houses in 7 pahari villages of Mahalcchari were razed to the ground by the army, aided by Bengali settlers. Paharis claim, ten Chakma women were raped, some of them gang-raped. This includes a mother and her two daughters, aged 12 and 15, and two daughters of another family, aged 14 and 16 years. Victims allege, armed personnel alongwith Bengali settlers took part in the rapes. Paharis claim, state-sponsored political and sexual violence still continues.
There is no public evidence that the Bangladesh army has investigated those claims in any way. Nor do we know if the Bangladesh army has charged any soldier as a result of the alleged assaults. Nor is there any public evidence that any military personnel has been punished for any of the alleged rapes.
Tomorrow, November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We need to break more state sanctioned taboos.

A Flag Fails to Flutter

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It was a bad day for cows
meat-outside-museum-0511.jpg Korbani meat being distributed outside National Museum during Eid. 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
But the Bangladesh government had a supreme sacrifice in mind. When the most prized of your possessions needed to be sacrificed, and when the gods have changed to western powers, the four-legged creatures simply wouldn't do. The nation's most prized archaeological possessions were therefore bundled away in Homebound chariots to distant museums. The door to heaven's gate might not have opened, but a Schengen visa and perhaps a few trips to Paris for some, had surely been assured.
It was well timed. The Eid holidays meant there would be no newspapers for two days. Most reporters would be away. The streets of Dhaka would be empty. Holidays meant there was no rush. No pesky public to worry about at opening hours. Still one needed to be sure. Bus no Dhaka Jo 11 1767, was on standby with riot police. The police jeep Dhaka Jo 11 4364 followed behind. Then the media that got in the way. With so many Eid events to cover, why had they gathered round the national museum? The sanctity of sacrifice should surely have been respected. Reinforcements in the form of another busload of riot police came in via bus number Dhaka Jo 14 1799.
balloon-man-0516.jpg Balloon man outside National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
eid-passengers-0532.jpg Family out on Eid. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
aisha-0504.jpg Aisha outside National Museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
museum-closure-0500.jpg Sign says the museum is closed from the 20th till the 22nd on account of Eid. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Aisha had come with her parents to visit the museum. Like many others they were turned away. The museum was closed, at least to the public. The Eid holidays of museum officials had however been cancelled. The shippers were working overtime.
dgfi-0498.jpgriot-police-on-standby-0556.jpgriot-police-leaving-museum-0573.jpg Police returning to station, after staging the 'escape'. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Police and plainclothes intelligence officials were present in abundance, their riot gear jarring with the bright new clothes of Dhakaites. Then it took another turn. Spitting and booing had failed to stop the Homebound trucks earlier. This time the protesters changed tack. Chains were put on the gate of the national museum. Visions of the Chipko Resistance
protester-chaining-museum-gate-0536-d.jpg Protester chaining front gate of National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
police-breaking-museum-lock-8277.jpg Police breaking padlock at front gate of National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Gazi Nafis Ahmed/DrikNews
burning-shirt-in-protest-0775.jpg Burning shirt in protest outside National Musuem. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
media-0526.jpg Despite emergency rule and government efforts to bury the story, media continued to give the event full coverage. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
sprang to mind. In place of burglars breaking in, the comic view of government officials breaking their way out of the national museum to escape with museum valuables would have brought laughter in a trirotno drama (popular Bangladeshi sitcom). In the theatre of Bangladeshi governance, it was yet another tragedy.
"The benefits, for both countries, are cultural: it is a win-win situation where France gains a better knowledge of Bangladeshi heritage and Bangladesh gains a better image on the international cultural scene," the French embassy handout had clarified.
The partially demolished Rangs building continues to be a grave for the buried Bangladeshi workers far down the priority chain. Presumably, that is a 'Bangladeshi heritage' the Parisians will not get to see.
The last time round, they had been playing one of my favourite Bhupen Hajarika songs. This time there was no music, and no one was smiling. Even the Bangladeshi flag failed to flutter on this Eid day. Video of trucks carrying artefacs out of museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
unfluttering-flag-0531.jpgembed> Bangladeshi flag refuses to flutter as prized Bangladeshi objects are taken out of museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World





Video of trucks carrying artefacs out of museum.

When the Waters Came

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It was nearly twenty years ago when I had written this. After one of my first photojournalistic assignments:
What does one photograph to depict a flood? A submerged house, a boat on a highway, people wading in water?
As we boated through the branches in Jinjira we found a wicker basket in a tree. The family had long since abandoned their home, and their worldly belongings, gathered in that basket, waited patiently for their homecoming.
wicker-basket.jpg
Wicker basket in tree. Jinjira. 2nd September 1988. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld

The worst flood in a hundred years? That statistic is hardly relevant. They, as those before them and after them will always face the floods. How does it matter whether they are 60% starved or 75% starved? How does it matter what country the relief wheat comes from? They themselves are mere statistics to power hungry politicians.
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The family still needed to be fed. When I went back the next day to this place in Jinjira, the water had risen another three feet. I never saw her again. 2nd September 1988. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld

What is relevant are the feelings that have been kindled, that half kilogram of rice that has been shared, that solitary dry house that has warmly welcomed all who have needed the shelter. That others have shared the pain.
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Wading down a street near Kamlapur railway station. “Dreamland Photographers”, the local studio, was still open for business. 2nd September 1988. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/MajorityWorld

What is relevant is that now the roads are dry and the walls repainted and that a nation that once so cared has so quickly forgotten.
I look back and merely feel the ineffectuality of my images.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka 1988
Nearly twenty years on, the floods are with us again. They are a part of our natural agricultural cycle. They irrigate the land, replenish the topsoil, remove the toxins. But deforestation in the mountains, illegal constructions, ill planned roads and ill caring leaders make floods take on a violent form. The waters get angry.
This year, when the waters had risen, our adviser advised that it was not yet a calamity. When the waters reached danger levels, the decree came that because of the state of emergency, ‘[political] banners were banned’ so while people struggled for food and shelter, banner rights became the issue. Now as the waters engulf the land and people flounder in need of relief, our adviser advises us ?we don?t have to help the people, they?re going to their relative?s house by themselves?.
Now that is a solution Bangladesh can offer to all the distressed people in the world. Just go find a relative.
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Before the floods. People affected by cyclone Akash. Mohishshoiri River. Khulna. 21 May 2007. ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
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Woman fishes in the flood waters. 13 June 2007. Comilla Bangladesh. Kalim Shantu/DrikNews
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Twenty villages had been affected at the junction of the rivers Ghagot, Brahmaputra and Teesta making numerous people homeless. 31 July 2007. Gaibandha. Bangladesh ? Quddus Alam/DrikNews
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Woman in search of dry land. 30 July 2007. Sirajgonj Bangladesh ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
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Villagers rescuing mother and child. 30 July 2007. Sirajgonj Bangladesh ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
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Woman feeding goats in makeshift tent. 30 July 2007. Sirajgonj Bangladesh ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
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Diarrheal patients at hospital in Dhaka. 11 August 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
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Spontaneous relief operations organised by citizen groups. 30 July 2007. Sirajgonj Bangladesh ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
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While one third of the country was flooded, people inside the DND (Dhaka Narayanganj Demra) embankment faced the stagnant water cause by rains. 25 July. Narayanganj Bangladesh ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
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700,000 people were marooned in Sirajgonj. 64 people had already died when this photograph was taken. 5 August 2007. Sirajgonj Bangladesh ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
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Boats are the only means of communication during floods. July 2 2007. Rangpur, Bangladesh. ? Ador Rahman/DrikNews


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A family looks for shelter using a raft made of banana trees. 31 July 2007. Gaibandha Bangladesh ? Quddus Alam/DrikNews
And across the border, viewed from afar:
The Rains Reach Kolkata
When I was just a little boy, I watched the clouds advance
From rooftop high above the streets and bustle of Calcutta.
Up there, I watched the hawks soar high, and saw the palm fronds’ dance,
In wind that blew before the storm, and banged each window shutter.
It was in June, when summer’s heat had risen to its height,
That clouds approached, as though for war, advancing in a line,
Their heads held high, dark wall beneath — a fear-instilling sight,
With lightning streaks, and thunder-growls of warriors divine.
The sparrows, crows and pigeons fled, in haste to get away
And find refuge, as dust was blown from streets by gusts so strong
That palm trees bent, and tossed their heads, and back and forth did sway,
As leaves and clothes, and sailing fronds, with birds were swept along.
Then from the heat, we knew respite, as cool winds did descend
>From belly of the thunderhead, which bore a mist so fine,
With ions, whose electric charge did minds and bodies mend
And lift from summer somnolence like clear celestial wine.
And I would run and scramble down, from perch on highest roof,
To shelter in a doorway, where I still could watch the storm
Without myself being blown away, or struck by lightning hoof,
As racing clouds obscured the sky, like wraiths in equine form.
And then the dark, the greenish gloom, the flash more bright than sun,
The crack so loud it seemed the earth was cloven by the sky,
And pelting rain in slanting sheets, like bullets from a gun,
On roofs of tin, and wooden shades, and roll of thunder high!
And so the chariots of the gods would roll by overhead,
And we could hear the neighs and roars, and see the sparks that flew
As titans battled in the skies, by trumpet blowers led,
And sword of land pierced mail of sea, and blood of rain then drew.
And all the kids would venture out, unheeding of the scolds,
To jump with glee and leap and splash, in dance as old as time,
And yet as freshly bold that day, as in the eons old,
When sea would come to land to fight, and mate, in yearly rhyme.
Babui / Arjun Janah*
2007 August 11th, Sat.
Berkeley, California
*Arjun has an identity of his own, but for us photographers, he is the son of the legendary Indian photographer Sunil Janah.

Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit

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Over the years, February has become our month of resistance. This is the window that successive repressive governments have allowed us, to vent our steam. The open air plays in Shahid Minar, the book fare in Bangla Academy and of course the midnight walk and the songs of freedom on the night of Ekushey, the 21st February, are all tolerated, for one month.
Yuppie Bangladeshis put on their silk punjabis and saffron sarees, and become the torch bearers of our heritage, for one month. Come March, it will be business as usual. It has been difficult convincing development experts of the value of culture in our society. With ‘poverty alleviation’ being the current? buzzwords, one forgets, that it was the love for our language that shaped our resistance in ’71 or that ‘Bangla Nationalism’ has been used to justify repression in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On the 1st February, perhaps we could look back at a collaboration between Drik in Bangladesh, and Zeezeilen in the Netherlands:
Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit
Culture glides through peoples’ consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the currents and the countercurrents. Trends change, flowing in the slipstreams of dominant culture. A few swim against this current, while others get trapped in ox-bow lakes, isolated from the mainstream.
Photography, more than any other media or art form has influenced culture. Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion. The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred on the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more important realisation that photographs largely are manufactured by the image industry, one that is increasingly owned by a corporate world. The implied veracity of the still image and its perceived ability to represent the truth hides the ubiquitous and less perceptible manipulation enabled by photographic and editorial viewpoint. Not only can we no longer believe that the photograph cannot lie, we now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels and newspapers and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before.
Photography has become the most powerful tool in the manufacturing of consent, and it remains to be seen whether photographers can rise above the role of being cogs in this propaganda machine and become the voice for the voiceless.