The virus doesn’t but the powerful do

LOUD and angry, the child’s voice reverberates along the Dhanmondi streets. Unlike the other cries, this one quickly recedes before I can turn on my audio recorder. The incessant pneumatic horns, the screeching of brakes, the dust spewing up from potholed worn tarmac that bedraggled buses bump their way through have gone. With factories and offices closed, load sheddings have also gone down, though the transformer blowing up as the kal boishakhi storm hit, did lead to a power outage. Above the cawing of a crow that has built its nest close to our verandah, we can hear other birds sing. Sounds interspersed with calls of small time vendors, trading what they can, selling what they can. While they can. Despite the other sounds, the child’s cry keeps echoing in my mind.

Hungry woman walking the streets of Dhanmondi, in search of food 280039Running down the street as she cries for food, Dhanmondi. — Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Continue reading “The virus doesn’t but the powerful do”

The Gonoshasthya Kendra’s Corona Test Kit. Cui Bono?

Cui bono is often a good starting point in an investigation. Literally meaning ‘who benefits?’ Whoever appears to have the most to gain from a ‘crime’ is probably the culprit. Stepping back from the ‘whodunnit’ nature of the drama that is playing out, we could be less dramatic and just look at the meaningfulness or advantages of carrying out an important function.

At this point in Bangladesh, as in many other countries, there are few things more important to do, than to detect whether or not one has been infected by the Covid-19 virus. For many, it could literally be a matter of life and death. It is beyond dispute that an efficient, accurate and affordable kit that could be made readily available would be of immense value to the country.

Zafrullah Chowdhury 6506Zafrullah Chowdhury (born December 27, 1941) is a Bangladeshi public health activist. He is the founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra (meaning the People's Health Center in Bengali), a rural healthcare organisation. Dr. Chowdhury is known more for his work in formulating the Bangladesh National Drug Policy in 1982. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Continue reading “The Gonoshasthya Kendra’s Corona Test Kit. Cui Bono?”

The journalist who got too close

‘REPEAT a lie often enough and it becomes the truth’, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. The Bangladesh government seems to have studied Goebbels’ book well. The lies generally come in the form of denials. ‘No, we have not been involved in “crossfire” and “disappearances”.’ ‘There is no political motive.’ ‘No one will be spared.’ ‘The elections were fair.’ ‘The judiciary is independent,’ the list goes on. The lies are repeated ad nauseam in political rallies, in talk shows, in press briefings and through social media trolls.

Shafiqul Islam Kajol photographed by his son Monorom Polok

‘We do not condone any such incident and will bring the responsible officials to justice’ said the foreign minister Dipu Moni at the Universal Periodic Review of Bangladesh at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 4, 2009 in response to accusations that the government was involved in ‘crossfire,’ a Bangladeshi euphemism for extra-judicial killings. She added that the government would show ‘zero tolerance’ to extra-judicial killings, or torture and death in custody. Indeed, doing so was part of the election campaign for the Bangladesh Awami League when they were in the opposition. As often happens however, once elected, their position changed, and ‘crossfire’ has become so integral to the Bangladeshi lingo that MPs now use the term in parliament, ‘You are allowing crossfire as part of a fight against drugs. Then why aren’t you doing the same in case of rape?’ Continue reading “The journalist who got too close”

The Price of Social Distancing

Rahnuma forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

Workers sleeping in shipbreaking yard in Rahman Yard in Chittagong. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Continue reading “The Price of Social Distancing”

ROMEL CHAKMA II: Is custodial killing heroic?

by rahnuma ahmed

Official versions conflict about why Romel Chakma – a 20-year old HSC examinee and student leader of the Pahari Chatra Parishad – was picked up by the army, whether he was transferred from army to police custody while in Naniachar, whether his admission to, and 2-weeklong treatment at, the Chittagong Medical College and Hospital (CMCH), occurred under police custody, and lastly, whether the Naniachar police station’s officer-in-charge (OC) was physically present when Romel’s body was burnt (not cremated, for his body was not handed over to his family), a few hundred yards away from his home in Purba Hatimara village, Naniachar.

Romel was not ill, nor was he suffering from any kind of injury when he was picked up. I have not come across any such media reports, nor does Romel’s father Kanti Chakma, in his letter to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC, dated April 6, 2017), make any such mention. One can therefore assume that he was reasonably fit and healthy (beside the stresses and strains of appearing for his exams), when he was picked up.
Continue reading “ROMEL CHAKMA II: Is custodial killing heroic?”

Reply to Arundhati: Yes, We Will Rise

Dearest Arundhati,

It was a letter I read and reread long before it appeared before my eyes. It was through layers of metal bars that I strained to listen to Rahnuma’s words. At over 130 decibels, the noise made by us screaming prisoners, straining to hear and be heard, was akin to a crowded stadium or a fire siren. As she repeated her words over and over again, I faintly heard, Arundhati. Letter. It was just over a hundred days that I had been incarcerated. A hundred days since I’d slept on my own bed, fed my fish, cycled down the streets of Dhaka. A hundred days since I’d pressed my shutter as I searched for that elusive light.

Arundhati Roy with Maati Ke Laal in her flat in Delhi. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Those words, screamed out but barely heard was the nourishment I needed. Did you write it by hand? What was the paper like? In this digital age, you probably used a keyboard. What font had you used? What point size? And the words. Words that you so gracefully string together. I relished the imagined words. Your words. I missed words as I missed my bed, my fish and Rahnuma’s touch. When they asked me what I needed in jail, books were on top of my list. The first lot of books came in. Mujib’s prison diaries, Schendel’s History of Bangladesh, and the book you’d given me when we last met, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I’d been meaning to read it ever since we said goodbye in Delhi, but our lives had been taken over by the immediacy of our struggles. Now I had the time. Continue reading “Reply to Arundhati: Yes, We Will Rise”

Of weddings: royal, bombed & droned

rahnuma ahmed

I

Millions watched the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and former American actress Meghan Markle on television the world over. While many heralded it for demonstrating ‘how Britain has become more egalitarian and racially mixed‘ and lauded the ”Meghan effect‘ on black Britons,’ others rejoiced at the wedding ceremony for having been ‘a rousing celebration of blackness,’ and still others hoped that the ‘spirit of Harry and Meghan… [would] revitalise our divided nation,’ that prince Harry’s choice of spouse would ‘[initiate] real change in UK race relations.’

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip with newly-wed grandson Prince Harry and grand daughter-in-law Meghan Markle, and other family members including Ms. Markle’s mother Doria Ragland, and bridal party. ©AFP

Meghan Markle – now Duchess of Sussex, with her own Royal Coat of Arms – is the daughter of a white American father and an African-American mother, her parents divorced when Meghan was 6, and she was raised singly by her mother.
Continue reading “Of weddings: royal, bombed & droned”

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”

ROMEL CHAKMA. PART-I: Is custodial killing heroic?

by rahnuma ahmed

Romel Chakma, 20 year-old HSC examinee and student leader of Pahari Chatra Parishad,
was picked up by army personnel on April 5, 2017. Allegedly tortured, he died in hospital two weeks later.

Romel Chakma © Photographer not known.

How does one restore dignity to the memory of a youth who was picked up and tortured, who died of torture, whose body was not handed over to family members for cremation, but burnt after pouring petrol and kerosene? Continue reading “ROMEL CHAKMA. PART-I: Is custodial killing heroic?”

DEATH OF ROMEL CHAKMA: NHRC seeks Army’s explanation

DEATH OF ROMEL CHAKMA

NHRC seeks Army’s explanation

Muktadir Rashid | Published: 00:23, Jun 24,2017 | Updated: 00:38, Jun 24,2017

The National Human Rights Commission has written to the defence ministry asking for a Bangladesh Army
explanation for the death of Romel Chakma as a commission investigation has observed that army personnel concerned cannot avoid the responsibility for the death.
Commission chairman Kazi Reazul Hoque told New Age on Friday that a full commission meeting analysed the investigation report and sent a copy of the report to the defence ministry asking for the explanation from the army in the past week.
“We did not get any version from army, so we wrote a letter to the defence ministry based on the recommendation made by the commission probe committee on the issue,” he said.
He said the commission found circumstantial evidences against perpetrators and wanted to know the army’s explanation.
Commission officials said that the commission received the copy of a letter of the defence ministry to the army headquarters seeking their explanation.
The three-member probe body headed by commission member Banchita Chakma, also former Rangamati College principal, submitted the report to the commission on June 11.
Banchita Chakma said that they submitted the report without any version from the army.
She said that the witness accounts suggested that the visually challenged ethnic minority youth was in the custody of the army when he died at Chittagong Medical College Hospital on April 20.
Physicians at the hospital in the medical report observed that Romel Chakma died from kidney infection.
Probe committee members said there were two reasons for kidney infections – severe internal injuries caused by either torture or major accident.
“We believed Romel was tortured,” said a commission member.
The probe body recorded statements of 15 people including Romel’s family, local police and physicians to examine what happened to the youth but no version from army was available.
The probe concluded that the army in no way could avoid the responsibility for the death of Romel Chakma.
The committee included commission’s deputy director in Rangamati Gazi Md Salahuddin and executive magistrate Tapos Shil from Rangamati district administration.
Committee members said that had approached army zone commander at Nannerchar on May 24 during the inquiry but could got no response.
The field office of army told the probe committee that they would speak if their high ups allowed them to talk.
The probe committee recorded the statement from five police officials who narrated that Romel Chakma was brought to them in a critical condition and that was why the police did not receive him.
The police officials told the committee that Romel did not carry major mark of injuries but he was vomiting and the army personnel carrying him informed police that Romel met an accident.
It takes hardly 10 minutes from the police station to the nearby health complex.
The inquiry found that it took one hour and a half to take Romel Chakma from police station to the health complex. Romel was moved to Chittagong Medical College Hospital where he was admitted under security protection by army personnel.
“We have collected the documents from police station and the hospital,” said a probe body member.
Formed on April 24, the three-member probe body met with Romel’s family and local people at his village Purba Hatimara under Burighat union of Nannerchar on May 1.
On April 6, Romel’s father Binoy Kanti Chakma wrote to the commission chairman demanding justice for the “inhuman torture” on his son by army personnel.
In a statement issued on April 24, commission Reazul termed it a serious violation of human rights to kill an innocent person in torture.
HSC examinee Romel, 20, was the general secretary of United Peoples- Democratic Front-backed Pahari Chhatra Parishad’s Nannerchar upazila unit.
He was allegedly picked up by local army personnel on April 5 and taken to police station in the evening.
The next morning, police and army personnel admitted him to the Chittagong Medical College Hospital, where he died on April 20.
Romel?s father alleged that they were barred from meeting him at the camp as well as at the hospital.
According to media reports, the Inter Services Public Relations alleged that Romel had masterminded the attack in which two buses were robbed and a truck was set on fire in the area on January 23.
Different rights groups, student bodies and UPDF demanded a judicial inquiry into the death terming the detention and torture unjust.