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?”

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?”

Quelling anti-Rampal protests (with South Korean assistance)

rahnuma ahmed

It was a peaceful procession.
We had gathered under the aegis of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, outside the National Press Club in Dhaka, on October 19, 2016. After a brief rally, where speakers described the harm that the Rampal coal power plant would cause the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest straddling both sides of the Bangladesh-India border, we formed a procession, raised slogans and proceeded toward the Indian High Commission in Gulshan to deliver an open letter for the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.
Since India is the major partner in building the Maitree Super Thermal Power Project, i.e., the Rampal coal power plant, the National Committee’s open letter called on the Indian prime minister to scrap the project.
It’s not only us. Forty-one Indian people’s movements, green and civil rights organisations have called on Narendra Modi to scrap the the project. So has the Unesco and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A Unesco statement recommended the ‘Rampal power plant project be cancelled and relocated to a more suitable location’ as it could damage the world heritage site, home to 450 Royal Bengal tigers, expose downriver forests to pollution and acid rain, threaten the breeding grounds of Ganges and Irrawaddy river dolphins, far worsen the already liminal ecosystem which is being threatened by rising sea levels (The Guardian, October 18, 2016). Three large French banks, including BNP Paribas, a sponsor of the Paris climate summit in 2015, have refused to invest, while two Norwegian pension funds have withdrawn their investment. Continue reading “Quelling anti-Rampal protests (with South Korean assistance)”

Irfanul Islam, and an 8-mile stretch of road

by rahnuma ahmed

Dhaka-Narayanganj Link road. ? Jannatul Mawa
Dhaka-Narayanganj Link road. © Jannatul Mawa

Why was Irfan killed? Why did they have to kill him, if it was for the money, they had already snatched it away, why kill him? Was it accidental, did he die because a novice, or a brute, hit him on the head too hard? Or did he die because he had resisted, because one of his abductors had grabbed his throat and in the ensuing tussle, squeezed it for a fraction of a second too long?
These questions haunt us, as his killers remain untraced, unknown, even now, a year later. Continue reading “Irfanul Islam, and an 8-mile stretch of road”

RESISTING RAMPAL

‘Go back NTPC, get out India’
rahnuma ahmed

Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 20, 2016. ? Taslima Akhter
Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 20, 2016. © Taslima Akhter

Of all the slogans raised in protest against the coal power plant being built at Rampal in Bagerhat, this one’s the best. Continue reading “RESISTING RAMPAL”

HISTORY AS ETHICAL REMEMBRANCE

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

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

Between absence and presence

Between absence and presence

Car wreckage, left, and Seats, car wreckage and the bird, right. Artist Dhali Al Mamoon's public art in memory of film-maker Tareque Masud and journalist Mishuk Munier who died with three others in a car crash on August 13, 2011. Shorok Durghotona Sritisthapona, Dhaka University campus. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
AWARD-WINNING film-maker Tareque Masud, broadcast journalist Mishuk Munier and three others died in a car crash on August 13, 2011 when a Chuadanga-bound bus rammed into the film crew’s microbus on the Dhaka-Aricha highway in Manikganj. It was raining; the bus was travelling at a high speed. Their deaths were instantaneous.
Dhali Al Mamoon, his artist wife Dilara Begum Jolly, Tareque’s wife American-born film editor Catherine Masud, production assistant Saidul Islam, and writer Monis Rafik survived the accident. Mamoon’s injuries were the most severe. Continue reading “Between absence and presence”

YOUTH UPRISING AT SHAHBAGH

Reclaiming Ekattur: fashi, Bangali

By Rahnuma Ahmed

Prologue

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

The youth uprising quickly generated massive popular support, both in Shahbagh itself, where people have flooded to, and continue to do so, and also outwards, as protests modelled on Shahbagh rapidly spread across the country.

As the uprising gained ground, Shahbagh was dubbed Shahbagh Square by some, a la Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but as a blog commentator, expressing the feelings of many, pointed out, we got rid of our military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad more than two decades ago, “so no point in comparing us to them.. .. this is a different battle.. a battle to heal a wound festering for 42 years” (nafisabuet, CNN.com, February 7, 2013).

May be it is this “festering” wound of several generations which led Shahbagh, a very busy traffic intersection in central Dhaka, to soon be renamed Projonmo Chottor — Generation Square, by those who speak for the uprising.

Only hours after the Bloggers and Online Activists’ Network gathered at Shahbagh that historic Tuesday, February 5, 2013, to protest against the International Crimes Tribunal’s verdict of life imprisonment for Abdul Quader Molla, writer Faruk Wasif called me, spread the word, tell everyone to join us. Even though I wasn’t there in person for the next couple of days, Arup Rahee, Mushrefa Mishu, Shipra Bose, Udisa Islam, and many other dear friends, kept texting and ringing: the turnout’s huge, people’s anger is boiling, the verdict is a betrayal. We will not tolerate any more betrayals.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for the sea of humanity that flowed into an ever-expanding Projonmo Chottor from Matsya Bhaban in the east to Katabon in the west, down Chobir Haat in the south to Hotel Ruposhi Bangla in the north — when I joined last Friday’s moha shomabesh (grand rally), called at 3 pm. Since then, I have repeatedly gone back to Shahbagh, to the street theatres, the protests songs, the chants, the candle light vigils as nights falls …, well, because simply put, it is impossible to stay away.

The youth of this country have taken up Jahanara Imam’s baton, they have energised us, one is proud to be part of the non-partisanal but cracklingly sharp political will that they have generated. I salute them! They have shown us the way.

Shahbagh has now been transformed into a liberation square where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children gather, braving the traffic jams for which Dhaka city is notorious, undoubtedly worsened because of the Shahbagh protest, its liberatory character more apparent to women for, as many of us have puzzled, if women and girls cross over into New Market close by, or any other thronging public space in the city, they are likely to be sexually harassed, but here, no, not even in the middle of the night. It is true that security has been generously provided by the  government, police barricades have been set up, uniformed and plainclothes police mingle with the crowds, more recently, CCTV cameras have been set up, but the answer lies elsewhere, it lies in the liberatory character of people’s protests, for, the streets of Dhaka city had been similarly welcoming of women, for many days and nights on end, when general Ershad had been toppled from power in late 1990.

New Questions

Every revolution generates new questions on one side or another, said Talal Asad, when asked about Tahrir Square after his return from Cairo. It is intrinsic to every revolutionary situation (“The suspicious revolution,” The Immanent Frame, SSRC, August 3, 2011).

This leads me to ask, is the Shahbagh protest giving birth to new questions? If so, what are they?

The biggest question of course, was formulated by the verdict on Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary general, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, at the International Crimes Tribunal. The first verdict had found Abul Kalam Azad (Bacchu Razakar) guilty, he was given a death sentence. Molla too, was found equally guilty of war crimes, but he was given life imprisonment. Is the pronounced disparity in the two verdicts in any way connected to Bacchu not being a Jamaati, and therefore, is it indicative that the ruling Awami League is secretly using the ICT verdicts to negotiate a deal with the Jamaat, in order to break its alliance with the opposition BNP, and thereby, to ensure another term of office for itself? Further, is that why — as many patriotic dissenters have repeatedly asked — the ICT was formed not drawing upon the country’s best judges, lawyers and prosecutors, but on the basis of mindless allegiance and loyalty to the AL?

It is a question that hangs in the air, best summed up by veteran journalist ABM Musa, when he, in a private TV channel’s talk show, requested Shahbagh’s protestors to ask why Molla’s verdict was as it was instead of demanding fashi (hanging). Musa turned to the other discussant, a BNP leader (I’m afraid I’ve forgotten his name), smiled impishly and said, when election time comes, let’s say I decide not to vote for the Awami League but for the BNP, but when I see Jamaat peeping from behind, firmly lodged on your back, well, obviously, I retreat. The BNP leader had fallen silent.

An answer to this quandary has been beautifully provided by blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who reportedly said in a media interview, actually, we want the ruling party to be pro-liberation, we want the opposition party to be pro-liberation, we want that every political party, every political leader, every organisation, every school, college, madrasa, university, all business organisations, civic organisations, everyone in the country, should be pro-liberation.

Not a tall order but rather basic when you think of it, for, after all, it is the liberation war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.

The second question, much more difficult than the first, has been raised by several courageous freedom fighters and patriotic dissenters. I salute them as well.

Should we be demanding fashi, at all? Lubna Marium, freedom-fighter, dancer, writes, the Shahbagh movement should be about banning Jamaat from politics, it should not be about blood-thirsty calls for death. Taking another life does not bring peace, she says, as she writes of the never forgotten pain of seeing dead muktijoddha friends lined up on the ground. Of the pain of having her 15 year-old brother Nadeem –  a muktijoddha who had seen other muktijoddhas gouge out the eyes of a Pakistani soldier — later commit suicide (“Shahbag should be about banning ‘religion in politics’, not death,” Alal o Dulal, February 12, 2013).

Another blogger, who has spent the greater part of the week at Shahbagh, who is gratified at the “abject rejection of the BNP-Jamaat and JP [Jatiya Party] narrative of 1971” stirringly writes, and I quote:

“I will never agree on the death penalty for anyone…If it is handed down for a convicted war criminal, I’ll continue to work so that it is commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or Presidential clemency. Confiscate their property and compensate their victims, and let their children find their way out of the public humiliation and shame brought upon by the exposure of truth..Let us be better than them. I will continue to be there in Shahbagh even if I’m the last man standing, and I share this belief with millions of my brothers and sisters across our land.” (greaterboka, “A Week in Shahbagh, ” Alal o Dulal, February 14, 2013).

The first question needs to be strengthened, for, all major political parties have in some form or the other, aided in the rehabilitation and reinstatement of the Jamaat/war collaborators; we not only have to stigmatise Jamaat/war collaborators to extinction, we also have to work towards dismantling the ‘for’ and ‘anti’-liberation war dichotomy (Asif Mohiuddin) so that political parties can no longer electorally cash in on being pro-liberation. As for the second, maybe now is the time, difficult as it may seem because of the pentup fury and anger, to slowly initiate discussions over capital punishment. It is tied to the first as well, for the cries of fashi for war criminals which ring at Shahbagh, while apparently referring to the highest punishment awarded by the legal system, in terms of the emotive anger displayed, feed on long years of betrayal, both manifest and hidden, by political leaders, by the military establishment, by civilian bureacrats and business elite, by intellectuals, academics, writers and artists.

Old answers

The revolution at Tahrir Square was not “all pre-arranged and carefully thought out as a revolution” says Asad. People just discovered that they had “some power they didn’t think they had.” Disagreeing with the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany who had likened being in Tahrir Square as “like being in love” Asad says, “it’s more like a religious experience.”

Possibly more so, at Projonmo Chottor, I think, as I listen to the almost jikr-like  chant, “Fashi, fashi” chanted by young sloganeers, amplified by the large sound system, as I listen to the crowds roar back fashi chai (Hang, hang, we want him hanged).

Old muktijuddho slogans have made a comeback, Ami keTumi ke? (Who am I? Who are you?), questions answered by thousands of voices roaring back in unison, “Bangali, Bangali” — day in, day out, night in, night out.

By providing old answers, they re-draw the lines of ethnic exclusion, possibly forgivable in 1971 because Punjabi chauvinism had been countered by Bengali chauvinism, but now, forty-plus years later, after a recognition that ethnic minorities too had suffered and fought in the war of liberation, after the military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, after no peace being in sight despite a peace accord having been signed more than a decade and a half ago, and the everyday chauvinism suffered by all ethnic minorities, topped by the Fifteenth Amendment which un-recognises their distinct ethnic identities — it is absolutely unforgivable.

Let the young at Projonmo Chottor reclaim Ekattur, let them lead but without repeating the mistakes made by their elders.

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Published in New Age, Friday, February 15, 2013