Why should I be forced to go into hiding?

Special interview with Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age

Amader Shomoy, 18 March, 2009

Interviewed by Shamsuddin Ahmed.

Translated by Rahnuma Ahmed

Nurul Kabir is the editor of New Age, an English language daily. Recently, his car was chased by unknown armed men, on motorbikes. The driver of his car has since registered a General Diary (GD) at the local police station.
In a special interview, Nurul Kabir spoke to us about the incident, and the events following one-eleven. He spoke of his experiences and of many other things that are generally unknown to readers.
Amader Shomoy: Could you briefly tell us about the unknown armed gunmen that chased your car on 5th March.
Nurul Kabir: I was undergoing treatment in a hospital, I had been admitted to the hospital a few days earlier. I hadn’t fully recovered but there was an important bit of work, and I had dropped in at the office. The hospital is not far from the office and after the driver had dropped me off, he began driving back to our house in Uttara. It was a bit after ten at night.
My wife called me from home about half an hour later. She said that our driver Najib had just rung to say that two motorbikes, with three young men on each, had begun chasing the car. It had happened on Airport road, right after he had crossed the Joarshahara area. The men had waved their arms and signalled him to pull over and stop the car. He didn’t, instead he stepped on the gas, and sped away. My wife said that he had sounded very scared. I said `okay, let me see’ and hung up.
I quickly called a friend who I have reason to believe has significantly close connections with those who are powerful, and with people who are behind those who hold power. As a matter of fact, he had advised me several days earlier to `be cautious in what I did, and where I went’ and all that. He had also advised me to be circumspect in my analysis of political happenings. But since that’s not in my nature, since i am used to expressing thought-out points of views without any hesitation or circumvention, I didn’t bother. I have been subjected to this sort of advice a hundred times before, from my very student days. I have encountered dangerous situations before, but I have also survived. I have never had any reason to change my outlook.
Anyway, to cut matters short, I called him and briefly told him what had happened. He immediately said, `Oh my god, you are in danger.’ I replied, `No, it’s not me. It’s my driver, and he isn’t very concerned about politics either. He’s a very innocent kind of a person.’ What he said in response boils down to my being an absolute idiot, someone who is totally incapable of understanding that his life is in danger. `If your car was chased by armed men, why can’t you understand that they are not overly concerned about your harmless driver.’ He also said, `Please, move out of wherever you are at the moment, and do it within no time.’ I asked him whether he could help the poor driver in any way. He said, `Let me see, but you move out first’ and hung up. I then called a police officer who I happen to know, but he didn’t answer the phone. I then called Najib to find out what was happening. He was panting. He said that the armed men had chased him till Uttara sector 5. He had then slipped into an alley, and thought he had been able to get rid of his pursuers. He had seen a RAB patrol car, had gone up to them and had told them what had happened. They had asked him to wait, and had gone off in the direction he had pointed. They returned soon and said that the danger, if there was any, was over and asked him to go home. I also told him to return home.
I didn’t think it was safe for me to spend the night in the hospital. I left it though I had not fully recovered and went somewhere else, with the help of a close family friend.
I still haven’t been able to come to terms with what has happened in a psychological sense. I deal with people, society, nation — this is the work that I do. I haven’t learnt any other kind of work. I don’t do any thing else, either. Why then should I have to go into hiding, in my own country?
The next day I met my driver and he said that even though the weather was warm, the men who had been seated in the middle, on both motorbikes, had been wearing jackets. And those who were riding the motorbikes had constantly spoken on their mobile phones.
Amader Shomoy: What is the follow-up to the GD?
Nurul Kabir:? None. The police haven’t been able to trace the armed men. I don’t even know whether they have tried.
Amader Shomoy:? So, who do you think could have been behind this incident?
Nurul Kabir: I don’t think I have any personal enemies. As a person, I have never cheated anyone nor have I harmed anyone from feelings of anger or vengeance. Nor do I have any grievances against anyone at a personal level. And that’s because I know that in the context of many millions of other people, if someone as insignificant as myself were to harbour feelings of anger or resentment, it would ultimately be meaningless and of no consequence whatsoever. What I do know is that as a person I can only nurture my own sense of dignity, that this is a human responsibility, and that other than this, there is no meaning in being pre-occupied with one?s ownself. And I never am. Therefore, at a personal level, I have never given anyone any reason to harbor feelings of vengeance against me. On the other hand, of course there can be feelings of jealousy and resentment between people due to material causes, but that too is not applicable in my case. That’s because as a person I am not very materially-inclined. Affluence and wealth can give rise to envy, it can create feelings of enmity, well, I don’t have that. I never have. And I am not likely to do so, in future either. At least, that’s what people who are close to me think. Hence there is no practical reason for any threat to my life due to personal enmity or ill-will.
In that case, it could have been the work of thieves, of people who are wicked, maybe a group of car-thieves. But it seems unlikely, given the description of the men, their looks, their behavior.
If so, could it be that of a group who don’t like the kind of work that I do, who think that my work harms their interests? Seen from that angle, the journalistic work that I do, which is very socially and politically engaged, and very vocal — what I write and what I say — does go against groups power-hungry ruling class groups totally devoid of any democratic ideals whatsoever. These groups, who are absolutely anti-people, are very small but undoubtedly very powerful, do not like me. No, not at all. And they have no reason to.
For instance, when I write, or when I speak on television, that it is the duty of the newly-elected parliament, one that has been voted to power by the people, to scrutinise the activities of the caretaker government — their abuse of power, nepotism, and the execution and implementation of different anti-people policies, and even allegations of corruption they had indulged in the name of conducting the anti-corruption campaign, quite a few influential groups have reason to become very angry with me. These groups have socially and materially benefited from the two years of caretaker government which was illegal, unaccountable, and not at all transparent. [Nor do they have any reason to like me] when I say that, if the national armed forces become involved in politics or cherish thoughts of staking a claim to state power, it threatens the democratic transformation of the nation-state. Not only that, it also prevents the armed forces from achieving its objectives, maintaining its standards of professionalism and upholding morality [of a patriotic force]. When I say these things, top level army officials, and those sections of society that materially benefit from the political influence of the armed forces, get angry. Something on these lines happened recently. A section of retired army officers heaped abuse on me, this happened just a couple of days ago. Well, who doesn’t know that when the army exerts influence on state power, directly or indirectly, the sections of retired army officers who are involved in trading and business get extra benefits?
Therefore, many of my well-wishers think that those who feel politically, culturally or materially affected by my work as a pro-democracy journalist, are hostile to me. And they will remain to be so.
Amader Shomoy:? Has something of this sort happened to you before, or is this the first time?
Nurul Kabir: Let me talk of the recent past. The car chase incident is new. But after emergency was declared in January 2007, when I myself and the newspaper I edit opposed the army-controlled caretaker government, I began to be subjected to different forms of harassment and intimidation. In February that year, the officers of a military security agency took me to their office and tried to lecture me on what journalism is really about, they attempted to preach to me irritating things like? the `absolute necessity’ of the state of emergency, how it was much-needed to `strengthen the democratic processes’. They reminded me that they had the power to arrest me without any warrant etc. Later, the army headquarters deputed another intelligence agency to try and still the voice of New Age, since it’s a pro-democracy voice.
Since I didn’t pay any heed to their unreasonable demands, to these attempts that go against the grain of history, they exerted pressure on officials of different TV channels, so that I wouldn’t be invited as a discussant. In those days, I would nearly always be followed by cars belonging to some intelligence agency or the other, it was almost a routine matter. Besides, I would often receive phone calls, unfamiliar voices at the other end who kept threatening me.
Amader Shomoy:? Do you think that there is any connection between your car being chased and your perspective, the one that you have expressed on the recent incident that took place at the BDR headquarters?
Nurul Kabir:? Could be. It’s not impossible. Because I have said, and also written, that the `accumulated grievances’ of the soldiers have been made use of to carry off this outrageous massacre. I still think so. I don’t think it is possible for any ill-intentioned group, whether national or foreign, to motivate a disciplined force to commit such a massacre if deep-seated grievances had not existed among subaltern jawans towards those in authority, towards their officers. Needless to add, even if the list of grievances and feelings of resentment are justified, it does not justify acts of murdering commanding officers. But at the same time it is also true that those in authority, those who have permitted such a state of affairs to exist, for such large numbers of jawans to harbour grievances, they too have committed a crime.
Soon after the brutal killings at the BDR headquarters, we saw that the government quickly acceded to some longstanding demands of the police constables and of BDR jawans, that they acted to remove `systematic disparities’ that had prevailed. By doing so, the government has, in a sense, admitted that inequalities had prevailed. While it is essential that the killers of the BDR officers, and those who were behind the killings, be found out, that they be punished through a transparent and credible judicial process, it is also equally important that those who had for long neglected the just expectations of the BDR jawans through forcible means, had created the ground for grievances to accumulate, they also should be identified and duly punished. I think that both material and cultural reform processes should immediately be initiated so that no grievances fuelled by inequality can rise in future, not in any key national institution, and particularly not in the armed forces. In this respect, it is necessary that the government and the leaders of these institutions work out an effective method of squaring off such disparities.
I have also said that the absence of any intimation by any of the intelligence agencies that such a large killing could take place, is profoundly disappointing and unfortunate. Bangladesh, as is well-known, has several intelligence agencies. There are also special intelligence units whose task is to identify whether any conspiracy, or internally-motivated attempts are on within the military or para-military forces. But why were the intelligence agencies unable to give any inkling of a plan to kill the officers of a force as important as the BDR? It is my right to raise this question as a journalist, as a citizen. It is my duty. And this is what I have done.
But I have also said that these intelligence units of the security forces have, on different occasions, attended to implement all sorts of political agenda instead of attending to their professional duties and responsibilities. And as a consequence, they have lost their professional skills, and motivation. I think that this bears disastrous consequences for the country, for the people of this country, and for the security of the nation-state. We have paid similarly heavy prices for such a state of affairs on previous occasions.
Therefore, the question that naturally comes to mind, is: who is responsible for this state of affairs? Obviously it is the high-ranking military officers who have, either in their own interests, or misled by the interests of others, become eager to control the state, to make use of the national intelligence agencies for narrow self-interests so that they control the direction of politics. Political leaders themselves, when in government, use these agencies which have actually been created to look after national security interests, against their political opponents. This has happened in the past. This is disastrous for the nation, for society, and also for the armed forces as a whole. And what spells disaster for the armed forces, is also disastrous for Bangladesh as a nation-state. In order for Bangladesh to have a dignified presence in the international community of states, what is needed most is, on the one hand, the democratic transformation of society, economy and the state, and on the other, a strong and well-disciplined patriotic army, one that is active as a military force but is far-removed from the political arena.
I have been saying these things for many years, I repeated them the other day. Now, you tell me, can one practice pro-democracy journalism without repeatedly writing and saying these things?
However, it is most unfortunate that uttering such truths invites danger. This is shameful for all of us, not only for the common citizens of this land, but also, equally so, for the nation’s armed forces. I think the situation needs to be changed.