Shahidul Alam has long been gripped by the life of a woman he has never met.
It?s been two decades since Kalpana Chakma was abducted, but Shahidul refuses to forget her. Standing at the threshold of his latest exhibition,Kalpana?s Warriors, the Bangladeshi photographer pauses for a moment.
In the room beyond is the third in a series of photo exhibitions that began with Searching for Kalpana Chakma in 2013, and was followed by 18 in 2014. The woman around whom these pictures revolve is notably absent from them. She was abducted at gunpoint in the early hours of 12 June 1996 from her home in Rangamati in Bangladesh. Her captors were a group of plain-clothed men who were recognised as being from a nearby army camp. Kalpana never returned home and her fate remains unknown.
When the exhibition first opened at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka, many of those who had been photographed could not risk coming out of hiding, yet the room was full of people who knew Kalpana?s story intimately. Some simply stood for a while before the portraits, others wept. Continue reading “Kalpana's Warriors in Delhi”
Kalpana Chakma, a young leader of the Bangladeshi Hill Women?s Federation, was abducted from her home by military personnel and civilian law enforcers at gunpoint on 12 June 1996. She remains missing. Through this work, part of Drik?s ?No More? campaign, photographer?Shahidul Alam?has tried to break a silence that successive governments, whether civilian or military backed, have carefully nurtured. The exhibition uses laser etching on straw mats, an innovative technique developed specifically for this exhibition. The process involved in creating these images is rooted to the everyday realities of the hill people, the paharis. Interviewees had repeatedly talked of the bareness of Kalpana?s home. That there was no furniture. That Kalpana slept on the floor on a straw mat. The straw mats were burned by a laser beam much as the fire that had engulfed the pahari villages.
Shilpakala Award recipientShahidul Alam, set up Drik and Majority World agencies, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and Chobi Mela festival. Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photography Society and visiting professor at Sunderland University. Alam has chaired the World Press Photo jury. Alam also introduced email to Bangladesh. His book my journey as a witness has been described as ?the most important book ever written by a photographer? by legendary picture editor of?Life Magazine, John Morris. He is an internationally acclaimed public speaker and has presented at Hollywood, National Geographic, re:publica, COP21 and POP Tech.
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Absolutely stunning: Jess Worth. New Internationalist Magazine (Oxford)
We had a fabulous opening with moving recitation of Kabita Chakma’s poem “I will defy” by Aungmakhai Chak, Marium Rupa and Rahnuma Ahmed. Many of the warriors were present in person. We were sad to miss Saydia Gulrukh, but her presence was felt.
I will resist, I shall defy Will you do as you please? You turned my home into sand It was a forest where I stand You made daylight go dark Left it barren never a spark I will resist. I shall defy You strip me of my land On my women, your hand No longer shall I see No longer will I be Abandon, neglect, rage A throbbing womb, my stage I curl, I tear asunder Awake, I search, I wander I am who I am And I will resist I shall defy
Poem by Kabita Chakma
Translation by Shahidul Alam
Thanks to Arshad Jamal and Chris Riley for their support and Mohammad Mohsin Miah for helping with the printing. ASM Rezaur Rahman curated the show and the entire teams from Drik’s Publication, Gallery, Photography and Audio Visual Department as well as the volunteers from Pathshala did a wonderful job. We shall resist and we will continue to defy.
It was a welcome opportunity to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her official visit to the UK. Three of us, Lord Eric Avebury of the UK House of Lords, Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch and I met the Prime Minister on 30 January at her hotel suite in London.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Dr Dipu Moni and the Bangladesh High Commissioner to the UK, Dr Sayeedur Rahman Khan were also present at the meeting.
We began with a discussion on the war crimes trials, restrictions on human rights groups visiting Chittagong Hill Tracts, and the continued delay in implementing the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord (CHT) that was signed in 1997 during Sheikh Hasina?s previous tenure as Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister said she was committed to implementing the CHT Accord and had set up a committee to advise her on how to implement it.
The Foreign Minister said the government was aware of the concerns the International Bar Association had raised about the law under which war crimes will be tried. She said the government had sought the opinion of legal experts on those concerns and that the amended law incorporates their advice. She said the process is to heal wounds, and the government is looking at all issues in relation to the trials, and the rule of law would be followed.
The law denies, among other things, the right to challenge the jurisdiction of the Tribunal and the right to the possibility of bail but it was not clear if the government would move to amend the law.
I told the Prime Minister that Amnesty International welcomes the government?s move to make the National Human Rights Commission permanent and asked for her assurances that it would remain independent and well resourced. Also, the government?s move to try Bangladesh Rifle mutineers in civilian courts, as against courts martial, was welcome.
I expressed concern that the government?s move to address some of the human rights concerns appear to favour only members of her own party, the Awami League. There is a long, unwelcome legacy in Bangladesh for governments to go soft on the criminal activities of members of their own party and harsh on the opposition. I asked why the only known cases of the government pardoning death penalty convicts were 20 convicts, 19 of whom were members of the governing Awami League. I also expressed concern about the activities of the Bangladesh Chattra League (BCL), the student wing of the Awami League, and the serious allegations of human rights abuses by this grouping, which have gone unpunished.
The Foreign Minister said the deaths sentences had been politically motivated and for that reason the prisoners have been pardoned. I was dismayed as I had hoped to hear a commitment to pardoning more death penalty convicts and the exercise of utmost impartiality in choosing who to pardon.
The Prime Minister said she had taken action against the BCL members. Some have been arrested for committing crimes and some have been expelled from the Awami League.
I explained that torture continues to be widespread and asked the Prime Minister if her government would consider implementing the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that provides guidelines for torture free investigation of suspects. This question remained unanswered.
I referred to statements the Prime Minister had made before and after the 2008 elections that extrajudicial executions would end. Yet, they continue and nothing seems to be done to stop them.
The Prime Minister said extrajudicial executions have been happening since 2004 and she has been very vocal on the issue from that time. She said they could not stop overnight. She said all incidents are investigated, and if any officer is found to have committed a crime ?immediately we take action against it?.
I agree that extrajudicial executions cannot stop overnight, but work to stop them can begin straight away. While the Prime Minister?s comments generate the hope that the government might be prepared to address the issue, the Home Minister?s comments last week that extrajudicial executions were not happening undermines that hope.