Representing ?Crossfire?: politics, art and photography

Share/Bookmark

Shahidul Alam in an interview with New Age

by Rahnuma Ahmed

Media reports on “Crossfire” exhibition
Latest report in Indepndent
Shahidul Alam?s exhibition, ?Crossfire? (a euphemism for extrajudicial killings by the Rapid Action Battalion), was scheduled to open on March 22, at Drik Gallery, Dhaka. A police lockup of Drik?s premises before the opening prevented noted Indian writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi from entering, forcing her to declare the opening on the street outside Drik. The police blockage was removed soon after Drik?s lawyers served legal notice and the lawyers had moved the Court, and after Government lawyers i.e., the Attorney Generals office, had contacted the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner?s office, and the Home Ministry, during the hearing?on the government. The court commented that even after repeated rules had been issued on the government, crossfire had continued to occur. The court?s response and subsequent events enabled Drik to open the exhibition for public viewing on March 31.

Shahidul Alam in front of a collage, part of his Crossfire exhibition. Cartoon in the background of Home Minister Sahara Khatun, ?No crossfire killing taken place?. ? Wahid Adnan/DrikNEWS

You work in the documentary genre, this work is show-cased as being symbolic, interpretive. Does this mean a change in genres?
I find these categorisations problematic. I see myself as a storyteller. There?s fiction and non-fiction. This is clearly non-fiction, though it draws upon many of the techniques that fiction would use. The allegorical approach was deliberately chosen as I felt it had, in this instance, greater interpretive potential than the literal approach. Quite apart from the fact that one could hardly expect RAB to allow photographers to document their killing (they do sometimes have TV crews accompanying them on ?missions? but they are never allowed to be there during ?crossfire?), I felt that showing bodies, blood and weapons would not add to the understanding people already had. We are not dealing with lack of knowledge. ?Crossfire? is known and, in fact, it is because it is known that the exhibition is seen as such a threat. So, while reinforcing the known with images would have a value, it would be unlikely to be as provocative as these more subtle but haunting images are likely to be.
I wanted the images to linger in people?s minds, perhaps to haunt them. They are desolate images, quiet but suggestive. The attempt is not one of inundating the audience with information, but leaving them to meditate upon the silence of the dead.
Crossfire deaths continue despite regime changes. How do you view this?
Criminals have survived because of patronage of the powerful. The removal of criminals, through ?crossfire?, does not affect the system of control, but merely substitutes existing criminals for new ones. This is why crimes continue unabated under RAB. All it does is to undermine the legal system. Unless serious attempts are made to remove such patronage and, better still, catch the godfathers, the extermination of thugs and local-level criminals (and many innocent people are also killed) will have no effect on crime. The ruling elite knows this. So why use RAB at all? I believe it is to keep control. Dead criminals don?t speak. Don?t give secrets away. Don?t take a share of the spoils. They are disposable, and RAB is the disposal system.
Every government has used RAB and other law enforcement authorities to remove troublemakers. Bangla Bhai had become a liability when he was apprehended. He didn?t die in crossfire, but was hurriedly hanged all the same despite the fact that he wanted to talk to the media as he had ?stories to tell?. Dead people don?t tell stories. So, all governments would rather have RAB, to clean up their mess, than be confronted by their own shadows.
A change of government does not change this structure.
The inclusion of the Google map has turned this exhibition into a collective, history-writing project. Why that added dimension?
Art projects are generally about the glorification of the artist. The audience is generally a passive recipient. I see this as a public project. I have a role to play as a storyteller, but my work is informed by not only the collective work of my co-researchers, but also that of human rights groups, other activists, and most importantly by the lives, or deaths, of the people whose stories are being told. The survivors, the witnesses and others affected by these deaths are important players in this story and it was essential to find a way to make this project inclusive. I would be kidding myself if I assumed this show would put an end to extrajudicial killings. I also believe there are still many unreported cases.
The Google map has the twin benefits of being interactive and open. We have already been told of one person who had been crossfired but his name hadn?t come up in the archival research.
The internet will also allow a much wider participation than might otherwise have been possible.
Besides the Awami League?s electoral pledge of stopping extrajudicial killings, it had also promised us a ?digital Bangladesh?. I think it is appropriate that this digital Bangladesh be claimed by the people.
What is the significance of research?in the sense of dates, names, places, events?for this project, and for the exhibition?
The assumed veracity of the photographic image is an important source of the strength of this exhibition. We have deliberately moved away from the mechanical aspect of recording events through images, but supplemented it by relating the image to verifiable facts. Meticulous research has gone into not only providing the context for the photographs, which has been included in the Google map, but each image, in some way, refers to a visual inspired by a case study. By deliberately retaining some ambiguity about the ?facts? surrounding the image, we invite the viewer to delve deeper into the image to discover the physical basis of the analogy, and to reflect upon the image. The photographs therefore become a portal through which the viewer can enter the story, rather than the story in itself. Yet, each image, relates to a finite, physical instance, that becomes a reference point for a life that was brutally taken away.
Your exhibition is political, with a capital ?P?. Why is political engagement generally not seen in the work of Bangladeshi artists?
Art cannot be dissociated from life, and life is distinctly political. To paraphrase the renowned Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, the price of tomato is political. However, life is also nuanced and multi-layered. Our art practice needs to be critically engaged at all levels. While the war of liberation is understandably a source of inspiration for many artists, there are many other wars of contemporary life that seem to slip from the artist?s canvas. Most artists, with some exceptions of course, claim they produce art merely for themselves. I don?t believe them. Of course there is great joy in producing art that pleases oneself. But I believe art is the medium and not the message, and all artists, I suspect, want their art to have an effect.
I know it is pass? in some quarters to be producing art that is political. Being apolitical is a political stance too. While I can understand schools of thought that have rebelled against the traditional trappings of art, I do not see the point of producing art that is not meaningful. Strong art is capable of engaging with people. It is that engagement that I seek. My art is merely a tool towards that engagement.
I understand what you mean. A lot of the artwork that?s being produced in Bangladesh stems from commercial interests. Producing formulaic work that sells is the job of a technician and not an artist. Sure, an artist needs to survive and we all produce work which we hope might sell, but once that becomes the sole purpose of producing art, one is probably not an artist in the first place.
There is a strong adherence in Bangladesh to an antiquated form of pictorialism. This applies both to representational and abstract art. Ideas seem to take back stage. While I?m wary of pseudo intellectualisation of art, I must admit that the cerebral aspects of art excite me. The politicisation is an extension of that process.
Books on crossfire have been published, roundtable discussions have been held. Why did the government react as it did, do you think it says something about the power of photography?
The association of photographs with real events makes the photographer a primary witness, and thereby the photograph becomes documentary evidence. This makes photography both powerful and dangerous. Way back in 1909, much before Photoshop came into play, Lewis Hine had said ?While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.?
Today, liars who run corporations and rule powerful nations, also have photography at their disposal. This very powerful tool is used and abused, and it is essential that we come to grips with this new language. Advertising agencies with huge budgets use photography to shape our minds about products we buy. Politicians and their campaigns are also products that we, as consumers, are encouraged to buy into. I see no restrictions on the lies we are fed every day through advertising or political propaganda. It is when the public has access to the same tools, and in particular when they use it to expose injustice that photography becomes a problem. These seemingly ?innocent? photographs become charged with meaning as soon as we learn to read their underlying meaning. This makes them dangerous.
Perhaps this is also why photographic education has been systematically excluded from our education system. A tool for public emancipation will never be welcomed by an oppressive regime. And we will have oppressive regimes for a while to come.
?Crossfire? was curated by an international curator, and you yourself have curated exhibitions abroad. Do you think international curators are more likely to engage with work such as ?Crossfire? on the basis of aesthetic considerations rather than lived, political ones, since s/he will ?be less knowledgeable about its history, meanings, metaphors, how the government has manufactured popular consent, resistance, etc. For instance, and you mention it in the brochure: John Pilger, the well-known journalist, had written when Barrister Moudood Ahmed had been arrested during the Fakhruddin-Moeenudin regime, he?s ?a decent, brave man.? And of course, it?s quite possible that Pilger didn?t know that the Barrister saheb, as law minister, was one of the political architects of RAB.
Ah yes, Pilger bungled that one. I think artistic collaborations create new possibilities. Our art practice is so often informed by western sensibilities that we at Drik deliberately explore southern interactions. The discussions between Kunda Dixit of Nepal and Marcelo Brodsky of Argentina in Chobi Mela V (our festival of photography) pointed to the remarkable similarity between the political movements in Peru and in South Asia. This made the inclusion of a Peruvian curator even more interesting, and Jorge Villacorte is a respected Latin American curator and art critic. Several other recognised international curators, from Lebanon, Tangiers and Italy had seen the show. I was somewhat surprised that while they introduced interesting ideas about curatorial and art practice and were hugely appreciative of the aesthetic and performative elements of the work, not one of them ever asked me about the impact it might have upon crossfire itself. Though it would be arrogant to suggest that this show would put an end to that.
As someone deeply in love with my country (I find words like patriotic and nationalistic problematic), my primary concern is the welfare of my community. If my work can contribute to improving the lives of my people, I will have been successful, regardless of how my art is perceived by critics. If the work is perceived as great art, but fails in its ultimate goal of furthering the cause of social justice, then I will have failed.
That said, the exhibition was only a small part of the larger movement for democracy. The activism surrounding the show, the legal action, the media mobilisation, and the spontaneous popular actions were all part of the process. The international curator had an important role to play, but only as a point of departure. We have since had students critiquing the curatorial process, where they have brought in elements relating to their political practice and social concerns. The debate resulting from the work is more important than the work itself. But it is the power of art, and particularly photography that makes such actions so vital.
There is an interesting sub-text to this exercise. The dinosaurs of Bangladeshi art have been incapable of recognising photography as an art form. Photographers are still not invited to participate in the Asian Biennale (though foreign photographers have even won the grand prize in the event). There is still no department of photography in either Shilapakala Academy (the academy of fine and performing arts) or Charukala Institute (the institute of fine arts). These are 19th-century institutions operating in the 21st century. It is interesting however, that while Charukala Institute refused to show my work in 1989, because it was a photographic, and not a painting, exhibition, it was the students of Charukala Institute who organised the first public protests when the police came and blockaged our gallery to prevent the opening of the Crossfire exhibition. It is reassuring that the students at least can raise their heads and look above the sand.
Drik under Crossfire (Independent)
Posted in New Age on 8th April 2010
Media reports on “Crossfire” exhibition

Drik: Photo power

Share/Bookmark

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

Siege of Drik Gallery

Share/Bookmark

New Age Editorial

THE siege, so to speak, of the Drik Gallery by the police on Monday, to force cancellation of a photo exhibition on extrajudicial killings by acclaimed photographer and Drik managing director Shahidul Alam, not only undermined the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the republic but also put the entire nation to shame. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Tuesday, the police, along with the Rapid Action Battalion and the Special Branch of police, had, from midday onwards, put pressure on the Drik management to not hold the exhibition on the ground that it did not have official permission and that it might cause ?unrest in the country?, before they cordoned off the gallery half an hour before the inauguration of the show. Subsequently, the organisers were forced to hold an impromptu inaugural ceremony on the road in front of the gallery.
The reasons cited by the police appear somewhat dodgy. As Shahidul Alam pointed out, Drik has been ?arranging shows since 1993 and no permission has ever been required.? Other galleries in the capital and elsewhere in the country would certainly make the same observations. In other words, even if there is a provision in the Dhaka Metropolitan Police ordinance that makes obtaining permission for an exhibition mandatory, neither the organisers of such exhibitions have deemed it necessary to comply with it, nor have the police themselves shown any urgency with regard to its enforcement. The question then is why the police deemed it invoke a provision that is seldom enforced. The answer may be found in the remark of an assistant commissioner of police quoted in the New Age report. ?The organisers did not obtain official permission although exhibitions on sensitive issues require prior permission,? he said.
Indeed, the issue that the Drik exhibition deals with, i.e. extrajudicial killings, is sensitive. It is, perhaps, more sensitive for the police and the Rapid Action Battalion because they are the prime perpetrators of such killings. It is, perhaps, equally sensitive for the government since it has not only failed to rein in the trigger-happy law enforcers despite widespread criticism and condemnation, at home and abroad, of extrajudicial killings and, most importantly, embargo by the highest judiciary but also appeared, of late, to be trying to justify such blatant violation of the rule of law by the supposed protectors of law. It is unlikely that the police acted on Monday beyond the knowledge of the government, which could only indicate that the incumbents may be even willing to foil any attempt at creating public awareness of, and thus mobilising public opinion against, extrajudicial killings, which is what the Drik photo exhibition appears to be. It is ironic that the ruling Awami League promised, in its election manifesto, to put an end to extrajudicial killings.
As indicated before, the police action not only was in contravention with the constitution but also put the entire nation to shame. The inauguration of the exhibition was scheduled to be followed by the launch of the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, and the guest of honour was none other than celebrated Indian writer and human rights activist Mahashweta Devi. There were also celebrated personalities from some other countries. In other words, the police enacted the shameful episode in front of such an august gathering tarnishing, in the process, the image of the nation as a whole.
While we condemn the police action, we demand that the government order immediate withdrawal of the police cordon around the Drik Gallery and thus allow the exhibition to continue unhindered. It is the least that the government should do.

DAILY STAR Editorial

Police action against Drik exhibition:It undercuts people’s political and cultural rights
THE police action, stopping the Drik gallery exhibition of images relating to the incidents of ‘crossfire’ in Bangladesh, is a case of oppression and curtailment of our fundamental rights of freedom of expression, speech, information and cultural expression. On Monday, just before the exhibition was to be inaugurated by eminent Indian intellectual Mahasweta Devi, policemen positioned themselves before the gallery in Dhanmondi and simply refused to let anyone enter or come out of its premises. By way of explanation, they told the media that Drik gallery did not have permission to organise the exhibition.
The question of permission is totally uncalled for. There are hundreds of photo exhibitions and other such functions of public viewing happening everyday in the capital city. Did their organisers have to seek permission in each case to be holding these? Drik itself has been organising such events since 1993. Never was any permission required or sought or demanded by any agency. Exhibitions such as these have educative, informational and instructive values. Free flow of ideas helps enrich intellectual wealth of the country, broadens its outlook and enhances the level of tolerance in a society of contrary or dissenting views. There may be a debate on an issue but it doesn’t mean people on one side of an issue need not hear or refuse to see the other’s point of view.
This is exactly the level of maturity we crave for and have actually reached in certain areas of national life which must not be allowed to be undone through any ham-handed act of indiscretion. If the police become the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong for our society, then God help us.
Let certain facts be made clear. Democracy entails a guarantee and preservation of the political and cultural rights of citizens. In such a setting, the sensitivities of certain individuals or groups or bodies cannot override the bigger demands of an open, liberal society which the present government espouses as policy. Now, if the police or any other agency is upset at a revelation of the sordid truth that ‘crossfires’ have been, they should be making sure that such extra-judicial killings do not recur. The fault lies not with Drik gallery that it organised the exhibition. It lies in the inability or reluctance of the authorities to dig into the question of why ‘crossfire’ killings are today a reprehensible affair. Besides, why must the authorities forget that by preventing what they think is adverse publicity for the country they are only making it more pronounced before the nation and the outside world?
We condemn the police action. And we would like the home minister to explain to citizens how such acts that clearly militate against the people’s right to know and observe and interpret conditions can at all take place.

News in Netherlands

Widespread condemnation of closure of photo exhibition in Bangladesh (Power of Culture)

Prince Claus Fund partner closed down by police (Metropolis M)

News in UK

?Crossfire? censored ? the power of documentary photography (Prof. David Campbell)

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

PRESS RELEASE

23 March 2010
Bangladesh: Lift ban on extrajudicial killings exhibition. Amnesty International is urging the Bangladeshi authorities to lift a ban on an exhibition of photographs raising awareness about alleged extrajudicial executions carried out by a special police unit.
?Yesterday?s closure of the Drik Picture Library exhibition ?Crossfire? in Dhaka is a blow to the right to freedom of expression,? said Amnesty International?s Bangladesh Researcher, Abbas Faiz. ?The?government of Bangladesh must act immediately to lift the police ban and protect the right to peaceful expression in words, images or any other media in accordance with Bangladesh?s constitution and?international law.?
Hours before the ?Crossfire? exhibition was due to open at a special ceremony in Dhaka, police moved in and demanded that the organizers cancel it. When they refused to shut it down police closed the?premises, claiming that the exhibition had no official permission to open and would ?create anarchy?.
The exhibition includes photographs based on Drik?s case studies of killings in Bangladesh, which government officials have portrayed as deaths in ?crossfire?.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Bangladesh since 2004 when the special police force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), was established.
In most cases, victims who die in the custody of RAB and other police personnel, are later announced to have been killed during ?crossfire? or police ?shoot-outs?.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations consider these killings to be extrajudicial executions.
Human rights lawyers in Bangladesh see the closure of the exhibition as unjustified and with no legal basis. They are seeking a court order to lift the police ban on the exhibition.
Drik?s Director, Shahidul Alam says he has held hundreds of other exhibitions without needing official permission, and that ?the government invoked a prohibitive clause only because state repression?was being exposed?.
Abbas Faiz said:?By closing the ?Crossfire? exhibition, the government of Bangladesh has effectively reinforced a culture of impunity for human rights violations. Amnesty International is calling for the?government to take action against those who carry out extrajudicial executions, not those who raise their voices against it.?
The ban is also inconsistent with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?s pledges that her government would take action to end extrajudicial executions.
Amnesty International is urging authorities to allow peaceful protests against the killings and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
END/
News in USA

Police in Bangladesh Close Photo Exhibit







By David Gonzalez

New York Times

Shahidul Alam had hoped his ?Crossfire? exhibit on extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh would ?shock people out of their comfort zone? and provoke a response.
He got his wish.
Minutes before the show was to open on Monday afternoon, the police shut down his gallery in the Dhanmondi district of Dhaka.
But instead of stifling public debate, the government?s action has had the opposite effect: art students have formed a human chain at the university and lawyers are preparing to bring legal action to reopen the show.
?It really has galvanized public opinion,? Mr. Alam said in a telephone interview on Tuesday from southern Bangladesh. ?People were angry and ready ? they just needed a catalyst. The exhibit has become in a sense iconic of the resistance.?
The photography exhibit was a symbolic treatment of the wave of executions carried out by the Rapid Action Battalion, an anticrime squad whose many critics say that it engages in violent social cleansing.
Rather than document actual killings ? something already done at great length by groups like Human Rights Watch ? Mr. Alam created a series of large, moody prints that touched on aspects of actual cases.
[Lens published a post and slide show, “Where Death Squads Struck in Bangladesh,” on March 16.]
Although the killings have drawn international condemnation, they have continued, despite promises by the government to rein in the battalion. Mr. Alam, a photographer, writer and activist, had hoped that his track record and international reputation would offer the ?Crossfire? show some protection.
But the police and officials from the battalion began to put pressure on him around midday, according to a press release from the gallery, insisting that the exhibit did not have the necessary official permission. As the 4 p.m. opening hour approached, the police closed the gallery, saying the show would create ?anarchy.?
With the gallery closed, Mr. Alam, his associates and invited guests put on an impromptu exhibit outside the gallery. The government?s intrusion ? without any apparent court order ? was denounced as illegal.
?The forcible closure of Drik?s premises is a blatant violation of our constitutional rights,? Mr. Alam said in a statement. ?We call upon the government to immediately remove the police encirclement, so that the exhibition can be opened for public viewing, and Bangladesh?s image as an independent democratic nation can be reinstated.?

We Protest

?Into Exile ? Tibet 1949 ? 2009,? an exhibition organised by the Bangladeshi chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, in partnership with Drik, was symbolically opened by Professor Muzaffer Ahmed, former chairman of Transparency International?Bangladesh, on 1 November 2009. Despite pressure on Drik to cancel the exhibition, first by officials of the Chinese embassy in Dhaka, and later by Bangladesh government officials, special branch, police, and members of parliament, the opening took place outside, on the street, as Drik’s premises had been locked up by the police. The police had insisted that we needed official permission to hold the exhibition but were unable to produce any written document to that effect.

Police enters Drik's premises even after exhibition is cancelledPolice insisted on entering the private premises of Drik even after they were unable to produce any documentation to show they were authorised to do so. A day after blocking the entrance to the gallery to prevent an exhibition on Tibet from taking place, police said they had orders from the Home Ministry to guard the place for seven days. Dhaka, Bangladesh. November 2, 2009. ? Shehab Uddin/DrikNews/Majority World

We went ahead with the opening as it is part of Drik’s struggle for the freedom of cultural expression. We are particularly affronted at being asked by officials of a foreign state, to cancel the exhibition. We strongly believe that governments should have the courage to present their views at cultural platforms and to try and convince people by arguing their case, in other words, acting democratically, rather than using intimidation and heavy-handed tactics.

Shahidul with police 7067 Tibet Exhibition SeriesShahidul Alam insisting that police leave the premises of Drik and not intimidate visitors to the gallery. Police positioned themselves outside the gate leaving some of their riot gear prominently displayed inside. Upon further resistance the riot gear was removed. 2nd November 2009. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Saikat Mojumder/DrikNews/Majority World

The forced closure of Drik affects many people, which includes members of the public, clients and those working at Drik. Public interest is our concern. We also want to continue working as an internationally acclaimed media organisation with both national and international commitments. Hence, having registered our indignance, at the actions of the Bangladesh government, and those of Chinese embassy officials we will be closing the exhibition 2 November 2009.
We express our thanks to members of the public and the media, for being present at the street opening, for demonstrating their deep disgust at governmental interference, and at their show of solidarity.

Stop Press: Police have been evicted from Drik and have positioned themselves outside the gate.

The Undesirable Professor

special-alien-noticeNotice on the welcome pack handed to me as I was taken to the room for “Special Aliens”. JFK Airport. New York. USA

Our leisurely breakfast at Coyoacan was interrupted. ?It?s Trisha,? said Pedro, handing over the phone. I had just come from Dublin where I?d been chatting to Don Mullan about how he came across the incredible information that led to the reopening of the Bloody Sunday enquiry. Conversation veered to Pedro and Trish who had been involved in the project. I was heading for Mexico City. Trisha was not in Mexico but she knew I was visiting Pedro and Nadia in their lovely house in Coyoacan and I was hoping to hear from her. I was conducting the inaugural workshop of the Pedro Meyer Foundation. But Trisha?s call was not just about saying hello. The previous night, she had seen my name in a TV programme in the US. I was on top of a list of ?undesirable professors? who apparently went round the US making extremist speeches. The list included people like Noam Chomsky, so I was in good company, but I wondered where the extremist label had come from.



As it is, I am labelled a ?Special Alien? by US immigration. I generally go to the US at least once a year to speak at the National Geographic. Last year they had also asked me to speak at the PDN (Photo District News) convention at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. Robert Pledge had turned the tables on me and taken advantage of my presence to ask me to speak at the Eugene Smith Award Ceremony at Parson?s School of Design. It was usually I who arm-twisted him into giving time to my students. Every time I arrive in the US, I go through what is now a familiar pattern. I wait in the winding queue at JFK airport. Upon scanning my passport, the immigration officer calls for someone to come over and take me to a separate room. The room, populated mostly by ?not so pale? people, is where ?Special Aliens?? are interrogated.

On my way out, I have to register at the NSEERS (National Security Entry/Exit Registration System) office. This is not always at the terminal I am departing from, so I have to do prior research to ensure I am allowed enough time for this and? don’t miss my plane. I have long stopped expecting to catch a connecting flight in the US, and have informed all my associates accordingly. The immigration officials never explain why I am a ?Special Alien?, and the last time I applied for a visa, the visa officer in Dhaka, who knew my work, had kindly pointed out that I would no longer be subjected to this procedure. I had happily trotted up to immigration on my next visit, knowing I was ?normal? again. But of course it had made no difference. I still ended up in that familiar room. I was asked the same old questions again, and re-fingerprinted and re-photographed for good measure.

Through a link Trish had sent me, I had tried tracing the programme on PBS, but pulled a blank. Rahnuma, who has enough trouble bailing me out (sometimes literally), wasn?t over-excited about this new development. She insisted that I chase it up, and get to the root of the story. She felt sure Brian would be able to dig up the facts. Brian Palmer had turned up many years ago, to do a story on Chobi Mela that Aperture Magazine had commissioned. Last year he had been commissioned by the Pulitzer Foundation to do a film on Pathshala. He had also spoken at Dhaka University of his experience as an embedded journalist in Iraq. His film Full Disclosure had sadly not been completed in time for Chobi Mela V. We had become dear friends over the years. Predictably, it was Brian who came up with the information.

Daniel Pipes on the Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” had named M Shahid Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern University, as “unAmerican” for statements he made after 9-11. I don?t know how much lower one?s status can get, but for the moment I was no lower than a ?Special Alien?. As for having a common sir name, well Shahrukh Khan wasn?t bad company!

Rahnuma steadfastly refuses to apply for a US visa, as the application procedure is so humiliating. She finds the UK visa procedure much the same, and has refused invitations to both countries on these grounds. Many friends have left the US and UK because of the hostile environment. My occasional visits, as a speaker at Harvard, UCLA, USC, Stanford and the National Geographic, or even in transit to Latin America does rile me, but I treat it as a useful reminder of what our relationships with these countries are. Friends have found it strange that I refuse to obtain a British passport. The same friends who thought I was foolish in giving up my membership of the colonial Dhaka Club.

I have little liking for queues, but if that is what it takes for me to be separated from these warmongering “tribes”, I?m ready to put up with a bit of waiting. As for my ?Special Alien? status. I wear it as a badge of honour.


Eleven days in Saudi Gitmo

Syed Neaz Ahmed

I worked as a senior lecturer at?Umm al-Qura University in Mecca until last January. I taught English language, linguistics and creative writing. Over 28 years I signed three contracts with the university and had no problem whatsoever, either with students or the administration.
I taught graduates and undergraduates and, as a tribute to my good standing, I was often asked to teach for the women’s campus ? which involves use of CCTV whereby the pupils can see the teachers but the teacher cannot see them.
In collaboration with a Saudi colleague I co-authored a series of three books on writing for students of engineering and Islamic architecture. In addition I wrote weekly columns for the two Jeddah-based English newspapers, the Saudi Gazette and Arab News. I appeared on Saudi TV chat shows and was often interviewed on Jeddah FM radio. For more than fours year I also worked as an online editor of Saudi Gazette.
When my tenure with the university ended, I was offered the post of editorial consultant at the?Muslim World League ? a non-government organisation based in Mecca. Since I am a British citizen my job transfer had to be approved by the interior ministry in Riyadh and I signed a one-year (usually renewable) contract. All my papers were in order.
In May, I was called unexpectedly to the Mecca passport office and detained for several hours without any apparent reason. On that day they confiscated my passport and my residence permit. When I protested that I would not be able to drive my car or go out on the street without a valid residence permit they gave me a temporary one valid only for Mecca. I was not allowed to leave the city: my confinement had already begun.
On the morning of 7 June, while working at the Muslim World League office, I was asked to return to the passport office. I was detained in the main office for several hours with no explanation and then transferred to another outfit run by the interior ministry.
I had no idea why I was being detained or where I was being sent. They took away my briefcase and my mobile phone and pushed me into a room that was already full with around 500 inmates. The air conditioning and the fans did not work. There was no drinking water. The toilets were dirty and three of the five toilets were without water and electricity. One can only imagine the stink. In June temperatures in Mecca run up to 50C.
Inmates in this Saudi Gitmo were moved from one room to another every two hours or so. As there was not enough room to sit or stretch your legs it added to the stress and strain. We were made to sleep on bare floors and fights for sitting/sleeping space were not uncommon. There was a stabbing over a small sum of money ? I don’t know if the victim survived.
The guards in Mecca were very “kind” to me. They never missed an opportunity to call me “animal”, kick my ankles with their boots or step on my toes.
After four days handcuffed in Mecca, I was transferred to a detention centre in Jeddah where conditions were even worse. In warehouse-like halls with no air conditioning, no fans and temperatures rising to 50C, about 1,500 people were locked up.
We were provided with food but we ate only enough to survive as it was rumoured that the food was drugged to make us sleep. From the sleeping patterns of the inmates, this was probably true.
After 11 days of hell I was deported to Bahrain from where I made my way back to England. I had to leave everything ? my car, my flat and my belongings.
I still do not know why I was singled out for this treatment which has left me jobless, broke and with a traumatic experience that is hard to overcome. As a Muslim I know that this is not Islam.

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.

Bangladesh Now

Share/Bookmark
rab.jpg
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) were setup as a crack team to support law enforcement. Numerous accusations of extra judicial killings have been attributed to RAB, usually followed by a government press release about people having died in a ‘crossfire’. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
Dark glasses, black bandana, arrogance in his face. ‘The Protector’ strides with purpose. A new word enters our lexicon. You can now ‘crossfire’ a person. No questions asked.
woman-of-jute-mill-worker.jpg
Hanif, a mill worker, was shot dead by the police during a protest rally organised by the workers. Two hundred workers were injured. Crescent jute mill, Khalishpur, Khulna, 11 September 2006. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
She mourns in silence. Her man, a worker in a mill, is no more. His crime? Demanding payment for his labour.
jute-protest-wasif.jpg
Workers protest on the streets of Khalishpur, even during emergency. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
A child screams.
slum-eviction-family.jpg
Soon after coming to power, the caretaker government ordered all illegal constructions and slums be torn down. Those affected do not know where to find shelter since laws and their interpretations are mostly anti-poor. Dhaka Bangladesh. 24 January 2007. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
Evicted from a slum that offered little, his parents in search for even less.
phulbari-protest-wasif.jpg
Muslim and Adivasi women unite in their fight against multinationals. Phulbari Bangladesh. 30 September 2006. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
phulbari-rice-field-wasif.jpg
These green fields will disappear if coal mining starts. Phulbari Bangladesh. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
Angry women protest the illegal hand-over of their land to multinationals.
————————————-
Choles Ritchil killed in custody
————————————-
And the missing photograph. The one we cannot show. The one of the Adivashi leader tortured and killed in custody. He too had the temerity to resist government takeover of his ancestral land.
sniffer-dog-monir.jpg
A member of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB, Bangladesh’s elite security force), checks the grounds with a dog squad to ensure security of the 14 party led Awami League’s grand rally the next day. Paltan, Dhaka Bangladesh. December 17 2006.
? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
thief-dangling-from-ceiling.jpg
Ratan Kumar, suspected of stealing a gold necklace, was tortured at Bogra Police Station. This photograph (taken with a mobile phone) was published in a daily newspaper, resulted in police officials seen in the picture (the officer-in-charge, three sub-inspectors and a constable) being suspended from active duty. Bogra Bangladesh. 28 January 2007. ? DrikNews
teargas-liton.jpg
Police fired tear gas shells and rubber bullets to stop agitated students at Dhaka University campus. As protests engulfed the nation, curfew was declared in 6 divisional cities from 8 at night. A student hurls back a tear gas shell. Dhaka Bangladesh. 22 August 2007.? Azizur Rahim Peu/DrikNews
Now is a difficult time. A time for reflection, a time for retrospection, a time for defiance. Sadly for most Bangladeshis, now has always been difficult. Apart from the brief euphoria after independence in ’71, there were the lesser joys when the autocrat left in ’90, on winning a Nobel peace prize in ’06 and even temporary relief when emergency was declared in January ’07. But those feelings have been short-lived. Particularly for the poor. When elephants clash it is the grass that gets hurt.
landslide-boy-tanvir.jpg
Soldiers and rescue workers recover a child’s body from landslides caused by heavy rains on the deforested hills of Chittagong city. One hundred and six people died, many more were injured. Chittagong Bangladesh. 12 June 2007. ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
woman-crying-landslide.jpg
A woman mourns the death of her family members, all of whom died as a result of the mudslide. Chittagong Bangladesh. 12 June 2007. ? Tanvir Ahmed/DrikNews
trainside-home.jpg
Life is fearful for a slum-dweller. When will she face the next eviction? Dhaka Bangladesh ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
Arrests in the night, the brutality of high prices and the daily grind of poverty are the realities that wear people down. But they are warriors. Despite the weight of unjust governance, despite the price they always end up paying, they still protest. And the photojournalists? When justice is compromised. When the poor are trampled under the march of ‘reform’. When fear evokes silence. When familiar faces turn away. To stay ‘neutral’ is to stay aloof. They stand on the side of the oppressed. Unashamedly so.
confiscated-rickshaws-wasif.jpg
Rickshaws without proper licenses seized by police and dumped near Police Control room. Rickshaws are environment-friendly and affordable by the middle class and often the only source of paid work for men migrating from villages in search of work. 17 February 2007. Dhaka Bangladesh. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
woman-in-flood.jpg
A village woman dries dhan (husked rice grain) as flood waters recede. Chilmari, Rangpur. August 8 2007. A village woman dries dhan (husked rice grain) as flood waters recede. Chilmari, Rangpur. August 8 2007. ? Munem Wasif/DrikNews
On Tuesday the 4th of September 2007 DrikNews will hold its inaugural photographic exhibition “Bangladesh Now”. The photographs shown are a selection from the exhibition.
The exhibition will be opened by Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age, who will share his views about the current situation in Bangladesh,
before the opening. The program starts at 5.00 pm.

Drik will be 18 years old on that day. We’d like you to be with us

Ruhul Amin's Story

Subscribe to ShahidulNews


Share



The streets of Dhaka looked far from festive last night. The eerie glow of the sodium lamps lit the mounted police and their dogs. There were said to be 5000 in the streets. The barbed wire barricades and the stop searches, put a damper on the marauding young men prowling the streets, but the packed dance floor at the Gulshan Club seemed unaffected by it all. The TSC corner at Dhaka University, on the other hand, was an all male affair. The police presence was not reassuring enough for women to enter the macho fray.
As I opened the greeting cards that wished me well for the new season, I kept remembering how different was Eid for the Afghans from Christmas for the US Marines.
I remembered my delight as a child, when we would look out of the rooftops for the new moon. We would bathe early in the morning and go out with our friends, all decked in our new clothes. Alert to the idea that a few smart salaams could net some extra pocket money.
For Ruhul Amin, in this story by the children of Out of Focus “Season’s Greetings” perhaps has more to do with going back home to the village, than with Christianity or Islam, or the celebration of Bangla or Chinese identity.
“I was born in Mirpur, Dhaka, and I have grown up here. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I went to my village home for the very first time. I loved it there. I met my grandparents from my mother’s and my father’s side, and they were very happy to see me. So I asked my mother, why did you leave everybody here and move to the city?
In the coming days, I wish for you and I, and Ruhul Amin and the children of Out of Focus, less murderous and warmongering leaders.
Shahidul Alam
Tue Jan 1, 2002