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”

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”

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

Eating up children

By Rahnuma Ahmed

LOCAL RESIDENTS HELP FIREFIGHTERS BATTLE THE DEADLY FACTORY BLAZE AT SMART EXPORTS, MOHAMMADPUR, DHAKA, JANUARY 26, 2013 ©AP

Josna, isn’t Josna feeling cold?

I didn’t know what to say as I sat beside Josna’s mother on the curb, outside the Emergency department of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). It was slightly chilly, the last cold wave of January was making its appearance felt.

The breeze seemed to blow away her words, but only as far as outside appearances went. They clung to the inner recesses of my mind.

I shivered, but not because of the cold. Josna, 16 years old, a garment factory worker at Smart Exports in Mohammadpur Beribadh area, was lying cold, on a metal trolley inside the morgue.

Saydia Gulrukh (PhD student), Kanon Barua (Polytechnic student) and I had rushed to the Emergency building. We walked rapidly into a maze of ill-lit corridors,  rubbing shoulders with patients, family members, doctors, nurses and floor-cleaners, stopping at each turn to ask, where’s the morgue? All fingers pointed ahead, finally, a left turn which proved to be a dead end, and we came across “Morgue” written in Bangla on the wall facing us at the end of the corridor. We rushed and joined a small group of men and women miserably huddled outside a collapsible gate. Our eyes followed their gaze.

Josna lay on a metal trolley inside the morgue. All alone. Dead.

The locked iron gate stood between us and Josna, it prevented her family members from entering the room, from holding her closely, from clasping her lifeless body, hoping against hope that their cries, the tears streaming down their faces, would somehow bring her back to life.

But they possessed neither the class-ed clout nor the political connections which can, and do, unlock locked gates.

I looked at Josna’s body through the grill, a young girl dressed in a yellow and white flowery shalwar-kameez, her head turned away from us, thick long black hair half-coiled, half-spread outwards on the metal tray. She reminded me of a sunflower.

“She’d just returned to the factory after eating lunch. The fire started five minutes later,” said her father in a low voice, no trace of emotion on his face. “Where we live, is a short distance from the factory,” he added impassively.

Saydia and I had heard of the fire at Smart Exports soon after it broke out, but we weren’t sure whether there had been any casualties. We’d planned to go to Dr Christopher Pinney’s lecture, “Archiving project in India” at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, part of Chobimela-VII, the international festival of photography. But as we raced down the stairs of our flat, already late for the lecture, text messages kept pouring in.  Unsure about their accuracy, but more than anything else, having gone to Nischintapur a day earlier (January 25, 2013) to demonstrate against deaths and missing workers, to mark the second month of the Tazreen Fashions’ fire, we found it incredulous that yet another blaze, yet more deaths could have occurred. It couldn’t be true, it was impossible, it meant nothing had changed, not in the slightest.

We decided to stick to our lecture plan, but I thought it wise to text activist friends at large, “Fire at Smart Fashions in Mohammadpur Beribadh, 2-5 workers dead. Pls  inquire, go there if you can. Saydia and I can’t at this moment” (in the first rush, Smart Exports had been reported as “Smart Fashions”).

But at 4:42, only a few minutes after we had finally managed to seat ourselves in the auditorium, when my eyes had barely adjusted to the darkness and I could make out the lectern and professor Pinney, both Saydia and I received a text message simultaneously. It was from Baki Billah, a CPB activist: “One died a few minutes ago at DMCH, 5 dead bodies at Sikder Medical Hospital” (transl).

We decided to leave. It would be impossible to concentrate. Our own project of archiving deaths caused by limitless greed in the here-and-now, seemed far more urgent.

Josna, isn’t Josna feeling cold?

The dead, we know, do not feel anything, neither hot nor cold, nor fear nor pain but how long does it take for a mother to learn that? To accept that her child is truly beyond everything, beyond this material world as we know of feelings, emotions, thoughts, acts, working, toiling, earning, eating, smiling, laughing, caring, thinking, dreaming… How long does it take for a mother to accept it?

Feelings never die, an actress friend had remarked many years ago. While another friend had related stories of how her mother, who’d lost one of her daughters, a science student, in a high-school laboratory accident, would often, even many years later, walk out of the house suddenly, oblivious of the fact that it was only hours away from midnight, oblivious of whether she had sandals on her feet, of the fact that her sari was crumpled after a hard day’s housework. She would go out into the darkness searching for her daughter. Where are you?

Thoughts flitting in and out as I hear Josna’s mother call out, “Jadu” (magic), where are you?Are you cold?

I shivered. Josna was beyond shivering.

Sitting on the curb, rocking gently, Josna’s mother wailed,

Kemon koria, kemon koria/Paimu amar shontan phiraiyare/O garmentsre/Kemne khaili amar shontanre/O amar garmentsre/Kemne khaibore/O amar babare/O amar ma/O amar ma/Kemne gelore Josnare/Ore bhat-o khaiya gese /Ami kot[h]a koi/o-o bhaiera-re ki camera korte aiso…?/Amare amar Josnare kemne phiraya dibore/O amar Josna/Ke phiraiya dibore/Porantare khali koira diya gelore

How can I
How can I get back my child
O you garments
How could you eat up my child
O my garments
How it does eat up!
O my father
O my mother
O my mother
How could Josna go away
She had eaten rice
I speak
O, o, you brothers have you come to do camera…?
How can my Josna be returned to me
O my Josna
Who will return her to me
She has emptied my heart and left…

Eating up children in development-oriented present day Bangladesh is very one-sided. It is garment factory-owners who “eat up” the children of working class families. Poor people don’t “eat up” the children of the ruling business elite. They leave them alone —  to be educated in universities abroad, to return and set up private universities here, to berate about the “culture of impunity” prevalent in Bangladesh which stokes “grievances” among garment factory workers who “riot”, “smash vehicles,” and “attack police” even though the “minimum wage [has been raised] by 80%” (K. Anis Ahmed, “Bolshie Bangladesh,” The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2010).

No mention of factory fires, of closed factory exits, of deaths caused by stampede and asphyxiation.

Of sunflowers, killed as a result of criminal negligence.

From DMCH, I returned home with Kanon, my mobile set, overloaded, had crashed, I needed to get it working again. Saydia went off to Sikder Women’s Medical College and Hospital in Western Dhanmondi.

Kohinoor, Razia, Nasima, Hasina, Nasima Akhter, Laizu, six more sunflowers dead. Equally young, aged from fifteen to eighteen.

Saydia has been looking unusually pale for the last few days, we had been busy with the demo outside the BGMEA (January 28) and it was only last night that I got the opportunity to catch up with her. She sat shivering in our flat, possibly flu, and I piled warm clothes on her.

I don’t know, I don’t have much of an appetite since Sikder. Four of the bodies were lying on the floor, wrapped in blue hospital bedsheets, they had to be put in the body bags, right at that moment, one of the guys present, I think he was a government official, no, no they weren’t kept in the morgue, it wasn’t like the DMCH, nor in any room either, it was right beside this shop at the hospital, on an empty floor space, anyway he says, por-purush (men who are strangers) shouldn’t touch these bodies, it’s against Islam, most of the people were then shooed away, relatives as well, except for Kohinoor’s sister who refused to leave, she’d been sitting cradling Kohinoor’s head in her lap, and another female relative of a dead worker, we together put their bodies in the bags,  Lima (short for Taslima Akhter, photographer, left activist) came forward and helped us as well.

Weren’t there any female nurses?

Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t see any.

I’ve lost my appetite. I can still feel the weight of these young women. I’d held them by their waist to lift them up. I can still smell the fire, the soot. It refuses to go away.

Saydia held up her palm, her wrist, I can still feel their weight, Rahnuma.

The mopping-up operation of Tazreen Fashions, in other words, “damage control” was conducted by top officials of the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) — its president, vice-president, former presidents, were to be seen day in and day out on TV talk shows. Impeccably dressed and well groomed, they blamed the rush, the panic, mid-level management, the fire brigade for having issued safety licences and so on.

They have been successful, for the owner of Tazreen fashions has not yet been arrested; not surprising since the BGMEA, being immensely powerful, has all who matter, socially and politically, in their pockets. These bit actors played their part well.

Soon after, the home minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir said, arresting the owner would be fruitless (bdnews24, January 29, 2013). The Tazreen fire may have been a “scandal” for the international fashion industry (“The fire in Bangladesh is a fashion scandal,” The Guardian, December 5, 2012) but for the burgeoning Bangladesh fashion industry, hell no, soon after the fire, I watched on TV news a very well-attended programme organised by the BGMEA at a five star hotel, more damage limitation, the camera lovingly lingered on internationally acclaimed fashion designer Bibi Russell, and a host of other strikingly dressed beautiful looking soft skinned bejewelled women — fashion designers, beauticians, models, TV celebrities, loadful.

It’s known as the soft side of capitalism, to make us forget by their allure , their commodified charm, the fires, the screams, the charred bodies. To make us deaf to a mother’s wail, Porantare khali koira diya gelore

There were other bit actors as well. For, how can one forget ATN News, a private TV channel, and its reputed anchor Munni Saha who kindly obliged by being the first among the media to dig out and interview Delwar Hossain, owner Tazreen Fashions, providing him thereby the opportunity to cry bucketsful in front of the TV camera? A well-informed journalist told me about fifty plus journalists who had been wined and dined at Dhaka’s top Westin Hotel by the BGMEA. One of its officials had generously extended the invitation to her but she politely declined.

To seal matters (pun-wise, nailing the coffin would be abhorrable here), the BGMEA has produced a probe report on the Tazreen fire which lets the owner off the hook by declaring it to be a “sabotage.”

Those in charge of damage control at Smart Exports, not a BGMEA member, seem to have been less successful. As I write, news breaks out of the arrest of Smart’s chairman, Mohd Sharif, and managing director, Zakir Ahmed. This, despite the presence of Begum Monnojan Sufian, state minister for labour, the highly-influential Jahangir Kabir Nanak, state minister for local government, rural development and cooperatives, at Sikder Medical when the bodies of the six sunflower girls Kohinoor, Razia, Nasima, Hasina, Nasima Akhter, Laizu — were handed over to their family members. The hospital’s emergency department, said Saydia, had been cordoned off by hundreds of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) and police personnel.

It would seem that ruling party leaders enjoy far less damage control ability than the BGMEA, which reportedly lavishly contributes to the election coffers of both the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP (Bangladesh National Party).

An eighth worker of Smart Export was transferred to the better-equipped Apollo Hospital on Monday. This sunflower is fighting for her life. If she fails, will Apollo, which is rumored to keep patients on life support to up their bill, keep her on life support as well for several days, until public anger has subsided? Buying time is an essential part of damage control exercises.

But, so what, if Smart Export, which had no trade license, no fire extinguishers, no fire safety exit, is not a BGMEA member? According to press reports, seven members of BGMEA had subcontracted to Smart Export the production of clothes for western buyers: Centex, MHC Apparels, Mac-Tex Industries, EnergyPac Fashions, Fashion Store, Mrinmoy Fashion, Concorde Creation Ltd (The Daily Star, January 30, 2013). “Bershka” and “Lefties” labels owned by the Spanish apparel giant Inditex, “Sol”s label owned by the French company Solo Invest, “Fox & Scott” label registered to Sylvain Scemama in Paris have been discovered on the burnt-out floors of Smart Export.

Is that why the BGMEA is compensating the families of Smart’s deceased workers? The BKMEA (Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association) as well, for, its president has promised to give a month’s salary and 1 lakh taka each to the seven families.

Josna’s mother, her father as well, had dignity. Despite their hearts having been emptied, they did not curse the garment owners or all others for “eating up” their children. They did not wish that they too, have to huddle miserably in the cold for hours — outside morgues, hospital buildings, emergency departments and police cordons, for receiving  jadu no more. That they too, be treated like shit by all those they encounter in the process.

They did not wish that their children too, die of fires, stampedes, asphyxiation.

Out of respect for them, and for our sunflower daughters, neither will I.

Published in New Age, Thursday, January 31, 2013.

Reflections on Bengali motherhood and storytelling

BISWAJIT’S PUBLIC MURDER
By rahnuma ahmed

Zohra Begum, mother of Emdadul Haque; the latter has been identified from photographs and video footage as being one of the Bangladesh Chatra League activists who beat and hacked Biswajit Das, a tailor, to death on December 9, 2012 during a hartal called by the BNP.? bdnews24
Zohra Begum, mother of Emdadul Haque; the latter has been identified from photographs and video footage as being one of the Bangladesh Chatra League activists who beat and hacked Biswajit Das, a tailor, to death on December 9, 2012 during a hartal called by the BNP.? bdnews24

I
ALTHOUGH Bengali culture would have us believe otherwise, motherhood is not something — regarded by some as an instinct, by others, as a virtue — that is timeless and unchanging. It is social and historical. Continue reading “Reflections on Bengali motherhood and storytelling”

Airport blues

The hartal (general strike) today put a spoke in the works. Our driver Joshim needed to drop me off at the airport and be back at base before sunrise. The young tailor Biswajit Das having been brutally murdered in full view of the police and the media, meant we could take no chances. Joshim had been sleeping downstairs in order to be at ours at such a ridiculous hour. Rahnuma rang him at 4:00 am, and soon a groggy Joshim, Rahnuma and I were off to the airport. Rahnuma and I have never had the luxury of seeing each other off, but it didn’t feel safe for Joshim to be heading home on his own. So Rahnuma volunteered to be body guard on the return trip.

Passengers walking to the Shahjalal International Airport. Early morning, Tuesday the 11th December 2012. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There was no traffic. At least none that we could see through the incredibly dense fog. The headlights made things worse with the fog itself being lit up by the headlight and shining the light right back at us. Without the headlights, once could at least barely make out the edges of the road. The risk of being beaten up by thugs in the street, had been replaced by the risk of getting run over by a fog blinded truck. At least we had a vehicle of our own and the option of travelling as we pleased. Continue reading “Airport blues”

NISCHINTAPUR DEATHS: Killers at large

by rahnuma ahmed

Grieving for lost ones. Tazreen fashion, Nischintapur, Ashulia, November 25, 2012 ? Taslima Akhter

EVERYTHING SEEMED to come to a standstill as the death toll in the factory fire at Nischintapur kept rising. Death isn’t a question of numbers, even a single death which could have been prevented, is one too many. But still, the numbers were staggering.
Sunday’s newspaper headlines had said, nine. But as the day unfolded, the death toll shot up unbelievably; the numbers were conflicting — 110, no 124, later, down to 111. They still conflict, for, family members say some loved ones are still missing.
Numbing numbers. I stare at them blankly. I look at my partner Shahidul and wonder, what, if he’d been one of the 111 or so dead? I reach out and touch him. No, its nothing, I say, when he looks up. Continue reading “NISCHINTAPUR DEATHS: Killers at large”

Ramu violence: A fanoosh is not a balloon

by Pragyananda Bhikkhu
Translated by Rahnuma Ahmed

Translator’s note: Young Bangladeshi Buddhist monk Pragyananda Bhikkhu, of Ramu Shima Bihar, wrote “Ramu Shohingshota: Fanoosh kono balloon noy”, which was published in Dainik Cox?s Bazar, November 4, 2012 in light of the controversy created over setting afloat fanooshes as part of the celebration of Prabarana Purnima, the second largest Buddhist religious festival; to be noted, this year’s date coincided with the monthly anniversary of the communal attacks ?of September 29, 2012, which destroyed innumerable Buddhist monasteries, temples and homes, allegedly caused by an offensive photograph discovered in the facebook account of Uttam Kumar Barua, a Bengali Buddhist youth, several hours before the attacks occurred. According to press reports, the attacks were visibly incited by local leaders and members of the ruling Awami League (AL), the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami; the attackers included those belonging to these political parties, and also, other Muslims, both local inhabitants and outsiders. News reports have highlighted the “inaction” of police officials and the local-level administration. Both ruling AL and the opposition BNP agree that these attacks were “planned” and pre-meditated.
The fanoosh controversy, as Pragyananda clearly explains, was the result of administrative interference in religious ceremonies and rituals; the Buddhists of Ramu had decided not to? observe their rites of virtue this year as they were “heartbroken” and grieving over their losses.
Relief and rehabilitation (tran) actions taken by the government are satisfactory, but ones concerned with deliverance (poritran) are not, writes Pragynanda, since the issue of delivering justice to Buddhists in Ramu has by all accounts become “mired in the quicksand of [party] politics.”
After reading his article, I had requested Pragyananda to elaborate on several things including worship rites regarding fanoosh, he responded to my request in writing, sections of which have been incorporated in this translation. — Rahnuma Ahmed?

Pragyananda Bhikkhu, Buddhist monk, Ramu Shima Bihar.

ACCORDING TO some, a fanoosh is a light, its resemblance to a dole has led some to call it a dolebaji (large bin for storing rice). But in Buddhist vocabulary, a fanoosh is known as a sky light. Prince Siddartha (later Gautam Buddha) renounced kingdom, kingship, greed, a life of luxury and riches in his quest for freedom from suffering; he left his sangsar on a blessed day in the month of Ashar when it was full moon [purnima]. Continue reading “Ramu violence: A fanoosh is not a balloon”

CONCLUDING PART: Govt response to communal attack in Ramu

by?rahnuma ahmed

In today’s column, I basically deal with three issues, firstly, a brief review of the government’s administrative responses, these suggest that higher-ups have ‘settled’ on making the officer-in-charge of Ramu thana the “fall guy” for the devastating waves of attacks on Buddhist temples, monasteries and houses on September 29; secondly, my examination of the report of the probe committee formed by the home ministry to investigate the occurrences in Ramu inclines me to think that the committee has produced a report according to the home minister’s requirements and guidelines as outlined in his public speeches instead of? investigating impartially as the committee is duty-bound to; third, in order to create appearances of communal harmony post-Ramu, government officials, ruling party members and ideologues, mostly Muslims (plus a few Buddhist quislings), have participated in government-funded Probarona celebrations this year, which has led to the (forceful) de-linking of religious rituals from a set of embodied practices which are a part of the Buddhist tradition; it bespeaks of government interference (hijacking), which again, is unconstitutional (freedom of worship).

Fanooshes being released on the eve of Prabarana Purnima during a so-called solidarity event held at Shoparjito Swadhinota, Dhaka University on October 28, 2012. The programme was organised by Prabarana Udjapon Parishad ? New Age

Continue reading “CONCLUDING PART: Govt response to communal attack in Ramu”

US AMBASSADOR TO LIBYA KILLED Collateral death?

By rahnuma ahmed

 

A Libyan man explains that the bloodstains on the column are from an American embassy staff member who grabbed the edge of the column while he was evacuated, after an attack that killed four Americans on 11 September 2012. ?AP

?Collateral damage?, according to the US department of defense, is damage or injury caused to those who are not lawful military targets, i.e., to non-combatants.
They occur nevertheless…, in the course of action…, but because they were unintended or incidental, the inflictors are to be let off.
In other words, “collateral damage” is deployed to indicate that the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan etc., caused by CIA’s drone-fired missiles — people attending a wedding party, mourners attending funerals of those killed by drone attacks — is ?not unlawful.? They are unintended, they are incidental. They are, as such, ??collateral? deaths. Sorry for all the killings folks, but war is war.
The term, as Orwell reminds us, is a euphemism. Deliberately crafted to prevent us from feeling repulsed, from being morally outraged at the loss of life, at senseless slaughter.
Can the death of J. Christopher Stevens, US ambassador to Libya, and that of three embassy staff, be dismissed as ?collateral? deaths?
For, after all, the present situation in Libya, post-Gaddafi, as detailed in an Amnesty International report, seems to be pretty grim:
[The militias] are killing people, making arbitrary arrests, torturing detainees and forcibly displacing and terrorizing entire communities, often solely for reasons of revenge. They are also recklessly using machineguns, mortars and other weaponry during tribal and territorial battles, killing and maiming bystanders. They act above the law, committing their crimes without fear of punishment. (Libya: Rule of Law or Rule of Militias, Amnesty International, 2012).
The presence of these militias, says Amnesty, ?threaten[s] the very future of Libya.?
The US Ambassador was presumably not ignorant of the state of affairs. For, according to a CNN news report, a local security official (member of the February 17th Brigade), Jamal Mabrouk, had warned American diplomats in Benghazi three days before the ?assault on the US consulate, that, the security situation was ?deteriorating.? It was not conducive for ?international business.? It had worsened because of the ?growing presence of armed jihadist groups in the Benghazi area.? It is ?frightening.? It ?scares us.? (More details emerge on U.S. ambassador’s last moments, CNN, September 15, 2012).
The findings of the Amnesty report — the militias ?act above the law,? they commit ?their crimes without fear of punishment? — is confirmed by Libya’s president. A CNN reporter had asked Mohamed Magariaf, when visiting the heavily damaged consulate, whether the government was not capable of controlling extremist groups. ?You are not far from the truth,? was his reply.
There are other reasons, as well, for the US Ambassador to have been knowledgeable.
He was not new to Libya, having served as the US envoy to Libya’s rebels from April 2011. Stationed in Benghazi — the rebel stronghold, the cradle of the Obama administration supported anti-Gaddafi rebellion — Chris Stevens’ is generally acknowledged to have been a “key player” in the uprising. Or, as I would put it, to not having been new to terror.
To, for instance, terror unleashed from the skies, for, NATO had conducted 24,140 air sorties on Libya, with strike sorties numbering 9,010.? Pro-democracy forces could not have disposed of Gaddafi — who had autocratically ruled Libya for forty years — so quickly if it hadn’t been for the air strikes.
Western leaders maintain however, that their intention was humanitarian, of “protecting” Libyans (by bombing, i.e., killing Libyans).
But as alternative news sources had then revealed, Libya’s “pro-democracy” rebels were led by “former” al-Qaeda affiliated brigades, who were supervised by NATO Special Forces, composed of US Navy Seals, British Special SAS Forces and French Legionnaires. The latter’s identity was not disclosed, they were kept out of photo ops, they blended into the heavily-militarised Libyan landscape, they were reportedly behind major operations directed against key buildings including Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound. The rebel forces, on the other hand, had also included teenaged, untrained, trigger-happy gunmen.
The “liberation” of Tripoli was carried out by by “former” members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LFIG), who reportedly disbanded later. According to CNN, they had repented; Michel Chossudosvky terms it switching labels, former terrorists were no longer “terrorists” but “pro-democracy activists” (Global Research, August 28, 2011).
The commander of the assault on Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who had fought the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan — the fighters were then known as the Afghan mujahideen, funded by the CIA and Saudi Arabia, its leaders feted by then US president Ronald Reagan in the White House — when asked whether the militants planned to hand over control to the National Transitional Council, which had been recognised by Western governments , reportedly made “a gesture of dismissal without answering.”
After his appointment as US ambassador to Libya this May, Chris Stevens had said in a video released by the US State Department, ?I was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights.?
The Libyan people. No mention of “former” al-Qaeda affiliated brigades. No mention either, of NATO Special Forces, of US Navy Seals, British Special SAS Forces and French Legionnaires.
He’d added, ?Now, I’m excited to return to Libya [as the Ambassador] to continue the great work we?ve started, building a solid partnership between the United States and Libya to help you, the Libyan people, achieve your goals.?
After his death/murder, we now see the Libyan president say, “foreigners” were involved in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Suspects have been imprisoned; the Libyan authorities are sharing intelligence with American officials. He was silent however, about who were these foreigners, or where they had come from (NBC, September 15, 2012).
At first, the consulate attack was assumed to have spun out from protests by Libyans who were furious at the anti-Islam film, “Innocence of Muslims.” But this was soon discarded. US officials, quoted by news outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, Russia Today, and the Washington Post, said, they believed the attack was pre-meditated. Makes sense, for, as commentators point out, who brings along rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and heavy machine guns to a spontaneous protest about a YouTube video? The mortars, which were later fired at the secret safe house where the US embassy staff had been evacuated, were very accurate. “Too good for ordinary revolutionaries,” said Captain Fathi al-Obeidi, of the February 17 Brigade, who took Libyan troops and an eight-strong American rescue team from Tripoli, to the safe house, “It began to rain down on us, about six mortars fell directly on the path to the villa.” (Gregory Patin, Embassy attacks, protests: Are they really about a movie?, September 15, 2012).
But far more alarming questions seem to face the US administration: how did the better-than-ordinary revolutionaries know the address of the safe house? Well in advance too, it would seem. Had insider sources leaked this confidential information? It is a reminder of what are known as green on blue killings, as Afghan soldiers increasingly turn their guns on western ?forces, but, already, in Libya? It had taken the Afghans more than a decade, whereas, the Libyan “revolution” is merely a year old.
Despite all indications that the attack on the consulate was pre-meditated, acknowledged as well by the US government, the Obama administration has now reverted to the official story line, “the current global situation is all over a YouTube video.”
There is an added reason for insisting that it’s the video and nothing else, for as protests spread globally — with protestors having been killed to protect US embassies and diplomats, with attempts to storm other western embassies as well ?– it is increasingly clear that Muslim rage is fundamentally against US foreign policies. That, these protests have mushroomed into a “new wave of anti-Americanism” (Reuters).
This is vigorously being denied by the Obama administration, as is quite clear from ?White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s words, “This is a fairly volatile situation and it is in response not to United States policy, not to obviously the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video, a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.”
Much is being made of Google having turned down the request made by White House to pull down the anti-Islam film clip. Google has responded by saying it has restricted the clip in compliance with local laws, the video is being censored in India and Indonesia, blocked in Egypt and Libya, that it would not give in to “political pressure.” What is however being ignored by mainstream western media, is that clips which allegedly show the American Ambassador having met a fate similar to that of Gaddafi’s — sodomised, lynched and killed by an angry mob — are unavailable. One is met by the message, “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy against spam, scams and commercially deceptive content. Sorry about that.”
The video story must stick, because on it hinges continuing Western depictions of Muslims as being “irrational” and “fanatic,” which, are put into play to lessen, if not justify, feelings of revulsion and moral outrage at the senseless slaughter of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and so on. The video story is aided by preaching and hectoring by the likes of Ed Hussein, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, who informs us that “Heresy and blasphemy are essential parts of free and democratic societies” in an article headlined, “Arab Spring nations don’t yet grasp freedom of dissent” (CNN Special, September 14, 2012).
CNN has other talking point headlines as well, “Was the Arab Spring worth it?” — leading me to wonder whether this is indicative of a shift, over fears of the “new wave of anti-Americanism.”
To return to the official story about the Ambassador’s death, it has changed. Preliminary news reports had said that he had probably died when his car was attacked en route to the safe house. But we have later been informed that the Ambassador died of smoke inhalation, caused by firing. CNN tells us, his body was found in a suite at the consulate which was protected by a large door with steel bars, its windows too, were protected by steel bars. That, his body was discovered after looters broke into the room, that he was taken from the consulate to the Benghazi medical centre by locals, “unresponsive and covered in soot by the fire” (CNN, September 15, 2012). But the photo (see picture 2) widely available on the internet, published in some western dailies as well, show no signs of him being covered in soot. What really happened? Will the details be suppressed? To save the face of America’s political and military leadership? News reports say that ambassador Stevens will be cremated, will that be before, or after, a post-mortem? Surely necessary, because we cannot after all, treat an American ambassador’s death lightly. As mere “collateral damage.”
Corriere della Sera (English, Evening Courier), one of the oldest and most reputable Italian newspapers. Caption accompanying the photo, translated into English says, The staff at the US embassy in Benghazi tries to save Ambassador Chris Stevens after the attack by protestors against a film on Mohammed was considered blasphemous. Photographer unknown

The US has since dispatched a Marine Corps anti-terrorist security team to boost security in Libya, moved two Navy destroyers towards the Libyan coast. It has also deployed military teams to 17 or 18 locations in Muslim majority countries, ones that are of “strategic interest to Pentagon,” to respond to unrest.
While president Obama promised that the ambassador’s killers will be brought to “justice”, secretary of state Hillary Clinton seemed to moan, “Indeed, I asked myself, how could this happen, how could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”
Hopefully, she and other members of America’s ruling class will figure out the answers soon. Better late than never.
Published as, ” US AMBASSADOR TO LIBYA KILLED. Collateral Damage,” in New Age, Monday, September 17, 2012