Ms. Sheikh Hasina, Honorable Prime Minister
Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Prime Minister’s Office. Old Sangsad Bhaban
Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215, Bangladesh
My name is Raghu Rai. I have been honored by you in 2012 as friends of Bangladesh Liberation War who photographed the Bangladesh war for freedom by Mukti Bahini supported by your neighbors and friends to transform east Pakistan into an independent nation today known as Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country of poets, writers, musicians and some of them migrated to India during the partition. Our bond is deep not only culturally but spiritually as well.
Madam Prime minister, you are the daughter of great revolutionary Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who rose against the repressive and torturous regime of Pakistani generals—and in return the generals decided to teach Bangladeshis a lesson. Thus the nation rose against Pakistan under the leadership of Sheikh Sahib and this is how Bangladesh came into being. So let’s not teach our boys a lesson.
Hon’ble Madam, Shahidul Alam founder of DRIK and Pathshala has been a great admirer of Sheikh Sahib, and I have had the privilege of knowing him as a close friend for the last 3 decades. I have no doubt in my mind that Shahidul is one of those rare breeds committed to truth and honesty, and can die for his country. It seems last night Shahidul was picked up by 20-30 men from detective branch of police, and was tortured and couldn’t walk on his feet. My heart bleeds for that. Continue reading “Raghu Rai’s Open Letter to Sheikh Hasina”
Last time I met my old friend Gowher Rizvi at his office in December 2011, he was very upbeat and optimistic about the “impending” Teesta water sharing agreement with India. He seemed to have reposed absolute trust in what Manmohan Singh – a fellow Oxford alumnus – had promised him in this regard. Although I was still a bit skeptic about the deal, I brushed aside my skepticism momentarily, thinking the Oxford Old Boy camaraderie might have worked to the advantage of Bangladesh.
UNTIL 1971 Pakistan was made up of two parts: west and east. Both Muslim-dominated territories were born out of India’s bloody partition 24 years earlier, though they existed awkwardly 1,600km apart, divided by hostile Indian territory. Relations between the two halves were always poor. The west dominated: it had the capital, Islamabad, and greater political, economic and military clout. Its more warlike Pashtuns and prosperous Punjabis, among others, looked down on Bengali easterners as passive and backward.
The split into Pakistan and Bangladesh was perhaps inevitable. It began in late 1970, after Pakistan’s first national elections. To the shock of West Pakistanis, an easterner, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a sweeping victory, and was poised to lead the country. His Awami League wanted greater rights for Bengalis. But the army chiefs and politicians in Islamabad would not countenance his taking office. They arrested him and the army began repressing eastern protesters.
Bengalis flocked to join the rebel forces who were fighting for independence. West Pakistani soldiers stationed in the east, plus a few local supporters, began targeting students, writers, politicians; especially the Hindu minority. Soldiers massacred civilians, burned villages and sent millions fleeing to India. Eventually some 10m became refugees, mostly Hindus. At least 300,000 people were killed; some say the death toll was over 1m.
Seen from America, where Richard Nixon was president, the war was a domestic Pakistani affair. India’s leader, Indira Gandhi, claimed otherwise. She called the floods of refugees a humanitarian disaster that threatened regional stability. She wanted international action, demanding that America tell Pakistan’s leaders to stop the killing. Nixon, urged by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, refused.
In “The Blood Telegram” Gary Bass, a Princeton academic (who once wrote for The Economist), sets out to assess America’s handling of the war. He argues that the killings amounted to a genocide: Hindus, as a distinct minority, were chosen for annihilation and expulsion. He asks why Nixon continued actively to support the Pakistani leaders who were behind it.
At the behest of Mr Kissinger, Nixon sent military planes and other materiel to Pakistan, even though he knew this broke American law. He deployed an American naval task force to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India, which had begun helping rebels in East Pakistan. Most extreme, he secretly asked China to send troops to India’s borders. He did so accepting a risk of Soviet retaliation, even that nuclear bombs might be “lobbed” around in response.
Nixon and Mr Kissinger stood with Pakistan, even as they knew of the extent of the slaughter. Their own diplomats told them about it. The centrepiece of Mr Bass’s gripping and well-researched book is the story of how America’s most senior diplomat in East Pakistan, Archer Blood, the consul-general in Dhaka, sent regular, detailed and accurate reports of the bloodshed. Early on he stated that a “selective genocide” was under way.
Blood and his colleagues protested that America should not support Pakistan’s rulers. Then, 20 of them sent a dissenting telegram (the “Blood telegram” of the book’s title) condemning America’s policy. It was an extreme and idealistic step for a diplomat, whose career was soon cut short. Though the telegram did not change American policy, it rates as an historic document. Such open dissent is extremely rare.
Mr Bass does a good job of explaining Nixon’s wilful support of Pakistan. Using newly released recordings of White House conversations between the president and Mr Kissinger, he sets out with admirable clarity what else was at stake. In part it was personal. Nixon, a man of few friends, was notably fond of Pakistan’s military ruler, Yahya Khan, a gruff, dim-witted, whisky-drinking general. Nixon compared the Pakistani favourably to Abraham Lincoln. By contrast he despised India’s wheedling civilian politicians, reserving a particular dislike for Gandhi, whom in private he frequently called a “bitch” and “witch”.
More important, Pakistan was a loyal cold-war ally, whereas India was seen as leaning towards the Soviet Union. Crucially, Mr Kissinger early in 1971 was using Pakistan as an essential secret conduit to China. He flew via Islamabad to Beijing to arrange for Nixon to make his own trip to see Mao Zedong. Better relations with China would allow America to wind down the war in Vietnam.
Ultimately, Mr Kissinger did much to set America’s course. He argued that America should pay no heed to domestic horrors in Pakistan, saying “you can’t go to war over refugees”, and warned that India was a greater threat to international order. Indian “bastards”, he agreed with Nixon, needed a “mass famine” to cut them down to size.
Mr Bass depicts Mr Kissinger as increasingly erratic, perhaps overworked, as East Pakistan’s secession became inevitable. He is quoted calling the conflict “our Rhineland” (in reference to the start of the second world war) and warning that India would “rape Pakistan”.
Mr Kissinger adopts a magisterial tone in the one chapter he devoted to the India-Pakistan crisis in his 1979 work, “The White House Years”. He refused to speak to Mr Bass for this book, and glosses over the Blood telegram in his memoirs, never explaining why he ignored the entreaties of the diplomats on the ground. That is a pity, because America’s response to the war has reverberated over the years.
The 1971 war poisoned regional affairs for decades. It ended when India’s army intervened, having supported East Pakistan’s rebels for months, and crushed the Pakistani forces within days. Pakistan was humiliated, yet no Pakistani soldier has been held to account for the mass slaughter that provoked the war. Pakistanis by and large prefer not to discuss it. The war did convince them that India might next try to break up the remaining western rump of their country, perhaps by supporting Baluchi separatists on the border with Afghanistan. A sharp mutual suspicion still lingers between the neighbours, helping ensure that Pakistan’s army dominates—and damages—the country still.
Nor did the war do much for India. Eventually the refugees went home, but relations with Bangladesh soon soured. At home Gandhi became suddenly more popular. But she then descended into authoritarianism, even suspending democracy. Inside Bangladesh the war remains a live political issue as alleged collaborators in the conflict (all opposition leaders) are being tried by a flawed, local war-crimes tribunal. This week, one defendant was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court.
Could things have been different if America, having listened to Blood, had pressed Pakistan not to slaughter its own people in 1971? Mr Bass does not speculate directly. Yet if a peaceful secession of Bangladesh had been possible, many lives would have been saved and a source of deep division in a troubled region would have been removed.
Yesterday, I had ended with the words, “there is still hope.”
But, of course, hoping doesn’t mean that one daydreams, or fantasises. Or, becomes cynical when things don’t turn out the way one had wished.
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” — words attributed to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, imprisoned by Mussolini. To see the world as it really is, underpinned by the will that humans have the courage to change it. One thus needs to dispassionately examine what occurred later. But before doing so, let me turn to the cat- out-of-the-bag story.
The ‘minus two plan’ was officially confirmed by the World Bank South Asia vice-president Praful C. Patel. While visiting Dhaka, at the end of 2007, he said, “What [had] looked possible before, like the minus-two approach, does not seem possible today, because the two ladies have [a] very strong and powerful power base.” Continue reading “Part VI Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?”
We’d mourned deaths from road accidents at central Shaheed Minar earlier as well.
When we rallied in support of Viqarunnisa students protesting against school rape, we had risen to grieve for 39 people killed, including 38 schoolboys, in the Mirsarai road accident on July 11, four days ago.
Since then, road deaths, according to some, have risen and reached `epidemic’ proportions. The country’s roads are `death traps.’ `Mass killings’, `serial killings’ are how others describe it.
Public anger at spiralling road fatalities has been fuelled by the visible lack of regret and remorse by Abul Hossain, the communications minister, by the prime minister rushing to his defense, reiterating that no, the cabinet would not be reshuffled, `all the ministers are working hard to carry out their responsibilities’ (The Daily Star, August 26, 2011).
And, all this has taken place after August 13th, when Tareque Masud, internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Mishuk Munier, journalist and CEO of the private TV channel ATN News, and 3 others were killed in a road accident in Manikganj. Continue reading “Simmering discontent”
Apnader naamte hobe, he said, after I’d mentioned the personal exigencies which led to my two-week absence from these pages. He’s a good friend, a careful and discerning reader of what I write.
You [women] must enter the fray. He was shocked at the recent daylong country-wide shutdown called by the Islami Ain Bastobayon Committee (Committee for the Implementation of Islamic Law).?And equally shocked at the response, or lack of, by women’s organisations.
[But] I’m in the fray, I replied, chewing a morsel of chicken and rice. I was having lunch at New Age. As he nodded his assent somewhat distractedly, I debated whether I should remind him of the collection as well, which I had collated and translated several years ago, a task begun and accomplished when the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami led government was in power, when serial bomb blasts, blamed exclusively (the role of state intelligence agencies is still unclear) on Muslim radicals, killing dozens, maiming scores more, occurred over a period of several years, initially termed a “media creation” by the-then government.
The volume, Islami Chintar Punorpothon: Shomokalin Musolman Buddhijibider Shangram, 2006 (Reinterpreting Islam: The Struggles of Contemporary Muslim Intellectuals) consisted largely of interviews, some essays and public lectures of contemporary philosophers and intellectual/activists, nearly all of whom are believing and practicing Muslims.They debated issues and challenges facing them, ranging from imperialism to the notion of an Islamic state, modernity, terrorism, minority rights, the need to re-imagine the relationship between the creator and the created, (according to some) a need to re-imagine the creator Himself, the method of reading and interpreting the Quran, gender relations, hijab, polygamy, sexuality, homosexuality, rationality etc. etc. Despite differences among Islamicly oriented political parties and groups in Bangladesh, most vocal, and receiving the greatest media attention, were those who spoke of “capturing the state.” That Muslims elsewhere debated a large array of issues seriously and critically, was unknown to Bangla readers in print.? I had considered it urgent to broaden the intellectual space within which debates over Islam and what it meant to be a Muslim are conducted, and because, as I would quip to friends, if Islam is now imperialism’s battleground, surely, one must not make oneself absent from the field. Or we may end up lending our shoulders to imperial guns being fired in the cause of the war on terror.
Memories surfaced of my publisher’s apprehensions prior to the publication which fortunately came to nought. The moment passed. I didn’t mention it to my friend.
I had gone to New Age to tell Nurul Kabir, editor of this daily, that I had watched him on TV the night before, that his analysis of the politics of the Policy, and of the April 4 hartal, was most illuminating. He had pointed out that Islami Oikyo Jote leader Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini’s allegation?the Awami League-Jatiya Party led government had gone “against the Quran by adopting such a policy”?was false. That the government had back-pedalled, that the 1997 draft of the Women Development Policy proposed by the-then Awami League government had stipulated that women should receive “equal” shares, not half that received by her brother, whereas the Policy, updated and finally passed by the cabinet last month, had been revised. It now says that a woman should “exercise full control” over her earnings, inheritance, credit, land, and income derived from commerce. This particular phrasing, insisted Kabir, means that equal inheritance is no longer on the score-card.
And yet IOJ (actually, a faction, which also happens to be a component of the four-party opposition alliance) had opposed the Policy (in addition to the High Court’s ban on fatwas, and the National Education Policy) on the grounds that it gave women equal shares. Their banner reads, We reject inheritance law which changes Quranic devolution of shares (see photo). According to Islam, declared Amini, “a woman can never be equal to a man.” While Sheikh Hasina was correct in pointing out that there was “nothing in the women development policy that contradicted the Quran and Sunnah,” that Amini was “misleading” the people, (New Age, April 4, 2011), the prime minister, said Kabir, had been reticent about the details.
The silence of women’s organisations is deafening. It’s because of a combination of several factors, he’d said. Larger women’s organisations are allied to the Awami League. Their silence expresses their political subservience to the ruling party’s interests, at the cost of sacrificing women’s interests. In addition to this, the NGO-isation of women’s organisations in the 1980s has meant that women’s issues pursued are donor-driven and project-based. Funding is crucial, he said. Seeking funds is time-consuming.
It was a shame, insisted my friend and Kabir, over lunch. Why were women’s organisations not out in the streets protesting Amini’s fabrication? How could they not rise up in protest at the AL? government’s betrayal given that they had struggled for “equal shares” to inheritance for many years? Why did they not insist that equal shares be re-inserted into the Policy? By lending its tacit support to the hartal, the BNP too, they asserted, was a party to the betrayal, as were women’s organisations affiliated to the BNP. Khaleda Zia had cautioned the government to not attempt anything which would hurt the religious sentiments of the people. It could lead to chaos and anarchy, she said, while adding that the country had made significant progress in women’s development.
It could be argued, said Kabir on TV, that the government stood to benefit from the hartal. Having incurred the displeasure of western governments at its recent treatment of Grameen Bank’s Dr Yunus, “the blue-eyed boy of Washington,” the hartal against the government’s (purported?) position on equality for women would, in all likelihood, lend credence to Sheikh Hasina’s pronouncements that she was a bulwark against Islamic militancy. Unlike her political opponents, i.e., the BNP-Jamaat government, which had “turned the country into a haven for terrorists and militants” during its rule (2001-2006). It would be music to western ears, it would enable her to curry favour back with western rulers.
It could also be argued, said Kabir, that the government was fully aware of the benefits of the hartal. Is it not strange, he asked, that a Dhaka court which had issued summons’ and arrest warrants against Amini on March 31?in two cases, one for defamation (Amini had threatened to “pull down” the prime minister), the other for sedition (he had indirectly uttered a “death threat” against the prime minister)?soon retracted both orders? According to press reports, the chief metropolitan magistrate said, the magistrate had made a “mistake” because he was “new” to the job. The greenhorn was advised to lift both orders. He readily complied.
Being for, or against the Quran, is highly emotive. The bipartisan nature of political allegiances runs through the gamut of all institutions of state and society, from the administration to the judiciary, the army, state intelligence agencies, and onwards, to universities, schools and colleges, trade unions, business associations, neighbourhood clubs, and so on. I find both party parochialism, and unproblematic understandings of modernity, secularism and religiosity, deeply perturbing as they foreclose a deeper understanding of history, both colonial and post-colonial. Of historical processes that were accompanied by forces of coercion and compulsion as well as instilling desires, that have made us what we are, and what we aspire to be. And unless one understands one’s past, how can one dream and struggle for tangible futures?
It would be amiss of me if I were not to acknowledge that intolerance, at times, bordering on hysteria, which prevent us from conducting reasoned discussions, are partly due to the events of 1971 when Bengali collaborators had claimed to speak in the name of Islam, as had Pakistani rulers. To the events of 1975 and after, the killers of Sheikh Mujib had been rewarded, alleged war criminals had not only been politically reinstated, they had been installed as rulers, in 2001. These set of memories have been paralleled by bouts of amnesia among those who lay a monopolistic claim to 1971. Of forgetting that Sheikh Hasina had sought Golam Azam’s blessings after 1991 elections; that the Awami League had entered into a pre-electoral deal with Khelafat Majlish in 2006. The rest of it, in my opinion, is due to intellectual laziness.
It is this that prevents us from re-examining our history, that leads those who claim to be the thinking sections of society (as opposed to those whom they view as being the illiterate masses, who need to be led and guided) to nurture common-sensical assumptions. Ones that feed off the binary dichotomy of religion versus secularism. For instance, it is unproblematically assumed that British rule was progressive for women because it led to increased secularisation, whereas the truth of the matter is that the process of Islamisation in the Indian subcontinent was initiated by the British colonial state when it gradually applied the principles of Islamic law. This meant that Muslims either decided, or were compelled by the courts, to order their lives and relationships, in accordance with the principles of that part of the sharia which westerners call “family law” i.e., marriage, divorce, rules of inheritance etc.
Another common-sensical assumption, deeper to British rule=secular, one that prevents us from critically examining the present too in our search for gender equality, is that secularism is neutral, it is devoid of relations of power. More specifically, of gendered relations of power. But that is not the case, and it is these issues that I will delve into, next week. [concluding instalment next week] Published in New Age Monday April 11, 2011
A vicious cyclone had struck the night before. Dawn, stillness. A calm and eerie light. I tagged behind my older brothers as they ventured out, gazing in awe at a neighbouring house, its roof had flown off, while scenes of devastation lay around us with trees uprooted, branches severed from trunks, debris lying in the middle of the road. Fragments of a childhood memory.
As news of death and destruction poured into our home, so did groups of radio artists?singers, musicians?and many others, all working for the Chittagong radio station, like my father, a journalist, who worked in its news section.
By midday we were out in the streets, singers and musicians at the front, the rest behind, two rows of men, women and children, holding on to the corners and edges of a white billowing bedsheet. As the long procession wound down major roads, pedestrians turned around at the sound of singing, reaching for their pockets as we drew nearer. Women and girls peered at us, while boys were sent out, clutching notes, or a handful of coins (in those days, coins mattered). As the hours passed, the chador no longer remained taut; heavy with cash offerings, it sagged in the middle.
We trooped home. Instructed to separate coins from banknotes, we kids worked feverishly as my mother busied herself in rustling up some food for the sudden influx of guests. Neatly laid out piles of banknotes, tottering columns of coins. My father and his colleagues counted, double-checked. The money was sent off to aid cyclone victims. It was 1965. It was Chittagong. We belonged to Pakistan.
The central seat of power, Islamabad, was far away. It was (still) possible for state functionaries and artists to come together. To take to the streeets spontaneously, aroused by community feelings of helping people in distress. An event that was not orchestrated. No heads had rolled. Had cameras clicked? No, not that I remember.
Fast forward to now. Natural disasters. Large cheques are donated to the prime minister’s relief fund. Banks. Multinational mobile phone companies. Business associations. Civil society. NGOs. Smaller cheques too, a day’s salary of government employees, of private firms. An extended hand offers a cheque, as the other accepts, both faces turn toward the TV cameras, toward the photojournalists. The state-capital-media nexus, although riven by internal disagreements and rivalries, work collectively to manufacture national interests. A far cry from earlier times when broadcasting and telecasting space was controlled by state-owned Radio Bangladesh and Bangladesh Television, when 5-10 regular privately owned dailies, and a film industry, not known for signs of originality, was all that there was. Before things began changing in the 1990s.
Market reforms however, began earlier, Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and Hussain Mohammad Ershad (1981-1990) used them as instruments to build and maintain political coalitions, particularly with traders and industrialists. Economic liberalisation programmes, traded off for garnering the political support of business elites, did not, as Fahimul Quadir points out, contribute to the micromanagement of the economy, nor to the advancement of human development goals.?Instead, they allowed big business to emerge as a major player in national decision-making. Not unsurprisingly, contradictions emerged?it adversely affected the state’s ability to enforce contracts, to develop a mechanism for redistributing assets?but these were ignored by the military rulers as the issue of gaining legitimacy among civilian sectors was far more pressing.
Despite General Ershad being ousted from power in 1990, subsequent regimes, led by Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, treaded earlier paths, smoothed by undisclosed contributions to party coffers, far more important than improving the living standards of the majority. These patterns are similar to those in Philippines, president Marcos, US ally and long-time friend, was deposed in 1986 through a popular uprising, but despite his ouster, many, if not most, of the “fundamental relations of exploitation,” remained intact. Democracy was “nominally restored” while the masses continued to suffer, writes Jonathan Beller; prostituted Filipinas became overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), radicals continued to be murdered, giving lie to a particular fantasy about the importance of individuals (autocrats are deposed, but the system does not get dismantled).
Ceaseless political party bickering which has characterised politics in Bangladesh for the last two decades, has benefited media corporatisation’s ideology, “impartial” and “neutral” news journalism has been redefined as that which is independent of political party allegiances, distracting attention from the fact that corporate media works to further corporate interests, to create a consumer culture, to advance the interests of market forces (Fahmidul Huq). Not surprisingly, there have been other contradictions as well. As Zeenat Huda Wahid notes, Khaleda Zia’s new media policy in 1992 initiated satellite television, leading to scores of Indian channels being available to Bangladeshi viewers. Despite, Huda argues, the BNP government’s crafting of a religio-territorial identity, one that was portrayed as resistant to Indian domination. ?Or, as Meghna Guhathakurta writes (1997), Sonar Bangla, the rallying cry of the liberation struggle?evoking images of classlessness, prosperity, peaceful agrarian relations?was not only abandoned by the Awami League post-1971, it has become “fossilised.” Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001; 2008 onwards) has not veered from liberalisation policies initiated by previous governments, including those which are her sworn enemies, the BNP-Jamaat alliance that ruled the nation (2001-2007); the present government’s proclamation of Muktijuddher pokkher shokti is shorn of Shonar Bangla ideals, as fundamental relations of exploitation remain. Intact.
The culture industry’s victory lies in two things, “what it destroys as truth outside its sphere can be reproduced indefinitely within it as lies.” We can no longer simply talk of control, writes Sefik Seki Tatlic, we must talk of the nature of the interaction between one who is being controlled and the one who controls.?Of how the one that is “controlled” is asking for more control over him/herself while expecting to be compensated by a surplus of freedom to satisfy trivial needs and wishes. Of how the fulfillment of trivial needs is declared as freedom. Readers, remember, RC Cola, freedom of choice? Or, remember Grameen Phone’s current slogan, Stay Close, invoking family ideology (security, warmth, intimacy, support, romance) to further corporate profits (Stay Close so that we can fleece you?). Consumer freedom, Tatlic reminds us, implies as well the freedom to choose not to be engaged in any kind of socially sensible or politically articulated struggle. Very true in the case of Bangladesh, for one does not see media celebrities, singers, actors and actresses, writers, playwrights, intellectuals, advertising industry’s geniuses etc etc, those who froth at the mouth at the slightest mention of 1971, lend support to any of the pro-people struggles and movements current in Bangladesh, two of the foremost being the garments workers struggles for living wages and safe and secure workplaces, ?and, the Phulbari peoples struggle to not be uprooted from their land and livelihood, to resist the impoverishment which multinationals, and the government (both present and past) have destined for them.?Life is so much more comfortable for the ruling class and its functionaries when Muktijuddho gets divested of Shonar Bangla ideals, when fundamental relations of exploitation can, and do, remain intact.
The category of the “spectacle” is the medialogical paradigm, says Beller, as the accumulation of capital becomes an image (think of all the commodities advertised), and again, as “the diplomatic presentation of hierarchical society to itself.” The spectacle is not merely a relation, but a relation of production for it produces consciousness. We must put language on images, he writes. Excited by Beller’s theory, I return to YouTube to watch Shahrukh Khan’s performance in Dhaka (I missed when it was shown live on TV), where Dhaka crowds, who had paid exorbitant amounts to purchase tickets, were said to have been bowled-over by the mega-star’s performance.?A few voices have expressed their disgust at the “vulgarism,” ?at the “obscenity,” at his cultural arrogance, his condescending attitude toward the Bangladeshi audience, at his oft-repeated use of a “slang” word (not written by those who felt offended, I had to go to great trouble to discover it). Shala! Now, shala is a kinship term, used by the husband to indicate his wife’s brother. Gentrification has led to `shaylok‘ being preferred over shala, and I have yet to find a Bengali able to explain why it offends. The answer lies in its underlying message, embedded in patriarchal power relations, deeply sexualised, “I f..k your sister.”
The diplomatic presentation of hierarchical relations between India and Bangladesh as the BSF, the Indian border forces, kill Bangladeshis randomly, systematically? The King Khan tamasha made us forget the truth that lies outside the sphere crafted by the culture industries. Shala is a patriarchal lie, it must be dismantled. Published in New Age, Monday February 21, 2011
By Rahnuma Ahmed Honouring Begum Rokeya, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina at Begum Rokeya Padak 2010 programme, Osmani Memorial Auditorium, Dhaka, December 9 2010. Photo: Yasin Kabir joy/focusbangla. crop: Mir Ashfaquzzaman
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, currently the most powerful woman in Bangladesh?recently rated the sixth most powerful woman in Asia, included in Forbes’ annual list of the politically most powerful hundred women in the world ? while awarding the prestigious Rokeya Padak 2010, to give public recognition to women who have made outstanding contributions in securing women’s rights, spoke with a `man’ tongue.
In other words, she blamed women. It was vintage patriarchy, albeit, suitably modified to a modern-day context.
While prime ministerial speeches on such occasions are generally devoted to self-congratulatory rhetoric and platitudes, Sheikh Hasina’s speech seems to have been different. I glean this from news reports.
She spoke at length about stalking and other forms of sexual harassment which have escalated to outrageous levels over the last year. Which target girls and young women, in particular. Students in particular, girls who are studying in the nation’s schools, colleges, universities and madrasas.
But given the figures released by women and human rights organisations on the International Day against the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25), notably the worst in 3 years, further, the numbers reported in each category are higher than that for the whole of last year,
489 women were raped
53 women and 23 girls were killed, after being raped
4 girls committed suicide, after being raped
71 had acid thrown on them
342 were subjected to dowry-related violence
210 women and 7 girls were killed
102 women were tortured
21 women committed suicide, after being tortured
given that these figures have since increased, what could be more shocking for women?and for men too, since 9 have been killed while trying to protect girls against stalking and assaults?than to listen to the PM exhort girls and women to “face” stalkers bravely. To “show courage.” Why “choose” suicide, something as extreme as that? There is “no reason,” she said. Learn self-defence instead. Wear “modest” clothes. The last piece of advice was delivered with a personal touch, “I never encountered any obstacles.” Guardians, she stressed, should teach their children religious morals and cultural values.
The prime minister, I hasten to add, spoke of other things as well. Of policies and programmes undertaken by her government which benefit women: extending maternity leave to six months. Making it easier for a widowed woman to gain access to her husband’s pension. Initiating the payment of pensions to widower-husbands married to government employees, so as not to discriminate against men. Promising to reactivate the Women Development Policy, a central demand of the women’s movement for many years.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with some of her messages. Urging girls not to be frightened. Not to think of themselves as victims. To fight back and resist. To remind us that rights must be struggled for, that they are never served on a silver platter. That enacting laws is never enough. That public awareness is needed.
Of course, public awareness is needed. What Nashfia Akhand Pinky?a 13 year-old student of class IX who was incessantly stalked by her 22 year-old male neighbor and some of his friends, who persisted with “ribald comments, smutty jokes, coarse laughter, sly whistles and even indecent exposure”?wrote in her suicide note is a severe indictment of those members of the public who were present but had not lifted a finger, “When [my tormentor] pulled my scarf and harassed me physically in front of the house [when he slapped me], onlookers at the scene laughed. Nobody protested” (BBC News).
But manonio prime minister, when girls (and their families) do “show courage,” do not “choose” suicide, “face” the situation bravely, what can, and has, happened? Ten Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) activists of a group of sixteen, allegedly gang-raped a class VII student in Pakhimara (Patuakhali) in September last year. Her relatives rushed to the scene with police officials, two of the culprits were arrested from the scene of the crime. What happened next? Were the rest of the offenders arrested? Was the case investigated? Were they tried? No. The two caught were freed, a farcical village arbitration attended by local-level Awami League influentials was held, all 16 were fined Tk 10,000 each and 100 whippings. The AL upazila Unit secretary denied allegations of rape, dubbing them (mere) “spoiled brats.” He asked the girl and her father to affix their signature to 3 blank sheets of paper, he told them to not seek justice elsewhere. The victim’s father `chose’ not to file a case, the police didn’t proceed any further.
Did high level Awami League leaders `show courage’ by taking up the matter? Did the party institute an internal inquiry, castigate local-level AL leaders, publicly extend all possible support to the victim’s family? Did the government instruct the police to proceed with a criminal investigation, did it insist that charges of rape should be brought, that those who attempted to hush up the matter should also be tried? For obstructing justice? No. It `chose’ to look the other way, to pretend nothing had happened?not only in the Pakhimara incident but in scores of others?until girls were assaulted at the Pohela Boishakh concert on Dhaka University campus this year.
The denial that had prevailed had become untenable by then, as sexual assaults and violence had not only increased but in many cases, the perpetrators were reportedly leaders and cadres of the ruling party’s student (BCL) and youth (Jubo League) organisations. But a culture of impunity had also set in, which was ideologically furthered by the `No to Eve Teasing’ campaign, launched by Dhaka University Rover Scouts in April. Inaugurated by the DU vice-chancellor, the campaign and its vocabulary, was almost immediately picked up by the education minister, swiftly followed by governmental departments, the AL propaganda machine, several women’s organisations, significant sections of the media, and the culture industry.
The seriousness of sexual offences not only became diluted, they became de-criminalised, as the elected government, in utter contempt of last year’s High Court ruling on sexual harassment, constructed victims as `Eve,’ as ones who tempt men, who make them wayward. The attitude of government policy-makers was best expressed in the name given to one of the drives to catch stalkers and assaulters: Operation Romeo Hunt.
Is it therefore surprising that the prime minister now blames women? That she says, so-called ultra-modern women “don’t bother to keep their modesty,” that they wear “too small clothes”? Sheikh Hasina would be well-advised to desist from blaming women, if for no other reason than to maintain a distance from the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami’s line of reasoning on the same subject. Before being chucked into jail (presumably to be tried soon on charges of war crimes in 1971), he too, had blamed women. At a discussion on so-called `eve-teasing,’ he had said, it happens because women go out at night (Daily Star).
Blaming women, one would have hoped would be avoided by those who identify themselves as muktijuddher pokkher shokti. Because it serves to demoralise resistance. It serves to weaken arguments for seeking justice for sexual crimes committed against women, whether in 1971, or at present.
And while I am all for women learning self-defence techniques, martial arts, kung-fu, judo, karate, the whole lot, the prime minister seems to imply that the transformation of Bangladeshi girls into `tough, butt-kicking chicks’ (as in western movies) will solve the problem of stalking, harassment and rape?of all forms of sexual violence directed against girls and women. No, it won’t. Their safety and security cannot be ensured by drawing on myths of `girl power’ created and re-created by the Hollywood film industry. To attempt to do so, is a denial of culpability and complicity.
According to news reports, Sheikh Hasina quoted this line from Begum Rokeya, “Whenever any sister has tried to raise her head she has been suppressed, either through invoking religion, or through the shastra,” but to assume that it is equally true for present-day Bangladesh, would, I think, be somewhat misleading. The incidences of assault and violence that have been reported in the newspapers?which make us angry, and grieve, and resist? have not been conducted by what are generally categorised as `religious forces.’ Newspaper reports at least, do not indicate this. Unless we can specify the violence that women face under particular regimes, we will never be able to resist it. Neither intellectually. Nor creatively. Nor collectively.
There are other issues that need to be addressed. The sexualisation of women in contemporary western societies?some have termed it hyper-sexualisation?has become a matter of deep concern for many feminists. Popular culture has witnessed a highly visible shift, says Rosalind Gill, new femininities have been constructed which speak of a shift from sexual objectification of women to sexual subjectification, it capitalises on the notion of the sexually autonomous young woman. This, in the neo-liberal era, places psychological demands on young women to make life knowable and meaningful through a narrative of free choice and radical autonomy, regardless of actual, real constraints. Others have noted how soft pornography has gone mainstream in western cultures, how it pervades popular culture. Closer to home, Bollywood’s going `international’ has meant the adoption of western traits, such as songs and dances infused with hip-hop elements, leading to `sexier,’ more complicated choreography, slimmer female bodies wearing skimpier outfits, expressing, in overall terms, a “heightened sexuality.” These sexualised images travel across cultural and geo-political borders via satellites and internet in the present globalised world; they are reinforced in complex ways through the culture industry in Bangladesh (advertising, TV plays), and through the officially unacknowledged local pornography industry.
The question that we must urgently face is this: are ordinary girls, from common, struggling backgrounds?whose physical presence in public space is real (non-virtual) unlike that of their rich counterparts?having to bear the brunt of other women’s fantasies of sexual autonomy? Published in New Age, Monday December 13 2010
“…my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite.?I have to break that terrible chain.”
(Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirit, 1982).
But to break the “terrible chain” of vengeance, our leaders would have to recognise it as such. As terrible.
Our leaders would have to learn to see it not through the eyes of their political sycophants? ranging from lawyers to writers, journalists, academics, bureaucrats etc., etc.?but through the eyes of the public, who, by the way, are not fooled.
I watched news on a private TV channel the night of the hartal, called by the BNP the day after Khaleda Zia had been evicted from her Dhaka Cantonment house on 13 November. The news reporter asked different people, some waiting at Dhaka city bus stands, with children, bags and baggage ready to go home for Eid, others standing in long queues at ticket counters in Kamalapur rail station, several others searching in vain for motorised transport, may be to do last-minute Eid shopping. I watched all those interviewed, except one, unequivocally blame both parties for the hartal. They blamed both sides, not only the BNP, as the government seemed to have hoped.
The government should not have evicted her, they said. The BNP should not have responded by calling a nation-wide hartal, they added. A common refrain seemed to be, they couldn’t care less about us.
Top legal experts, those not belonging to the ruling party’s enchanted circle of lawyers, have said, the government should have waited for the Supreme Court ruling. Eminent jurist M Zahir has said, since the Supreme Court had fixed November 29 for hearing Khaleda Zia’s leave to appeal petition, the government should have waited for the court’s decision. It should not have acted hastily. While jurist Shahdeen Malik clarified the issue further, if there is no pressing need to implement the earlier judgment, it is customary to wait for the court’s verdict once an appeal has been filed. The purpose of the High Court verdict?that Khaleda Zia should vacate her house in 30 days?was not to lead to “chaos and instability” (Daily Star, November 14 2010).
The government does not seem to have cared about its international bhabmurti (image) either, a point that it invariably raises, like all other governments, to discredit political dissent. The BBC spoke of popular concerns that the eviction may revive “bitter rivalry” between the two women leaders known as “battling begums” (November 13). While The Economist headlined it’s piece, `Bangladesh. Politics of hate. An ancient vendetta continues to eat away at public life’ (18 November 2010). Despite a huge majority in parliament, the AL is `obsessed’ with the BNP, it is “stuck in a divisive politics based on personal grievances that go back nearly four decades.” It added, “Shrewdly Sheikh Hasina has allocated the vast plot surrounding Mrs Zia?s home for housing for the families of 57 military officers killed in a mutiny early last year, soon after the AL swept to power.”
Why should Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League always have to be broad-minded? Does not Sheikh Hasina too, have feelings and emotions like Khaleda Zia? Does only the BNP have a monopoly on wreaking vengeance? writes journalist Bibhuranjan Sarkar (`Khaleda Zia dekhaben shongkirnota ar Hasina dekhaben udarota!’)?while London-based columnist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury seems more cautious as he warns the AL not to tread in the former BNP government’s path of deviancy. Restoring Bangabandhu’s image as the father of the nation and undoing distortions made to the nation’s independence history is needed, not drilling holes into Ziaur Rahman’s murals at Bangabandhu stadium in the middle of the night (`BNPr durbrittoponar onukoron dara deenbodoler protisruti shombhob noy’)
Newspaper reports indicate that the BNP leadership plans to launch a tougher anti-government movement after Eid, there is also talk of the possibility that BNP parliamentarians’ may tender their resignation en masse. The Awami League government seems to have finally succeeded in maneuvering its rival party into a tight corner, into launching a movement (merely) for recovering its leader’s house, a movement that renders all other issues, national issues, subsidiary. But the mirror image of this, of course, is that it has maneuvered itself into a tighter corner with its inability to deliver anything else to the nation. Control escalating food prices. Ensure gas and electricity supply. Decent wages for garment workers. Reign in the leaders and members of its student and youth organisations who seem to be exclusively pre-occupied with extortion, tender manipulation, sexual harassment, factional infighting and vandalising examination centres for recruitment to public posts. A deteriorating law and order situation which has given rise to acts of public vigilante-ism. Restoring the civil administration’s confidence after the Pabna debacle. Put an end to extra-judicial killings etc. etc.
Anything else but bitter rivalry. The politics of hate. Ancient vendetta. Divisive politics. Shrewdness.
Was evicting Khaleda Zia from her home a turning point in national politics, leaving the public in no doubt that times, unfortunately, have not changed? Does the future signal an inexorable downhill-all-the-way slide in the AL government’s popularity? As did the BNP-Jamaat government’s popularity after the August 202004 grenade attacks on the AL rally, aimed at eliminating the top AL leadership including Sheikh Hasina? Or, the revulsion felt by any decent person towards Khaleda Zia’s macabre delight in celebrating her fabricated birthday each August 15th, the day Sheikh Mujib was assassinated alongwith nearly all family members.
There seemed to be a perceptible change in public mood on hartal day. `Shala public ke bojha daey’ is a popular saying in Bangladesh dating back to the British colonial era, and shala public seemed not to be taken in by the government’s rhetoric about the urgency of eviction in order to uphold the rule of law. Shala public seemed to know fully that the eviction does not serve to better either the public’s present, or, its future. That it is part of the same inexorable rite of vengeance.
Khaleda Zia insists that she was forcibly evicted from her home, that her bedroom door was broken down, that she was forced to leave in the clothes she was wearing, that she was subjected to verbal abuse, that the law-enforcers dared to utter words to the effect that if she did not leave willingly, she would be carried out physically. An ISPR (Inter Service Public Relations) press release has alleged that her account was a blatant lie, that it was false and motivated. That she was abusive, calling the armed forces personnel “ungrateful dogs” and the “nation’s enemy.”
There are no independent accounts of what occurred on the day the eviction took place as journalists (alongwith her lawyers) were not allowed to enter the cantonment. However, members of the media were taken on a guided tour of her house the next day, when the premises should actually have been, or remained, sealed.
What concerns me is how Khaleda Zia’s persona has been constructed through the ISPR’s news release, statements made by a government minister, and other high-ranking AL leaders. The ISPR press release says, `she was not up by 9:30,’ `later at 11:00 a.m., she came to know that the authorities had come to ask her to vacate the house,’ `she started getting ready casually and spent two hours for makeup and other related activities’ implying that she is indolent, has no clue of what goes on inside her house, is frivolous and vain. Shamsul Hoque, state minister for home affairs, replying to questions raised by the media said, `if she was really dragged out of the house, why was her sari not ruffled up and her lipstick not messed up?’ implying that she was a blatant liar. What Khaleda Zia chooses to wear and how she dresses up is not the issue, or at least it is not my issue, what concerns me is that the “bitter rivalry” seems to extend to personal looks, and appearance. But why? Does it create psychological insecurities? And of course, one can hardly fail to notice the symbolic violence behind the state minister’s mention of ruffled up sari, messed up lipstick. Official discourses that accompany the eviction beg the question, was the illegality of the allotment at stake? At all?
During the guided tour of her house, an army officer reportedly requested a journalist to open a drawer of her bedside table in her bedroom, leading to the discovery of pornographic material. What does this indicate? That the ruling party’s `obsession’ with Khaleda Zia is a sexual obsession (since it extends to sexualising her), that army officers too, are presumably involved in this, and that all this can occur during the reign of a woman prime minister? Intelligence agencies are widely believed to have planted incriminating material during house searches, most recently, this occurred during the military-installed caretaker government’s rule (2007-2009). Is this what took place after Khaleda Zia was evicted? One of the complaints made against the former prime minister is that living in the cantonment has an adverse political effect on the army, that the national army should be kept apart from politics, so that civilian, political rule reigns supreme. Does it?
In The House of the Spirits Alba’s struggle was not against the military regime, but against her initial desire for vengeance after having been raped, tortured and imprisoned in a concentration camp. By beginning to question her hatred, she was able to rise above the inexorable rite of vengeance.
Our leaders too, need to break the terrible chain of vengeance. We have to compel them to do so. Through exposing both acts of state terror and thick walls of sycophancy. Through resisting leadership cults, whether governmental, or oppositional. Through forcing them to serve the public’s interests, not their personal enmities and hatreds.
Vengeance is best left to the gods, not mere mortals. Published in New Age, 22 November 2010