LOOKING at this photograph, one of the few in our library where the photographer is unknown, I realise how times have changed. This is the undisputed leader of a country with his arms across the shoulder of a newspaper photographer not known for being affiliated to his party.
No security guards, no party goons, no chamchas. Both men are at ease with the situation. The smiles, the casual gait, Rashid Bhai with his camera dangling, a single prime lens. Not even a camera bag (and this was the time of film when you only had 36 exposures). How times have changed. Sure, we live in a more security conscious world, but the distance between the leaders of today, and the people, isn’t simply about changed situations, it is about changed attitudes. Today the proximity between leaders and the people surrounding them has much more to do with business and benefits, than with humility and largesse. There was much more give and much less take.
Rashid Bhai was doing poorly and I was keen that the incredible history this talented photographer had documented over the years should not be lost. Initially we commissioned Momena Jalil and Moinul Hassan Tapu to get the information associated with the photographs, mostly kept in a large plastic bag in Rashid Bhai’s house. Tapu sat at Rashid Bhai’s bedside and meticulously wrote down what he could salvage from the photographer’s fading memory. Rashid Bhai was slipping away, and rather than tax him further with what was for him becoming a laborious task, we decided to scan the key photographs, project them and have him talk over them.
Even with this failing health, Rashid Bhai was still the master storyteller. His ready wit, candour and inimitable charm surfaced throughout the ‘interview’. One of the stories he said that day said a lot about the friendship that these two men shared.
It was the wedding of Sheikh Kamal (Bangabandhu’s son). Rashid Bhai was going about doing his paparazzi stuff. Like any other mother at her son’s wedding day, Begum Mujib was trying to bring some sort of order into the chaos. The paparazzi got in the way and the mother told him off. This was when the Bangali trait of Rashid Bhai surfaced. He was miffed, and decided he would not join the wedding dinner. Word got to Bangabandhu and he came to appease him, but the photographer would not relent. He was hurt and that was that. It was pure obhiman, a Bangla word difficult to translate. A hurt that only someone you are especially close to can cause. This had nothing to do with the status of a head of state, or his wife, or a photographer going about his job. It was maan/obhiman and all about relationships.
No less a Bangali Mujib responded: tahole ami o khabo na. tui ki chaish amar cheler biyete ami na khai? OK, so I too won’t eat. Is that what you want, that I not eat at my son’s wedding? Rashid Bhai relented. Food was brought. The two men sat side by side and ate. The use of the word ‘tui’ which Mujib often used, is one of extreme familiarity with multiple connotations. It can denote status, hierarchy and familiarity, and shifts with situations. Mujib was famous for the way he used it. Seamlessly switching between tui, tumi and apni as needed, and with marvellous ease.
It was this trait of the man that we have forgotten. Mujib was a great leader and a great politician. Like many revolutionaries who became statesmen, he too made mistakes. Some significant. In the end, he was a man, with human triumphs and failings. In our polarized political environment, we have either deified or demonised the leader and the man has never been able to surface. His humility, his closeness with the people, his ability to be ordinary, was perhaps his greatest strength. A strength we have not recognised and certainly not emulated.
I have noticed this in other great leaders. Nelson Mandela had once changed the date of a photo shoot, because I had not been able to arrive in time to Johannesburg. It was a long trip from Mexico City and on the 8th of July 2009, when I was meant to have been at his home in Jo’burg, I was still stuck in Dubai. Photographer friends have told me of how he cut short his speech, so the photographers standing in the rain could get to dry shelter. Stories of Mujib, taking time off from important meetings because a child wanted to meet him, is legendary. In the complex political quagmires they operated in, these great men have sometimes stumbled. We need to recognise the slips, analyse the reasons and learn from the mistakes, so they are never repeated. In the end it is their humanity that will surface. That remains their endearing trait.
The statesman and the photographer were both at the pinnacle of their craft. They were also great friends and fine human beings, each having an abiding respect for the other. The latter trait we seem to have forgotten.
Shahidul Alam is a photographer and social activist. He is the founder of Drik.
A self-taught photographer with a strong sense of humour Rashid Talukder received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chobi Mela international photography festival in Dhaka, in 2006. His images of the war of liberation of Bangladesh and the political events leading up to it, are the most comprehensive visual documentation of Bangladesh’s political history on record. Rashid Talukder handed over his entire collection of negatives to the Drik Picture Library in Dhaka before he passed away.
With support from Drik’s long standing partner, the Prince Claus Fund Drik has been scanning the Talukder archives of over 165,000 original negatives. The archives contain rare images, many of them never previously seen. These include major political events, everyday life and photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, whom Talukder was especially close to. The photographs show Mujib, not only as a statesman, but also as someone close to his people. There are also private and intimate moments which give insights not only to the public figure, but also to the individual.
While Talukder is virtually unknown outside of Bangladesh, he was one of the foremost chroniclers of the struggle for independence, photographing its origins in the language movement of the 1950s and continuing through the war’s aftermath.
Now hailed as a founding father of Bangladeshi photojournalism, Mr. Talukder made some of the most important images of the war, which by some estimates claimed one million lives and turned 10 million of his countrymen into refugees. He also documented everyday life in Bangladesh during his 46-year career, during which he worked for the newspapers The Daily Sangbad and The Daily Ittefaq. Through an initiative of the new mayor of Dhaka North Annisul Huq, and his council members, a massive outdoor exhibition has been arranged at the iconic parliament building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis Kahn, based largely on the Drik archives. Special access has also been arranged for the general public where even rickshas will be allowed into the parliament complex.
Commemorating the 40th death anniversary of the father of the nation, this provides a rare opportunity for visitors not only to see these previously unseen photographs, but also visit this landmark building, considered one of the architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.
The honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, will inaugurate the exhibition today the 13th August 2015 at 5:00 pm.
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.
This is an amazing book because although it is the tale of the most successful Bengali politician of all times, it is one of the simplest stories told. The lack of pretension and straightforwardness of the narrative is humbling.?It is not the ?great leader? who is speaking in this book but the ?ordinary person? who is offering his version of history, both personal and political. One is thankful that he wrote it long before history itself crowded him so overwhelmingly after independence. In that narrow space that he occupied after 1971 this book couldn?t have been written. At so many levels the book introduces the man as never done before, turning the public persona into a real human being. This Mujib is an unknown Bangladeshi who through this book becomes someone we would know very well. Continue reading “The autobiography of an unknown Bangladeshi”
On 13 June 1971, an article in the UK’s Sunday Times exposed the brutality of Pakistan’s suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising. It forced the reporter’s family into hiding and changed history.
Abdul Bari had run out of luck. Like thousands of other people in East Bengal, he had made the mistake – the fatal mistake – of running within sight of a Pakistani patrol. He was 24 years old, a slight man surrounded by soldiers. He was trembling because he was about to be shot.
So starts one of the most influential pieces of South Asian journalism of the past half century.
Written by Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani reporter, and printed in the UK’s Sunday Times, it exposed for the first time the scale of the Pakistan army’s brutal campaign to suppress its breakaway eastern province in 1971.
Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed, but certainly a huge number of people lost their lives. Independent researchers think that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. The Bangladesh government puts the figure at three million. Continue reading “Bangladesh war: The article that changed history”
For the past few months, I have been preparing for an almost meaningless exam, one which graduate students in the US have to take, called ?comps? (short for comprehensive/PhD candidacy exam). During moments of sarcasm, we also call it the intellectual boot camp. While preparing for the exams, I have created a bubble around me, a self-imposed isolation, as if the Atlantic Ocean between me and Dhaka is not vast enough. Inside this carefully constructed bubble, I allow myself to read Bangladeshi newspapers or reply to emails only during periods of protracted procrastination. Friends? requests to read their pieces pile up. The news of a launch capsizing on the eve of Eid-ul-Azha, news headlines of RMG workers? awful plight remotely catches my eyes ? shamefully so. I rapidly read emails, I quick-read news from home and elsewhere, whether good or bad, I don?t have moments to react and reflect. It is in this privileged insulated life of mine, that I get an email from Rahnuma that Jashim Uddin Manik, the ?alleged? rapist, has died of cardiac arrest in Italy.
In the next few days, I get many emails, all from old friends from the anti-rape movement. In 1998 the students of Jahangirnagar University took to the streets for two months protesting against campus rape, and demanding punishment of the rapists, many of whom were Bangladesh Chhatra League activists. These emails bore witness to those nights when we sat in front of the university?s administrative building shouting, ?Amar boner apoman shojjho kora hobe na, dhorshonkari jei hok bichar take petei hobe? (We will not tolerate our sister?s dishonor, the rapist must be punished, whoever he may be). I would not read the letter but only its subject heading, and flag it to read later. An email from Jashim Uddin Manik?s friend incidentally landed in my mail box, forwarded by a friend. It expressed shock and grief at the untimely death of a close friend. It contained routine details which follow such news. Jashim Uddin Manik died in Padova, Milano at around 10:30pm local time (which I guess, on the basis of email exchanges, would be January 5). His body lies in a morgue while his Italian friends are making arrangements to send his body back to Bangladesh. Manik?s wife took the news very badly, she?s still not herself. In the email, Manik?s friend writes how hard it is for him to stop his tears, he urges everyone (the recipients of his email) to pray for the departed soul. In a way, there?s nothing striking about this email. A grief-stricken friend is breaking to others the news of the death of a close friend. Yet, the ordinariness of the news sends a chill down my spine.
In 1998, during the anti-rape movement in Jahangirnagar University, Manik had been identified by the disciplinary committee (fact-finding committee) as having been one of the rapists. We knew of him as the Chhatra League cadre who was said to have distributed sweets to ?celebrate? his 100th rape. I re-read the last line of his friend?s email ? please pray for the departed soul. I stumble at each word, did the man who committed many rapes, if not a hundred, one who had the heart to celebrate it, have a soul? But it?s for a few seconds only, and I close my email window.
I try to thicken the bubble around me. I must pass this exam.
My indifference towards Manik?s death makes me start thinking about death. Any news of death is supposedly saddening. But here I am, sitting in front of my laptop, recollecting the details of his sexual offences, and flinching. His crime had been proven in front of the university administration. He had been punished for what they had termed ?misconduct?; his studentship had been cancelled. However, no legal case had been filed against him. I remembered those days when many of us, those for whom the anti-rape movement in Jahangirnagar University had been a political turning point, had shared hours of rage as we had read news of Manik fleeing/flying to Italy. In those shared moments of rage and despair, we had learned to recognise the gendered nature of the university, and of our legal system. Since the movement ended, in the decade that has gone, the rage which we had felt has presumably turned into indifference.
I mean no disrespect toward his grieving family and friends. I am sure it is an irreplaceable loss for them. His death matters to me only in the larger historical context of Bangladesh. What does this particular fate of the alleged serial rapist tells us about the legal system? How does it write the history of violence against woman? If I remember correctly, many national dailies printed headlines during the movement that the incidents of rape on Jahangirnagar University campus are for us a matter of ?national shame? (jatir kolonko). I cannot help but wonder what is the state of national shame when known rapists are never brought to justice? When the sexual harassment policy on Jahangirnagar University campus still remains not enacted, officially?
The clock ticks away? my exam is only a few months away. I try harder to thicken the bubble. I succeed but only for two and a half weeks.
On January 28, the convicted murderers of Bangabandhu, five former army men, were hanged at Dhaka Central Jail, after midnight. They were proven guilty of killing the country?s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and all but two members of his family, on August 15, 1975. And yet again, emails overflowed my mailbox. A friend called a number of times, finally, leaving a Facebook message: ?I see that they executed Sheikh Mujib?s killers. It must be a good thing? It was weird going to his house and seeing the blood stains and thinking they were still about.?
Her question leaves me perplexed. More than a week after the event, I visit the online archives of daily newspapers to retrieve the issue of January 28. I watch ATN news clips posted on the Daily Star website. Most of the reports try to walk us through the execution night, covering each moment of waiting at the jail gate between 11:00pm to 3:00am. As I read along, I feel uneasy at news of the celebratory chants, and the flashing of V-signs. Members of the public had gathered at the jail gate, they had chanted slogans as the serial executions had been completed. I think, what would have been an acceptable response to the execution of the death penalty of Sheikh Mujib?s killers? Amnesty International has condemned the executions for being ?hasty? while a European Union delegation to Bangladesh has found the trial ?respectable? (New Age, January 29), but it added a twist. The EU statement said, it was, in principle, opposed ?to all death penalty in all cases and all circumstances? (New Age, January 29). Their principled opposition to death penalty, interestingly enough, excludes cases like Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali. In the final months and days of this trial, a debate on death penalty had surfaced, but I don?t want to engage with that debate today.
Colonel Jamil?s widowed wife?s narrative of August 15 reminded me that at issue was not only the healing of the surviving daughters of Bangabandhu, but that there are others too, who had faced similar losses, had equally waited for the execution (Daily Star, November 19, 2009). For a split second, I thought about the emotional wound and the healing of the family members of Siraj Sikdar. Is it time to talk of other extrajudicial killings? To talk about Cholesh Richil? But, maybe, I am moving too fast, in both directions, past and future. Let me dwell on the present ? on the night of the execution, the chants and the flashing of V-signs.
I go to blogs which I have not dared to visit the last couple of weeks or more, may be months. Activist bloggers and Facebook friends express similar discomfort at the celebration, the flashing of V-signs. Involved debates trace the missing pieces to reconstruct the political context which had led to the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. A friend who had gone to the jail gate had posted a video clip on Facebook. I watch it a few times to see what people had chanted ? ?ajker ai dine mujib tomay mone pore? (On this day, today, we are thinking of you Mujib). A comment on the video-post caught my eyes, ?Shouldn?t Henry Kissinger have been somewhere in there?? Implicit in this question is the alleged ?foreign involvement? in the coup. I remember reading in Willem Van Schendel?s History of Bangladesh (2009) that ?by the spring of 1975 the Indians knew about the possible coup and warned Mujib about it? (p 182). I believe, by ?Indians?, he had meant the Indian intelligence, the government. The fact that a neighbouring state knew suggests that the coup of 1975 had involved far more political stakeholders than those who had been convicted, and hanged. The execution of Mujib?s killers may have healed the trauma of his family and followers but the ?national wound? is far from being healed. Imperial links with the assassination of Sheikh Mujib remains undisclosed. It remains outside the circle of our political concerns.
We have been witnesses to two kinds of death, one was natural, the other unnatural. The wounds to the nation in both cases remain open. Unattended.
Saydia Gulrukh is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), USA and a faculty member of Pathshala, The South Asian Media Academy Published in New Age February 11, 2010