Kalpana's Warriors

Remarkable: Noam Chomsky

Absolutely stunning: Jess Worth. New Internationalist Magazine (Oxford)

E-Invitation card

They told me you were quiet. But I felt the rage in your silence. That when you spoke, they rose above themselves. But I felt their fear. That they held you amidst them. But I felt their loneliness. They pointed to the Koroi tree where you would all meet. The banyan tree under which you spoke. Ever so powerfully. They pointed to the mud floor, where you slept. I touched the mat that you had rested upon, and I knew I had found the vessel that must hold your image.

New settlements with glistening tin roofs dot the hillsides. According to Amnesty International as of June 2013 the Bangladeshi government had still not honored the terms of the peace accord nor addressed the Jumma peoples concerns over the return of their land. Amnesty estimate that there are currently 90,000 internally displaced Jumma families. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
New settlements with glistening tin roofs dot the hillsides. According to Amnesty International as of June 2013 the Bangladeshi government had still not honored the terms of the peace accord nor addressed the Jumma peoples concerns over the return of their land. Amnesty estimate that there are currently 90,000 internally displaced Jumma families. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

They had tried to erase you, your people, your memory. They had torched your homes and when coercion failed, when you remained defiant, they took you away, in the dead of night.

Abandoned typewriter in the room where Kalpana and her comrades used to meet. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Abandoned typewriter in the room where Kalpana and her comrades used to meet. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The leaves burned as the soldiers stood and watched. The same leaves they weave to make your mat. The same leaves I shall burn, to etch your image. Will the burning mat hold your pain? Will the charred leaves hold your anger? Will the image rising from the crisp ashen leaves reignite us? Will you return Kalpana?

Pahari protestors could previously go to the GOC's office to express their grievances. Today, in Khagrachori, they no longer have that access. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Pahari protestors could previously go to the GOC’s office to express their grievances. Today, in Khagrachori, they no longer have that access. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The Shapla Mor in Khagrachori was also a centre of protest. Pahari protesters are no longer allowed there, though Bangali settlers have access, says Kabita Chakma, former president of the Hill Women's Federation. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The Shapla Mor in Khagrachori was also a centre of protest. Pahari protesters are no longer allowed there, though Bangali settlers have access, says Kabita Chakma, former president of the Hill Women’s Federation. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

For nineteen years I have waited, my unseen sister. For nineteen years they have waited, your warriors. Pahari, Bangali, men, women, young old. Was it what you said? What you stood for? Was it because you could see beyond the land, and language, the shape of one?s eyes and see what it meant to be a citizen of a free nation? For pahari, bangali, bihari, man, woman, hijra, rich, poor, destitute, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, Animist.

Posters in the meeting room where Kalpana and her comrades used to gather. Khagrachori. CHT. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Posters in the meeting room where Kalpana and her comrades used to gather. Khagrachori. CHT. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

You had reminded us that a nation that fought oppression, could not rule by oppressing. That a people that fought for a language, could not triumph by suppressing another’s. That the martyrs who died, so we might be free, did not shed their blood, so we could become tyrants. That we who overcame the bullets and bayonets of soldiers, must never again be ruled through the barrel of a gun.

That Kalpana is what binds us. That is why Kalpana, you are not a pahari, or a woman or a chakma or a buddhist, but each one of us. For there can be no freedom that is built on the pain of the other. No friendship that relies on fear. No peace at the muzzle of a gun.

These Kalpana are your warriors. They have engaged in different ways, at different levels, sometimes with different beliefs. Some have stayed with you from the beginning. Others have drifted. They have not always shared political beliefs. But for you Kalpana, my unseen sister, they fight as one.

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The Process

The process involved in creating these images are rooted to the everyday realities of the hill people, the paharis. Repeatedly, the interviewees talked of the bareness of Kalpana’s home. That there was no furniture, that Kalpana slept on the floor on a straw mat.

Rather than print on conventional photographic media, we decided we would use material that was part of pahari daily lives. The straw mat became our canvas. The fire that had been used to raze pahari homes, also needed to be represented, so a laser beam was used to burn the straw, etching with flames, the images of rebellion.

It was the politics of this interaction that determined the physicality of the process. The laser beam consisted of a binary pulse. A binary present on our politics. In order to render the image, the image had to be converted in various ways. From RGB to Greyscale to Bitmap, from 16 bit to 8 bit to 1 bit. To keep detail in the skin tone despite the high contrast, the red channel needed to be enhanced. The Resolution and intensity and duration of the laser beam needed to be brought down to levels that resulted in the straw being selectively charred but not burnt to cinders.

A screen ruling that separated charred pixels while maintaining gradation had to be carefully selected. And then, working backwards, a lighting mechanism needed to be found that broke up the image into a discrete grid of light and dark tones, providing the contrast, the segmentation and the gradation, necessary to simulate the entire range of tones one expects in a fine print. This combination of lighting, digital rendering, printing technique and choice of medium, has led to the unique one off prints you see in this exhibition. A tribute to a unique woman that had walked among us.

Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Bengali sense of victimhood

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

A cartoon had caught my eye. Published in a Bengali national daily, soon after the recurring incidents of ethnic violence in Rangamati and Khagracchari in February this year, it shows a map of the south-eastern part of the country. The land mass is coloured a sea-green. The letters forming the word `Bangladesh’ are printed in black. An irridescent grey shades off into black in parts, it presumably represents, but indistinguishably so, both Indian territory and the Bay of Bengal’s waters.
It shows the Chittagong Hill Tracts?with the districts of Khagracchori, Rangamati and Bandarban clearly marked out?being sawn off by arms clutching wooden handles, fixed to both ends of the saw. To the right side of the cartoon, extending into Bangladesh as it were, are two arms, while on the left, three. The arms on the left side of the map are clothed. The first two hands reach out of their coat-covered shirt-sleeves. Clothed. Civil. The last one juts out of what seems to be a clerical coat-sleeve. The topmost coat-sleeve has `European Union’ written on it. The second, `Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.’ And the third, `Christian missionary.’ Both arms to the right are bare. Uncovered. One has `UPDF’ (United Peoples Democratic Front) scrawled on it, while the other, `JSS’ (presumably referring to the PCJSS,? Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti). No clothes. Barbaric.

CHT being severed from mainland by `European Union',`Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.' and`Christian missionary.' on left arm and UPDF and JSS on right arm. ??Huda

A nation beseiged by enemies within and without. The cartoon thereby evokes a sense of crisis. Fear. Anxiety.
It is, I thought to myself, a perfect example of all that which bedevils the nation nearly forty years after independence. There are many signifiers. There are both presences, and absences. Those present?and named?are the enemies. These foes are both internal, and external, to the nation. They are out to destroy the nation. To sever its limb. Only those present (in the cartoon) wield power, and malevolently so.
The Bengalis are absent. It is this absence which captures very well, I think, how Bengalis increasingly prefer to portray themselves when confronted with their power as ethnically dominant, and overwhelmingly so, within this nation. The act of absencing makes Bengalis appear powerless. As a victim, one who is defined in the dictionary as,
a helpless person somebody who experiences misfortune and feels helpless to remedy it
[victimhood] fall victim to somebody or something, to be affected, harmed, or deceived by somebody or something
Bengalis are the victims of regional and international machinations. Of forces who are infinitely more powerful. Forces external to the nation, with whom bad elements within the nation, the `tribals,’ have ganged up.
I cannot help but think, how would the cartoonist have portrayed 1971? East Pakistan, being cut asunder by, who? Aided by, who? But of course, let me add, when I compare the situation in the CHT at present to the situation confronting Pakistan in 1971, I do not do so, from any ulterior motive of advocating a break-up, or secession, or any such thing. I do it because ekattur has taught me that to survive as a nation, one must not only be able to accommodate cultural differences, but to welcome them. That what the centres of power label a `conspiracy’ is most likely, a political problem, one that must be resolved politically, never, ever, through the deployment of brute force. That genuine attempts must be made to undo historical wrongs. Before it is too late.
That lives matter. That homes matter. That justice matters.
I muse to myself, why are there no Bengalis in the cartoon? Probably because however hard one tries to depict them innocently, the very labels, `government,’ `army,’ `police,’ `settlers,’ are heavily-laden with power. With Bengali power, and historically so. The nation’s history is built on ethnic domination, it is one that continues in the historical present. I muse to myself, the cartoonist must have realised that putting in Bengalis just wouldn’t do. The victim myth would have become unsustainable. That it would be better leave them out. Altogether.
But the absence has been made present through other means. Very distinctively so. The letters printed on the land mass. Bangladesh. Bangla+desh, the land of the Bengalis. A literal rendering. It homogenises differences among Bengalis, differences to do with class, gender, religion, regional, linguistic (many Sylhetis think of themselves as Sylhetis and not Bengalis), historical. And among indigenous peoples too, Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Santal, Bawm, Tanchangya, Rakhain, Garo, Lushai, and many others. The construction of a Bengali sameness becomes an ethnic norm, one to which others must aspire. Must wish to belong.
Soon after independence, we had been too heady to grasp the wisdom that lay behind Manabendra Narayan Larma’s words, ?Under no definition or logic can a Chakma be a Bengali or a Bengali be a Chakma? As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis, but we also have a separate ethnic identity, which unfortunately the Awami League leaders [the then-ruling party] do not want to understand.” The change that Ziaur Rahman had effected after coming to power had to do with nationality, with national belonging?`Bangladeshis’ instead of `Bengalis,’ the latter had been held to be universally applicable for all citizens regardless of their ethnic belonging. It was a technical correction, having been accompanied by the military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. By death and destruction. By rape. By the settlement of landless Bengalis on pahari land. It led to the flight of indigenous peoples in large numbers, to neighboring India where they sought refuge.
In order to portray `the’ Bengali as victim, the cartoonist must suppress the Bengali presence. That, surely is interesting?
? Shibuya Atsushi

Bengali writers however, are more forthcoming. Some claim, Bengalis are indigenous, have been so for centuries, or better still, since time immemorial. It is the paharis, who are settlers. The `tribal’ rulers are exploiters. Hilly people are extremists. They did not take up arms to resist Bengali oppression, to regain cultural autonomy, but because they are.. have always been.. for many centuries.. bandits and criminals. They abduct and kidnap Bengalis. Others write, some foreign NGOs have ulterior motives. They want the army to withdraw before amicable relations have been restored between paharis and Bengalis. Foreign forces, such as the European Union, some foreign members of the CHT Commission, have become active under cover of the Peace Treaty (1997). There are plans afoot to sever the CHT from Bangladesh, to re-make it on the lines of a Christian East Timor. Bengali settlers are being slaughtered. Their houses are being razed to the ground. Even military personnel are being attacked. Muslims are being prevented from entering their mosques. From praying. A large conspiracy is in the offing.
Can such paranoid ramblings, whether depicted visually through cartoons or written out in articles, counter imperial politics? Concerns over national sovereignty are real, are justified in these times when US-led imperial terror, one in which western European nations are fully complicit, has been unleashed worldwide. To save the nation, a genuine leap of imagination is needed. One which does not confuse the roles of `perpretator’ and `victim.’
Published in New Age April 5, 2010