The scenes in Dhaka over the past week, leading to the outrageous arrest and torture of one of Bangladesh’s greatest chroniclers, Shahidul Alam, highlight three crucial aspects about Bangladesh. One, that the powerful don’t like criticism and target witnesses first; two, that aroused students can force the nation to introspect; and three, that Bangladesh functions despite, and not because of, its government.
The immediate flashpoint was a tragic road accident. In late July, several students were trying to cross a busy road in Dhaka when a bus plowed into them, killing two students, Abdul Karim Rajib and Diya Khanam Meem. Bangladesh’s road safety record is poor. According to the national committee to protect shipping, roads and railways, 7,397 people died on the roads in 2017. The toll this year till June was 2,471.
Victims have included workers, passengers, pedestrians, motorcyclists, the elderly, and the famous. The renowned filmmaker Tareq Masud and acclaimed cinematographer Mishuk Munier died when a bus rammed into their microbus in 2011. Aging vehicles, unlicensed drivers and their disregard for speed limits, poor roads, corruption, callousness, and governmental apathy are all responsible for these tragedies.
Thousands of students, some of them in school uniform, took over the task that the state appeared to have abandoned. Demanding safe roads, they blocked roads, stopped cars, inspected drivers’ licences and vehicle registration papers. The protests rattled the government—even without the demonstrations, Dhaka’s traffic jams are so notorious that the city turns into a gigantic parking lot during peak hours, when the movement of cars feels glacial.
Unruly youth, many of them reportedly supporters of the ruling Awami League’s youth wing, the Chhatra League, roamed around Dhaka, some among them carrying machetes, while others shouted Joy Bangla, demeaning the slogan of the freedom movement. Many students were beaten up. Those (including journalists) recording the atrocities by filming or photographing them, were assaulted or their equipment was taken away or destroyed. The police did little to prevent the violence.
Alam went out to see the unrest and was filming it when people he described as goons confronted him, smashed his camera and chased him. Alam is a witness. His book is called My Journey As A Witness. He has spent his life documenting Bangladesh’s human drama. He has educated hundreds of photographers at his school, Pathshala. His multimedia organization Drik runs an art gallery and maintains a photographic archive of the liberation war. He has persistently spoken out for the vulnerable and the dispossessed, including the Chakmas and the stateless Rohingyas. This October, in New York, he will receive the prestigious Lucie Award for his humanitarian photography. (Disclosure: I wrote an essay in another book of his, which documents images of the 1971 war and the refugee crisis).
In an interview with Al Jazeera broadcast later, he described what he saw on the streets and expressed strong views on the collapse of governmental accountability and legitimacy. While the Awami League has a large majority in parliament (234 seats out of 300), the lopsided margin is because the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party had boycotted the last elections. Many Bangladeshis are angry and the mood is tense.
Soon after the interview, about 35 plainclothes security officers came to his home, disabled the closed-circuit cameras by masking the equipment, confiscated the footage, and took him away. After initially saying nothing, the police said the detective branch had arrested him under S. 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act, which severely restricts freedom of expression, citing his posts on social media.
When Alam was produced before a lower court the next day, he had to be supported as he walked falteringly. He said he was beaten up and forced to wash his bloodstained clothes. The court remanded him, but on Tuesday, the high court halted the remand and ordered that he be taken to a hospital and a medical report be produced by Thursday. Till late Tuesday, the government had not complied with the order.
Alam’s friend and the elder statesman of Indian photography, Raghu Rai, who has been honoured by the Bangladesh government for his coverage of the liberation war, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Hasina Wajed , calling upon her to intervene. Concerns about Alam’s well-being are valid. Bangladesh has an atrocious record of ‘disappearances’, where individuals are abducted, and about whom nothing is heard for months. Leading human rights organizations have demanded his unconditional release.
With elections due in a few months, hardliners may want to make an example of critics like Alam, but Bangladeshis take their freedoms seriously. Last week has shown how far Bangladesh has moved from the ideals of 1971. In the last days before the Pakistani army surrendered, pro-Pakistan militia killed dozens of Bengali civilians and intellectuals to cripple the new nation. At a memorial for them at Rayer Bazar in Dhaka, Asad Chowdhury’s poem poses a pertinent question to future generations: Tomader ja bolar chhilo, bolchhe ki ta Bangladesh? (Does Bangladesh say what you wanted to say?)
Those martyred freedom fighters would have many more probing questions today for the daughter of the nation’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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