A bitter taste

Shahidul Alam, a photo-journalist, teacher, writer, curator and social activist, who is a pioneering figure in the Bangladeshi artistic and intellectual communities, elaborates on the severe human rights violations and abuses in Bangladesh: ‘While we undeniably live in a climate of fear, the role of artists, journalists and prominent citizens is ever pertinent. Forms of resistance and pro-active actions through creative means, should surely have emanated from such citizens. Their conspicuous silence and their complicity in the face of injustice leaves behind a taste that is distinctly bitter.’

Students demanding justice for fellow students murdered by buses on rampage on 1 August 2018. Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Meem, a second and first-year students at Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment School and College, were killed on 29 July 2018, when an Uttara-bound bus of ‘Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan’ rammed into a group of students who had been waiting on the road for transport. Students throughout Dhaka city organised protest rallies, demanding safer roads and for justice. || Photograph: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

It was difficult to gauge what the plot was. The minister’s lewd threats to an actress, while disturbing, had been made two years ago. Given the level of surveillance, leaked telephone conversations were common enough, but against a sitting minister? And why this timing? Why would they go after a minister who was a self-professed blind loyalist? The initial denials were familiar enough. Other ministers tried to play down the abuse of state power. Party stalwarts defending him was also predictable. Trying to trivialise the crimes by claiming it was confidential conversation really took the cake. The menu changed. This was an indigestible story. He was told to resign and fled the country. Denied entry to either Canada or United Arab Emirates and meekly returning home with his tail tucked between his legs was a worrying sign for the ruling party. He was a leftover dish that no one was going to taste, but was the entire party going beyond the sell by date?

Yes, things were getting hot. The student unrest of 2018 had returned. The streets of Dhaka were literally sizzling. While the protests were not as widespread as the original ones of three years ago, the students were again finding government vehicles without licenses. This time, it had been a government vehicle that had killed a student, and the truck being driven by an unauthorised driver hadn’t helped. Plausible deniability had its limits. Other pots were on fire too. The US sanctions against leading security officers accused of human rights abuses did not bode well. The fact that sanctions hadn’t for the moment targeted politicians was a temporary relief, and their foreign assets were safe for now, but the temperature could rise and the government was already in the soup. While on the one hand, the US ambassador had been summoned to hear the government’s displeasure at the news, three ministers had been delegated to ‘manage’ the situation. There was a lot of kneading to be done before this dough would be ready. The unquestioned loyalty of the security forces depended upon the impunity they enjoyed. If they were going to be held to account, would that loyalty last for long? For the security forces, the carrot of serving in the United Nations peace keeping forces was part of what led to their blind allegiance. If that was under threat, would the loyalty remain? The absolute fear that led to the silence of the intellectuals could water down. Ordinary people already knew they were being lied to. This might be the time to call out the emperor's new clothes. People knew the food was off. The election across the country had already led to infighting. Things had been kept under control, but the lid of the pressure cooker might just give way.

What was being baked? Managing US, Indian and Chinese interests was a difficult balancing act that the government had been getting away with, but with the temperature rising, keeping the sauces apart in the same wok was not a picnic. How many times and to how many people could you sell the same country? India wanted water and transit. China wanted the ports. The EU wanted the Rohingya away from their doorstep. The US wanted to reign in the ‘Islamic threat’. That the lack of democracy and complete abandon of the rule of law fuelled radicalism, was the obvious connection that some people were beginning to make. The videos of the genocide in Myanmar which activists had smuggled out were beginning to reach the media. That the military in Myanmar would never create a situation for the Rohingyas to return, unless China put its foot down, was a given. It didn’t take rocket science to work out that Modi’s anti-Muslim stance made life in Bangladesh more fragile for Hindus. So where was this going to end?

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who arrived in Bangladesh the previous night, crossing over by boat to Teknaf on 6 October 6 2017. || Photograph: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


Breaking bread together requires a modicum of respect for fellow human beings. It has no place in a fiefdom. When elections are rigged, when election commissions are clearly partisan, when the state machineries have been extensively used to banish opposition supporters, when a woman can be gang raped for voting the ‘wrong’ way… Then the concept of breaking bread, the democratic process and respect for the people’s will, the right for the governed to have a say in the process of governance have long been forsaken.

While we undeniably live in a climate of fear, the role of artists, journalists and prominent citizens is ever pertinent. Forms of resistance and pro-active actions through creative means, should surely have emanated from such citizens. Their conspicuous silence and their complicity in the face of injustice, leaves behind a taste that is distinctly bitter.