02 March 2013

Bangladesh ~ Photography, Politics

Puppets of alleged war criminals dangle from nooses in Shahbagh Square in Dhaka.Photograph © Shahidul Alam Drik/Majority World.

Since early last month Dhaka, Bangladesh has been beset by massive, peaceful, public protests. You can find coverage of the events and the sordid political history that has generated the ongoing protests at The Guardian [1] [2] [3] [4] and, succinctly, in this Op-Ed by Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam from yesterday's New York Times.* I have posted on Alam and his work here several times in the past.

I lifted the image above from this series, also published at The Times* and did so for two reasons. The first is to suggest how Alam manages to depict a singularly troubling feature of the protests by indirection. The Shahbagh crowds are calling for the execution of individuals found guilty by a war crimes tribunal in Dhaka. That is problematic for advocates of justice and human rights who denounce the persistent use of official violence in Bangladesh. But, secondly, Alam's image also underscores the precipitating role photography has played in the protests. And in so doing, we can grasp, why the crowds calling for justice also clamor for death.

Here is the offending photograph, followed by some explanation taken from the first of The Guardian reports I link to above:

Abdul Quader Mollah offers a victory salute after being convicted of war crimes in Dhaka.  Photograph © STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images.
"It all began with a victory sign. When Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary-general of Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami party, emerged from the supreme court on the afternoon of Tuesday 4 February, he turned to the press waiting outside, smiled, and made a victory sign. An odd reaction for a man just sentenced to life in prison.

Mollah smiled because for him, a man convicted of beheading a poet, raping an 11-year-old girl and shooting 344 people during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence – charges that have earned him the nickname the Butcher of Mirpur – the life sentence came as a surprise. Earlier this month, a fellow accused, Abul Kalam Azad, who is reputed to have fled to Pakistan, was sentenced to death in absentia.

When Mollah emerged from the courthouse, a group of online activists and bloggers assembled to protest against the verdict, demanding that Mollah, like Azad, be given the death sentence. They set up camp in Shahbag, an intersection at the heart of Dhaka, near the university campus, and staged a small sit-in. They collected a few donations and ordered khichuri (a mixture of rice and lentils) to keep them going through the night. Word spread on Facebook and Twitter. The next day, a few news channels began covering their protest. By the end of the week, they had managed to put together the biggest mass demonstration the country has seen in 20 years.

[. . .]

In addition to the perceived inadequacy of the sentence is an abiding anxiety about the way it will be carried out. It is ingrained in the public imagination that justice always takes second place to political expediency. Mollah knows that if his party or its allies were to come to power again, he would almost certainly be freed. That is why the protesters at Shahbag are calling for his death: it is the only way they can be sure the episode will come to an end."
So, the apparent perversity of insisting on death as a token of justice perhaps is understandable. The issue - as Alam also make plain in his essay -  is one of deserved punishment and lack of official credibility. It also raises issues of prudence, since supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami have begun to demonstrate their own displeasure at the proceedings and verdicts. The daunting political problem then, seems to be to create a way to sustain the hope that the Shahbagh protesters hold out, without reverting to violence and execution.**
* You can find the text of the Op-Ed integrated with the images here at Alam's blog.

** Update: In this regard you might also read this more extended analysis of events in Bangladesh by Nadine Murshid at The Economic & Political Weekly,

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