The Bengali Gaze

March 18, 2017

[This article was first published on March 17, 2017 in an issue of the Star Weekend Magazine of The Daily Star]

Hana Shams Ahmed

A TV commercial by a prominent telecom company was brought to my attention through a Facebook post by a journalist. The scene begins with two young men making their way through a water body on a bamboo raft in an exotic location somewhere in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Next, they are seen making their way up a mountain through a vast green landscape far from any sign of human life. One of the men expresses his frustration at not being able to find what they were looking for. The other man smiles in response and points to an old man in a bamboo hut up in the mountain.

“He is going to get you a recharge?” the first man laughs skeptically. The men seem to have run out of balance on their phones and, given their remote location in the Hills, are concerned about not being able to top-up their phones.

The second man replies that he would at least like to try his luck. He goes up to an old Jumma man sitting outside the hut and shouts at him, “Uncle, can I flexi here? Can I recharge here? Taka! Taka! Phone! I want to talk! You know, taka! Recharge!”

The man is shouting out these requests while gesturing wildly with his arms. Both are doubtful about getting a response. How would an ordinary native man in the wilderness of the Hills understand the modern Bengali language or have access to the modern phone network! The second man turns around and looks at his friend in frustration and the old man suddenly surprises everyone and responds in Bangla, “How much money do you need?”

The two men are shocked and the second man delightedly shouts back again, “A hundred taka!”

The old man keys in the amount on his phone keyboard, the second man shouts out his gratitude and extends his hand towards the old man.“You are my GP brother,” he exclaims, “Come, let’s take a selfie!”

And the commercial ends with information about the telecom company’s wide network coverage – that every other person in Bangladesh owns a phone from that company.

The telecom in question is a multi-million-dollar industry and one can safely assume that the concepts used in their TV commercials are discussed and vetted at a very high level for what they will represent about their company. So, what does this TV commercial say and represent? Read the rest of this entry »


Getting the history ‘right’ by erasing the others

March 18, 2017

[This article was first published on December 16, 2016 in Thotkata feminist blog]

Hana Shams Ahmed

IN 2015 filmmaker Aung Rakhine unveiled the first feature film made in the Chakma language about the community from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The Bangladesh Film Censor Board (BFCD) refused clearance to the film, as a result of which the film could not be shown in public halls inside the country although it was shown at various overseas film festivals and won critical acclaim. The censor board claimed that it was only authorized to give clearance to films made in Bangla, the state language according to the national constitution. Apart from the technicality cited by the censor board, the Ministry of Information of the Government of Bangladesh also made a formal objection about the film’s content saying that the film had “…visuals and dialogue which were defamatory to the security forces and the Government of Bangladesh”, and which was “part of the propaganda against the military in the CHT”.[1] The film is about a poor Chakma villager Komol and how he develops an entrepreneurial niche in his village by ferrying people to and from the local market on his bicycle after losing his job in the city. The visual in question is about 30 seconds long within the one-hour-long film. Komol’s young son is seeing playing with some plastic toys on the courtyard when he suddenly gets up and runs to his mother and they both go inside the house to hide. Komol gets up and faces the (Bangladeshi) military officers who seem to be passing by their house and salutes them. It then shows the boots of the military officers crushing the toys on the courtyard on their way out. We do not see the faces of these individuals and later when I interviewed Aung he told me that he had deliberately left it open for interpretation for the public.

Such symbolic scenes of military violence have been depicted many times in many Bangladeshi films. However, those films have been accepted and many have received national acclaim because in these films the military perpetrators are Pakistani soldiers and the victims are Bengali. These depictions fit perfectly into the acceptable national narrative and in fact reinforce it. Rakhine’s film on the other hand disturbs this narrative tremendously. In 10 seconds Rakhine managed to stir up a part of Bangladesh’s history that the state has tried long and hard to keep out of the national narrative and media focus. Bangladesh’s state-constructed history is about the struggle for independence from Pakistan, about the heroism of the Bengalis, and the brutality faced by them. Bangladesh’s history has no room for talking about heroes and victims who are not Bengali. This erasure is not limited to the indigenous peoples only. In this narrative there is also a silence around Urdu-speaking victims of 1971. While many camp-based Urdu-speakers worked as collaborators with the Pakistani army, many were not. However, in the national narrative the whole community of Urdu-speakers have been relegated to the status of “collaborators” and “traitors”. On the same vein, many Bengalis were collaborators too but with their majoritarian privilege which did not lead to any such identity-based stereotyping. This majoritarian privilege can only be maintained if the faults of the few can be conflated to demonize a whole community of minoritized people, and a political and economic benefit can be gained from it.

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Constructing the Jummas as ‘criminals’

July 30, 2015

by Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was first published on June 12, 2015 in a special issue commemorating the 19th year of disappearance of Kalpana Chakma in the New Age]

The colonial world is a Manichaean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation, the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil.
— Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

December 1997 began with great hope for a large section of Jummas in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. More than two decades of bloody, armed struggle with the state of Bangladesh for their recognition was finally coming to an end. During armed insurgency and counter-insurgency, allegations have it, the Bangladesh military carried out massacres against the Jumma people, villages were burnt down, women were raped and the area went under near-total media blackout. Of course not all Jummas were happy about the ‘Peace’ Accord. To begin with, the Accord did not acknowledge or offer reparation for state-led oppression on its own citizens. Nor did it explicitly say how its demographic engineering program to displace Jummas with Bengalis from the plainlands would be stopped.

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Joli No Udhim Kittei! (Why Shall I not Resist!)*

July 30, 2015

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Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was first published on May 26, 2015 at Thotkata.net]

Kalpana Chakma was only two years older than me. We had a couple of things in common. We were born in the same country and we both kept personal diaries about our individual struggles in life. But that’s where the similarities in our lives ended. In the year 1996 as I was preparing for my A-level exams and arguing with my mother about my right to go out alone and wear the clothes of my choice, Kalpana was struggling against militarization, against a national suspicion of the ethnic ‘other’, against Government hypocrisy, against the militant-nationalism of the state of Bangladesh. In 12 June 1996 army officers abducted Kalpana Chakma in front of her two brothers, a sister-in-law and mother late at night from her home in Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). 18 years on and many protests, meetings, roundtables, CID investigations and court appearances later, Kalpana Chakma still remains missing.

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Can the Jummas of Bangladesh speak?

July 30, 2015

Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published on February 17, 2015 at the Dhaka Tribune]

Although Bangladesh shares a 4,096km border with India, only the 1,036km-long border with India and Myanmar raise questions of sovereignty

Decisions taken by the government about the Chittagong Hill Tracts can at best be described as doublespeak. While the actual sentiments of the government indicates an urgency for increased securitisation, surveillance, discrimination and suspicion of the Jummas, the background and context provided for taking the decisions speak of maintaining “the law and order situation” and upholding “peace.” Read the rest of this entry »


Bangladesh Media: Caught in Censorship’s Crossfire?

December 17, 2012

By Hana Shams Ahmed

[An edited version of this article was published in the December 2012 issue of Forum magazine, The Daily Star]

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Wahid Adnan/DrikNEWS

Abstract

While media blackouts have been a common phenomenon in post-independence Bangladesh, and they have been seen more frequently during military regimes, it would be an error to think democratic periods grant full media freedom. However, we see that media ownership and new technology have had a larger impact on the media landscape than censorship. Newer digital media platforms have increasingly played a part in overcoming censorship where the mainstream media has failed. Although economic limitations play a part here, bloggers have started to fill a void left by the mainstream media. This paper discusses how the state has used various means to suppress media freedom, leading to violations of the rights of journalists, of rights of the people to have a free media, of rights of minority communities to be represented in the media and also the use of religion by the state to suppress free cultural/political movements.

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Stop sending them back!

July 10, 2012

by Hana Shams Ahmed

[This article was published on the Jun 28, 2012 issue of the  New Age]

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu — the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our inter-connectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality ‘Ubuntu’ — you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
Bishop Desmond Tutu (2008)

OUR xenophobia is reflected in the words we use — ‘malus’ to talk about Indians or Hindus, ‘mauras’ to talk about Urdu-speaking communities in Bangladesh, ‘chinkus’ to talk about indigenous communities, ‘phiringee’ to talk about Christians, and so on. Anyone who is slightly different from us needs a name that is derogatory and we put all our venom and spite into the name and spit it out. And this spite does not stop with national, religious or ethnic identities. We also pick on our other favourite targets — the gender minorities. The hijras have many names, effeminate men are referred to as ‘half ladies’, homosexual men don’t need names because they can just be beaten up in public, and then there are the women, who have many different names, we can pick and choose from the various terms to harass them on the streets, abuse them inside the homes or publicly humiliate and torture them and justify it using the convenient term ‘fatwa’. Let’s face it, we are a pretty intolerant society. If you don’t fit into the majoritarian formula you better watch out! Read the rest of this entry »