Leaning on Friendly Nations

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“You speak good Chinese”, said Qian Kaifu, Cultural Councellor of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Bangladesh. A soft-spoken elderly gentleman. Standing beside him was a quiet, smartly dressed woman, Cao Yanhua the Cultural Attache, who passed him a bag. “We’ve brought some presents for you.” The 2010 calendar would be useful, but a silk tie was probably not the most appropriate gift for me. The tea was not so unreasonable. How were they to know I was not a tea drinker?

Irfan knew the meeting with Free Voice, regarding the media academy was very important and wouldn’t normally have disturbed me. So when Mr. Kaifu, instead of showing interest in our sole Chinese member Jessica Lim in the library, insisted that we find a quiet place to talk, I realized it was more than a courtesy call.

tibet banner.

He got straight to the point. “We would like you to cancel the Tibet exhibition” he said. Reminding me that Tibet was a part of China, he went on to explain how the Bangladesh China relationship would be affected if the show went on. He also spoke of the many things we could do together, the exhibitions we could bring. About how such a famous organisation like Drik would find many partners in China. It seemed churlish to remind him that my recent application for a visa when I was to judge the TOPS photojournalism contest in China, had been rejected.

As politely as I could, I reminded Mr. Kaifu that ours was an independent gallery. I asked him how he felt he had the right to tell us, what we could show. I invited him to the show and assured him that he would be free to present his own opinion at the opening. We would be happy to show a Chinese exhibition, if the quality was right. He wanted to see the gallery and a colleague showed him around as I went back to the meeting.

I was reminded of the time when the director of the British Council in Dhaka had demanded that we take down Roshini Kempadoo’s exhibition, the European Currency Unfolds, as he felt it showed Britain in a bad light. Of the midnight call by the minister, on the eve of the first Chobi Mela, when he felt ‘certain’ images that didn’t support the official version of the war of 1971, should be taken down from the National Museum walls. Of the fact that the Alliance Francaise, had backed out of their sponsorship of my show criticising general Ershad’s rule. Of how every major gallery, including the ‘progressive’ Art College gallery had refused to show the work. Of the civil society protest against the government, when they had used the military to round up opposition activists, that had taken place in our gallery. Of why we needed a gallery of our own.

On that last occasion, people with knives, under military protection, had attacked me in the street the following day. I had no illusions about the implications of our action, but this small organisation was going to hold its ground. We had relocated from the National Museum, and put up the 1971 show at Drik instead. Despite the threats, our curatorial freedom is something we have staunchly protected, every time.

It was evening before the phone call from the ministry of culture came in. “China was a friend, you mustn’t show pictures of Dalai Lama” the high ranking official went on. “No no we are not talking of censorship, but…” This was followed by some artist who spoke as if he was a friend. I couldn’t place either of the callers, though I could place the ministry official by his rank. I could see it was to be a multi-pronged attack.

I was in a meeting with two Korean professors that Gitiara Nasreen, the chairperson of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication,  Dhaka university had brought over to Drik when Hasanul Huq Inu MP, the president of JSD (Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal) called. He reminded me of how supportive Bangladesh was of the “One China Policy”, the implications that holding the exhibition would have for the nation.

The next visitors from Special Branch were perhaps to be expected. Speeding up the staff meeting in the studio, I went down to try and handle this next ‘situation’. Mr. Khairul Kabir did most of the talking while Mr. Palash nodded from the side. They wanted details of the organisers. I asked for an official request. It wasn’t simply my concern for the organisers, I also wanted to test out the ground rules. “Khamakha jotil kore phelchen” (you are making it unnecessarily complicated) was his veiled threat. I was familiar with this language, but decided to hold my ground. A few calls to ‘higher ups’ followed, made more for me to hear than anyone else. “He is not being cooperative… Yes he is here… I have explained the gravity of the situation… We have done nothing else yet…” went the conversation.

The responses to the text messages I had been sending out in between began to come in. “Would you like some tea?” I offered. Mr. Kabir’s smile was not as sweet as mine as he declined. A lawyer friend’s response was heartening. I was within my rights to refuse to provide information until an official request had been made. I knew such technicalities might not help if the situation became more awkward, and decided to send out a twitter alert, just in case. A few more calls followed, to more ‘higher ups’ and the pair walked out to make more calls. That gave me the opportunity to call my lawyer friend and to mobilise more support. Just in case.

Police personnel visit the exhibition about Tibet at Drik galler Mohammad Enamul Huq of the Special Branch, inspecting the show on Tibet, at Drik Gallery. © Shehab Uddin/Drik/Majority World

The Special Branch do like me. They came to visit again. Initially it was Mohammad Enamul Haq the Chief of City Special Branch Dhanmondi Zone. He had been sent by SS Additional IG. Shah Alam Officer in Charge Dhanmondi Thana, joined us later. The initial cordial conversation, turned sharp when I ref

Police personnel visit the exhibition about Tibet at Drik galler

© Shehab Uddin/Drik/Majority World

used to divulge the contact details of the organizers. They reminded me of how it would become difficult for Drik to operate in the future if we didn’t take the side of the government. I reminded them that I was siding with the law. That the law applied to the police, was an unknown concept to Shah Alam.

“The show has to be stopped” were his passing words, along with a terse instruction to pass on this message to the organizers. As we wait for the opening later this afternoon, I am unsure of where the next call is going to come from.  Reports are coming in of the Bangladesh police preventing a journalist from filing torture allegations against paramilitary soldiers, I wonder what the implications are for Drik in the days to come. After 25 years of working to promote photography in Bangladesh, it is interesting to find the government suddenly taking an interest!

Update by Rob Godden

Update by David Brewer

More pictures on DrikNews the site appears to have been hacked. A virus warning as you enter the site will deter you. Just ignore the sign.

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About Shahidul Alam

A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry at London University before switching to photography. He returned to his hometown Dhaka in 1984, where he photographed the democratic struggle to remove General Ershad. A former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the award winning Drik agency, the Bangladesh Photographic Institute and Pathshala, the South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Director of the Chobi Mela festival and chairman of Majority World agency, Alam’s work has been exhibited in galleries such as MOMA in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern in London and The Museum of Contemporary Arts in Tehran. He has been a guest curator of the Whitechapel Gallery, the Musee de Quai Branly and the Brussels Biennale. Alam’s numerous photographic awards include the Mother Jones and the Howard Chapnick Awards and the Open Society Institute Audience Engagement Grant. A speaker at US universities, Harvard, Stanford and UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK and the Powerhouse Museum in Brisbane, Alam has been a jury member in prestigious international contests, including World Press Photo which he chaired and Prix Pictet. An Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, Alam is a visiting professor of Sunderland University in the UK. He is on the advisory board of the National Geographic Society and the Eugene Smith Fund. His recent book “My Journey as a witness” was listed in the “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo. Former picture editor of Life Magazine John Morris considers the book “The most important book ever written by a photographer”
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23 Responses to Leaning on Friendly Nations

  1. Chinese says:

    Have you ever been to tibet? Why you are so sure what you exhibit is the truth? what if they used some picutres but telling a lie.

  2. Hmm…so on one hand we have a scenario that can culminate into enervating our relations with possibly our biggest strategical ally, on the other hand we have the moral duty to show the ‘apparent truth’. My thumb rule is, when you are a third world country plagued by internal strife and border disputes with our chameleonic neighbors breathing down our neck, leave the ‘humanity’ aside and think about your own skin. There is a term in the popular lexicon that says “Adar beparir jahaj kinbar sopno”, when there are so many human rights violations around the world and the rather *powerful nations are doing nothing to a)expose b)eradicate these heinous crimes, then an act of ‘righteousness’ at the expense of regional autonomy just seems…err..foolish and almost insolent. Don’t get me wrong, I too am troubled by the way things are taking place all over the globe, how the mighty is asphyxiating the miniscule, but ‘playing it smart’ is a necessary crime. Maybe one day when our cultural and theological elites stop being belligerent and work towards a more autonomous Bangladesh free of foreign influence,we might be able to put an exhibition like this on the air with pride.

    If I was a 100 million+ inhabitant nation running/generating 45% of the world’s economy and guzzling down about a quarter of the world’s total energy need with one of the strongest armies, I too would think of ‘expanding’, either by economical stranglehold or by brute force. Humanity is by nature strife-prone, the only way the weak can survive and become ‘strong’ themselves is by ‘playing it safe’.

    May peace be upon you.
    OR, Long live Richard Dawkins.

    Which ever might suit the visitor niche ;)

  3. Pingback: China censors beyond its borders – Drik exhibition on Tibet banned « The Rights Exposure Project

  4. Today I gonna see the exhibition. I am very curious now!

  5. Pingback: Bangladesh: Chinese Pressure Censors Tibet Exhibition In Dhaka - E-Bangladesh

  6. Tibet says:

    To the “Chinese”,
    You can send an international delegation to verify if pictures and stories are true or not.

    Thanks for the organizers for standing up for “truth” and “justice”.

  7. Pingback: Bangladesh: Chinese Pressure Censors Tibet Exhibition In Dhaka :: Elites TV

  8. IzzY says:

    I just want to express my support to Drik and Mr. Shahidul Alam for his stand and actions towards the right to information. BD government could have played it differently instead of letting Chinese diplomats involving into local events. While I acknowledge the fact that China, being the string puller and supporter of junta in Myanmar, can cause more than just a jolt or two by them, there are multiple ways to handle this situation while allowing the show to go on.

  9. Chinese says:

    To so called “tibet”

    Each year thousands foreigners visit Tibet, they are witnessing nothing but the truth.

    The title 1949-2009? Is this fifty or sixty?
    The title is already a mistake, how about the content?

  10. Pingback: Tibet Right.org : Bangladesh: Chinese Pressure Censors Tibet Exhibition In Dhaka

  11. to the so called "Chinese" says:

    Don’t fool yourself by thinking you “know” Tibet simply because your government rules over it. I am too a Chinese citizen and have been to Tibet a number of times. Yes, some international visitors have visited Tibet after they went through the visa process, during which human rights activists and journalists are screened out. If you are so sure that what we Chinese did in Tibet is so benevolent, why don’t we hear what these international visitors have to say? Is there a free forum where their opinions can be heard and exchanged? Let’s be honest, if you really are a Chinese. We have been lying all along. Can’t you do yourself a favor by forgetting about defending our government for one minute in your life and by just being a compassionate and honest human being for one second? I believe you will appreciate being a human if you can do that at least once in your life.

  12. Ehab says:

    The photographs and facts they present are beautiful :) Everyone should get to see them.

  13. Munem Wasif says:

    “আমাদের অধিকার রয়েছে ইরাক-আফগানিস্তান-ফিলিস্তিন বা তিব্বত-মণিপুর-কাশ্মীর কিংবা মাওবাদী-তালেবান কিংবা মার্কিন-ভারত-চীন বা ইসরায়েলের বা যে কারো পে বা বিপে মতপ্রকাশ করবার। কে ভুল বা কে সঠিক তা নিয়ে ব্যক্তি বা গোষ্ঠীর মধ্যে বিতর্কও চলতে পারে। এটুকু আইনী স্বাধীনতা নাগরিক অধিকারের গোড়ার শর্ত। এটুকু হলো পায়জামার ফিতা, এটা না থাকলে… কোনো গেরো দিয়েই সংবিধানের লজ্জাস্থান ঢাকবার কোনো সুযোগই পাবে না বুর্জোয়া আইন ও নৈতিকতা। নাগরিকের বিবেকের জিম্মাদার রাষ্ট্র বা প্রতিষ্ঠান নয়,ব্যক্তি বা সমাজ স্বয়ং। এ চিন্তা ছাড়লে বিপদ।”

    দৃককাণ্ড: তিব্বত বা চীন নয়, মামলাটা রাষ্ট্রের সঙ্গে-Faruk Wasif
    http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=199460510129&id=689336078&ref=mf

  14. Alejandro says:

    It is a pitty that anyone wants to stop any art exhibition, I congratulate Drik and Shahidul for this and it would be wonderful if you can bring it to my country. I have lived in China, a country which I respect greatly but that doesn’t mean that everything is good, things are not black and white. The issues of Tibet are certainly complicated ones but trying to stop something like this exhibit is simply absurd.

  15. saci kereszy says:

    Dear Shahidul

    Salaam from Budapest. Just briefly saying that I am glad to see this on the screen. Drik has spine – unlike Google! Which really has sold its fanny to the biggest bidder – as did the ex Australian media tycoon!

    So most news is only fit to wipe my behind on a bad day!!

    For decades I have watched hopelessly at the goings on surrounding Tibet, as well as Burma. I suppose hailing from a central european culture exposed to simialr distortions of history and politics, I have a special empathy zone marked out for these two countries. Thank you for the posting s

  16. civilian says:

    It seems we still live in the third world. The govt in this part are the subservient to the big neighbours. they may take attempt to ban freedom of expression but citizens across the continents must connect the spirit of hope and freedom. long live drik…carry on shahidul bhai. lets not be defeated in our own soil. lets resist new-imperialists.

  17. Siraj Sikdar says:

    Both Khairul Kabir & Enamul Huq, along with their fellow officers, are basically illiterate & highly corrupt officer, a trait which can be assigned to all the law & order forces in BD, including the Special Branch & CID. It’s also likely that the appointment & promotions of the two mentioned were based on only their political affiliations, another practise that runs deep in every government controlled sector in the country. All one can say to DRIK is that he/she is sorry for DRIK facing such medieval treatments. Bangladesh is fast becoming a land unsuitable to live for any sensible human being. What a frustrating situation!!! My heart bleeds for my motherland, but no way am I going back to that place which is run by roaches now!

  18. Shahrear says:

    It`s so sad to see that Bangladesh government is stopping such a exhibition,where as being the oppressed nation in the past we should support Tibet in their endeavor to earn their freedom from the occupied Hun Chinese.. Where is our so called Intellectuals why they are now silent in this government decision? why even none of them gave any statement in that regard to condemn the BD governments decision..shame on them shame …Go ahead Mr. Shahidul Sir,we are with you..

  19. joke says:

    Stupid! stupid!!

    That is really an art show, or not?

    If it is the truth, why chinese govt want to stop it in a friendly country?

  20. Pingback: China-US Politics over Exhibiting Tibet. In Dhaka | ShahidulNews

  21. Pingback: ‘Crossfire’ censored – the power of documentary photography | David Campbell -- Photography, Multimedia, Politics

  22. Pingback: China-US Politics over Exhibiting Tibet. In Dhaka | Journal of Pathshala

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