Simmering discontent

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Eid at Shaheed Minar

by rahnuma ahmed

Writer and columnist Syed Abul Moksud addressing the protest rally on Eid day at central Shahid Minar, organised under the banner of Students, Teachers, Professionals and Public, demanding the guarantee of a natural death and the sacking of Abul Hossain, communications minister. Dhaka, August 31, 2011. Photo bdnews24.com

We’d mourned deaths from road accidents at central Shaheed Minar earlier as well.

When we rallied in support of Viqarunnisa students protesting against school rape, we had risen to grieve for 39 people killed, including 38 schoolboys, in the Mirsarai road accident on July 11, four days ago.

Since then, road deaths, according to some, have risen and reached `epidemic’ proportions. The country’s roads are `death traps.’ `Mass killings’, `serial killings’ are how others describe it.

Public anger at spiralling road fatalities has been fuelled by the visible lack of regret and remorse by Abul Hossain, the communications minister, by the prime minister rushing to his defense, reiterating that no, the cabinet would not be reshuffled, `all the ministers are working hard to carry out their responsibilities’ (The Daily Star, August 26, 2011).

And, all this has taken place after August 13th, when Tareque Masud, internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Mishuk Munier, journalist and CEO of the private TV channel ATN News, and 3 others were killed in a road accident in Manikganj.

Family members of the 3 other victims—Mohammad Mostafiz, Md Motaleb Hossain Wasim, Jamal Mia—recently met Sheikh Hasina, who handed over two lakh taka cheques to each family. Hasina provided `comfort’ to the wives and mother of the victims, said the government press release, by `hugg[ing them] tightly’ (BSS, August 30, 2011).

Safe roads, or tight hugs from the prime minister? Family members, I’m sure, would have preferred the former. Members of the public, as well.

`Kado Bangali kado‘ (Weep, Bengalis, weep), insisted banners and billboards in Dhaka, to remind us to grieve on August 15, National Mourning Day, in rememberance of 1975 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, and 22 others were killed in cold blood by a group of army officers.

Many did. Still do. For their losses. But grief has become overlain with a profound sense of shock, disbelief, anger and fury. The thought that I will never see Tareque again, is unbearable.  Sadly, I had not known Mishuk. It is no longer a possibility now.

Eid in Mirsarai villages this year was barren and bleak. Photographs of dead classmates hung outside homes, black flags fluttered as villagers from near and far poured in to commiserate with the 32 Muslim families affected. Eid, said a grieving father, will never be the same again (Kaler kantho, September 3, 2011).

I’d known Tareque since my university days. Tall, lean, a flashing smile, seeking answers to social injustice and inequities in left politics. We’d last met in Chittagong several years ago and passionately argued and disagreed over Matir Moina.  We hadn’t crossed paths since, but I was secure in the knowledge that he was there, critically engaging with his own work. With the social meaning and worth of film-making. Film-making as a radical act. Bringing cinema to the people, rather than people to cinema halls. Dialogical, not in the interactive sense which can, and often is, monological but setting up active communication between two parties to enable a real dialogue, best expressed in Muktir Kotha (Words of Freedom, 1999). Tareque was non-elitist, non-populist. Through critical engagement with the history of 1971, Tareque had striven to be a people’s film-maker. He was a people’s film-maker.

The difference between `is` and `was`, is too painful to dwell on.

It was their microbus driver’s fault. `The road or signals didn’t cause the accident,` was the communications minister’s immediate response as he ordered a three member committee to investigate the incident. Their driver shouldn’t have tried to overtake (bdnews24.com, August 13, 2011). How did he know? The investigation hadn’t even begun! Maybe it was intended to set guidelines about how the investigation should proceed. Similar to Limon’s case, when the prime minister’s defence adviser claimed to be a 100 percent sure that the 16-year old Jhalokathi college student was attempting to run away from the RAB force. That, no, he was not shot in the leg deliberately. That, he was certain Limon and his father were members of a `criminal gang`. All uttered, when investigations into RAB’s shooting of Limon in his leg, were proceeding.

It was your microbus driver’s fault, repeated the communications minister, and the shipping minister Shahjahan Khan, when the duo went to see Catherine Masud, Tareque’s wife, a superb editor, producer of Matir Moina, winner of International Critics Prize at Cannes, as she lay in the intensive care unit of a private hospital (Monjuli Kazi interview). As she lay deeply shaken and traumatised by the knowledge that Tareque was no more.

It’s a lie, said Dilara Begum Jolly, a painter, and wife of artist Dhali al-Mamoon who was critically injured in the accident and is currently being treated abroad. It was the bus driver’s fault, he came from the opposite direction. He tried to squeeze in between our microbus going this-way, and a bus going the other-way. I heard a loud explosion, it just sliced away our microbus, diagonally. It was not our driver’s fault. Not at all (Manikganj Tragedy. Survivor blames bus driver, New Age, August 16, 2011. I have not come across survivor’s account anywhere else in the printed media).

I watched Jolly being advised later not to repeat these words. High-ups in the ruling party, it was said, had grumbled. You can’t expect the government to provide funds for Dhali’s treatment while criticising it at the same time.

Truth obstructs. The tax-payer’s money mutates into the prime minister’s personal largesse as government and party sycophants scurry around to perform her wishes. To satiate her ego. As copy-writers at the national news agency sit and spin emotive words to distract our attention. `Tight hugs.’

`All the ministers are working hard to carry out their responsibilities,’ had said the prime minister. But as the most recent WikiLeaks leaked cables reveal, the communication minister’s hard work seems to be devoted elsewhere. Abul Hossain ‘has a reputation for less-than-honest business dealings,’ then US ambassador in Dhaka James F. Moriarty had cabled to Washington, citing ‘high-ranking government officials who acknowledged problems with the minister’s way of doing business’ as his source. Whereas, in Canada, the authorities have begun corruption investigations of SANC-Lavalin Group Inc employees in the $1.2-billion World Bank-funded Padma Bridge project (Editorial, New Age, September 5, 2011).

The prime minister will look into the matter, says Obaidul Qader, Awami Leagues’s presidium member. But allegations do not lead to resignations of cabinet ministers. Neither in India, nor in the US, he added.

If this had been Japan, Monjuli Kazi, wife of Mishuk Munier, said in an interview to a private TV channel, the minister would probably have committed harakiri. But I don’t think, she told us later, whether Hossain… or  how many of the cabinet ministers do you think know what harakiri means? They have no dignity, they do not possess even a shred of self-respect.

Shaking with grief and anger, Monjuli had turned towards Sadek Hossain Khoka, Dhaka city mayor (BNP) at Banani graveyard, `Did you take to the streets when all those schoolchildren were killed? Did you call a hortal? You do that only when [the opposition leader Khaleda Zia] was evicted from her house. Shame on you!’

Her indictment was searing, `Our leaders couldn’t care less, while people are being killed, they sit in Sonargaon, in Sheraton, in Radisson hotels dining away.’

`Our ministers become politicians for personal gain and profit, and not to serve the people.’

`Our prime minister sits and smirks, she sells her father. Our leader of the opposition, she sells her husband.’

Strongest possible words, that too, coming from Munir Chowdhury’s daughter-in-law, one of the leading intellectuals killed by Bengali collaborators in 1971, undoubtedly, doubly embarassing for the AL government, given its monopolisation of the 1971 liberation struggle. I cannot help but wonder, if the Manikganj accident had occurred under BNP-Jamaat rule, wouldn’t the AL intelligentsia have howled that it was murder disguised as a road accident. That Tareque and Mishuk, two key witnesses in the 1971 war crimes trials, had been deliberately done away with?

Being Bangladeshis and not Japanese, and also, given the unprecedented rise in suicide rates recently, both painful and baffling, a simple resignation would have done.

That is what teachers, students, journalists, lawyers and development activists demanded when they gathered under pouring rain at Shaheed Minar, on August 25. Abul Hossain must resign, or else we will congregate here on Eid day. In protest.

A scorching sun greeted us at Shaheed Minar on Eid day. Disinformation was rife, it later found its way into national newspapers as well. Eid prayers were meant to be held at the Minar (Samakal, September 3, 2011). Disinformation continued at the protest rally. Rokeya Prachi, who played the lead role in Matir Moina, a sensitive actress, came up to me at the end of the rally and whispered, some guy came up to me and said, so, Tareque and Mishuk’s family have changed tracks after meeting with the prime minister? Wha-t, I said, why, Mishuk’s brother Tonmoy’s here (Asif Munir). He spoke. He’s lent his support to the movement. Prachi went on, all sorts of lies are being spread about us.

Abul Hossain’s resignation will not do. He must be sacked. If not, we’ll if need be, fast unto death, announced Robaet Ferdous, academic and writer.

To ensure the right to a `natural death’ other demands would have to be met, says the Chatra-Shikkhak-Peshajibi-Janata leaflet read out by singer Mahmuduzzaman Babu at the rally:  illegal licenses must not be issued to drivers. Measures must be undertaken to stop corruption in the R&D sector. Order must be restored in the public transport system. Strict laws must be created to prevent road accidents, they must be implemented rigorously. Drivers must be provided with adequate and proper training. Accountability must be enforced in the roads and communication sector, and, in all spheres of the administration.

But surely, the right to a natural death needed to be extended? queried economist Anu Muhammad. Expectant mothers too, suffered. Maternal mortality rates were high, the public health system was collapsing. We must broaden our vision.

Conscience is our driving force, says the leaflet. `It is conscience alone that has driven us to create the Chatra-Shikkhak-Peshajibi-Janata organisation.’ Is conscience political? Apparently not. `Our organisation is completely apolitical.’

Left activist Zonayed Saki, disagreed, most vehemently. I think we are deluding ourselves if we think roads can be made safe for passengers and pedestrians alike by focusing on `human error’, on driver behaviour alone, on wanting to control and punish the driver. I think drivers are being made scapegoats for a malaise that is much deeper, more fundamental. We should be talking about the public transport system as a whole, we should connect it to other aspects of state policies, things like, the issue of importing cars, what gets imported, for whose benefit, and why. To insist that drivers alone should follow rules and laws is farcical in a context where the politically powerful, from the prime minister down to civil, military bureaucrats, everyone, I repeat, everyone, breaks the law.

Why now? Why not earlier? asked Krishnokoli Islam, singer, also a left activist. Those who’re educated and privileged insulate themselves from common peoples causes. If you’d galvanised into action earlier, when all the senseless deaths occurred repeatedly over long months, maybe Tareque and Mishuk would not have been killed. Where were you?

Road safety is a social issue. It is a political issue.

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Published in New Age, Tuesday, September 6, 2011

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