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Anna Bhai, Gandhigiri and Us

Published in on August 31, 2011

The arrival of Anna bhai and his ‘Gandhigiri’, ironically copying a Bollywood storyline of Munna bhai and his embracing of Gandhi in dealing with national problem, has undoubtedly captured the imagination of the world. But not everybody is a fan. Arundhati Roy has almost called him a fake and the people who are seething in anger are just staying quiet for the right time to criticise him. But Anna Hazare definitely has arrived with Indian media and the middle-class hailing him as the new Messiah.

My prediction: this jubilation will be short lived and Team Anna will regularly venture into territories which will become problematic for democratic governance. However, even though I think his solutions are not well thought through (such sweeping power to an unelected body can never be good for democracy), he deserves a huge bow. At the least, the movement has made certain section of the citizens feel empowered and created a huge demand for change from the way business is being done. That is no small feat.

Continue reading ‘Anna Bhai, Gandhigiri and Us’


Whose face are we saving?

Pubished in

asif pixThe year was 1983. I was 9. In those days, colour TV was a rare commodity in Dhaka. We didn’t have it. But our neighbours next door, a middle-aged couple with a young girl, did. Luckily when we were at the roof, right by the water tank, we could hide and still get a direct view of the room where they had their brand new Sony colour TV. Once in a while, we would go and hide next to that tank to watch the ‘coloured’ ‘Incredible Hulk’. Who needs to listen to the dialogue when you can see the characters in colour? We were peeping toms watching our favourite monster go green in anger.

One night, however, the TV was not on air. Instead, we were introduced to a different monster – a live one, and it was none other than the man of the house. The husband was beating the wife while their 7-year-old daughter was begging mercy for her mother. I had never seen anything like that before. There was swearing followed by slaps, kicks followed by more swearing, slaps and kicks and it went on and on.

“Abbu, ar na, abbu, please ar na” – I still can hear the girl screaming at the top of her voice trying to save her mother, a respected teacher at Eden College.

Continue reading ‘Whose face are we saving?’


Losing the plot with Meherjaan


Meherjaan movie posterMeherjaan movie poster

There are times when in the middle of posturing and profiling, we lose sight of the big picture. Arguing for a ban on the movie Meherjaan is one such moment.   Those who were asking for a ban, or who are happy that its distributors have pulled down the curtain on the film, forget that a very dangerous precedence is being set — tow the line of an ‘acceptable’ narrative in your creative pursuit or perish.

Of course, I had problems with the film’s narrative that portrayed a feel-good image of the war. But I have been stunned with the sheer ferocity of the criticism the film received. I had the chance to see an earlier cut of Meherjaan six months ago with a lot of expectation, only to be disappointed by the script and the absurdity of its plot line. A film that campaigns on its political background — can it claim to be an apolitical love story when faced with criticism?

But I thought this was the beginning of a healthy exchange. I thought it was the beginning of the clash of storytelling between two generations — one that was too emotionally close to the War to accept any other narrative of the story and the one for whom the research of the War was done through interviews and books. It is foolish to dismiss either of these narratives as both were relevant. But it was important to keep the space open for debate to get a semblance of balance on both sides.

I was looking forward to a rational debate on substance, heated discussions on the history, and in the end a populace that has more clarity on our War through the discourse. Instead, what we saw, as it all too frequently happens in Bangladesh, was a debate that quickly descended into the personal territory. What’s the director’s family background? What was the hidden agenda? Why was the film released now? And most alarmingly, how did the Censor Board release this film?

Why? Why such personalisation and vilification when there is plenty to criticise on the substance of the film?

Those who asked this question were also put into a bracket with some colourful labels – “Engreji blogwala”, “bidesh ferot”, “out of touch”, “personally benefited”.   This is not the first time the progressive camp reacted with such vitriol when faced with such ‘nuisance factors’. I recall how Maqsudul Huq Maq of the band Feedback was castigated, vilified and eventually blacklisted in BTV in the late ‘90s for his experimentation with Tagore songs.

Still for a lot of people, the strong reaction against Meherjaan could be put into proper context. The common narrative of the War is not established on firmer ground yet, some said — thanks to many distortions in the past 35 years. There was nervousness about a counter narrative. “We haven’t had a closure yet”. “We are not ready for a counter narrative yet”.

Or so we are told.

Having accepted that, why do we not leave it up to the public to decide rather than trying to influence what it can or cannot see?

Too often, we underestimate the power of the average citizens in deciding what they want to accept and reject. Quite in contrast to existing norms, Tareque and Catherine Masud in the last few weeks have taken their latest film ‘Runway’ to the mass all around the country. In theatres after theatres in different cities, packed audience came and watched the film based on a somewhat controversial topic of the rise of religious extremism in Bangladesh. He took it to places where it mattered and left it upon the audience to judge his film. The results were surprising. The audience engaged in lively debates after the show and the director came away with an array of discourses – some expected and some not so expected — which, I believe, will only make his future works stronger. The lesson therefore is that it is extremely patronising to ‘shield’ the public from the so-called ‘incorrect’ narratives. Show it to as many people as possible and let the public decide what is right and what is wrong.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened with Meherjaan.  It couldn’t even be shown in Dhaka for more than a week. In spite of sell out crowds, the distributor pulled the film off the screen; the real reason behind the pull out is yet to be known but if some news reports are to be believed, the withdrawal of the censor certificate is likely to follow.

This will no doubt make some of those from the “progressive camp”, who were asking for the ban and those who originally questioned its censor certificate, happy.  But losers will be those who truly want an open space for creative exploration and who want an open space for debate without questioning each others’ agenda.

The losers will be those who could have hoped for a better film on 1971 in future by doing an honest critic of Meherjaan, which will now be impossible as it gains martyrdom.

The tragedy is not that film’s life was cut short. Real tragedy is that the intense reaction and subsequent exchanges could have provoked the younger generation to search for the real history of the War and its relevance. Now it’s a missed opportunity.

“In these transition times, we are all fighting for the soul of our country we live”, said Rahul Bose, Bollywood’s thinking actor, at an event in Dhaka for the Asian Women’s University last week.

Indeed we are.  However, among all the posturing and internal politic, those of us, who claim to be from the progressive liberal camp in this country, forget what kind of soul we aspire to have for our nation. Will this soul be about creativity, openness and fairness or will this be about close mindedness, banning of views that we don’t like, and censorship?

Judging from the reactions that I hear that Tareque and Catherine Masud got in their brilliant attempt to take the film to all over Bangladesh, I suspect it’s the former. Ironically, in the case of Meherjaan, however, we are setting a terrible precedence of intolerance with the vilification of a creative pursuit and celebration of its ‘withdrawal’. This, I am afraid, will return and haunt us for a long time to come.

Does this mean I am advocating to allow anything and everything under the sun in the name of freedom of speech?  Surely not. Freedom comes with responsibilities.  Surely Rubaiat Hossain, having access to the power and privilege, due to her family connection, could have showed more maturity, restraint and care in the portrayal of the war and particularly the women victims of the war. She deserves some of the criticism she is getting on the substance of the movie. But the movie by all account deserves to be shown.

There is still time. Let’s criticise the film to pieces. But let us protest any restriction in showing the film — be it official or unofficial.  Even if we hate the film, let us protest any attempt on censorship. Let us allow our people to make up their own minds about the film by letting them go and see it. More importantly in this process, let us aspire to make a better film – much better than Meherjaan – that captures the true essence of our great Liberation War.


Endless grief but no accountability

published July 30, Daily Star

Photo: APAsif Saleh

AFTER the recent Nimtoli fire, someone on the Unheard Voices blog commented: “Look at the reaction after the fire, endless grief but no demand for accountability from the citizens.” The fire truck came to Nimtoli but quickly ran out of water and had to go back through the narrow alleys and get water again. A few of the firefighters tried desperately with their limited resources.

Only a few weeks after the worst fire tragedy in Bangladesh that highlighted the resource constraint of our public safety organisation, the budget for fire service was cut. There was not a word anywhere. We were still busy grieving without asking the right question.

Who is accountable? How can we do better in response? How can we get to the bottom of it? No questions asked. We have become a country of fatalists. This was in our fate. So let’s just move on.

Today is the birth anniversary of Nurul Islam, the Gonotontri party leader who was burnt to death along with his son in a mysterious fire incident — another two people whose death remains unaccounted for.

A few months ago, his daughter Moutushi Islam showed us a documentary on the progress of investigation (or the lack of it) at Shahid Minar. The Shahid Minar was filled with people watching the documentary with tears in their eyes.

In their grief, they all probably thought this was a pointless exercise. Nothing will change, nothing will matter. What’s the point in demanding? Islam’s family and friends have has made sure that the demand for justice remained. Asking the right question is the first step and the most important step in this process.

So what are the right questions in this case?

-After the initial PDB report that concluded that it was not a short circuit, a “curious” follow-up report was released that contained misleading and erroneous findings. The MD of PDB himself was not aware of the second report. This suggests that some vested interest group has been trying to tamper with the investigation. However, there seems to be no clear effort to identify who influenced PDB to come up with the erroneous second report.

-Nurul Islam was called back to Dhaka on that fateful night by a trusted associate based on a false newspaper report — however, there was no investigation or interrogation regarding the source of this false report. Why?

-The issue of broken key door and bent window grill does not seem to have been taken seriously during the investigation. Why?

-This case has been listed as a “sensational case” but still there has been very little progress in the past 20 months. Why?

-There was no proper forensic analysis done — some chemical analysts were brought in, but no formal report ever came out. Why?

-There is repeated effort to try to conclude that it was a short circuit despite the fact that there is clear evidence to the contrary. Why?

A few months ago an inexplicable series of incidents took away the life a young man, an acquaintance of mine, in a fire. The police investigation team (which does not have a proper forensic team) was clueless and termed it a “short circuit.” The affluent family brought in a forensic expert from Singapore and the explanation was found in only a matter of days. It was not a short circuit. The family mourned, but they were at peace.

Nurul Islam’s family is not affluent. Nurul Islam spent all his life fighting for the rights of the workers. They cannot bring in a specialist from abroad. But the government can. Until we have built the expertise, can we not take help of outsiders to build our capacity? Until we build the capacity, can we not at least take the help for at least the most sensational cases?

Or is justice in this country for those who can afford it? Or are we going to remain a nation of fatalists who think if it was in our fate, then nothing could have been done about it and so no investigation is needed.

Enough of events and activities, we now need to demand results and outcomes. The trial of war criminals is ensuing. The process of righting the wrongs has started. Let’s not stop there.

Asif Saleh is the founder of Drishtipat, a social rights organisation.

Burning Inside

‘গরিবের প্রানের কোনো মুল্য নাই এই দেশে’, (There is no worth for poor people in this country) says the Biriwala in front of Dhaka Medical College.

I just returned from the burn unit of Dhaka Medical College. People are still trying to figure out there what just happened. The roads were too congested and small for the fire trucks to go in. Once they were in, pretty soon the water ran out and so they had to go back and get water again. In the process, more than 100 lives were in flames — just like that. By the time I went this morning, most of the bodies were dispatched to the morgue. I went in to the unit of the not so seriously injured ones at first.

As it happens in Dhaka medical college, most of these emergency patients don’t have any bed in the first place. They are either in the lobby and the not so serious ones typically are in the floor. But it did not seem that way yesterday with the serious ones lying in the floor bed as well. A man, half burnt, lying in pain, a mother sitting with his young son with burnt hands, father carrying his 7 year old with burnt legs and promising him what he would bring him from the store when he gets better. Most patients, however,  are blankly staring not sure what has hit them. A few journalists are reporting. They are also tired from reporting, I guess. The nurses could barely keep their eyes open. I slowly walk towards the serious injuries — or attempt to move there and I can’t.

Continue reading ‘Burning Inside’


Innovation Begins at Home

Published in Bangladesh Brand Forum Anniversary issue:

At 1.30 AM the night before the PM was going to launch the Digital Innovation Fair, an email reached my inbox:

‘I just came back from Novo theatre, the venue for the Fair. Even at midnight, it was buzzing with people from many ministries setting up their stalls for the 4th. I cannot recall a more energetic group of government people up and down the hierarchy all single-mindedly focused on showcasing multi-dimensional service deliveries. Each stall has become a pride and joy of a government agency. The energy was unmistakable, infectious really. ‘

Continue reading ‘Innovation Begins at Home’


A mobile paradigm for service delivery

The Daily Star

Friday, March 5, 2010

IN a resource-starved country like Bangladesh, where almost forty percent of the population earns less than a dollar a day, providing access via desktop solutions is untenable. On the other hand, the growth in mobile industry in the past decade and the reach of mobile phones in the rural areas have turned cell phones into the most accessible and affordable form of technology for the masses and an obvious choice of service delivery channel for public agencies.

Continue reading ‘A mobile paradigm for service delivery’

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