Archive for the 'Society' Category


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?’


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’


The ‘Helpers’ of Our Lives

Published Oct, 2009 in Daily Star Magazine

Despite the apparently minor tasks they perform, domestic workers are an important part of our lives. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

I have moved back to Bangladesh recently after spending 19 years abroad. In the process of reintegration to the society, I have been amazed to see how much it has changed. I compare my teenage years with those of a teenager today and I find youngsters are so much more globalised, open to new ideas, and hungry for success.

However, there are certain things that have remained the same. Our attitude towards our domestic help have changed very little. Even though, we, the urbanites, spend a major chunk of our time agonising over our ‘kajer loks’, the issue of our treatment towards them still remains a taboo. Would I be really exaggerating if I say even though I had a full time stay-at-home mother, my life has been surrounded by domestic helps? Would it be any different a story for any of you who are reading this? Are they just our employees, or as people who share our private lives, they are a little more than that? I grapple with this issue while introducing my daughter to the domestic helps whom she calls ‘helpers’.

This write up is an ode to the invisible helpers who helped me become what I am.

My first orientation to the concept of domestic help was through Jainal who came from Bogra at the age of eight after losing his father. My mother employed him so that he could play with me and I was not bored in the afternoon. Jainal was an instant hit among our friends with his sharpness and athleticism. My brother and sister started teaching him during the time when President Zia made it compulsory for all SSC candidates to teach an elder illiterate. He was taken in for a ‘viva’ and he did so well that pretty soon all of our relatives and friends started taking him as their case study. Jainal moved on after a few years. He eloped with our chef 10 years older than him, and after a few years in wilderness came back to us looking for a job. His wish was granted in no time. Jainal runs a successful rental car company now and provides me with car service every time I need one in no time.

Much before Jainal there was Abdul bhai who taught me driving in between my trips to different tutors in Dhaka. Abdul bhai also has been with us since he was eight. His parents passed away and he came to our family in Kaptai. My mother can’t remember who brought him to us. But he graduated from a house help to chef, and then from a chef to in-house driver in a few years. Since then, through thick and thin, he has remained with us — now for 40 long years. My mother is as worried about his retirement plan as she is with hers. When my father died, Abdul bhai cried more than any body else. Till date, in his spare time he goes to his graveyard and makes sure that it’s clean and tidy.

Have you ever wondered what’s the story behind so many of the domestic helps being referred to by their son’s name?

I am wondering as I am thinking about Harun-er ma (Harun’s mother). We never asked her real name. But she was the cook-in-chief at our house for the longest time. When my sister had a baby, she asked Harun-er ma whether she wanted to come to the US to help her out. She was ready instantly. For the next five years, she took care of my nephews while my sister was at work peacefully. When I visited her there, she would often ask me to write a letter to Harun on behalf of her. I remember the indignation of a longing mother asking her child to be responsible. Harun was of my age and so Harun-er ma always had a special corner for me. After my return to Bangladesh 13 years later, Harun-er ma came to see me with tears in her eyes. Harun passed away due to some complication after a surgery. I was stunned. Harun-er ma has told my mother that she wants to cook in my house because that would make her feel that Harun is close to her. She starts work next month.

The person who gets the most emotion out of my mother still, however, is Aklima. Aklima stayed at our place for eight years. But she was notorious for her temper. She would fight with a karai if she could when she was in a bad mood, which would happen quite often. But she was a grand cook and someone my mother could rely on when she was away. She would be bitter and angry one moment, and the very next moment would be laughing away. One of her weekly rituals was to fight with my mother and make her mad as hell. We never could figure out why my mother employed a woman who made her so angry. Eventually one day it was a little too much for my mother and she let her go after a bitter fight. Aklima was diagnosed with breast cancer a year after she left our house. My mother quietly used to send her money for her treatment. She mellowed down a lot and eventually passed away only in her thirties, and talked about my mother till her dying days. Till date my mother fondly remembers her service.

When I remember these people and their stories, I often wonder about the stories of abuse I read in the paper. Only a few days ago I went to a child domestic worker drop-in center run by Ain O Salish Kendro and supported by Save the Children and Drishtipat. There I met many of these young Jainals, Abduls and Aklimas. They were trying to learn new skills and get education so that they could climb on the mobility ladder. I was fascinated talking to them. When I read their profiles, it all seemed too familiar. Sons and daughters of landless farmers coming to Dhaka for employment and getting disconnected from their families forever.

I asked the supervisor if they talk about any kind of abuse in their ‘host family’.
“All the time”, she replied.
“Do you not do anything about it?”, I asked.

“If I do anything, they will stop sending them over to the drop-in centre. I only alert people when their complaints become extreme and unbearable”.

“What kind of complaints do you get?”
“Physical abuse by the house head, sexual abuses by the young brothers-in-law of the family — it’s of all kinds. When I talk to them, they often deny it and get very defensive.”

My jaw dropped, and it explained after all these years why the middle class is still afraid to talk about this issue. We have moved ahead so much in our journey as an independent country. We take pride in the progress and liberalisation of our society. But when are we going to look at these skeletons in our closet? Too often we dehumanise our domestic helpers so that we can rationalise our treatment to them. But there lies a Jainal, Aklima, Abdul and Harun-er ma in all our houses.

Can we start with humanising them in our own houses first?

Asif Saleh is the founder of Drishtipat, a social and human rights organisation which is running a campaign for dignity and education for child domestic workers.


‘We are poor, but are we not human?’

Published in the Daily Star on 24 March 2009.

Asif Saleh and Rumi Ahmed
Unattended and uncared for.

Every Saturday our prime minister speaks directly to the common people for a few hours and hears their grievances, and later asks the relevant ministry to take action on these matters.

Yesterday was one such day. I wasn’t there. But if I were, what would I tell the PM?

Continue reading ‘‘We are poor, but are we not human?’’


The bubble boys, the Green Zone and the 99%

Published in FORUM


What is wrong with the privileged elite of Bangladesh, asks Asif Saleh, that they can be so indifferent to the misery and hardship that surrounds them.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

We recently sent an intern from our organization to work for Ain O Shalish Kendro. Before she left, I met her in London — a very excited twenty-something girl out to change the world.

The zeal, however, soon turned into grief on October 28. Her Glasgow-residing father went to visit her in Dhaka. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time on that day. She didn’t hear from him all day and night after he went shopping at Baitul Mukarram, the scene of the chaos that broke out in the aftermath of the power handover.

Continue reading ‘The bubble boys, the Green Zone and the 99%’

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