THE cafeteria at Prabartana had an unusual rule. Men could only go if accompanied by a woman. While I disagree with discrimination of any form, given there is such a blatant bias against women, I thought this was an interesting way of at least reminding us, that such a bias exists. While there are areas where Farhad Mazhar and I don’t see eye to eye, but by and large, I have regard for many of his initiatives. Along with the environmentalist Bill McKibben, I had done a story for the Mother Jones Magazine, on Ubinig’s Nayakrishi (new agriculture) project, where farmers had set up their own seed banks and were growing organic crops, way before it had become fashionable to do so. I liked the fact that he did not strut around in a suit at every big occasion, as many Bangladeshi men feel they have to. While I didn’t agree with much of his political analysis, I appreciated the fact that he was not amongst the many sycophants who praised the government regardless of how badly it behaved. I admired the fact that he was so well read. His partner Farida Akhter is a friend, she’s part of a small citizen’s group that speaks out for freedom of expression, where I too am a member.
So it was with genuine concern that my partner Rahnuma Ahmed and I went over to their flat in Haq Garden on July 3, upon hearing that he had been kidnapped. Farida and Chaumtoli Huq (Farhad Bhai’s daughter from an earlier marriage), were inconsolable. Upon hearing from them that he had left just after five in the morning and had later rung Farida to say he had been kidnapped, and that they were going to kill him, we had insisted that they speak to the press and ensure there was maximum pressure upon the government to work towards his release. Farida and Chaumtoli were not convinced. They felt it would endanger him further. Besides, the police had suggested that the press be kept out of it, for the purposes of investigation.
We were all in a state of shock. Disappearances and extra-judicial killings have become a regular affair, though the home minister, ridiculously, continues to deny them. The harassment of political opponents is also a daily occurrence. Farhad Bhai had made a statement against India at a press conference the previous day, so the wrath of this ‘friendly’ neighbour who we all know pulls the strings behind this government, provided a ‘motive’ for this action. The police tracers had indicated they were heading for Jessore, which was close to the Indian border. Our concerns heightened.
So when he was eventually found by the police and brought back unhurt, we were relieved. The public never gets to hear the true story when these things happen. We felt we had the right to know who the perpetrators were. Government denial of known cases of state sponsored abduction is far too common. We didn’t want another whitewash. Is the story of his relationship with Archana Rani suggesting that this might not have been an abduction after all, yet another ‘natok’? The pattern is far too familiar for comfort. An abduction, followed by a smear campaign, and a complete denial by the government is too familiar a pattern. Twenty one years after the abduction of Kalpana Chakma, the case is yet unresolved. The disappearance of opposition politicians Ilyas Ali and Sajedul Islam Sumon are cases where the state is clearly implicated. In Kalpana’s case the evidence is overwhelming, but the principal accused, an army colonel, has never been brought in for questioning. Not in twenty-one years. Then too, there had been a smear campaign. Claims made that she had eloped. Stories of the odd ‘sighting’ crop up even today. The cover-ups and the spin have become so common that disbelief has become an instinctive reaction. The old adage in media school, ‘Do not believe anything until it has been officially denied,’ applied so well in this case.
It was on this premise that several of us, many with impeccable credentials, made a statement demanding that the nation be told the truth and that attempts to derail the investigation through a smear campaign be resisted.
But what if Farhad Mazhar has misled us all? What if there is some truth behind the rumours? It will be very unfortunate if that is the case, as all of us, as well as the state machinery went to considerable trouble to ‘rescue’ him and ensure that he be unharmed. If so, Farhad Mazhar will lose all credibility, and the good that his organisation has done, will be mud. We will be left feeling we’ve been duped.
I would however like to return to the reasons for our concern. When a state makes ‘disappearances and extra judicial killings’ a standard tool in its arsenal; where denial is the first response, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that says otherwise; when blatant lies become the automatic response tactic as the government faces accusations; when spin doctors and surveillance machinery become the standard tools of a repressive state, distrust becomes the first response of a concerned citizen.
Whether we agree or not with Farhad Mazhar about the need for an Islamic revolution, his right to say it is something we must defend. When abduction, killing or torture become a tool for the state to contain political opponents, defending a persecuted citizen becomes the primary objective of other citizens. Faced with a habitual liar, disbelief has become the norm.
If Farhad Mazhar has indeed behaved in a duplicitous manner, he will have done a great disservice to his fellow citizens. But the response of concerned citizens, points to a bigger malaise. When a government loses credibility and while repression and intimidation remain its mechanism for clinging on to power, the only ones who will believe the government are the sycophants who surround it.
Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer and curator.
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