IT WAS Saturday evening of August 26 — the Phulbari Day. In Nimtala circle of Phulbari, posters celebrating people’s movement against coal mine were seen everywhere. Every wall in the area was adorned with this poster of Phulbari Day, 2017. When you look at the poster, you cannot escape fierce protesting gaze of a woman. I have seen her image before. She is the women of Phulbari movement (2006) who took to street defying curfew and became the symbol of protest at home and abroad.
Golbanu is her name. She lives near Nimtala circle. Eleven years after the image was taken, we started to walk towards her residence through a tiny passage and reached her small house made of brick walls and tin shade roof. She is a familiar face for all those who participated and supported the bloody struggle against Asia Energy’s open pit mining project in Phulbari. Golbanu is the name of inspiration.
How is life for Golbanu now? When we visited her, she was ill. She was suffering from fever for few days and lost her appetite. However, illness could not make her weak — mentally or physically. She made it very clear to us, as she speaks. During our conversation, we could feel the warmth of her indomitable spirit of resistance. In a room inadequately lit with a low-watt electric bulb, she started to revisit those fiery days of movement and began to reminisce the moment when police brutally killed Salekin, Tarikul and Alamin.
Before I recount Golbanu’s story, we need to have a flashback to the history of Phulbari Movement in 2006. At the time, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in government. It made an agreement with the multinational company, Asia Energy for an open pit mining in Phulbari. The agreement did not consider the risk of open pit mining to the local environment and livelihood of the community. According to local people, about 200,000 people would be displaced, if the project is implemented. In protest, local people began to organise and raise their voice against this destructive project. Eventually, independent researchers and experts, environmentalists, political and cultural activists of the country joined the struggle. Local leadership of the movement grew stronger as the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports provided full support to the movement.
The National Committee declared a three-day long march starting from March 23, 2006. As part of the programme, thousands gathered in Phulbari on the Independence Day (2006) and demanded that the government scrap the disastrous project. However, Asia Energy, instead of packing its bag from the area, renewed its activity with full momentum. Inevitably, the National Committee called for a gherao (blockade) programme on August 26, 2006. Although the organiser of the gherao programme was planning a peaceful march towards the Asia Energy office, the government had violent intentions. Police and Bangladesh Rifles opened fire at the procession, three young souls lost their lives, and many were injured. However, police brutalities could not silence Phulbari, it continued to roar. Protest rallies spread like fires to every corner of the town. It took these deaths and injuries, four days of strikes and blockades to finally persuade the government to stop the destructive project. Since then, the struggle and sacrifice of Phulbari remain an inspiration for all in Bangladesh.
Golbanu broke the curfew imposed in the area after the death of Salekin, Tarikul and Alamin and became one of the nationally familiar faces of Phulbari movement. As I said earlier, the poster to observe Phulbari day this year also included her photograph. Let’s hear her story in her own words. Golbanu recounts, she was not in the spot at the time of the fatal clash when BDR opened fire. She said, ‘The whole area was agitated. Standing aside, we witnessed everything. Initially, we (women) were not directly participating. We heard BDR opened fire near the bridge. People died. What a horrific situation! At night, BDR raided door to door. No one took their meal that night. Fearing arrest, men and young boys left the village. The next day, August 27, I went to the market only to find out all shops were closed. We had to fast the whole day of August 26. Now, we saw the shops are closed. I asked [the BDR members], ‘why have you closed the shops?’ They said, ‘Curfew is declared’. I could not tolerate the situation anymore.’
Golbanu continued, ‘I returned home, went outside again armed with a boti (a sickle like sharp knife used in kitchen) and broomstick… I shouted at BDR, ‘Okay! You won’t let us eat! You eat on our tax money, now you have come here to kill us! Let’s see what happens today!’ I chased BDR towards the bridge with that boti and broomstick. They, BDR and Police, walked away laughingly. They thought of me as insane. But, I did not leave the place. Later, all the women took to streets. We shouted at them, we defied curfew. We broke section 144. We all took to the street, started rallying. Those who absconded the village fearing BDR harassment and arrest too returned and joined the protest at night.’
That courage of Golbanu and other women protesters of Phulbari proved government’s bloody repression futile. Their courage made Phulbari the site of indomitable resistance. Movement gathered national interest, procession across the country chanted slogans — ‘Protibad, protirodher rajdhani, Phulbari! Phulbari! (Capital of Portest, Phulbari! Phulbari!)’ The then BNP led government was forced to withdraw the local of office of Asia Energy. They had to send BDR and police back to their barracks. Accepting the demands of the people of Phulbari, the government signed an agreement consisting of six point demands of the protesters that included withdrawal of the Asia Energy from Phulbari, removing all establishments from the site of the planned coal-mining project, compensation to the families of deceased, withdrawal of all cases against the protesters and trial of the responsible for the killings of Salekin, Alamin and Tarikul. The agreement, however, is not fully implemented. People in Phulbari including Golbanu are still rallying for the full implementation of the agreement.
Golbanu said, ‘Few days after the mayhem, netri (the present prime minister Sheikh Hasina, the opposition leader at the time) visited Phulbari. In a public address, at Santahar, she promised that she would implement the six point agreement, if she is elected in the next election and people of Phulbari would live in peace… We said, ‘Okay…’ We gave her our blessings. She came to power, what happened? It has been eleven years, she did not keep her promise.’ It was just to ploy to get more votes.
Golbanu paused and remained silent for a while, and then she broke the silence in a determined voice, ‘as long as we are alive, they can’t implement the destructive project. What are they thinking? We will die? If one of us dies three of our children will grow up. Don’t you think, they will carry on the legacy of their mothers’ resistance, they will.’ As she reminisced, she expressed anger and discontent. Her neighbours, who gathered there during our visit, also nodded in agreement with her.
We also got to know more about Golbanu’s family. She has three sons and a daughter. Her daughter’s wedding is approaching. She was saying, this Phulbari is her sangsar (world). She grew up here. This is her birthplace. Although, her paternal home was in India. In 1947, during partition, her paternal family moved to Bangladesh. Phulbari is her address.
As we are walking back to Nimtala Circle, walking through the tiny passage, we were engrossed with her words, thoughts and reflections on the movement and power. This time, the poster of Phulbari day pasted on the wall, the words and photograph strewn in it, was becoming more meaningful to us. The demand resonated with us, ‘Full implementation of Phulbari Agreement’.
Abdullah Mahfuj Ove is a filmmaker and poet. He is also actively involved in the Save Sunderbans movement.