Issue: 2017-12-22 | The Daily Star

A contentious history

As a reader of the above-titled article in Star Weekend on December 15, 2017, it is disturbing that there is no authentic and factual history of our nation. A period of 46 years has gone by and we are yet to establish a non-debatable history, because of the change in regimes and party politics.

The history of a nation must be conclusive and consist of actual facts and events through which a nation gets its birth. It must not be changed due to party politics or at the whims of different regimes. A nation is of the people, not of any political party. Party politics and feuds have been the cause of producing an inconsistent and distorted history from time to time. If this continues, our progeny will not know the authentic history of their nation. This will be a great setback to projecting the history of our nation to the outside world. The writer very aptly quoted the famous saying—“A nation which does not know what it was yesterday does not know where it is today”.

Mashudul Haque

Central Road, Dhaka

Stop historical distortion

This letter is in reference to the cover story on "Editing out 1971" published on December 15, 2017 in the Star Weekend magazine. It is indeed a timely and praiseworthy report. History is the mirror image of a nation, the reality of the past. It reminds us of the successes and failures of the past and helps us scale new heights. The Liberation War is our glory and the freedom fighters are our heroes. Alongside the freedom fighters, many foreign allies helped us during the war in 1971. As a whole, the history of the Liberation War is an asset of our country and it is not the specific claim of any particular political party. Distortion of history is a crime which can destroy the future progress of our country. We should stop distorting our history and properly honour our gallant heroes and their allied comrades.

Md. Zillur Rahaman


Nestled in a dingy alleyway at Dinanath Sen Road of Gandaria is a rich bit of history that dates back 103 years. The structure towers over passers-by, facade weather-beaten and yellowed walls bearing the imprint of old age. You enter into a courtyard partially shaded by tin roofs supported by metal planks. The courtyard is deserted on a wintry Friday morning, and yet, the air is static with cacophony. Sadhana's factory premises are buzzing with the frenetic energy of two dozen monkeys at least.

That is the last thing that the average city-dweller would expect to find at Sadhana Aushadhalaya. Jogesh Chandra Ghosh, martyred Ayurveda physician and philanthropist, founded Sadhana Aushadhalaya in 1914. Ghosh, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a member of the American Chemical Society, wanted to popularise the use of affordable, herbal medicine amongst the poorer strata of the population. Come rain, hail or the ubiquitous hartal devoted customers come seeking immediate attention from the in-house kobiraaj (ayurvedic practitioner).

But the Sadhana factory is a herbal medicine manufacturer by day and safe haven for the local monkeys around the clock. “I've seen monkeys at Sadhana since the day I began working here. When they cause disturbances in the neighbourhood, people point fingers, saying 'Sadhana's monkeys' are to blame,” says Bhabatush Dey, who has served as the security guard of Sadhana for 17 years. A graveyard stands next door to the factory, providing lush greenery and ample room for the monkeys to run amok. It's not just open space that lure these monkeys to the Sadhana vicinity—it's the promise of food. Bhabatush Dey personally ensures that 10 kilograms of raw lentils are provided for the monkeys every morning at roughly 7 am. This tradition was started by the late Ghosh himself, who would lovingly feed the monkeys every day. Ghosh was shot to death in 1971 by the Pakistan Army for sheltering Bengali Hindu families in Sadhana's factory during the East Pakistan genocide of 1964. Following his death, the factory was shut down for almost a year until Ghosh's son, Dr Naresh Chandra Ghosh, revived Sadhana Aushadhalaya. Since then, his family has carried on this practice and they have yet to miss a day. “When the factory was shut down, there was no one to look after the monkeys. They had to scavenge for survival. But now, they expect food every morning and convene in the courtyard ahead of time,” explains Bhabatush Dey.

The monkeys climb the gate and planks, racing in pursuit of what must be a ball of yarn invisible to my naked eye. They zoom past in every direction, frolicking in the open space. All it takes is a whiff of dry bun and a banana to stop these hooligans in their tracks and furtively make their way toward me, eyes keenly observing the bun in question. Wait too long, and they'll snatch the food from an unsuspecting visitor's hand like a hawk. A dearth of natural food sources around Sadhana entails a dependency on food provided by visitors—the only curb against habitual thievery from neighbouring residences. Concrete buildings mushrooming in every nook and cranny to shelter the ever-increasing human population have fast diminished the number of these primates. The monkeys use overhanging electrical wires to cross busy roads, often being electrocuted. Throw hunger and disease into the mix, and we're looking at an endangered species teetering on the precipice of extinction. Even 14 years ago, these monkeys could be found across 11 areas in Dhaka; currently, their settlements are limited to four areas only, including Old Dhaka localities, such as Tanti Bazar, Shankhari Bazar, Gandaria, Nawab Street of Wari, Banagram, Bangshal road, Jonson road, Tipu Sultan road, Meshundi at Narinda and Farashganj, among others.

Photo: Sohag Mohajon

Inconsistency in food supply prompts the monkeys to invade residential buildings, where they enter homes through unmonitored gates or open windows. “In their quest for food, the monkeys often vandalise households. They break into fridges, destroy plants, and steal clothes from rooms and rooftops. The other day, a troop of monkeys from Sadhana ransacked my tea stall and stole a dozen bananas,” chuckles Anwar, who owns a small tea store in front of Sadhana Aushadhalaya. Personal grievances aside, Anwar enjoys having the monkeys around, adding, “Residents get frustrated with the monkeys' disturbance but I don't want them removed from the area. They've been a part of Puran Dhaka for generations, since my father and grandfather's time. They're a part of our heritage.”

The monkeys frequent rooftops in tribes of 10 to 12 at a time, slouching, playing or bickering with one another to their heart's content. I find a lone monkey, sitting isolated atop an iron gate, thoughtfully studying his loyal subjects as they wreak havoc across the courtyard. “They steal clothes, only to return them when they get food. Rowdy as they are, they don't harm people,” explains Sohag Mohajon, General Secretary of Dhaka Youth Club International and an environmental activist.

“The children enjoy throwing food at the monkeys or watching them grab it out of their hands. They're very entertaining!” muses Mohammad Jahid, a local resident of Gandaria who often visits Sadhana with his family. But ever so often, the monkeys' innocent playfulness goes too far, evoking the wrath of the locals. There have been incidents when the monkeys have been sloshed with boiling water or beaten.

The message is clear: the only thing protecting the monkey population is the community's willingness to integrate and accept them. If this delicate balance is ever toppled, the monkeys will be ousted from their century-old natural habitat which humans have urbanised. Thus the question at the forefront of my mind: if this fragile local acceptance is ever breached, what happens to the monkeys?

Ten years ago, Dhaka City Corporation began a feeding programme for the monkeys which promptly increased their numbers to 500 in Old Dhaka. No budget allocation in the later years necessitated the shutdown of the programme in 2013. Local NGO Pokkhikul had undertaken a similar initiative years ago. “Members of Pokkhikul would provide bananas to the monkeys daily. However, they stopped their programme after a year because of rising debt and a lack of funding,” says Bhabatush Dey. 

Sohag estimates that there's roughly 100-150 monkeys remaining. This was the very realisation that drove Dhaka Youth Club International, along with Dhaka Women's Club, Puran Dhaka Mancha, and the local residents, to conduct a human chain on December 8. They rallied to urge the city corporation to take responsibility for the rehabilitation, medical treatment and sustenance of the dwindling monkey population. “Unless there's adequate funding to ensure regular food supply and medical help, survival of the monkeys will be threatened. The ministry and city corporation must step in once again to ensure their safety," elaborates Sohag. “The locals too have a duty. A community fund could be set up to feed them.”

My final minutes with Dey are the most telling, though they're spent in silence. He accompanies me outside the premises, yapping at nearby bickering monkeys by way of habit. Familiarity echoes in each of his interactions with them, borne over 17 long years. I'm left with a sense of reverence for our capacity to coexist with these creatures, and the profound consequences if we fail.

Mithi Chowdhury is a dog-loving, movie-watching, mediocrity-fearing normal person. She's also a writer for Shout, The Daily Star. 

William Carey, a Christian missionary from England, established the first degree awarding university in India. Photo: Courtesy

Just 50 years after the ascension of Jesus the messiah, Saint Thomas, one of Jesus's 12 apostles set foot on the Indian subcontinent to preach the prophet's holy words. In the southern coasts of India, impoverished and marginalised fishing communities, who used to be considered untouchables by the upper caste Hindus, welcomed the message of egalitarianism and converted to Christianity as early as 50 AD. However, it was not until the 16th century that Christianity gained foothold in the geographical boundary of modern-day Bangladesh.

Portuguese missionaries, who entered through Chittagong port and established their mission in the Diang area of the city, were the flag-bearers of Christianity in Bangladesh. They built their first churches in the region in 1600 AD (some say 1599 AD).

The Holy Rosary Church at Dhaka's Tejgaon area, built in 1677 AD, is also one of the oldest churches in Bangladesh. Under the patronage of Mughal and British rulers, Christian missionaries gradually expanded their activities to all parts of Bengal.

However, compared to other parts of the Indian subcontinent, expansion of Christianity was relatively slow in Bengal, which was already populated by another Abrahamic monotheistic religion—Islam. Today, Christianity comprises only 0.5 percent of Bangladesh's 16 crore population whereas Islam comprises 89 percent. However, thanks to their charity-based initiatives, the small Christian community has made notable contributions towards the cultural and economic prosperity of the people of Bengal.

For instance, Christian missionary William Carey's mission at Serampore, West Bengal laid the foundation of the Bengal renaissance in the 18th century. He established Serampore College and took the initiative to spread modern European science-based education among Bengalis. He encouraged village paathshalas and affiliated those to Serampore college to ensure that students could learn modern subjects through traditional teaching-learning methods. He established a printing press at Serampore College and translated numerous English books into Bengali and Persian and vice versa. Later, his missionaries also contributed to promulgate the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 which recognised the rights of Bengali peasants and curtailed powers of the zamindars or feudal lords.

Following in the footsteps of the Serampore mission, Christian missionaries in Bangladesh spread their knowledge and charity-based approaches in the remotest parts of the country. They established missions in the impregnable jungle and hilly areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Garo Mountains, isolated islands and in the remote northern indigenous villages. Wherever they established their churches, they established a primary school and a charitable dispensary or a small clinic with it for the local people.

The Christian community was also an ardent supporter of Bangladesh's liberation movement. Many Christian missionaries were killed by the Pakistan army for supporting and harbouring freedom fighters. On April 17, 1971 when the Mujibnagar government was being organised in the mango orchards of Meherpur district, the Bhabarpara Catholic Church at Meherpur came forward and donated their furniture and resources to organise the oath-taking ceremony of the Bangladesh Government-in-Exile. Father Marino Rigon, an Italian Christian missionary at Mongla sheltered thousands of freedom fighters and provided medical care to the wounded fighters. Due to his immense contributions during the Liberation War, he was conferred with honorary citizenship in Bangladesh.

However, their contributions became more apparent during the reconstruction of war-torn Bangladesh. Holy Family Hospital, run at the time by the Missionaries of Charity, provided healthcare to war-affected people all over the country. The missions provided food, education and healthcare to the remotest communities where the fledgling Bangladesh government could not reach during the post-war period.

In this regard, the contribution of Caritas, a non-government development organisation run by Catholic missionaries, is mentionable. According to Theophil Nokrek, Director, Caritas Development Institute, Caritas implemented development projects worth BDT 350 crore to rehabilitate people affected by the war in 1972. They also invited 200 Japanese scientists to Bangladesh to produce high-quality rice breeds and introduce them to Bangladeshi agriculturalists and farmers. Till date, Caritas has been contributing to the country's development sector by running 95 projects in the areas of formal and non-formal education, healthcare, women empowerment and financial security. It is now one of the largest development organisations operating in Bangladesh.

The Christian community's contribution towards the development of Bangladesh's education sector is also significant. Educational institutions like Notre Dame College, St Joseph Higher Secondary School and St Gregory's High School are deemed some of the best educational institutions of the country.

However, Dr Harold Bijoy Rodrigues, Provincial Superior, Brothers of Holy Cross, St Joseph Province, Bangladesh thinks that the main contribution of Christian missionaries' lies in the expansion of primary education in Bangladesh. “When there was no government primary school in the entire Chittagong Hill Tracts, our missionaries spread the light of education by establishing primary schools in the remotest indigenous villages. Currently Christian missionaries in Bangladesh are running more than 5,000 primary schools, most of which are located in the hard-to-reach areas,” says Dr Harold. Over the last few years, the Catholic missionaries undertook a project called Lighthouse, through which they established 1,300 primary schools in remote villages. “Our goal is to hand over the schools to the government so that these schools and the quality of education that is taught is maintained in the long run,” says Theophil Nokrek.

Serampore College established by Christian missionary William Carey was the centre of spreading modern European education in Bengal. Photo: Courtesy

However, these altruistic missionaries are now facing obstacles in continuing their educational services. Dr Harold says, “The biggest obstacle we face is government intervention in our admission procedure. According to the government, we must enrol the students with higher GPA scores on a priority basis, but according to our goals, we have to give equal priority to these students, even if they do not have better grades. We still face a lot of trouble enrolling students from marginalised communities and must defy the government orders to some extent.

“We should realise that the merit of an indigenous student with a GPA of 4.40 who doesn't have electricity at his/her home should not be compared with the GPA 5 scorer who lives in Dhaka and has access to all modern amenities. We must encourage the less privileged by giving them the opportunity to access quality education.”

Besides their contribution to education, the Christian community's support in providing quality healthcare is also notable. Every Christian church or monastery is fitted with a charitable dispensary or a small clinic where everybody can get primary healthcare services for free and medicines at a nominal price. Health workers of these clinics run awareness raising campaigns all over rural Bangladesh. Dr Edward Pallab Rozario, Project Co-ordinator (Health), Caritas says, “Our most prominent contribution to healthcare has been in ensuring quality maternal and paediatric healthcare. In the last five years, more than 80 percent of births in our clinics were normal deliveries and we encourage mothers to go for natural births by informing them about its benefits. We are also the pioneers in providing treatment and care for patients with chronic infectious diseases like small pox, leprosy, cholera, malaria and AIDS.

Christian missionaries now operate in over 10,000 charitable clinics and dispensaries all over Bangladesh. In many districts they have established well-equipped hospitals such as St Vincent Hospital in Dinajpur, St Mary's Hospital in Khulna, Our Lady Fatima Hospital in Barisal and sick shelters and leprosy shelters in all the major cities of Bangladesh.

However, like many other minority communities, the Christian community too is suffering. According to Archbishop Moses Cosa, Metropolitan Arch Bishop of Chittagong, “We don't have any prayer time on Sunday which is our religious weekly holiday. As a result, many of our devotees particularly the youth are becoming less interested in performing religious rituals.” He also adds that in many places missionaries are not allowed to operate and have been evicted with the accusation of forced conversion. “We conduct charitable activities because we believe that providing service to humanity is a form of prayer. We have never converted anyone forcefully,” says the Archbishop.

“More than 90 percent of Christians in Bangladesh are indigenous. They have been facing different types of discriminations for decades. They do not even have rights to their own lands. If we consider their situation, Christians in Bangladesh are not in a good position at all,” he adds.

Over the centuries, Bangladesh's Christian community has set unparalleled examples of providing altruistic humanitarian services through peaceful and harmonious practices, but scores of attacks and threats have been reported against Christian missionaries and several of them have been killed by religious extremists in the last couple of years. Again, most of the members of this religious community are doubly marginalised due to their indigenous identities.

During his recent visit, Pope Francis applauded Bangladesh's religious harmony saying, “Bangladesh is one of the best examples of inter-religious harmony.” Now the ball is in our court to defend this appraisal by fulfilling our constitutional pledge of freedom of religion and social justice.


The writer can be contacted at

It is by now widely recognised that with the 1980s came a new tide of political movements and struggles around questions of community identity, globally as well as in South Asia. On the international level, the real break from earlier kinds of politics—what can be referred to as modernist politics—came with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The disintegration of both of these socialist states, which formally recognised no official identity other than that of the citizen, was soon followed by an explosion of xenophobic nationalisms and identity wars. Conflicts between the Russians and Chechens, Serbians and Croatians, Serbians and Bosnians and so on soon engulfed the territories where these states once stood.

Within the United States, UK and Europe, this was likewise a period of major challenge to the ideals of liberal democracy and its non-recognition of community rights. Former colonial people, now living in these countries, gradually created pressures for multicultural citizenship. The matter is not as simple as it may seem, however, for by recognising the rights of these communities to their own cultural practices, the host countries were forced to put their own concepts of secularism and citizenship in jeopardy. So, for example, what eventually shook the foundations of the French republic was not 'Islamic terrorism' but the picture of three young girls going to school in headscarves. The debate over the 'display of religious symbols' in public has only intensified since that first incident, in 1989.

In India, the beginning of the 1980s was marked by the rise of the 'anti-foreigners' trend in Assam and the Khalistan movement in Punjab, to name just two of the most well-known identity-led agitations. The former also had a wider resonance for the Southasian region as a whole, as the claim being made was that 'outsiders' from Bangladesh were illegally migrating into Assam and threatening the distinctiveness of 'Assamese culture'.

Indeed, the 1980s have been generally recognised by political theorists as the period of the global rise of 'identity politics'.

This signalled the global winding-down of the several 'emancipatory' political approaches that had come about during the modern age, including liberal democracy and socialism. Identity politics have, therefore, been the subject of much scholarly writing in recent years. But during that time, identity politics has also come to be something of a pejorative term, with many referring to this idea as merely 'symbolic', with no material basis. This has led to widespread suggestions: that identity politics can only be divisive and sectarian, rather than unifying; and also that identity-based approaches overwhelm 'unmarked' secular identities, such as class. So, for example, critics of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati claim that she indulges in merely symbolic politics—expressed, for instance, in the installation of statues of Dr B R Ambedkar around the state.

A little reflection shows that the term identity politics itself is quite inappropriate in such circumstances, as it assumes that there are at least some kinds of politics that are not related to identity. Most often the term is used as a counterpoint to something that is 'structural' and 'material'—for example, class politics. Yet it can be argued that, in an important sense, all politics are ultimately identity politics. Even 'class' becomes a political subject only when it becomes an identity, when a worker begins to see himself or herself as a worker, for instance, rather than as a Hindu or a Muslim, white or black, a man or a woman, an 'upper caste' or a Dalit.

What often goes in the name of class analysis (as opposed to an identity-based one) is best illustrated in the wide range of writings that were published in the wake of the Gujarat 2002 carnage. Several scholars, including sociologist Jan Breman and professor and anti-communal activist Ram Puniyani (to name just two), offered the following explanation: Ahmedabad's textile mills, it was claimed, had been closing down for some time before the massacres, rendering over a lakh workers unemployed (many of whom happened to be Hindu), who then became prey to communal mobilisation. But such an understanding begs the question as to why these workers could never act together as workers. A similar explanation was given for why Adivasi workers turned against their Muslim peers during the same massacres. Most moneylenders in the area, we were simply told, were Muslims, and the Adivasis had a conflictive relationship with them.

Why they did not turn their wrath against the Hindu moneylenders is, again, left unexplained.

The very use of the term identity politics is meant to suggest that, as opposed to structural (that is, class) issues, identity is about non-structural, even 'unreal' questions. You cannot create an explanation that seeks to understand sectarian conflict in cultural terms, as that is supposed to be non-class or at least non-material. That is why all of these explanations try to 'uncover' some 'hidden truth' behind such violence. As a matter of fact, issues of identity, culture, class and power are all enmeshed with one another; there is no issue that is a pure question of identity, just as there is no pure class issue.

Class is identity

Many intellectuals and activists on the left believe that the emergence of the politics of identity effectively displaces the 'class' politics of the earlier era, one in which struggles were essentially over resources, jobs, income and welfare questions, classically represented by trade unions. At a very fundamental level, the struggles over property and resources have been reduced in such understandings to 'class' struggles. However, regarding property as merely a synonym for class precludes a nuanced understanding of the complexities of access to land and other resources.

What if questions of redistribution—of property and resources—were already questions of identity? What if one were to suggest that class and identity were not such neatly separable categories? What if the division between the propertied and the propertyless is not always one between the bourgeois and the proletarian, but also simultaneously a division between the white and the black, between the upper caste and the Dalit, between man and woman? Also, many contemporary struggles about 'identity' are, in fact, equally about redistribution and inequality in property ownership.

For instance, the women's movement has placed the question of property ownership within the family right at the top of its political agenda. Similarly, the question of land and capital for Dalits began to be identified as a top priority, as happened during the momentous conclave of Dalits in early 2002 under what came to be referred to as the Bhopal Conference. The ecological struggles of recent decades in India have been as centrally concerned with questions of customary rights over land and forests, as they have with issues of Adivasi identity and way of life. In each of these cases, the question of property and resources is inseparable from that of identity.

Illustration: Manan Morshed

One could extend the question of redistribution to the domain of power relations more generally. Scholars such as Ashis Nandy, for instance, have for some time argued that the rise of the Hindu right in contemporary India is not simply about the rise of irrational and backward-looking forces of reaction, but rather a consequence of the deepening of democracy and the entry of larger numbers of the 'untutored masses' into the democratic political space. One could also say, along with political theorist Partha Chatterjee, that as a consequence of this there is a conflict today between modernity and democracy—where democracy has become the arena of challenges by 'commoners' towards the Westernised elite's control over power and modern institutions. More than a decade ago, another political theorist, Sudipta Kaviraj, suggested that it was actually the English-speaking elite's control of Nehruvian India that was the primary cause for the exclusion of the emerging vernacular middle classes—thus eventually making them available for the counter-mobilisations around Hindutva and other identity-based platforms.

Looking to another continent, how questions of class, power and identity can be inseparably interlocked is brought out starkly in the example of a general strike in Nigeria in 1945. The strike was called by some 17 unions, representing workers in government departments, to protest the failure of the colonial government to grant cost-of-living wage increases. Surely, we would imagine, there cannot be anything 'ethnic' about such a strike. Nevertheless, says political scientist Donald Horowitz, who has studied numerous 'ethnic' riots across the world, “the unrepresentative ethnic composition of the striking unions produced ethnic resentments.” The strike was inspired by an ethnic Ibo leader, and was seen by Hausa northerners as a southern Ibo business that was causing them immense hardship, including shortages of essential goods. The situation subsequently created the conditions that led to the eruption of an anti-Ibo riot three months later. This example, which starkly demonstrates that class and ethnicity are often inextricably intermingled, has many parallels in India.

Throughout the course of India's anti-colonial agitation, there were instances of how trade-union struggles met with an ambivalent, if not hostile reaction from Dalit workers. After all, despite the fact that they were the most adversely affected in any strike, Dalits almost never had any voice in deciding on the affairs of the unions and the larger struggles. During the historic textile strike of 1928 in Bombay, Dr Ambedkar expressed deep concern over the fact that not only were Dalit workers toiling in the lowest-paid jobs, but that this was leading to their being virtually excluded from leadership in the unions. He reported telling union members during the course of the strike that “if they did not recognise the right of the depressed classes to work in all the departments, I would rather dissuade them from taking part in the strike.”

In strikes at the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills in Madras, in 1921, there had actually been clashes because the Dalit (adi-dravida) workers had refused to join with the rest of the strikers. They were accused of being “blacklegs”. M C Rajah, an important Dalit leader, attempted to justify their non-participation by arguing that the Dalit workers “had acted in their best interests”. Rajah claimed that “previous experience has taught the Adi-Dravida that participation in strikes proved detrimental to their interests,” and that in the past they had been forced to sell their property and mortgage their jewels during strike periods.

Imagined worlds

It must be remembered, however, that marginalisation such as that of the Adi-Dravida is generally not simply an oversight. Rather, it is structurally embedded in the situation. Unfortunately, no union has the courage to take on this question in any seriousness, for this would mean the alienation of the majority of the workers—mostly upper- and middle-caste Hindus. This, of course, is reflected not just in relation to the Dalits but also in relation to Muslims.

A classic case comes across powerfully in Thomas Blom Hansen's account of Muslim workers in post-colonial Bombay. In the Bombay mills, the threading of large looms was normally done by ansaris, traditional Muslim weavers. This activity required that they wet the cotton threads with their mouths, and Hindu workers subsequently regarded the cloth as polluted, refusing to touch it. The management, wanting to avoid such problems, simply got rid of the Muslim workers. The unions, for their part, made no protest. According to a Muslim unionist who recounted the story, even those who felt uncomfortable with these communal sentiments decided that they should keep quiet in the interests of unity.

It is evident then that class unity comes at a steep price, however: surrender before the dominant tradition, which in this case was upper-caste and Hindu. It should also be evident that class unity is a mere illusion, anyway, for it ultimately remains the unity of workers of the majority community. The instances recounted here highlight the ways in which questions of identity and class, of economic and power relations, of the division of labour, all overlap and are impacted by one another.

What this means in terms of social and political analysis is that we cannot understand the world solely through categories and classifications put in place by the social sciences. Equally, we need to take onboard the lived world of people, as well as the ways in which individuals construe their own worlds. For, in the end, this is what motivates each person to act in the ways that he or she does. People do not act out their lives in accordance with some objective, scientific categories: even when they act as a 'class', it is always imbued with the 'impurity' of identity.

Aditya Nigam is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. Reprinted from Himal South Asia. 

Photos: courtesy

If you haven't hit 45, you are ideally not supposed to worry about suffering from medical conditions such as brain strokes or heart attacks. Stroke is the leading cause of death for people above the age of 60. Likewise, statistics suggest that you are more prone to heart disease once you cross the 45-year mark. However, as far as Bangladeshi migrant workers are concerned, these numbers do not matter. Most of the workers who die due to strokes or heart attacks are between the ages of 30 and 45. And the reason behind this astoundingly premature trend is an immense amount of stress.

Here is another astounding fact. Never before has the country witnessed the return of so many dead bodies in a single year as in 2017. And this is not entirely due to the rising number of migrants going abroad.

According to government statistics, 2017 has seen the return of more than 3,200 dead bodies to the country until November, and officials expect it to cross 3,500 by December. Of these deaths, 30 percent are attributed to strokes and heart attacks, while another 45 percent died due to workplace accidents. These numbers are based on independent research conducted by organisations in Bangladesh and hence may vary slightly. The government is yet to conduct a thorough examination regarding this issue.

Saudi Arabia sends back the most number of dead bodies to Bangladesh. According to Golam Moshi, the Bangladesh Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the situation can drastically improve if migration fees are decreased. He also points out that there are unscrupulous employers who do not provide workers with medical insurance—an aspect that employers need to cover according to the country's law. “As per Saudi rules, the medical cost of every worker in the Kingdom should be insured. But there are unscrupulous employers who don't provide the workers with insurance or provide them with insurance of the lowest-possible category,” says Moshi.

“As a result, workers are scared of going to the doctors. If they have chest pains, they end up taking a pill for acidity. They have spent so much to come here. They will most definitely not go to the doctor and spend more. I believe that 50 percent of the stress can be eradicated if migration fees are lowered,” he adds.

There are many studies that suggest that none of the workers from other South Asian countries have to pay as much as Bangladeshi migrants. Most of the workers who go abroad end up paying a lot more money than the amount set by the government. For instance, the official migration cost to Saudi Arabia, since 2016, is BDT 1.65 lakh. However, despite that figure, a worker ends up paying between BDT 6 to 8 lakhs due to various problems and illegal practices in the recruitment process, which have persisted for years. This isn't only the case for Bangladeshis who wish to go to Saudi—it's the same for those going to places like Malaysia and Lebanon as well.

In order to spend such a huge amount of money, migrants end up taking a lot of risks. From taking loans to selling their lands, the money is collected in various ways. This ends up taking a toll on them—psychologically and physiologically. Certain workers are also cheated abroad and are not given the salary or the kind of work that they were initially promised. Situations like these make things worse.

The other issue that migrant researchers often point out is the absence of a secondary post-mortem of the dead bodies that return to the country. The importance of having a verification process stems from the fact that workers, both male and female, have complained of being tortured. They have reported being forced to work and live in poor conditions. The extent to which these factors play a role in the deaths of the workers is an aspect that is yet to be explored.

“We have tried to tell the government a number of times to do separate post-mortems once the bodies are sent back. It is important to see if there is any other reason for the death. This process is not followed in our country,” says Professor Tasneem Siddiqui, the founding chair of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit in the University of Dhaka.

“The government needs to do research on health in those countries, and give more access to researchers to explore the issue of unnatural deaths. There can be so many reasons behind the deaths. For instance, many workers end up suffering from jaundice because they do not get clean water to drink and from there on, the situation gets worse.

“We need to send a fact-finding team over there and explore the reasons. We also need to highlight this issue on international platforms,” she adds.

Dr Iftekharuzzaman, Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, on a similar note, says that Bangladesh is at an advantage in this scenario and that it needs to play its cards right.

“The contribution of these workers needs to be honoured. We can't say that we don't have the leverage here. Yes, our workers are getting employed there and we are getting revenue, but this can't be one-sided. There is a demand for our workers and we have to use that,” he says.

39-year-old Monir Hossain passed away following a stroke in Saudi Arabia earlier this year.

Uncertainties about how their loved ones passed away haunt the workers' families. The case of 39-year-old Monir Hossain, a worker who passed away in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, is typical. According to the report sent, Monir had a stroke; however, his family members are unwilling to trust the report. The reason is that both Monir's uncle Ali Hossain and Ali's daughter had spoken to Monir on the phone, hours before he was pronounced dead.

“He spoke to me at 9 am and my daughter at 1 pm. On the phone he seemed completely fine and was asking me when he should send me money. Later that evening, we got a call from one of his roommates saying that he had passed away because of a stroke,” says Hossain.

The problem here is that there is nothing more that Monir's family can do. They have to accept the report which was submitted to them. Monir's family members are not saying that the report is false per se, but back then, they were looking for a confirmation from another source regarding the circumstances of the death—perhaps to calm their minds. But they did not have that scope.

The workers who go abroad are often the sole earners in their families. As a result, their deaths end up affecting multiple people. Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP) recently interviewed 50 relatives of migrant workers who lost their lives abroad.

42 percent of the respondents said that their school-going children experienced additional work-pressure to generate income, whereas, another 32 percent replied that their children had to engage in income-generating activities and thus were forced to leave school.

Also, 90 percent of the families had to curtail their monthly allocation for food grains and 82 percent had to stop any kind of medical treatment they were undergoing.

One of the issues that OKUP highlights is the government's inconsistency in providing the families of the deceased with compensation. As per the current system, families of the deceased are supposed to be given BDT three lakhs as compensation and BDT 35,000 for burial purposes.

A girl cries upon witnessing the arrival of a migrant worker's coffin. Photos: courtesy

According to OKUP Chairman, Shakirul Islam, it takes up to seven to eight months for these families to receive payment, which ends up hurting them. The families of undocumented workers do not get paid any compensation, and have it worse.

There are different kinds of undocumented workers. If someone goes abroad to work without taking the permission of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) and ends up working in that country under a tourist visa, he or she is considered undocumented.

There are also a number of cases when workers become undocumented despite getting permission from the BMET. Once a worker is permitted to work abroad, he or she is provided a smart card from the government. It is a card made specifically for the workers and should not be confused with the National Identification Card, which the citizens of Bangladesh receive. However, what often happens is that workers, especially those in the Gulf, end up quitting their jobs due to dissatisfaction and begin working in other companies illegally. Their documents—passports and smart cards—though are held with their initial employers. As such, when the body of the worker returns to Bangladesh without the required documents, their families are not given any compensation.

“This practice is not fair. These workers have contributed to our economy in some way or the other and their families should be compensated whether or not they have documents,” opines Shakirul.

A mere glance at the trend of the number of dead bodies returning to the country paints an ominous picture. Just five years ago the number of deceased bodies returning to the country was below 3,000. Today we are on the verge of crossing the 4000-mark.

And yet, as several researchers point out, a thorough investigation regarding the matter is yet to take place. If there's no investigation, the major reasons behind their deaths will not be addressed and the toll will only continue to rise. One wonders, how many more dead bodies need to return to the country before a drastic step is taken?

Zainul Abedin

One of the pioneers of modern art in undivided Bengal, "Shilpacharya" Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) represents the mid-century "realist" trajectory that began to unfold in many modes and sequences—first in Calcutta (now, Kolkata), then in Dhaka following the partition of India in 1947. The division of Bengal along religious lines resulted in forced migration. Following spates of communal violence, several Calcutta-based artists of all-India fame made Dhaka, the then capital of East Pakistan, their new home. Zainul's life in the new city had to go through a reorganisation. Since the region lacked a modern art institution, he, with the support of his peers, became engrossed in building one. The formation of Dhaka's first art college in 1947, which is now the fully-fledged Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, was a seminal event. The place of art education soon became the centre of constructive political-cultural regeneration.

Zainul's career became intertwined with the emergent new Bengali identity politics, though his humanist vision remained nonparochial and inclusive. Emerging from the cultural mix of Mymensingh, the rice-producing heartland of Bengali culture, he found himself at the centre of artistic activities in Dhaka carefully choreographing his actions. He aligned with the socio-political struggle against the hegemony of the West Pakistani ruling elite, but, without risking a falling-off from the course he devised.

On the registers of art some remarkable curves provide us with clues through which to appraise the master's impact on the cultural patterns of East Bengal. His insertion of rural art into the urban educational space is an example of his various impactful mediations. Zainul set the stage for the urban, educated artists to be inspired by the art forms of the masses. By inviting rural artists to stage two consecutive fairs in the then government College of Arts, since 1953, he laid out the approach for convergences that would soon begin to preoccupy some of the most talented artists of his time. Works of Novera Ahmed, Quamrul Hassan and Rashid Choudhury since the late 50s are cases in point.

Famine Sketch, brush and ink, 1943

In Zainul's itinerary, the above inclination resulted in the melding of the western and the local traditions. In his own artistic capacity, the linear strategy of shora chitra was brought to bear on formal experimentations. The result was a series of reconfigured human forms—tightly geometric in composition. But he was quick to abandon this new method since the stricture of composition seemed to have stolen the life or verve out of his work, one which he so earnestly wanted to effectuate. Zainul had a clear inkling of his metier which, he realised, lied in realism rather than in attainment of affectation—the latter is always tied to stylistic rigour. As opposed to such visual gambit, a dynamical relationship between lived experience and art informed most of his representational paintings. This was apparently his non-schematised scheme on which his art rested throughout his life. It helped him lay the ground for his life-long attachment to the plebeian life and the existential rhythm the masses blissfully embrace and the fallout they intermittently endure.

Zainul's realism hinged on an unaffected depiction of the sensory realm. Without romanticising the ordinary people, he captured them in their everydayness, glorifying the rural context.

The intervisuality, one which commences from negotiating multiple sources of invention and representation, had little sway over Zainul's oeuvre. Though the academic learning in western illusionism served as the basic premise, his was a "realism" where empathy met with the unreserved pleasure in the ordinary and the mundane. So to define his realism one must resort to the idea of dehierarchised, postauratic image making, in which the authorial control over style never leads to the expression of grandeur. For Zainul, grandeur seemed superfluous—a veil that comes between art and life. Like his tongue, his brush spoke in the vernacular since he had little patience for stylisation via enculturation. The geometric phase mentioned above—one which surfaced since his return from London where he attended the School of Slade for two years—lasted only two years.

Zainul's idea of 'image' precludes aestheticism—a category that lifts the image out of its actual context and places it at the top rung of the hierarchy of taste. He initiated a gaze shift by placing his canvases next to the ordinary people.

The Famine Sketches, responsible for his rise to prominence during his early life in Kolkata, was the result of an empathetic response to a man-made disaster. His preoccupation with humanity's volatile aspects began with the series. He rendered them in 1943 in response to the Bengal Famine of the same year. The tragic event saw the emergence of “historical consciousness” in him which was otherwise absent in Zainul's landscape paintings of the formative years. He was only 24 when he effectively employed his realist vision as well as skill to memorialise the historic human tragedy that brought to light the dismal inconsistencies of the colonial rule. The natural calamities that undercut the very rhythm of life appeared to have enforced similar copulation in the master to respond. In fact, his ambitious works—the memorable masterpieces—are based on the struggles of the people to transcend all kinds of depredations.

The Kolkata phase of his career, the 1930s onward, in the short span of his student years followed by his stint as a teacher, saw Zainul emerge as an accomplished draughtsman. He soon became well known amongst his peers for his extraordinary artistic ability. The graduation from a devoted learner to an accomplished artist took only a few years of rigorous training. As a student of art whose occasional engagement with social-political activism subsequently made him re-adjust his focus on the art-life nexus he persistently relied on, Zainul survived by way of contributing artworks and illustrations to the newly established newspapers and periodicals in Kolkata—those that answered to the needs of the emerging new Muslim educated middleclass. Every issue of Millat, a weekly, carried Zainul's landscape. The daily Azad also employed Zainul and many other Muslim artists in their effort to bring out an Eid issue.1 These networks coupled with his stint as a teacher at the Government Art School since 1938, re-affirmed his position in Kolkata.

Freedom Fighter, ink and wash

As for his humanist position, his proximity with the other two Bengali Muslim intellectuals who stood for a mixture of “secular and broad-based philosophy”2 and the cultural ferment of East Bengal he indentified with, emboldened his voice. In Kolkata Zainul's link to his birthplace saw its affirmation through his association with his deshi or local brethrens—singer Abbasuddin and poet Jasimuddin. If his political vision sprang out of his love of the land and its people, the influence of the left-lenient writers, artists and political activists, helped him develop a humanist position, which in turn prepared him for the memorable series of drawings that now comes under the rubric of Famine Sketches.

Zainul's role was of precursorial nature: his praxis set the stage for what we now understand as the dominant patterns of Modern art which gradually emerged in the urban centres across the region. If his influence is relatively less palpable in the outward-looking modern artistic dictions, expressed in the "excessive subjectivity" of their languages, to quote John Berger, it is clearly legible in its indigenous variants.

After surveying the works of Zainul's entire career spanning little more than four decades one is able to notice several interconnected oeuvres that appeared in sequence. One sees a beginning when Zainul became known for his acumen in portraying the bucolic life; the early signs of change in 1943 when in his powerfully brash linear method was employed to memorialise the victims of man-made calamity that was the Bengal famine; the short-lived geometric phase in 1953 following his return from a two-year sojourn in England; and lastly, the return to the immediacy of bold brushworks and expressive figural motifs which saw a new technique at work—sketchy lines achieved through candlestick overlapped with stark black sweeps of brush dipped in Chinese ink. The final method first appeared in the panoramic Nabanna (1969), and later in Monpura'70 (1973), where sparsely applied brown and yellow comingled with the linear rendition of humans and other recognisable forms. He applied the same technique which redefined his language through the simultaneous application of negative and positive lines in some of the portraitures including the famous visage of Maulana Bhasani, and in a particularly murky version of the raging bull, as well as various other types of formal experimentation with human figures. In one of the few works that Zainul did on the theme of muktijuddhas or freedom fighters one is witness to the impassioned application of the candlestick employed to achieve the fluid cluster of figures.

Women, oil colour, 1973

Zainul Abedin's patronage and organizational capacity spread across a wider field of cultural interests. His collection of rural art objects testifies to his acute awareness about the ravages of time. His love of the folklores turned him into an unapologetic connoisseur of the traditional crafts, kanthas and clay-dolls. And this growing habit finally extended to the establishment of the Lokoshilpa Jadughar, or Folk Art and Craft Museum in Sonargaon, launched in 1975. His efforts gradually made the cultural elites of Dhaka aware of the value of the rural crafts. By organising the first-ever mela or fair of folk art at the art college premises in 1955, he sensitised the urban minds to the vigour and relevance of the existing rural art forms.

Zainul Abedin, the Shilpacharya, or the Master of Art, will remain forever etched in our collective memory for his art as well as his love of the land and the people, and also decisively for his appreciating eyes. As an artist with his eyes set on the “present”, his sustained effort in transcending the limits of socio-economic constraints will continue to be relevant. Especially in the age of digital reproducibility—when image seems outrageously ubiquitous, yet utterly devoid of meaning, Zainuls's proximity to the natural rhythm of life serves as a way to revive the value and verve we once we associated with painted image. The indomitable spirit with which Zainul approached both art, education and life still seems infectious after all these years. Even amidst the chaos of media exploitation and political parochialism, he stands tall amongst all people. He breathed his last on May 28, 1976.

1. Abul Mansur, Zainul Abedin, the main essay in the book Zainul Abedin, from the series Great Masetrs of Bangladesh, published by Bengal Foundation, 2012, p. 26.

2. Ibid, p. 24.

Mustafa Zaman is an artist, writer and art critic.

When we talk about guerilla soldiers, we are often at a loss to put a face to their names. The Liberation War of Bangladesh was the combined effort of guerrilla warriors and organised military forces. My brother went to fight the war and was killed en route by Bengali youths who doubted his Bengali identity. So can we call my brother a guerilla fighter? Snippets of what I heard from my mother, my cousin and his friends define him as one to me. In this month of victory, I would like to share my mother's memories of him and his guerilla adventures.

Chinku and his friends were placing barricades at various places during the months of January and February in 1971. They were angry and were staging protests against post-election politics. During the non-cooperation movement of 1969 and post-election months, Chinku would discuss politics and how to combat the high-handedness of West Pakistan with his father.

One day, I overheard Chinku talking to his father about how easy it would be to attack the soldier guarding the Adamjee House. The idea of guerrilla warfare filled the minds of the youth and their leaders. To me, the mere thought of killing a soldier on duty was shocking. But anger at the biased rulers of West Pakistan pulsed through the veins of the youth.

I heard from Shahudul, aka Gullu, about a hazardous adventure that Chinku and his friends had gotten involved in January of 1970. Four of them were in a red Toyota—Chinku, the one they called the Bodybuilder, the driver, and another friend. The plan was to disarm the guard in front of the Chief Justice's house. As Gullu described, “Everything went according to plan. The red Toyota was parked in front of the house. Chinku went and caught hold of the guard from behind, and waited for the Bodybuilder to come and snatch the gun away from him. But the Bodybuilder chickened out at the last minute and remained sitting in the red Toyota.” Chinku saw another guard approaching him from the opposite direction. It was do or die. Chinku had no option but to lift the guard and carry him to the car. There, he dumped the guard, snatched his gun quickly and got into the car before it could speed off.

Chinku was adventurous and went out of his way to do things which put him in risky situations. The night of the 25th was simply unimaginable. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such a massacre. That night my husband, Chinku, and Pincho (my younger son) went up to the roof to see where the tracers were coming from and which places had been attacked. Thank God for the wall surrounding the roof!  They could duck their heads behind it to fend off any stray bullets headed for our house in Eskaton Garden.

On March 27, the curfew was lifted. Zaman Bhai (the Colonel Zaman who later led Sector 7 in the war) came over to our place. He advised that Chinku and Nadeem (Zaman Bhai's son who was five years younger than Chinku) should be sent away to cross the border and do as instructed by the authorities who were mobilising efforts there. My husband and I had a lot of faith in Zaman bhai. So Chinku and Nadeem set off that evening to cross Jinjira.

Chinku was 6'2 and fair. He had light eyes. Nadeem was very fair as well. Anybody could've mistaken them for West Pakistanis. They were held up by a group of Bengali youths. One kind man told these young men that he would make sure that Chinku and Nadeem would not flee, and he asked them to come back the next morning. The man tied Chinku and Nadeem to the mosquito net posts to show he meant what he said. When the young men left, he loosened the rope and asked them to return home.

The next morning Chinku was having water in front of the fridge. I asked him, “Why don't you join the freedom fighters when they are ready?” His answer was, “Who will be those freedom fighters?”

Chinku was like that. He was 20 years and six months at the time, but he was wise beyond his years.

Then on April 5, as I was walking towards Chinku and Pincho's room, I realised that Chinku's bed did not have the cover on it. Immediately I knew he had gone off again. Later, my husband told me that he had given Chinku his permission.

While we were trying to track him down, we found out that he had set off with his friend Khosru towards Chittagong. Khosru was a member of Kranti (a cultural organisation led by Kamal Lohani), and Chinku was involved in the Sanskriti Sangsad of Dhaka University.

We told our relatives and my colleagues from the school where I taught that Chinku had gone to Chittagong to visit his youngest aunt. It was not at all safe to say that one's son had crossed the border to fight a war.

We tried to find out the whereabouts of Chinku and Khosru. Their path to Chittagong/Agartala could be traced up to Chandpur, but after that, they seemed to disappear.

After nine months of war, our friends and family returned to Dhaka. None of those who had crossed the border could tell us about Chinku's whereabouts.

In early 1972, my husband headed to Chandpur, tracing Chinku's path to the village where people saw him last. It so happened that when Bengali youths caught hold of them, they did not believe that Chinku was Bengali. They showed them a “kula” and Chinku could not say what it was. They allowed Khosru to go but held Chinku back. Khosru decided to stay with Chinku, fearing Chinku would be killed otherwise. Later, we learned there were four of them going by foot through Chandpur when they were held up by the youths. The two other fellows—an office clerk in Khosru's business and a cook—were allowed to leave.

If the office clerk had reported the misfortune to Khosru's family in Chittagong, the lives of my son and his friend could have been saved. Why this man never reported that they were held up still remains a mystery.

I want to end with the following lines from a poem by my elder brother, the late Syed Ali Kabir, dedicated to his nephew Chinku and Khosru:


“In which unknown grave do you lie,

With your friend Khosru,

Who took part in your last rites?

Did the green grass grow on your grave?

Did the birds cry mournfully?

And did the women of the households around— 

Ask who the fair and handsome young boy was

And who could be the other one?

A true friend—

The pure symbol of a Bangalee youth.”

(Translated by Alia Amin)


Sara Zaker is a theatre activist, media personality and Group Managing Director, Asiatic 360.

Do you find the word entertainment synonymous to restaurants in Dhaka? Is your idea of having fun in the capital restricted to selecting the kind of pasta you are going to have for dinner? Is the highlight of your weekend catching yet another superhero movie at Blockbuster? If you answered yes to these questions, then this article is for you.

These are spaces where people can actively participate in arts and cultural activities rather than the comparatively passive status quo—going to the cinema or a concert and visiting exhibitions and galleries. Nor are these fleeting events like literary, music or film festivals which come and go once a year. These are five spaces encouraging its patrons to actively acquire knowledge, learn skills and create—year-round in Dhaka city.

Clay Station. Photo: Courtesy

Gayantapas Abdur Razzaq Bidyapeeth

Home to nearly 5000 books, this resource centre in Dhanmondi which started off in November 2015 is the legacy of educationist Abdur Razzaq. While works of fiction and more popular books can be found in bookstores and libraries situated throughout the city, you can find more rare works of literature on topics as varied as history, political science and religion here. Free and open to all, the centre is particularly popular among students from nearby universities who come to read and conduct research.

The centre is a warm and serene environment in which to come discover the world of books. You can stumble on something you may never have heard of but which may come to mean something to you or which you learn immensely from. It is an opportunity to read outside of your comfort zone rather than the latest book everyone is reading for the sake of it. You can check out books for free as well by becoming a member at the centre.

Clay Station

A studio in a corner of Banani overlooking the lake, Clay Station opened last year and is a space where anyone can walk in and learn painting, work with clay and make pottery. Targeted to children and adults alike, it hosts a variety of classes and camps on clay therapy, jewellery design, painting, and sculpting. Excellent for groups coming together to participate in art activities, you do not have to pay for studio time but only for the materials used.

Shunno Art Space

An art studio in Lalmatia aims to create an interactive space for people to create works of art together. It hosts monoprint camps once a week, where participants create plates and print their artworks. Artists work alongside beginners, each group learning from the other. Ceramics too will soon be started where a parent and child team can learn to fire clay together. The studio hopes to make art accessible for all, alongside encouraging artists to share their knowledge and expertise. Zafar Iqbal, printmaker and owner of the studio, says, “We want our space to always be buzzing with positive energy and be a place to build new connections.”

Shunno Art Space. Photo: courtesy

Bishwo Shahitto Kendro

While Bishwo Shahitto Kendro is not new, it certainly deserves a mention, being a pioneer in promoting reading habits in Bangladesh. Their mobile libraries or buses are ubiquitous in both rural and urban areas, counting both children and adults as their readers. But the centre itself, located in Bangla Motor, is the go-to place for their large (free) library, study circles, reader's forums and discussions. Not just an academic institution, it also has an art gallery, theatre stage, children's centre, and music and film archives.

Once out of university, rarely do we get the opportunity to continue learning from speakers, hold discussions with peers and most importantly, have access to a library. For especially this large segment of the population, the centre is a place to reconnect with academics, educators, and professional peers. With a wide variety of spaces on offer, it is similarly appealing for parents to take their children and for students of all ages to go and read, watch, listen, speak, learn and engage.

Jatra Biroti

A music and arts lounge in Banani which hosts regular events—live music, spoken word performances, open mic nights—on the weekends starting from Thursday evenings. Professional and up-and-coming artists have been regularly performing at the space since it started, with patrons paying for tickets to enter the venue on these nights. Attending performances here has become a regular on the weekend scene in Dhaka. Starting since last year, it aims to “add to the cultural scene” in Dhaka, says Israt Zerin, general manager at Jatra Biroti. The scene is lively and colourful with guests interacting with each other and the performers in the intimate rooftop space.

As soon as I left college, I decided to keep long hair. Having studied in Cantonment School and College, I never had the leeway to do this thus far. Whenever my hair grew an inch, it attracted the immediate attention of my teachers. Quite the recreant, I never mustered up the courage to go to school without a haircut.

I have always believed that my hair is and should be a matter of concern to me and me alone. Society does not hold the moral authority to intervene directly or indirectly (i.e. through social conditioning) with my hair. However, I would soon learn otherwise.

As the length of my hair kept increasing, men around me did not give up the chance to raise their eyebrows in skepticism. My family members were hankering after me for a haircut, to which I paid no heed at all. As the tips of my hair began to touch my shoulders, even my friends started to get uneasy. Most of my friend circle started to label it as “effeminate”, “egregious” and even “disgusting”.

I had never imagined that my long hair would vex society so. People on the street would look at me like I was from outer space. I felt increasingly out-of-place. Men chuckled and called out to their friends to have a look for themselves. They treated me like a wild animal that had stumbled into human territory. I could sense that they were criticising me. Facial and body expressions often reveal a lot. Even kids ogled at me and had their share of laughter. Questions were raised about my gender: “Is he a man? And if he is, why does he keep long hair like a woman? He must be aware of how things work in the society!” It seemed as if my long hair systematically distanced me from society.

From early on, we are conditioned to look at things along the lines of the binary: male or female. Pink is a girl's favourite colour; boys are not supposed to like it. Girls play with dolls while boys are to engage themselves with cricket. Right from the moment we are born, it is decided what we will wear, what we will play with, and how we will lead our lives. Once you decide to disregard these constructed ideas, you will find that things are no longer looking so great. A bold attempt at rebellion will be looked down upon and the person will be forcefully excluded, labelled “unsocial”. It then becomes almost impossible for the person to lead a life free of explicit interventions.

I have often been subjected to mockery along the streets at university or at the shopping mall. One fine day, while I was travelling in a rickshaw, two men from another rickshaw literally screamed, “Why does this lad have such long hair? Is he a man or a woman?” They cackled with laughter, but thankfully, my rickshaw soon overtook theirs.

On another instance, I had gone out to buy some medicine. It was night time and the lane was quite dark so I could barely see anything. At the end of the lane, a few men had gathered for a chat. They spotted me and the ridicule began. I remained voiceless.

However, it was the last incident that was exceptionally unnerving. I was at a food court, waiting for a friend. As I was seated in such a way that I had no sight of the people behind me, I was a bit puzzled at a sudden outburst of laughter. I tried to concentrate on my book, but the hubbub grew louder. I turned around and I saw a group of college lads—around 30 of them. Unfortunately, I was their topic of discussion. I could easily discern one of them saying, “Is he a guy or a girl? Go and go have a look! She might be hot.” One of them actually came forward to inspect me and then returned to share his findings. Another round of merrymaking followed. One of them remarked, “He could have been a lady. Men do not keep long hair, do they? Waht a whore!” I was, yet again, trying to avoid my harasser. In the meantime, another of them took a seat across from mine, as someone from the same group loudly exclaimed, “HEY! Why did you go there? Are you gay? HAHAHA. Our nation does not accept the rainbows!” I got up and left the place immediately.

You may feel uneasy or disturbed after reading this. You must be thinking, “Does this guy lack the courage to stand up for himself?” And that's a pretty natural response. Yes, I have been unable to raise my voice, to put up a fight. But I would like to ask, if I had protested vociferously, would people have joined me in support? Definitely not. I would have had to face counter-harassment: “How can a young man be harassed? Is that even possible?”

Certainly! I am the victim of regular abuse. However, the most important message lies in the fact that we think of women as commodities in our society. Just look at how society is trying to label me as a female for having long hair and treating me for it. As if anyone bearing the slightest resemblance to a woman can be troubled in this way, as if in order to prove one's masculinity, one needs to make fun of the “opposite sex”.

I often receive hate messages on Facebook. Many people are of the opinion that I should get a sex change or, alternatively, identify as a hijra. I am a disgrace to masculinity. Some ask me to get a haircut and tell me to be a “man”. It seems as if the line between a man and a woman is drawn by the length of one's hair. Get a haircut and you automatically transform into a man!

“Short hair or long hair, it's your choice. My long hair is the symbol of my freedom. I feel free. Society always tries to bring you down. You don't have to give them an explanation. It's your thing. It's your freedom,” I tell myself when I feel down. Someday or the other, we will definitely see a solution to the problem. Toleration and survival pay off, as goes the proverb, “One who endures, survives till the end.”

Tanveer Anoy is an activist and writer.

I am 25 years old, from Bogra. Biologically I am a woman but I cannot declare myself as gender conforming. Nor do I have an exact answer to give when asked whether I am gender non-binary.

When I graduated from university three years ago, I was the first female member of my family to do so. My family watched me with joy in their hearts and smiles on their faces.

These incidents happened right after. I went back home and took up a job with a local English medium school but my neighbours were not happy to see me come back. They whispered, stared and mocked me outright. The reason? The clothes I wore and how I carried myself. Not satisfied with saying things to my face, they bullied my younger sister, 15-year-old Binu. She would come home in tears.

One evening she ran up to me. “Apu, Amin Uncle asked me whether I want to become like you!” As a part of my external expression, I wear jeans under my kameez.

Soon, I began noticing that the members of my community were meeting regularly in the afternoons. On one such occasion when I was walking around my neighbourhood, I heard Amin Uncle telling those around him, “Look at her! I think she will marry a hijra.” I ignored him.

On my way to work one cold morning, I was crossing Amin Uncle's house and I heard raucous laughter. Then I heard my name. I decided, on the spot, to go and confront them. I found that Amin Uncle, his wife and his sisters-in-law were talking about me.

They were surprised to see me. I simply asked, “Would you repeat what you were saying about me just now?” They were taken aback but only for a moment.

Amin Uncle's wife suddenly sprang at me and shouted, “Who are you that we have to answer to you?” Angry, I yelled back, “Why are you shouting? Can't we talk?”

The shouting escalated into a fight. I insisted that they not touch me. This only enraged Amin and his wife who started shoving me around. His son, nephews and aunts then joined in. The fight became a beating. I was alone, trying to defend myself and fell to the ground. I was punched in the head and kicked around by Amin Uncle, his son and nephew. Nobody intervened. This was not 10 metres from the main road and a crowd of around 20 had gathered.

After this went on for a while, a neighbour ran to my home to fetch my family. No one was home, except for my mother and my cousin, Asha. They came and dragged me from the road and helped me stand. Asha immediately took me to the police station to file a case against the family. I was not bleeding, but I had swollen bruises all over.

The police lodged a general diary and came to my area two days later. Amin's wife and sister-in-law then produced medical certificates claiming they were suffering health problems after getting beaten up by me!

“How could I single-handedly have fought five adults?” I asked. A crowd gathered to watch but said nothing. I had no witnesses except my mother's word that they had beaten me.

Amin's family went on to tell the police that this was entirely my fault because of the way I dressed and behaved. I was crying at this point. The police asked us to “mutually resolve” the problem. A case was filed against me and handed over to the local ward commissioner.

We chose arbitration, but the hearing, in mid-January, proved disastrous. The ward commissioner swore and yelled at Asha and I. I made the mistake of using my phone and the commissioner thought I was recording him. Angered, he hurled more abuse at me, “Are you so clever that you're going to file a case against me for being biased against you? Do you think you're powerful only because you're educated? What sort of woman are you?”

The room fell silent. He went on to scold and insult my father as well because he is merely a rickshaw puller. We lived in a tin-shed house, so we were perhaps singled out for our class differences.

The hearing then continued. He asked both parties to explain what had happened. One of my aunts defended me. She described my life over the years—how others in our community had never liked me because of my strong personality and ambition.”

The commissioner now stood up and gave his verdict—which was that both sides were at fault for fighting. The solution was to say sorry to each other, which we had to do then and there.

This was not the first such incident. I have been treated like this since I was a child. My father scolded me afterwards that he had been insulted in public only because of me. He said that it was my fault for confronting and not ignoring them.

Who even cared how I felt, and still feel, after this?

M Hussain left Bangladesh shortly after the incident and is now pursuing a PhD in Atmospheric Science and Engineering.


Subscribe to RSS - Issue: 2017-12-22