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Friday, January 24, 2020

‘There is a price to be paid for standing up to powers that be’

Shahidul Alam, the Bangladeshi photojournalist who spent more than 100 days in prison for criticising the Sheikh Hasina government, speaks to The Indian Express about the political scenario in Bangladesh, the “absence of morality in international politics” and the sanctification of political leaders

Written by ZEESHAN SHAIKH | Mumbai | Published: July 1, 2019 3:30:05 am
‘There is a price to be paid for standing up to powers that be’ Shahidul Alam. (Express photo by Amit Chakravarty)

What is the status of the case against you?

The case continues and the government will keep it dangling for as long as they can. What we have done is challenge the legality of the Act under which I have been booked as it has already been repealed. The law does not exist but yet I am arrested under it. There is a stay on the investigation for now but the case continues. What will happen from here, we don’t know.

How do you evaluate the present political scenario in Bangladesh?

Since 1972, every government that came to power has resorted to torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. In my opinion, the present situation is the worst that we have ever seen. There is a climate of fear with every state institution having been compromised. The media to a large extent, including the private parties, are pliant and have become an extension of the government. All this makes it difficult. But there are still those who are working on the ground and can’t be repressed that easily. However, there is a price to be paid for standing up to powers that be.

Can you explain the dichotomy in the nature of Sheikh Hasina government? At one end, it embraces nearly a million Rohingyas with open arms, and at the other end, it has earned the reputation of being repressive and has been accused of forced disappearances of opposition members and activists.

I am cynical of this acceptance of the Rohingyas, which is no doubt healthy and should happen. But the same government has not been receptive to the Rohingyas in the past. There seems to be an arrangement that they have worked out with the international community, particularly the West, which will put up with a lot as long as their deliverables are met. The two deliverables are the Rohingya situation and the war on terror. If you give the West these two, they will ignore everything else. It is my opinion that international governments are happier dealing with pliant dictators than working towards a flourishing democracy. This is what is happening with Bangladesh and it strengthens my belief that there is no morality in international politics.

Speaking of morality, your critics say it was largely with the support of activists like you that the present dispensation gained strength. They also claim that you speak about human rights but were a vocal supporter of the ‘Gonojagoron Mancha’ that sought capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami members for excesses in 1971.

I have never supported capital punishment. What I advocated is that all war criminals needed to be brought to justice. The arguments of being early supporters of the government is, however, valid. This is a problem not only in Bangladesh but also in countries like South Africa and to an extent India, where revolutionary governments become sanctified and you cannot question them because they were involved in liberation movements. The civil society did fail in questioning them when they went wrong. As far as I am concerned, I have questioned every government.

Do you see hope for Bangladesh? Is there a political alternative in the country?

There are people who are trying to put together a front but the way politics run, you need money and muscle. The ruling party today has the money and the muscle and the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) is a spent force. The problem is that if money and muscle are the means of getting power, the alternative will also come through the same mechanism. Having said that, the Bangladeshi public is aware that they are being taken for a ride. The student community is also angry and they are putting up a good fight. However, it is a fascist state and the government plans to stay in power and has ensured that all the forces that can challenge them remain toothless.

How do you see the condition of minorities in Bangladesh and India?

India seems to be worse off than Bangladesh as we do not have religious fundamentalism though it is painted that way. We have a largely secular culture. India, on the other hand, does not seem to have a secular culture anymore. We do not have a religious party running the government. On the other hand, in India you have a party which openly identifies itself with a particular community. I believe that India has more to be fearful of because this election reflected the will of the people. If the people of Bangladesh had the freedom of electing a government, then the existing government would not have existed.

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