Rethinking Bangladesh: A Southasian Conversation
The year 2021 saw a welcome profusion of events and anthologies to mark the 50th year of Bangladesh's Liberation. While much of the focus during these occasions were naturally on the country's history, we at Himal Southasian felt there was a need for more conversations on Bangladesh's present, as well as the forces shaping its future. This is what we attempted to do in our special series of articles, titled Rethinking Bangladesh, which brings together over a dozen writers and artists, many of them based in Bangladesh, and all of them with expertise and informed insights on the country. This panel event and the fourth edition of Southasian Conversation, a series of online crossborder conversation, we hope, will provide an opportunity to discuss some of the concerns that shaped the special series, but also serve as a platform for asking other, often-ignored political-economic, social, technological and ecological questions.
Shahidul Alam (Photojournalist, writer and activist, Dhaka)
Rasel Ahmed (Filmmaker, archivist, and founding editor of Roopbaan, Columbus)
Rozina Islam (Investigative journalist, Prothom Alo, Dhaka)
Zara Rahman (Tech researcher, linguist and Deputy Director at The Engine Room, Berlin)
Dina M Siddiqi (Anthropologist and Clinical Associate Professor at NYU, New York)
This is a selection of excerpts from the panel discussion transcript. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Dina M Siddiqi: (16:08) Bangladesh is the poster child of a certain kind of development, growth as development if you will. It's Muslim, but moderate; it's poor, but flourishing; it's a bulwark against any kind of redistribution, socialism, communism, whatever you want to call it, and of course, against fundamentalism. This is why this kind of coverage covers over the violence of the state, but also makes space for global capital to come in. It covers over the violence of capital, too. And I think Bangladesh is a place of experimentation, whether it's the Accord, which I write about in this special issue, the Accord on Safety or whatever, or the longer experiments and Matlab, and as Naomi Hossain has said, it's like an aid lab. All of this hides the enormous violence of development and the dispossession that goes into development, because those GDP figures, which were never meant to be anything but very crude measures, somehow have become a nationalist rallying point about how good, how well we're going. So of course it's hiding violence, but it's doing a lot more globally. I'm always stunned by how Bangladesh is this empty space on which other Europeans and Americans displace their anxiety. It's either backward and needs saving, or look, it's our good development story.
Rasel Ahmed: (23:10) We have a civil society movement in Bangladesh, but the movement in the past many years has been NGOised up to a level that we only have certain devices and techniques and tactics, like training, finding out this key population and groups and provide them what they need. So it's sort of like we segregated different issues in a way, we are always looking for a quick fix, or like we are functioning in some kind of emergency mode all the time. We are only responding to crises. Like the minister who just stepped down, you know, that was like this recent trend of social media justice. The videos are getting viral, and we are only holding people accountable when we see a video of that incident. What I meant by local movement, movements we build locally, is that we have to develop this idea of interconnectedness in our oppression. Like how different communities, like indigenous communities or queer communities, or the garment workers who are fighting for their wages, all this misogyny we are seeing in this current government that is led by a woman, all of this needs to come together and we really have to understand that it's not a quick fix. I don't think we'll be able to find a solution overnight, but we have to understand what is missing – when we are speaking for a community, who is missing, who is represented there, what is the power dynamic like when we are seeking for any kind of rights and justice in our country.
Dina M Siddiqi: (26:50) Yeah, actually, following up on those comments and what you just said… Civil society is a concept that I think is very bereft of power. We really need to realise that civil society, the very idea seems very neutral, but what is civil society? It's, at this point, been reduced to NGOs. I mean, you're talking about NGOisation, you know, that's what we have. And to me, it seems civil society is a deeply depoliticised kind of entity, so it can only ask certain kinds of questions, because of the funding constraints, I suppose, but there's a deep discomfort to question things like development in civil society. For instance, if you look at the social movements that have really questioned inequality or dispossession, they haven't come from civil society at all.
(28:25) Who sees and who gets heard? That's the other thing. We also have civil society as in think tanks and other institutions, who have voice and respectability in society, and who crowd out the other, less popular voices. And that, too, is an issue. So I don't think there's a one 'our' voice at all. I think there are hegemonic voices inside Bangladesh that take up a lot of space, and don't allow the less popular voices to come out.
Rozina Islam: (31:26) Recently, a newspaper published the news that the minister is going to Canada, the minister is on a plane, the minister is at the airport. What are we actually doing? We, journalists, can do lots of things: we can protest, we can write. He is a criminal. Why did he leave Bangladesh at this moment? They kept my passport when I got bail. Though I'm not a criminal, I'm a journalist. When I got the Free Press Award, I was not able to go to the Netherlands. And every week I have to go to court for this reason.
Actually, from what we have seen and heard, we know everything. But the prime minister says that 'okay, he has resigned'. Resigning is not the punishment. I have written so many stories – like six secretaries, they took fake freedom fighter certificates, they also resigned, but they never got punished. So you see the situation, if one is a minister or secretary, they get the rewards to go to Canada and stay there peacefully. If you are a journalist or normal person, you have to stay home, you can't write and you can't move anywhere. So now you can see the situation in Bangladesh – that's the difference, actually.
Zara Rahman: (39:35) I think it's interesting to consider who has the incentive right now in this culture of fear to actually speak up, and I think within the largely depoliticised NGO space, it isn't them, because they don't want to, as Dina said earlier, they don't want to lose jobs, they don't want to, you know, rock the boat, so to speak. So there's a complete lack of incentive, lack of incentive to question the very, very colonial roots of international development, how a new middle class has emerged, that has gained the cultural capital, the ability to to play the NGO game, to set up NGOs, to know how to apply for funding, that kind of thing. And thinking about who's deciding those funding priorities because obviously, it's not coming from inside the country.
(41:05) I like Dina's description of this being a kind of naked exercise of power, because it's also how we see digital technology being leveraged, but they're trying to get as many people online as possible, which is seen as a part of the sustainable development goals, very progressive in terms of the aid space. But then, also using digital technology to surveil and monitor and silence and having this huge chilling effect, which, in combination with the very real offline, people being sentenced to death, all the things that we've talked about already, has such a huge, huge chilling effect.
(42:23) I think the Digital Security Act gets, rightly, a lot of the attention, but there's also other things, like the government of Bangladesh has been found to be purchasing spyware from Israel, or an Israeli company, which, given that they are one of the few countries that don't officially recognise Israel, is ironic, on many levels, but not surprising, I guess. There's been use of internet shutdowns, of social media blackouts. I think even the introduction of the national ID cards that have biometric data associated with them can also contribute to this chilling effect, because people, you know, having to use your national ID card to access key government services and to access, increasingly, private sector services as well, needing it to purchase a SIM card, for example. Knowing that it's associated with your very body, your bodily data, that can never be changed, that is completely immutable and will stay with you throughout your life, is a different level of surveillance beyond just, you know, your phone records being tapped or something like that. And that's also, again, another kind of colonial hang up, in a way. It's the state wanting to make its subjects, its citizens, as visible as possible to the state, in a certain way. The introduction of digital ID has been largely pushed by international financial institutions, like the World Bank. They've been used in different ways to surveil and to monitor activities. So yeah, there's many repressive digital policies that we should be aware of, but obviously, the Digital Security Act is a huge one.
Shahidul Alam: (48:55) How did you make people comfortable to share their stories? How did they open up to you? And in terms of the LGBTQI community, what do you see happening in terms of them expressing their identity, given that their identity is criminalised within Bangladesh?
Rasel Ahmed: (49:50) Shahidul, coming to your question about the event and how did we approach the community and use the format of oral history. Honestly, we did not convince anyone. This is our story. We are part of the community. The people we approached in this project, the oral history project, are all friends. We are sort of in the same boat, in different ways, you know. A friend of mine actually said something very interesting a couple of days ago, that we are in the same storm in different boats. So maybe that's a better metaphor.
If you ask me why oral history, why not documentary – I think it wasn't meant to be documented. And we used a format of archiving, and I have to mention this before I go forward, that this was a project that we received a grant from South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) and it was in collaboration with the Queer Archives of the Bengal Delta, which is an archiving platform co-founded by me and Efadul Huq. And that project specifically was led by Efadul Huq, who is my partner-in-crime. So the oral history project was really a long-term conversation which was happening in that organisation, the platform QABD, the Queer Archives of Bengal Delta I just mentioned, and we were thinking a lot about history, that it is not just the queer people getting marginalised, but it is also the queer history which is getting marginalised in Bangladesh and in many other places. And we really thought of archiving as a questioning format, to be very honest, because what is our popular imagination of archive? That archive is a place which accumulates and it's sort of a repository of historical data and documents. And this is a place where we do indexing, where we do cataloguing, we have metadata, we have, acquiring policies, and a lot of paperwork that goes into it, a lot of organisation.
The archive to me is kind of a metaphor of order and recognition, and speaking of queer community, this is nothing of that sort, right? We don't have external validation. We don't have order in our categorisation. It's very messy, and when we thought about the archive, we really thought about that messiness and playing around with that messiness, that we don't have all these boxes where we can create, like, this is that, and who is who. And also, another thing about the archive is that it's sort of a place where we look into our past, but what is our past? Like queer people, the queer people of Bangladesh. Our past is absent. We have a past, but we don't have the access to it, because we are getting erased continually. Even now, like we are on online space, like Zara talked about, the surveillance and everything, so every time we send a message, we also make sure that we delete it, right? We are continually erasing our present, so how can we then think of our past? And that's where I think the format of oral history and the understanding of archive came into that. We really had to reimagine the format of archiving. Whatever archiving means doesn't fit us, so we have to reclaim the space, because we do want to think about our history and our politics and understand what it means for us. So archive then became a site of forming solidarity and collaboration, and archive became a space of intimacy and sharing our trauma and understanding our politics to some extent.
Zara Rahman: (56:20) I just want to say to Rasel, I really love the archiving project, that you've taken control of the narrative and being able to categorise or not categorise those stories in a way that makes sense to you, because in my work, I've seen how categorisation or kind of adding metadata by the state can also be a form of violence, or a way that power is exhibited or manifested on people. So it's incredible to see that power being taken back and those stories being reimagined, as you said, in a way that makes sense. I mean, you also mentioned earlier that it's video evidence that is recorded that gets people's attention on things. And that mention also raised the question for me of what injustices are happening that aren't being recorded, or what stories are there that aren't being recorded right now? So yeah, I just, I love the archiving project.
Dina M Siddiqi: (1:22:30) In terms of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, it seems to me that so much of the debate on national identity has been about secularism and being Bengali. It's a very self-absorbing narrative and it constructs Bangladesh as only Muslim or Bengali. And you know, we are not all Bengali… That leaves out other people that happen to be in this territory that became Bangladesh, so there's a real exclusionary aspect in the very debates on secularism and nationalism that marginalised Chittagong Hill Tracts. And I know certainly in anthropology, which is the one discipline I know, there's sort of a division between when you talk about Bangladeshi anthropology, you're doing certain kinds of culture, and then there is another, an exoticisation of a different kind, that also has an imperial history to it, where you talk about the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and of course there is all of the stuff on military exploitation, but the reason we don't even begin to talk about the Chittagong Hill Tracts is because our debates just keep writing them out. And I think we do have to keep remembering that we are not all just Bengali. And in fact, the 11th Amendment or 14th Amendment, whatever it was, that reinstated secularism, also reinstated the ideas national identities. So secularism does not even ensure any justice for people who are not Bengali. So we have to look beyond the rhetoric.