A Struggle For Democracy Part I

Opinions differ on the political trajectory of Bangladesh and whether it is at the cusp of a steep economic rise. The economic successes have been marred by industrial disasters. Developmental gains have been accompanied by claims of corruption and questionable elections. In the field of culture, however, there has been an undeniable shift. The Bengal Music Festival, the Dhaka Art Summit, the Dhaka Lit Fest and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography are major international events that have firmly placed Bangladesh on the world cultural map. While these have been spearheaded by individual champions who have swum against the tide to hold on to a level of excellence that continues to surprise, it is in the field of photography, that by far the most significant gains have taken place. Bangladesh is known for one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Work by young Bangladeshi photographers regularly top the international award lists. Chobi Mela is amongst the most respected photo festivals.

This photo essay is a body of work that was a turning point in photographic practice in the country. It was a distinct shift from the single image that had characterised previous work. It is a personal story, produced over a period of several years, which examined a social phenomenon to a depth that had not been attempted before in Bangladesh. The combination of the social, the personal and the political made it not only a springboard for the vast amount of high quality documentary photography that has followed since, but also makes it a unique anthropological and artistic study of a socio political phenomenon, that has rarely been attempted in other fields.

The photo essay was initiated during the resistance to the rule of autocratic general Hossain Mohammad Ershad. The early part of the work, which is shown here, was produced between 1987 and 1991. The open letter to the Prime Minister, written in 1992, relates to the ongoing tussle between a state’s attempt to control and the public’s desire for freedom.

The work records events since the 10th November 1987; Dhaka Siege Day. The people had united in a stand to overthrow the autocratic regime of General Ershad. A young worker, Nur Hossain, led one of the rallies. He had painted on his chest “Let Democracy Live.” He was the first of many who were killed by the police in the movement. The sequence of events, over the backdrop of the everyday lives of people, is documented. The floods, opulent weddings, mourners at the martyr’s memorial, unrest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, rejoicing at Ershad’s departure, and the election.

Motijheel, the commercial district of Dhaka was the most important street in the capital city. As opposition announced a siege of Dhaka City on the 10th November 1987, the government imposed Section 144, which prevents the gathering of five or more persons, in an effort to contain the siege.
Skirmishes soon broke out between protestors and police at Paltan Mor, one of the areas of key confrontation.
A young worker, Nur Hossain, had painted on his back “Let Democracy be Freed”. On his chest was written, “To the end of the Tyrant”. He was killed by police bullets that day. He has since become an icon of the democratic struggle. A mural of Nur Hossain stayed for many years on the campus of Jahangir Nagar University, on the outskirts of Dhaka.
While political parties fought it out in the streets, the average person continued to struggle. Neither the government, nor the opposition parties, cared much about the problems of the person in the street. The family of a riksha puller Ramzan work in a 'factory' where they break stones all day. A worker at a biscuit factory in Rayer Bazar makes biscuits in an improvised oven.
Indigenous communities (also known as paharis or hill people) have lived in the tropical rainforests in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Initially displaced by the formation of the Kaptai Lake Hydro Electric Project, they were never compensated for the land they lost. Then a systematic campaign of ethnic dilution involved the deliberate settlement of plain land Bangalis, who were supported by the military. Forced eviction, rape and killing of the paharis led to armed resistance. The Chittagong Hill Tracts are still under military occupation.
Military operations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts
The World Bank promoted shrimp farming led to lands belonging to agrarian farmers being converted to salty shrimp farms. While this led to wealth for the large scale urban farmers, farmers who used to till the land became impoverished. The Mondol family (left) sends out its cow to graze in a nearby village as there is no longer any grass around their homestead
Bangladesh was born through a bloody civil war, where Islamist groups supported the occupying Pakistani army. While the figures are disputed a very large number of people were killed in the genocide that followed the army crackdown on the 25th March 1971. Secularism was one of the core pillars of the constitution of the newly formed Bangladesh, but the repatriation of islamic groups allowed the Jamaat-e-Islam and other islamist political parties to re-establish themselves. (Left) A woman grieves at the Central Shahid Minar, built to commemorate the martyrs of the language movement. Religious congregations like the Bishsho Estemah (right) have become increasingly visible and Jamaat have again become an important element in parliament.
In 1988, one of the worst floods in a century killed many and made many more homeless. A woman wades in a once busy street in Kamlapur. Dhaka.
In Jinjira, many homes were inundated. I found this women cooking for her family on her rooftop. The next day, the water rose another three feet and I never found her again.
These people in Gaforgaon, Mymensingh, had not eaten for three days, As we distributed relief wheat, they wonder if the wheat will run out before it gets to them.
Before the flood waters have fully dried, the daughter of a powerful minister gets married. The wall of the local Abahani playground is broken down to allow the red carpet from the president's cadillac to be rolled out to the wedding dais. The who's who of Bangladesh including the media attends, but not a word is mentioned in the press. The minister is co-owner of one of the largest newspapers. Orchids flown in from Bangkok, are strewn along the street from the bride's home to the wedding ground.
On the night of the 4th December 1990, after sustained public pressure, President Ershad announces on television that he will step down. People celebrate in the streets, expecting the return to democracy.
In Lalmatia High School a woman in a makeshift ballot booth casts her vote, avenging Nur Hossain's death.
Open letter by Shahidul Alam to Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia 27th March 1992


Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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