Friday, November 13, 2015

History as Ethical Remembrance: Dhaka University, Shaheed Minar and CP Gang’s ‘Bessha’ Banner Part: I and II

By Rahnuma Ahmed
November 11, 2015
THIS story begins with the sudden and unexpected death of Professor Piash Karim on October 13, 2014, of cardiac arrest. Piash, who had returned to Dhaka in 2007 after teaching for nearly two decades at an American university, had joined BRAC University and was teaching in the department of economics and social sciences. Dr Amena Mohsin, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, and Piash Karim got married in March 2013; high-school student Drabir Karim, Piash’s son from his first marriage, was part of their family. Earlier known in his circle of friends for his left-leaning views, Piash gradually gravitated towards the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a centrist party and the ruling Awami League’s arch-enemy.
 He began frequenting television talk shows, popular, as no real debate takes place in the parliament. (The popularity of TV talk shows has drastically declined, however, with the silent black-listing of dissident voices; a couple of analysts have reportedly left the country). His comment that the Ganajagaran Mancha — initially composed of a small group of bloggers and activists calling for the hanging of war criminals of 1971, later mushrooming into a sea of people at Shahbagh square in Dhaka city and spreading nationwide — was developing “fascist” undertones, earned him widespread denunciation. The movement was then riding high.
 His outspokenness on TV talk shows earned him a steady barrage of verbal attacks, presumably, also the crude bomb attack on his residence in November 2013 (Piash and Amena were unhurt, they had not been at home, the security guard received a bullet in his leg); these incidents, some surmise, helped draw him closer to the BNP. Piash was a public figure, he had a following among the BNP and its coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami (many of whose top leadership are accused of/have committed war crimes), and among TV audiences generally dissatisfied with the Awami League government’s misrule.
 His brother’s announcement, a few hours after his death, that his body would be taken to the Central Shaheed Minar (the language martyrs memorial located on the Dhaka University campus) to enable members of the public to pay their last respects, was national news on scores of TV channels. It was not unexpected as well-known intellectuals, academics, writers, political and cultural figures are publicly mourned thus before being taken away for burial. Protests soon erupted, vicious allegations were made by leaders of student and cultural organisations close to the ruling party, and by groups in the social media: Piash Karim had spoken against the Shahbagh movement.
He had opposed the war crimes trials. He was, in short, anti-Liberation (these allegations are not borne out by clips available on Youtube; he was critical of the war crimes trials failing to meet accepted international standards). A catchy slogan was soon forged, “Piash Karimer lasher bhar, boibe na Shaheed Minar” (The burden of Piash Karim’s body will not be borne by the Shaheed Minar). It helped galvanise people and protests.
A delegation of the Chhatra Sangram Parishad comprising Bangladesh Chhatra Maitri president Bappaditya Basu, Chhatra Maitri general secretary Tanvir Rusmat, Chhatra League (JSD) president Shamsul Islam Suman and the ruling Awami League’s student organisation, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) university unit president Mehedi Hasan Molla met the Dhaka University vice-chancellor professor AAMS Arefin Siddique (Dhaka Tribune, October 14, 2014). Basu told the press, the VC had assured them that professor Piash Karim’s body would not be allowed at the Shaheed Minar. New allegations surfaced against professor Karim: his father and paternal grandfather were collaborators, they had been members of the local peace committee in 1971. Piash Karim was a Pakistani agent. He had been on the Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI’s payroll.
 A faction of the Ganajagaran Mancha (by then the mass movement had shrunk; it is rumoured that intelligence agencies had been involved in its decimation), Slogan 71, Praner Adda 71 and several other online-based groups organised a sit-in at the Shaheed Minar. A group of artists joined in the protests, they painted iconic caricatures of collaborators on the streets around the memorial; on the northern steps of the memorial were painted the words, “The sacred Shaheed Minar will not bear the body of a (Pakistani) agent, take it to Pakistan.” The university authorities called the police for “security” reasons; they promptly cordoned off the Shaheed Minar (, October 16, 2014). On October 15, a formal application was submitted to the Dhaka University authorities seeking permission to hold a public respect ceremony for Piash Karim at the Shaheed Minar on Friday, October 17. It was turned down. Left with no other option, his family and well-wishers took his body from the hospital’s mortuary to his Dhanmondi residence. According to news reports, his Namaz-e-Janaza, held after Jummah prayers at the Baitul Mukarram Mosque, was well-attended. He was buried at a Dhaka city graveyard.
 The DU authorities gave permission instead (the authorities insisted, the decision had been taken earlier) to the Muktijoddha Sangsad Santan Command to hold a programme on Friday, October 17, 2014. The programme began at 9:00am with a human chain, formed to resist Piash’s body being brought to the Shaheed Minar; participants in the programme included the Kamal Pasha-led Ganagajaran Mancha, Muktijuddho Projonmo, CP Gang, the BCL Dhaka University unit, Bangabandhu Sainik Platoon, Praner Adda 71, Slogan 71, Chhatra Sangram Parishad and Y Platoon (some of these groups have never been heard of before). At the rally held later, the president of the Muktijoddha Sangsad Santan Command Mehedi Hasan announced the names of nine intellectuals who were barred from the Shaheed Minar: Mahfuzullah (senior journalist), Asif Nazrul (Dhaka University professor), Amena Mohsin (Dhaka University professor; also, professor Piash Karim’s wife), Dilara Chowdhury (North South University professor), Tuhin Malik (lawyer), Farhad Mazhar (writer and columnist), Golam Mortuza (editor, Saptahik), Nurul Kabir (editor, New Age), and Motiur Rahman Chowdhury (editor, daily Manabzamin).
The list had grouped partisan intellectuals (BNP and Jamaat supporters) with independent voices — not surprising as the ruling party abhors all equally. Some are not only disdained but feared, for the respect and credibility they enjoy among large TV talk-show audiences. Unsurprisingly, Mr Hasan had couched it differently: they were barred because they wanted Piash’s body to be brought to the Shaheed Minar. The rally was also addressed by leaders of the Chhatra League, and the Chhatra Maitri.
That this list of names had been decided beforehand was apparent from the banner held by the CP Gang (see photo). “CP” is short for Crack Platoon; their namesake, ie, the original Crack Platoon was a small urban guerrilla group belonging to Sector 2, which had fought under Sector Commander Khaled Mosharraf in 1971. The group is legendary because their attacks had been conducted in the enemy’s heartland, they had inflicted physical injuries, but more so, had weakened the enemy’s morale.
The CP Gang’s banner was life-size, the faces of the nine intellectuals, prominently displayed, had been crossed out in red. The banner said: “Muktijuddher shothik itihash projonmer kache tule dhorte shusheel namdhari eishob mitthabadi shadhinotabirodhi buddhi-besshader protihoto korun.” (Resist these so-called civil [society] liars and anti-Independence intellectual prostitutes in order to uphold the true history of the liberation war to the younger generation).
The law minister Anisul Huq spoke up in defence of Piash Karim a few days later. His father said the minister had actually been a member of the Awami League, and not the Muslim League. Piash had been picked up by the Pakistani army while distributing leaflets in support of the war of liberation. His father had been forced to give an undertaking to seek his release; he had been forced to join the peace committee. The minister’s effigy was burnt in front of the National Press Club two days later. Protestors, numbering twenty or so, holding banners identifying themselves as belonging to the Online Activists Forum, Jatiya Ganatantrik League, Krishak-Sramik Party, and Kazi Arif Foundation demanded that he apologise because his comments had been ill-motivated, they helped strengthen the anti-liberation forces. Dubbing him a “nobbo rajakar” (new collaborator), they also demanded that he be removed from the cabinet.
The whole saga was disconcerting for many. A leading English daily editorialised, “Declaring people non grata. A dangerous portent” (The Daily Star, October 20, 2014). The Shaheed Minar should not be used to serve the political objectives of one party, commented Ruhin Hossain Prince, a former president of Bangladesh Chhatra Union. Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury blamed it on the lack of student union elections, “partisan leadership has muscled in” because union elections haven’t been held for the last 25 years. A top-ranking BNP leader dubbed the Shaheed Minar the “Awami” Minar, while a pro-BNP senior journalist said the national monument was now a “dirty and stinking” place. Columnist Syed Abul Maqsood reminisced, I didn’t know Piash’s father but his paternal uncle was appointed the inspector general of police after Bangladesh became independent. He was later made head of the commission tasked with preparing the list of 1971 martyrs.
 As a matter of fact, we’d assisted him (Prothom Alo, October 21, 2014). A pretty common response, voiced by many was, ‘The Shaheed Minar is a national monument, it is not the Awami League’s property.’ There were tongue-in-cheek ones as well, an online reader had posted, “No problem, my respect for those unwanted has increased manifold…” (Prothom Alo, October 18, 2014). A more thoughtful comment was posted by Mahbub Morshed on Facebook, “This photograph is historic. Those who have been slandered with their faces crossed out have been critical of the government for long.
The Awami League has crossed out the right to freedom of speech. This photograph provides the evidence” (, October 17, 2014). There was a bit of confusion as well. Were the nine eminent citizens barred from entering the premises of the Shaheed Minar while still alive, or was the prohibition to be effective post-death, ie, their bodies were not to be brought to the memorial for public respect ceremonies? Press reports conflicted. If it was the former, well then, I’m afraid the ‘order’ proclaimed by the “laasher bhar” umbrella group was soon defied. Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age, was one of the speakers at a programme held in memory of language veteran Abdul Matin at the Central Shaheed Minar on October 24, 2014. Popularly known as ‘Bhasha’ Matin for his role as convenor of the all-party state language movement committee in 1952, he died on October 8, 2014, a few days before Piash. The programme was organised by the Bhasha Sangrami Comrade Abdul Matin Smaran Jatiya Committee, speakers spoke of the general anger and outrage at state honours not having been extended to Abdul Matin at his funeral.
Freedom fighter Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury apologised to ‘Bhasha’ Matin on behalf of the nation for this “failure” (New Age, October 25, 2014). One which had occurred despite Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina conceding in her condolence message that Abdul Matin was “one of the fighters” of the “historic” language movement, the “first step” towards “independence.” It just went to show that Matin’s idealism, his uncompromising attitude, was not appreciated by people high-up in circles of power. But what concerns me is the text in the CP Gang banner, more specifically, the word “buddhibessha” (intellectual prostitute). This is what the article is about. May Piash Karim’s soul rest in peace?
To be continued.
History As Ethical Remembrance: Dhaka University, Shaheed Minar And CP Gang’s ‘Bessha’ Banner – II
By Rahnuma Ahmed
November 12, 2015
Problematising “bessha”
WHAT struck me when I glanced at the photo first was, why “buddhibessha”? Why not “rajakar” (collaborator)? If these public figures are being accused of being anti-Independence, wouldn’t it make more sense to call them “rajakars”? (it’s far from the truth, I just say it for argument’s sake). Why purported sexual deviance instead? “Deviance” as in aberration from the patriarchal norm, ie, good women are chaste, monogamous, they ‘suffer’ sex to breed pure, wholesome children, bad women ‘enjoy’ sex.
The prostitute replaces the war collaborator
WHY has the “prostitute” replaced the “war collaborator”? Why are enemies of the muktijuddho being likened to prostitutes? What does this substitution mean? Empirically-speaking, one can understand the imperative for a new word, actually, the crying need for a new concept, for it was increasingly obvious that “rajakar” would not do any longer. It had been over-used, it did not carry any moral weight or the approbration it should; to give two, somewhat recent instances of “rajakar” name-calling, that too, levelled at famous freedom fighters, are: Bongobir Kader Siddiqui (for not toeing the Awami League party line), and Air Vice Marshal (retired) AK Khandaker, deputy chief of the liberation forces during 1971, and chairman of the Sector Commanders Forum which was formed seven years ago to press for the trial of war criminals (for recollecting historical incidents in a manner contrary to the official Awami League narrative). The new concept, of course, needed to be packaged in liberation war history — muktijuddho (liberation war), shadhinota (independence), projonmo (generation) —  but its remit would be broader, more expansive, its purpose being, to borrow CR Abrar’s words, “demonise dissenters” (The Daily Star, October 22, 2014).
Enter “buddhibessha”?
But why buddhibessha, why this female-gendering? I call it female-gendering because despite research evidence indicating that boys and men too work as prostitutes in Bangladesh, a “bessha” is, as Therese Blanchet points out, a “female in the social imaginary” (emphasis added).
Some readers might be thinking, bessha refers only to some women, not all, so, what’s the problem? The point is that, calling any woman a bessha “automatically places all women in the category of potential” besshas (Caitlin Hines, 1999). And, as Meghan Murphy argues, “You see, there is no such thing as a ‘slut’ or a ‘non-slut’. There are women.” The dichotomies of us vs them, good girls vs bad girls, virgin vs whore, are misogynist. They are not useful in defining women’s “lives and sexualities.” These divisions destroy women’s solidarity. Instead of masculine supremacy being the problem, they make us think that “female sexuality” is the problem that “female bodies” are the issue (, 2012).
In their Facebook page, the CP Gang describes what they mean by “bessha” and “buddhibessha” (,
“Intelligence is a non-material thing, a person can make use of it for the good of all. A prostitute is one who hands over her flawless bodily form, the handiwork of the Creator, to another in exchange for a specific sum of money. Prostitutes definitely have the right to choose their own profession and there is no reason to hate prostitutes for doing so because it is due to them that the human race is saved from pitfalls. On the other hand, those who are intellectual prostitutes, they often do not use their intelligence for the good of the nation and the community, they use it to concoct lies in exchange of cash. Selling one’s body [sic] for money is only an occupation, but it is not harmful for the country and the community, however, selling one’s intelligence and mixing truth with falsehood and confusing the public is very dangerous for the country.” (author’s translation).
It is interesting that the CP gang does not portray besshas as ‘fallen’ women, which is how they are perceived culturally (another Bangla word for bessha is potita, a fallen woman), but as:
–     glamorous creatures (“flawless bodily form,” tch tch, male sexual fantasy),
–     sexually autonomous women who freely choose their occupation (“right to choose”),
–     prostitution as an occupation like any other, doctor, engineer, teacher, no stigma attached (“selling one’s body [sic] for money is only an occupation”),
–     the prostitute is one who sells her “body” (a prostitute does not sell her body, she sells sexual services),
–     the exchange seems to be oh-so civil (“in exchange for a specific sum of money”) and,
–     prostitutes save the “human race” from “pitfalls” (the noble whore, the assumption is that prostitutes cannot be raped).
–     the CP Gang assumes that the prostitute is duly paid for her sexual services, her sexual services are never ‘extracted’ forcibly (a prostitute “hands over her flawless bodily form”)
–     their portrayal is history-less: neither prostitution nor prostitutes have a history, prostitution is regarded as being unrelated to sexual ideologies and social structures, as being essential and unchanging (a prostitute’s body is the “handiwork of the Creator”).
At a surface level, their ‘description’ reminds one of the new term “sex worker” (jouno kormi), coined by advocates who forcefully argue that prostitution should not be stigmatised and “sensationalized.” That it is not, as Johanna Brenner points out in her review article, “different from much other highly gendered service work” (2014). But why should new content (no stigma attached) be packaged in the same old form (drenched in stigma)? Because obviously, buddhi-jounokormi (intellectual-sex worker) does not sell like buddhibessha does! Despite all the sweet rhetoric employed “[prostitutes] definitely have the right to choose,” “there is no reason to hate prostitutes” — the CP Gang draws unashamedly on the expletive force of bessha, based as it is on social ideologies of revulsion, hatred and disdain for active female sexuality. This is Intellectual Deception 1.
Intellectual Deception 2. Nothing in the CP Gang’s description of besshas indicates any negative traits. “Mixing truth with falsehood and confusing the public” is not what some besshas do but what some “intellectuals” do, so why bring in besshas at all?
As for all the umbrage at “selling intelligence,” the less said about it the better, in capitalism, much of the salaried class, in their jobs as writer, copy-writer, teacher, secretary, manager, doctor, engineer, physicist, receptionist, botanist, editor, PR professionals, sell (skills acquired through the honing of) intelligence.
What strikes one most, however, is how the CP Gang’s besshas seem to be winged creatures falling from the sky, not embedded in dense social relations of class, gender, religion or caste, no families, no entanglement with brothels and pimps, nor with members of the police or the law courts. Real besshas, as research conducted in Bangladesh indicates, enter prostitution either because they were raped, or tricked, or cheated, or abducted, or because they ran away from home or were sold into prostitution. Or a combination of these. But whatever be the chain of circumstances, all studies indicate that the overwhelming number of girls and women, come from very poor families.
The CP Gang’s unproblematic use of bessha invisibilises the misery and insecurity of prostitutes, it ignores their struggles for survival, more importantly, it validates the sexual oppression of Bangladeshi women.
Victims of war rape were reviled as “besshas”
And now on to the “true history of the liberation war.” No sexist slur, and I really want to emphasise this point, can have any place whatsoever, in the “true history” of ’71, particularly not “bessha.”
Unless one would like to subscribe to Sarmila Bose’s version of history: “the [Pakistan] armed forces were found not to have raped women [in ’71 East Pakistan]” (cited by Khalid Hasan, 2005).
But we know that girls and women were raped during ’71, that rape was systematic, that it was legitimised by naturalising men’s sexual urges, as expressed in General Niazi’s words, “You cannot expect a man to live, fight, and die in East Pakistan and go to Jhelum for sex, would you?” That, it was intertwined with racist notions, ie, Bengalis were inferior in physique (non-martial), and in religious faith (“half-Muslims”), that, in the eyes of their West Pakistani rulers, they had been unduly influenced by neighbouring Hindu culture. Bina D’Costa writes, “… [President General] Yahya’s order to make Muslims out of Bengalis was carried out most cruelly and literally during the nine months of conflict, when an estimated 200,000 women and children were systematically subjected to rape” (Bina D’Costa, 2008). Sexual violence, in other words, had “reproductive” objectives; there was, as Veena Das puts it, a “eugenic ring” to it, the purported reason was to “improve the genes of the Bengali people” ie, to create a “race of “pure” Muslims” (Nayanika Mookherjee, 2002; Veena Das, 2007).
Feminist history-writing in Bangladesh has laid equal stress on the post-independence experiences of many women, which proved to be no less traumatic. They were scorned for having lost their chastity, for being defiled, many were called “bessha” to their faces. Accounts available to us relate how victims of rape were turned away by their parents, husbands and siblings, how they were rejected and ostracised by members of the community. Some were reportedly killed, some committed suicide, some found refuge in brothels, some became mentally unhinged, thousands simply disappeared, leaving no trace behind.
The venomous scorn and rejection that awaited them in independent Bangladesh was evident to many at the dawn of freedom. Thirty to forty raped women, writes the author of Ami Birangona Bolchi (“I am the birangona speaking”) had decided to leave Bangladesh with the Pakistani soldiers, prisoners-of-war of the Indian army (Nilima Ibrahim, 1988). One of the women, Rina (pseudonym), we learn from Nilima apa’s pioneering work, was successfully persuaded by her brother and returned home from Kolkata, while another, Meherjan (pseudonym), followed one of her perpetrators to Pakistan, settling down in Karachi and becoming his second (polygamous) wife.
Does Bengali nationalism engage with this history? No, it always stops short at war rape, expressed in a token one-liner — “2 lakh ma-boner-ijjot” (the lost honour of 200,000 mothers-and-sisters). It has never, not for a moment, engaged with what it means for “rape victims-to-be-perceived-as-besshas.” Such histories, if raised at all, are hurriedly brushed aside, allusions float in the air: they are instances of a ‘backward’ culture (Shahriar Kabir, 1999), we should not linger on them, we should look forward, face the future.
Now that I look back, I wonder, why didn’t the women’s movement, given the sexually violent birth of Bangladesh, draft a charter or a manifesto on Women’s Freedom from Sexual Oppression in Bangladesh. Women’s sexuality (in an all-encompassing sense) has never been a theoretical issue, neither for liberation war history, nor sadly, for the women’s movement. If it had, maybe we would not have been at such an intellectual loss to explain and analyse the current explosion of sexual assault and rape, maybe we would have explored whether connections exist between rape-now and rape-then, we would have asked ourselves whether the mass rape of ’71 has helped construct women — whether pahari or Bengali — as ‘rapeable,’ we would have tabled these issues with our muktijuddher-pokkher-shokti politicians, we would have demanded answers.
South African scholars (Garth Stevens, Brett Bowman, Gillian Eagle and Kevin Whitehead) have recently suggested that in the context of growing inequality and a fraying social fabric, the ANC regime draws upon the “historical and collective trauma of apartheid violence” as a “psychological and socio-political resource” (CUNY, August 2015), ostensibly, to legitimise and perpetuate its rule.
Similarly, in the context of growing inequality, lawlessness, corruption, disappearances, and extortion, does the Awami League government draw upon the historical and collective trauma of muktijuddho as an ideological cover, to legitimise and perpetuate its rule? Our academics, unfortunately, would not dream of raising such questions, let alone undertake such an investigation in a principled and objective manner.
“Articulating the past historically means recognizing those elements of the past which come together in the constellation of a single moment.”
    — Walter Benjamin
AK Khandaker, 1971: Bhitore Baire (1971: Ins and Outs), history is ‘corrected’ in the 2nd edition, Dhaka: Prothoma, 2014.
Caitlin Hines, “Rebaking the Pie: The woman as dessert metaphor,” in Mary Bucholtz, AC Liang, Laurel A Sutton (eds.), Reinventing Identities. The Gendered Self in Discourse, Oxford and New York: OUP, 1999.
Meghan Murphy, “It’s not ‘slut-shaming,’ it’s woman hating,”, December 7, 2012.
Johanna Brenner, “Selling Sexual Services: A Socialist Feminist Perspective,” Logos, a Journal of Modern Society and Culture, Vol 13, Nos 3-4, November 2014.
Khalid Hasan, “Army not involved in 1971 rapes,”, June 30, 2005.
Bina D’Costa, “Victory’s silence. ‘War babies’ and Bangladesh’s tragedy of abortion and adoption,” Himal, December 2008.
Nayanika Mookherjee, 2002 PhD thesis published recently as, The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971, with a foreword by Veena Das, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Veena Das, Life and Words. Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2007.
Nilima Ibrahim, Ami Birangona Bolchi (translated, “I Am the Birangona Speaking,” 1988), Dhaka: Jagriti Prokashoni, 2013.
Shahriar Kabir, “Bhumika,” Ekatturer Dushshoho Smriti (translated, “The Terrible Memories of Ekattur”), Dhaka: Ekatturer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee, 1999.
Garth Stevens, Brett Bowman, Gillian Eagle and Kevin Whitehead, symposium on “The Ruse of Reconciliation? Discursive Contours, Impossibilities, and Modes of Resistance in the South African ‘Reconciliation Project,’” Centre for Place, Culture and Politics, City University of New York, August 18, 2015.
To be continued.

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