The South Asian Art Group is currently hosting an online photo exhibition by Debojyoti Das titled “Bay of Bengal: The Human Shore” in Picturing Voices of the Margins:
The photo exhibition will attempt to highlight the academic neglect of the Bay of Bengal-Indian Ocean coastal rim by visually presenting the coastal societies rich culture and shared history disrupted by annual cyclones, neo-liberal development along the shoreline and climate change induced threats on settlements and livelihoods. (Debojyoti Das)
The calls for fashi – the death penalty, executed through hanging – slipped so easily from seemingly everyone’s lips and continued to resound in my ears when we neared Shahbag square in Dhaka on the evening before the International Mother Language Day (21 February). There is something uncanny about a gathering of thousands of people who protest peacefully but nevertheless carry so much anger in them. The activities further afield, however, around the Shahbag area resembled a somewhat joyous festival atmosphere: there was music, food, merchandise articles, lit candles and street art from drawings to flower ornaments in the shape of the Shaheed Minar. This national ‘Martyr monument’ commemorates those killed during the 1952 language movement and is the focal point of the annual festivities that were celebrated the day later.
While walking in the glaring heat the following day to the Shaheed Minar in order to see the celebrations and to admire the flower ornaments, I was several times approached by young people who wanted to paint the national flag either on my cheek or my hand. I politely refused with the words: Na, dhonnobhad! (I made use of my extremely limited Bengali) which seemed to soften the blow as it was always responded with a smile. Though everyone in Bangladesh understands, and more commonly uses, ‘No, thank you!’ I felt on the day where people celebrate their language and commemorate those who died fighting for its usage, I should make an effort to use it too. Perhaps this may seem contradictory since I do not feel the same ease towards flags. As a national symbol for me it only truly embraces people who are willing to kill and to die for that imagined community the flag stands for and I am not willing to commit to either (regardless of the colours of that flag). And just as I pondered about my own emotional attachments to what we call our home, our language or even our nation, a TV team asked me for an interview about what I – as a foreigner – knew about this important day for Bangladesh, what I felt and of course whether I knew that there was a struggle going on right now?
On the day of my departure, again a day of a hartal and the commencing of a wave of violent attacks against ethnic minorities by allegedly followers of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi (the party’s vice president) is sentenced to death for genocide, rape and religious persecution committed during the war of independence. While driving from Dhaka city to the airport I notice a billboard looming above the highway, located very near the Prime Minister office that we pass only a few seconds later. It reads in white capital letters on a red background:
1971 SAW GENOCIDE.
2013 WILL SEE JUSTICE.
Its message is so simple – too simple. I leave Bangladesh with mixed emotions: I too feel strongly about justice: justice done as necessary for victims, a remedy for people to come to terms with a troubled past in order to live a better future. But to define justice, to seek it and to see it done – regardless of all the ‘oughts’ – in real life justice depends on both time and the eye of the beholder; and often it is also an oversimplified process of writing the history of a nation. For Bangladesh I wish it to be a more peaceful process and for the people who bask in the warmth of unison – as any form of nationalism strives to achieve – to not just insist on their Bangladesh but to also calmly question themselves about what kind of nation-state they want.