Nurul Islam’s death and our hollow national pride

Asif Saleh

Published by the Daily Star on 8 December 2009.

Our country is going to be forty soon; our nationalism is prominently on display everywhere. However, I can’t but help detect a sense of hollowness in our national pride when we know that the country has not been fair to so many of its people. We have made a small step towards correcting that error through the verdict of November 19. Can this be the start of righting the wrongs that have been done to the people of this country?

THE final verdict of the Bangabandhu murder last month has made a lot of people declare that a big stone from their hearts has been lifted. However, can we declare ourselves shame-free so quickly? “It’s difficult not to dwell on the negatives, the fact that it took so long and that it seems unlikely it would’ve ever happened under a non-AL government,” a close family member of the Sheikh family recently wrote to me.

This may be hard to accept but therein lies our collective shame. That it took not only an AL government to be in power but also to be in power with a sweeping majority, and the founding father’s daughter to be the prime minister of the country, for the family to finally get justice is telling. How high a price is that to pay for something that should be automatically facilitated by the state?

Now that justice is being served for the country’s first family, what about the others who are not in a position to be the PM of the country? Even if I leave out the average Rahims from the picture, the delay in getting justice for the people who dedicated their lives in public service only for it to be brutally cut short, speaks volumes about our justice system. Yes, I am talking about Shah A.S.M. Kibria, Ivy Rahman, Ahsanullah Master and Nurul Islams of this country — the victims of political violence in Bangladesh. Why is it so hard to get justice for their families?

Exactly a year ago I was in Washington DC for a hearing on human rights in Bangladesh when I got a frantic call from my colleague Iffat Nawaz. “Moutushi’s father Nurul Islam is burnt and his brother has died,” she was crying on the phone. I had seen Moutushi just three weeks before — vibrantly going around helping us out for a concert that we organised for our organisation’s fund raising. In that visit, Iffat was supposed to introduce me to poet Ruby Rahman, her mother, whose charm and poetic skills I have heard so much about from my mother-in-law and her friend Shamim Azad. Instead of our meeting, our coffee and our adda, they were on the plane to Dhaka find out more about this “mysterious fire” that ravaged their family.

Exactly one year has gone by since then. I have moved back to Dhaka, and got to meet Ruby Rahman in a situation I hardly wished to meet. I see her and Moutushi a lot more now. They go from door to door pushing their case for a competent investigation. Moutushi spends night after night sleepless — looking for partners, friends and allies who can work with her in trying to get to the bottom of the mystery behind what killed her brother and father — with little success.

After a year of their running around, there has been little progress in uncovering the mystery behind the death of Nurul and Tamohar Islam. Days before the fire, sensing danger for his father, Nurul Islam’s son Tamohar frantically called his sister in the US. The news of the phone threats that Nurul Islam received before the incident have been echoed by people like Matia Chowdhury and Rashed Khan Menon. On the contrary, the initial police investigation report (January 10) claimed that the fire was the result of an explosion from the gas cylinder in the fridge, even though the ATN news report by Munni Shaha on December 4 2008, clearly showed that the lower back of the fridge was intact and that the compressor of the fridge did not explode.

There is also hardly any explanation of how an unplugged fridge that had been non-functional for three years could cause an explosion such as this. On top of that, there is no explanation for the broken door key, which made it impossible for Nurul Islam and Tamohar to open the locked door from inside. Like these, there are so many unanswered questions surrounding these two deaths that it is hard to accept them as accidental. There is little chance of making any inroads into this investigation without a comprehensive new look at this incident with fresh and expert investigators. However, what are the chances of seeing that happen?

I had little reason to be hopeful after I met Dr. Nazli Kibria at a conference on Bangladesh in Boston in October. When I raised the topic of the investigation of her father’s death, there was a sense of resignation in her face. “Nothing changes,” she said. And the sad thing is that her story is not that unique. Look around and you will find that this country is full of people deprived of basic justice and fairness. From 1971 to Pilikhana, this country has seen too many violent deaths that are unaccounted for.

Our country is going to be forty soon; our nationalism is prominently on display everywhere. However, I can’t but help detect a sense of hollowness in our national pride when we know that the country has not been fair to so many of its people. We have made a small step towards correcting that error through the verdict of November 19. Can this be the start of righting the wrongs that have been done to the people of this country?

Comrade Nurul Islam, who spent his entire lifetime speaking for the voiceless, deserves better than this. A transparent investigation with utmost priority by investigators with real expertise is the least that his friends, family and the citizens of this country can expect. Nothing short of attaining that will let us get rid of our collective shame and guilt. It is about time that we establish that the verdict of November 19 and justice served to the deceased family as a norm and not an exception in this country.

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