Balaka storks dodge a bullet

Naeem Mohaiemen

Published at the New Age on 1 Dec 2008.

UNLIKE the Baul statue circus a month ago, the group that came to smash Balaka Chattar/Biman Office statues (storks, also by Mrinal Haque) came near midnight. This time, no government officials, no advance ‘protest’ in media, no advance anything. They worked quickly, with hammers. Other reports said ‘ramda’, but I tend to think that’s fear shorthand.


 Then the police arrived. According to BdNews24, for the first 15 minutes they did nothing. Then I suppose the ‘higher ups’ decided whether to stop or allow, impede or accelerate. Then the police ‘swung into action.’ Or, as the Daily Shamokal reports it, began the ‘dhawa palta dhawa’. Police wounded, attackers in custody, conveniently wearing white robes. The hammers managed to get through the plaster legs, but stopped at the iron rods.
   I arrived after midnight. Lot of police vans. The Al Jazeera camera crew was there. Video camera nicely set on tripod. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I said to a photographer friend, I knew the trouble was over, because in a real volatile situation, there would be no time for steady shots.
   Al Jazeera seemed excited by the flyer left behind, even though it was about ‘Mandar’, the play banned by Islami Chhatra Shibir in Rajshahi. What is the link between Mandar and these statues? Or were they too cheap to print their own slogans? Or is Udichi to blame for the storks as well? It is all one gigantic hodgepodge.
   Oddly enough, only one copy of the flyer was found (and one copy with the police official, who didn’t want to share). Maybe some were taken away by the newspaper photographers, who had already taken their snaps and left to file the story. As soon as we started photographing the flyer, a crowd gathered around us.
   Police are questioning a municipal sweeper. A jhalmuri-wala appeared out of nowhere. A relaxed air. We clearly have arrived late, after the rush. Just how many people attacked the statue is a mystery. Some people we talked to said the first attack was by a group of three men with hammers, who were soon joined by a larger group.
   But how many people?
   ‘Couldn’t say, at least 50.’
   ‘What are you talking about, many more than that,’ snapped his superior.
   We asked somebody else, who said, ‘Hundreds, for sure.’
   An older man, for good measure, ‘Thousands’, I stopped counting.
   BdNews24 reported that ‘Al Bayenat’ claimed responsibility. Who? The Daily Shamokal reported that it was hundred of protesters ‘including madrassah students’.
   When I first left my house after getting the call, I had a feeling of dread. Drishtipat’s Asif Saleh sent an SMS: ‘Ki arombho korlo?’ And yes, we headed to Motijheel thinking to avert another travesty. Not this statue too! If only we were fond of the artwork, but free speech is also about defending unpopular speech.
   What is sand and pitch is a global audience, creating a conundrum for activists. I am glad they didn’t manage to smash the statues. Dodged the bullet, this time. And because there’s relief, our group started having a discussion about tactical media. When we go home tonight and blog about this, we will put up our images by habit. But then what, where will those images go?
   Our struggle is for very basic simplicity and transparency: an end to obscurantist definitions of theology, the politics of religion, and a new beginning to free spirited daily life. But some journalist somewhere will take these same images and start writing about ‘Bangladeshi jihadi camps’ – in a manner already in the Indian media after the horrific Mumbai attacks. Pakistan is the main suspect, but someone will try to blame Bangladesh as well. Is Balaka statue going to be grist for another Sadanand Dhume op-ed in the Wall Street Journal? In a piece written the day after the shocking Mumbai tragedy, Dhume makes the amazing unsubstantiated assertion that there is ‘public sympathy with the militant Islamic worldview’ in Bangladesh.
   You can’t think of so many things, so many audiences, says Asif, we have to name what we see around us. You fight the ‘militant Islamists’ in whatever form you find them. And you put quote marks around ‘Islamist’ to indicate that yes, we are talking of reactionary, manipulative politics not religion and spirituality. We don’t want madrassah students used as cannon fodder any more.
   And you always try to make sure your local struggles don’t get used to paint Bangladesh as ‘the next Afghanistan’ (as in Hironmoy Karlekar’s alarmist book). Someone will always hijack your narrative for their own agenda. But we need to keep plugging away. Small fights, small wins.
   The storks are still standing.


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