Another wake-up call: Are we listening?

Mridul Chowdhury

Published in the Daily Star on 14 Dec 2008.

NURUL Islam is in the hospital fighting severe burn and Tamohar is no more” — a short email from a friend changed my day, perhaps even my life. I have watched unfortunate incidents happening in people’s lives many times on TV news and read about them on newspapers — but this was the first time it happened to someone I knew. I was dumbfounded, I was shocked, I was shaken to the core. Over the course of next few hours, frantic emails with updates and speculations of what happened started coming in, until the final news — “Nurul Islam, too, is no more.”

From several thousand miles away, I knew I could not get close to the people who are deeply hurt. I sat down to do what I can do in this powerless situation — write about what was going on in my head — but I couldn’t. My emotions kept clouding my analytical abilities — this time it was too close, too personal, too emotional. I let a few days pass and made another attempt at putting my emotions on paper.

I am sad. Sad because Nurul Islam was one of the very few “clean” politicians this country has ever had — who never gave up his ideals to join a major party with the hope of becoming a minister, who was not only a spokesperson for the down-trodden of our society but had fought for their rights all his life, who never shied away from raising his voice against fundamentalism despite repeated threats.

A friend wrote to me: “With people like him in the parliament, we could change Bangladesh.” Losing someone of his stature is an immense loss to the future of this country’s politics.

I am angry. Angry because I am not sure whether we, as a nation, have been able to pay due homage to this giant of a man — not only by going to his janaja or qulkhani or by organising shokh-shobha but by really demanding a true investigation of what really happened on that fateful night.

While the political parties have made their routine lip-service demands of justice, and some politicians have taken it upon themselves to directly point fingers at their rivals perhaps to gain political scores, I am not sure how much of that is genuinely meant to maintain close watch over the investigation process.

While so many prominent politicians, during the first few days cried out that this had all the elements of a planned attack, no one raised a strong enough voice or raised critical questions when the government-appointed inquiry committee came back with the report that “positive proof was found of a short circuit as the cause of the fire.”

We, as a people, have short attention span — we grieve, we cry, we shout and then we forget. We also have a lot of cynicism — we tend to “accept reality” and move on with our lives.

I am suspicious. Suspicious because the investigation process seems too focused on detecting short circuits and not enough on some other important elements of the case, which raise important questions about the investigation report such as the following:

-How could a short-circuit lead to the explosion of a refrigerator that was supposedly out of order for years and remained unplugged, according to family sources mentioned in a press conference.

-How come the investigation has not found “signs of combustibles, explosives or any other suspicious materials” in the apartment when the physicians of Nurul Islam found “traces of gunpowder in his respiratory system,” also mentioned by family sources in the same press conference

-Why has the investigation not yet focused adequately on the telephone threats he has been receiving, which Nurul Islam himself mentioned with his last breaths?

-Why has the investigation also not focused on the uncanny similarity between this fire incident and that in B. Choudhury’s house in 2006? Both happened late at night, both were limited within a narrow area of the house, and both have been attributed initially by the respective investigations to electrical short circuit. For the B. Chowdhury incident, there was ample evidence to suggest that it was not a short circuit since the electrical appliances were functioning, window panes were broken and smell of toxic gas was reported, among other pieces of evidence.

Perhaps my suspicion is pre-mature and the investigation process is just taking its time to bear out the facts and I would be delighted if that is the case. But I have a nagging feeling that is aggravated by the fact that most high-profile “unnatural death” cases in our country are not fortunate enough to find any resolutions.

I am also hopeful. Hopeful because despite the terrible loss, there are some who passionately carry in their hearts the idealism of Nurul Islam — young and old. A friend wrote to me: “We have to carry on the torch or else we will lose the fight [that Nurul Islam perhaps gave up his life for].”

Investigation is something we have little control over — we protest, we demand, we raise questions and hope someone with authority will listen. But what we do have control over is not to let the ideals of Nurul Islam fade away. As the post-liberation generation prepares to take the helm of this country’s politics in 5-10 years, we should ensure that Nurul Islam is a politician that they know about, draw inspiration from, and try to come close to the standards that he lived by.

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