Arundhati and Shahidul write to each other
Indian author Arundhati Roy wrote a letter to imprisoned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam on the 100th day of his incarceration on 14 November, which was also the PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer, 2018. Alam was released on bail on 20 November, and he wrote back to Arundhati. Nepali Times brings you both letters below:
It’s been more than a 100 days now since they took you away. Times aren’t easy in your country or in mine, so when we first heard that unknown men had abducted you from your home, of course we feared the worst. Were you going to be ‘encountered’ (our word in India for extra-judicial murder by security forces) or killed by ‘non-state actors’? Would your body be found in an alley, or floating in some shallow pond on the outskirts of Dhaka? When your arrest was announced and you surfaced alive in a police station, our first reaction was one of sheer joy.
Am I really writing to you? Perhaps not. If I were, I wouldn’t need to say very much beyond, ‘Dearest Shahidul, no matter how lonely your prison cell, know that we have our eyes on you. We are looking out for you.’
Read also: Shahidul Alam 100th day in Jail
If I were really writing to you I wouldn’t need to tell you how your work, your photographs and your words, has, over decades, inscribed a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world—its pain, its joy, its violence, its sorrow and desolation, its stupidity, its cruelty, its sheer, crazy complicatedness—onto our consciousness. Your work is lit up, made luminous, as much by love as it is by a probing, questioning anger born of witnessing at first hand the things that you have witnessed. Those who have imprisoned you have not remotely understood what it is that you do. We can only hope, for their sake, that someday they will.
Your arrest is meant to be a warning to your fellow citizens: ‘If we can do this to Shahidul Alam, think of what we can do to the rest of you—all you nameless, faceless, ordinary people. Watch. And be afraid.’
The formal charge against you is that you have criticised your country in your (alleged) Facebook posts. You have been arrested under the Section 57 of Bangladesh’s infamous Information and Communications Technology Act (ICT) which authorizes ‘the prosecution of any person who publishes, in electronic form, material that is fake and obscene; defamatory; tends to deprave and corrupt its audience; causes or may cause deterioration in law and order; prejudices the image of the state or a person; or causes or may cause hurt to religious belief’.
Read also: Shahidul Alam Photo Kathmandu award, Alisha Sett
What sort of law is this, this absurd, indiscriminate, catch-all, fishing trawler type of law? What place does it have in a country that calls itself a democracy? Who has the right to decide what the correct ‘image of the state’ is, and should be? Is there only one legally approved and acceptable image of Bangladesh? Section 57 potentially criminalizes all forms of speech except blatant sycophancy. It’s an attack, not on intellectuals, but on intelligence itself. We hear that over the last five years more than 1200 journalists in Bangladesh have been charged under it, and that 400 trials are already underway.
In India too, this sort of attack on our intelligence is becoming normalized. Our equivalent of Bangladesh’s ICT Act is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act under which hundreds of people including students, activists, lawyers and academics are being arrested in wave after wave. The cases against them, like the one against you, are flimsy and ludicrous. Even the police know that they are likely to be acquitted by higher courts. But the hope is that by then, their spirits will have been broken by years in prison. The process is the punishment.
Read also: #FreeShahidulAlam
So, as I write this letter to you, dear Shahidul, I am tempted to add, dear Sudha, dear Saibaba, dear Surendra, dear Shoma, dear Mahesh, dear Sudhir, dear Rona, dear Arun, dear Vernon, and also, dear Tariq, dear Aijaz, dear Aamir, dear Kopa, dear Kamla, dear Madavi, dear Maase, dear Raju, dear hundreds and hundreds of others.
How is it possible for people to defend themselves against laws like these? It’s like having to prove one’s innocence before a panel of certified paranoics. Every argument only serves to magnify their paranoia and heighten their delusions.
As both our countries hurtle towards general elections, we know that we can expect more arrests, more lynching, more killing, more bloggers hacked to death, more orchestrated ethnic, religious and caste conflagrations— more false-flag “terrorist” strikes, more assassinations of journalists and writers. Elections, we know, means fire in the ducts.
Read also: The death of democracy, Aditya Adhikari
Your Prime Minister, who claims to be a secular democrat, has announced that she will build 500 mosques with the billion dollars the Government of Saudi Arabia has donated to Bangladesh. These mosques are supposedly meant to disseminate the ‘correct’ kind of Islam.
Here in India, our rulers have dropped all pretense of the secularism and socialism that are enshrined in our constitution. In order to distract attention from the catastrophic failures of governance and deepening popular resentment, as institution after institution—our courts, universities, banks, intelligence agencies—is pushed into crisis, the ruling power, (not the Government, but its holding company, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,) is alternately cajoling and threatening the Supreme Court to pass an order clearing the decks for the construction of a giant Hindu temple on the site where the Babri Masjid once stood before it was demolished by a rampaging mob. It’s amazing how politicians’ piety peaks and troughs with election cycles.
This is what we are up against, these neat definitions of the perfect nation, the perfect man, the perfect citizen, the perfect Hindu, the perfect Muslim. The postscript to this is the perfect majority and the satanic minority. The people of Europe and the Soviet Union have lived through the devastation that these sorts of ideas caused. They have suffered the matchless terror of neatness. Only recently Europe marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht—the event that marked the beginning of the Holocaust. There too it all began quite slowly. There too it began with elections. And there too the old murmurs have started up again.
Here we’re going to witness our own scorched-earth elections in the coming days. They will use their fishing-trawler laws, they will jump at shadows to decimate the opposition.
Fortunately, we are an irredeemably untidy people. And hopefully we will stand up to them in our diverse and untidy ways.
Dear Shahidul, I believe the tide will turn. It will. It must. This foolish, shortsighted cruelty will give way to something kinder and more visionary. This particular malaise, this bout of ill-health that has engulfed our planet will pass.
I hope to see you in Dhaka very soon.
It was a letter I read and reread long before it appeared before my eyes. It was through layers of metal bars that I strained to listen to Rahnuma’s words. At over 130 decibels, the noise made by us screaming prisoners, straining to hear and be heard, was akin to a crowded stadium or a fire siren. As she repeated her words over and over again, I faintly heard, Arundhati. Letter. It was just over a hundred days that I had been incarcerated. A hundred days since I’d slept on my own bed, fed my fish, cycled down the streets of Dhaka. A hundred days since I’d pressed my shutter as I searched for that elusive light.
Those words, screamed out but barely heard was the nourishment I needed. Did you write it by hand? What was the paper like? In this digital age, you probably used a keyboard. What font had you used? What point size? And the words. Words that you so gracefully string together. I relished the imagined words. Your words. I missed words as I missed my bed, my fish and Rahnuma’s touch. When they asked me what I needed in jail, books were on top of my list. The first lot of books came in. Mujib’s prison diaries, Schendel’s History of Bangladesh, and the book you’d given me when we last met, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I’d been meaning to read it ever since we said goodbye in Delhi, but our lives had been taken over by the immediacy of our struggles. Now I had the time.
I imagined other letters. The one Shiv Viswanathan had written when Binayak Sen had been sentenced for sedition, or the one Rahgu Rai wrote asking that I be freed. But this one was not to a prime minister. It had been written for me. To me. There are no pigeons in Keraniganj, and sparrows are perhaps too small to carry letters. As I fed them from my window, I could imagine one carrying across a tiny wad of paper, carefully tied to its feet. Paper I would unfold gently, smoothing the creases. It would have been a letter I had read before it was written.
I could read your letter, not because I remember you sitting across your wooden table in your open kitchen. Not because I remember you rubbing noses with Maati Ke Laal as she interrupted our chat, insisting on not being ignored. Not because of Sanjay’s book on Kashmir, which we had opened together. My reading relied on our shared legacies, on our collective griefs, on the struggles we both face as autocrats rule our lands. You have Kashmir and we have the Chittagong Hill Tracts. You have ‘encounters’ and we have ‘crossfire’. ‘Goom’ we both share. We both live in what are called democracies, though we know we lack voice.
Your book weaves complex characters, the absurdities and the beauty that is India. It finds the calm within the chaos. A moment of kindness, within the grotesque injustice. I look around me and see hijras in the high security cells in Surjamukhi. Occasionally they walk out, their bright saris, glowing amidst the drab clothes of other prisoners. They remind me of your Anjum. Of your Saddam, as I see Koutuk da feeding the cats, making his way to those pretentiously named jail buildings, Jamuna, Meghna, Korotowa and Padma, seeking out the one that might have missed its meal. As I speak to prisoners falsely charged, and left to rot in a legal system that lets people be forgotten, and the Sharbahara man Tipu Biswas, his eyes glowing with passion, insisting on justice even in jail, I am reminded of your Musa, defiant against the odds.
It was here in Keraniganj that I met Badal Farazi, wrongfully charged by Indian courts, and eventually sent to Bangladesh. Ten years in jail for a crime, the courts knew he could not have committed. My government too scared to speak against this utter wrongness of Indian justice. Too scared to upset the big brother. Keraniganj was where top terror Joseph had been. Released through a presidential pardon, whisked away in the middle of the night and sent overseas. In my case it had taken six attempts before bail had finally been granted. They had tried to block my bail just as they had tried to stop me from sleeping on a bed, or getting access to a doctor. Even after bail was granted, they had tried to prevent my release. But we triumphed in the end, and we held hands and sang songs as I left the jail gate. The case still hangs over my head and the threat of bail being withdrawn is the threat they hope will silence my tongue, my pen and my camera. But the ink in our pens still run. The keyboards still clatter.
Yesterday we were in Dhakeswari Mandir. It was Taposh and Haimanti’s daughter Riddhi’s ‘mukhe bhat’, her first solid food. As they lit candles and circled the tulshi plant, I wondered if they would dig up the temple because they had heard of a mosque underneath. One more mosque to add to the 500 our prime minister has promised using Saudi money.
They swore in the new cabinet yesterday ‘I will faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter according to law: That I will bear true faith and allegiance to Bangladesh: And that I will not allow my personal interest to influence the discharge of my duties as a member of Parliament.’ Given that their very means of being there was based on an election where every rule had been flouted, the constitution abused, to protect their personal interest, this oath was particularly perverse. A slap on our face with sandals, a terrible insult in South Asia. They will sit in their duty-free cars, flags waving. They, the biggest lawbreakers in the land, will sit on boards of banks and schools. They will pass the new laws. They took their oath as a mother of four was writhing in hospital, gang-raped by party faithful, for having the audacity of voting the ‘wrong’ way.
But yes, Arundhati, the tide will turn, and the nameless, faceless people will rise. They will rise against the entire state machinery, now reduced to servility. They will rise as they did in ’71. They, who never clamoured for muktijoddha honours, who never claimed benefits for their children, who never wore Mujib coats in public. They, their children and their children’s children, will rise to bring back the core principles they had fought for. We will have secularism. We will have democracy. We will have social equality. We will win back this land.
I’ll see you in Dhaka. A humongous hug awaits.
Dhaka. 7th January 2019
First published in The New Age