The recent arrest of award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam raised important questions about human rights, freedom of expression and the role urban elite should play in social justice movements in Bangladesh.
Alam was arrested on Sunday for making “provocative” comments in an Al Jazeera interview about student protests that have convulsed the country for more than a week. The 63-year-old photographer’s Dhaka home was stormed by at least 20 plain-clothes police officers around 10pm, hours after the interview was first broadcast. A day later, he was charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology Act, a broad law against electronic communication that “tends to deprave or corrupt” the image of the state.
Alam was not the first person arrested under Section 57 – such arrests and enforced disappearances are now commonplace in Bangladesh. Authorities had already detained scores of journalists, activists and ordinary citizens under this draconian law.
All these arrests followed a very similar pattern: Plain-clothes officers storm into a house and take the target person without any warrant or explanation. They confiscate all CCTV or camera footage documenting the events before departing in haste. Later government agencies deny any awareness of the ordeal, keeping families clueless about the fate of their loved ones for a very long time.
Alam was indeed luckier than many that came before him. Due to his success as a photographer, he was well known to the media and news of his arrest spread like wildfire. Dozens of people immediately rushed to the Detective Branch Office, where he was believed to be held, to show their support and demand to know his whereabouts. After a tense 12-hour wait, the Detective Branch was forced to admit Alam had indeed been arrested by them. The official announcement was a big relief for his family, as they feared they may not hear anything about the photographer’s fate for a very long time.
Later on Monday, Alam was taken to court to face a judge for the first time. On his way to court, he seemed shaken and was visibly limping. He told reporters outside the magistrate’s court that he had been beaten so badly in police custody that his blood-stained tunic needed to be washed and given back to him before his court appearance.
But why did Alam’s interview attract the wrath of the Bangladeshi government?
Given the environment of fear enforced on the Bangladeshi population by the government, Alam was unusually candid in his interview with Al Jazeera. He spoke of things that many in Bangladesh accept as true but never dare to mention in an interview – let alone in an interview with an international news network – due to fear of violent retribution.
Widespread demonstrations began in Bangladesh after a speeding bus killed two teenagers on July 29, with student protesters pressing the government to make the country’s chaotic and lethal roads safer. The government wanted the world to believe that the protests were only about road safety, but Alam told Al Jazeera the demonstrators were driven by “larger” factors than road safety alone.
He highlighted “the looting of the banks and the gaggling of the media” and widespread “extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery and corruption” as the real reasons behind the public’s growing anger. He said civil discontent in the country was building up for a very long time and the killing of the two teenagers was only “a valve” that allowed these feelings of dissatisfaction and anger to go through.
He explained Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lost all credibility in the eyes of the Bangladeshi public when she failed to reform the “rigged” quota system earlier this year after promising to do so amid widespread protests. “[This week] the prime minister once again promised that she will see to the demands of [the protestors],” Alam told Al Jazeera.
He also connected the government’s brutal response to the current protests to the general election that is expected to take place later this year.
“They know if there is a free and fair election, they would lose,” Alam said. This was why, Alam asserted, the government is brutally attacking protestors – they are desperately trying to subdue the populace and cling to power.
In the eyes of the Bangladeshi government, there were three major problems with the short interview broadcast on Al Jazeera:
The first was the identity of the interviewee. Shahidul Alam, as an internationally renowned photographer, is not a nameless student or an activist that can easily be discredited, but a very influential member of the Bangladeshi intelligentsia and urban cultural elite. In the past, this influential group mostly remained silent when the government carried similar attacks on opposition forces. The government knows that if the cultural elites in the country start speaking against them on the international arena, the legitimacy of their rule will be questioned.
Second, Alam’s interview challenged the government’s narrative about the protest movement. Last week, government agencies released recordings of opposition leaders’ telephone conversations about their participation in the protests. These recordings were used to imply the protests were nothing but a ploy by the opposition to topple the government. Alam’s interview exposed this narrative as a lie.
Third, Alam’s interview linked the government’s brutal response to the protests with the upcoming election and referred to the police violence as a ploy to terrorise and brutalise the nation into subjugation. The Bangladeshi government is acting out a carefully planned propaganda plan to legitimise the upcoming election, which every stakeholder of Bangladesh knows will be rigged in favour of the incumbents. Alam’s poignant interview which came at the peak of a civil disobedience movement that attracted international attention drove right into the falsehoods devised by a very unpopular and corrupt regime.
Considering these three aspects of the interview, the Bangladeshi government had no choice but to immediately arrest Alam and send a message to others like him who may consider taking a stand against the government.
The elites in Bangladesh long ago opted to remain silent in the face of increasing government brutality towards opposition activists and ordinary citizens. They chose to stay out of politics and even cajoled the ruling party to guarantee their own protection and prosperity.
The government’s brutal response to the last week’s student protests and treatment of Alam, however, violated two major boundaries of the Bangladeshi middle class and urban establishment:
First, the government is allowed to kill, injure, abduct and arbitrarily arrest opposition activists, but not “neutral” urban intellectuals. Moreover, these acts can only take place outside the capital and away from cameras and reporters.
Second, middle and upper-middle-class kids and private university students are out of bounds and cannot be touched by government forces, even if they participate in protest movements.
By allowing security forces to attack students from all backgrounds and arresting Alam, the Bangladeshi government signalled to the elites that it was now ready to break their tacit contract.
Today everyone appears to be fair game for the Bangladeshi government, and Alam’s arrest is a clear warning to the urban elite and the mostly secular cultural establishment: Either stay silent or face the consequences.
Shahidul Alam is a shining beacon among the urban elites, many of whom are either as corrupt as the regime or as mentally bankrupt as the government sycophants who are prepared to classify any protest movement as an opposition ploy to topple the government.
But after last week’s events, the urban elite in Bangladesh is facing a turning point. They will either follow Alam’s lead and finally take a stand against their government, or cower under pressure once again and ignore the suffering of their compatriots.
Their decision will help shape the future of their country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.