An Open Letter to the Home Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali, MP, Calling for the Immediate Release of Shahidul Alam
On August 5th, nearly a month ago, Shahidul Alam was taken away from his home in the middle of the night by twenty-five officers of the detective branch of the police which is ultimately responsible to you. Shahidul Alam is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, human rights activist, social entrepreneur, and much more. He has played a singularly critical role in putting Bangladesh on the international map as far as photography is concerned, and he has nurtured the talents of two generations of Bangladeshis who have grown up on the camera. As I’m certain you know, he is the founder of the picture gallery DRIK, the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, and the Pathshala Institute where hundreds of young photographers have been trained. It would be safe to say that he has also done as much as anyone else in Bangladesh to highlight the lives of those who are dispossessed, marginalized, and most vulnerable to exploitation. Mr. Alam, as those who know him or are at least conversant with his work will tell you, does not allow his sentiments of humanity and his craving for social justice to stop at the borders of the country which you serve as its Home Minister. He was one of the first to speak of “the majority world” to signify the solidarities that exist between the peoples of what is more often described as the “Third World” or “the developing countries”.
Mr. Alam is therefore one of those comparatively rare intellectuals, artists, and social activists who has been a fearless and persistent advocate of the rights of those who are in fact in a majority in the world—the poor, the working class, the politically oppressed, and the exploited, the preponderant portion of them in countries that were formerly colonized. It is perhaps because he represents the majority that he is feared by your government. Does that not explain why no fewer than 25 police officers were assembled to arrest a nonviolent and unarmed activist who has never carried anything other than a camera? Why was he abducted in the middle of the night, if not because under the cover of darkness the state hoped to disguise its own unlawful action?
A week after his arrest, Mr. Shahidul Alam was produced in court without being given an opportunity to have his lawyer represent him. He was charged at his arrest, under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (2016), with disseminating “false, confusing and provocative statements that could deteriorate the law and order situation, as well as incite the sentiments of students to engage in destructive activities.” Mr. Alam has not only denied all these charges, he has also alleged that he was tortured by the police in jail. He was certainly beaten badly on the night that he was hauled away and he can be heard screaming in footage that is widely available. No one who knows him well is at all prepared to believe that there is even an iota of truth in any of these charges; moreover, it is quite apparent that the charges have been framed in such a fashion as to enable the apprehension of anyone whose views might appear even remotely hostile to those who wield political power. Mr. Alam exemplifies the idea of nonviolence in practice and in spirit, and he is one of the gentlest persons I have had the good fortune of knowing. He left an extremely favorable impression on everyone during the one week that he spent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2009 as a Regents’ Fellow at my invitation.
Mr. Alam has now filed a petition in the court asking for bail and he has stated that he would appear in court whenever a hearing might be set in his case. Leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as hundreds of internationally renowned intellectuals and activists from India, Australia, Britain, and the United States, have called for Mr. Alam’s unconditional release and the removal of all the charges that have been alleged against him. I join them in asking that Mr. Alam be released at once, but I would like to place before you two others considerations which I hope will appeal to your imagination and moral sensibility. I hope you will find my first point particularly germane in view of the fact that the present government is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Let me remind you that it is the repression of intellectuals in what was then East Pakistan that, among other things, inspired Sheikh Mujib to advocate for the independence of East Pakistan and which eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh. Mr. Alam’s arrest and continued detention points to your government’s desire to intimidate intellectuals and silence all voices of opposition. My earnest entreaty to you, therefore, is not to repeat the very same mistakes that characterized the egregious conduct of the Government of (West) Pakistan.
Secondly, even if the Information and Communication Technology Act under which Mr. Alam has been charged is of recent vintage, in spirit it is unfortunately guided by colonial-era legislation. In this respect, as well, it does the state of Bangladesh absolutely no credit at all to be moved by archaic and repressive legislation. We are all aware that in the name of preserving “law and order”, states often undertake actions which can only cast a blot on their reputation. Surely a country guided by the spirit of Sheik Mujib and the great poet Kazi Nazrul Islam can do a lot better than take into unlawful custody one of its most prominent citizens who is widely recognized as a person of unimpeachable integrity and who has done selfless work on behalf of especially the less fortunate citizens of your country.
I end, therefore, once again with the call for Mr. Shahidul Alam’s immediate release and request from you an assurance of his safety. I remain entirely open to an exchange with you on any of the points raised in this appeal, which I have now made public as the private letter that I addressed to you a week after Mr. Alam’s arrest did not elicit any response.
Vinay Lal, Professor of History, UCLA