Corruption, Women’s Rights Are Major Concerns Across South Asia’
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Corruption, Women’s Rights Are Major Concerns Across South Asia’

It has been more than 50 years since Bangladesh parted ways with Pakistan. However, the two countries have not been able to normalise ties. Shahidul Alam, a known Bangladeshi human rights activist and photojournalist says the two nations should normalise relations and acknowledge painful realities.

With a doctorate in chemistry, Shahidul Alam has been working as a photojournalist for fifty years. He has chaired the international jury of World Press Photo, and his work has been shown and published in the most prestigious publications and venues across the globe.

Alam has founded several institutions, including Drik Picture Library, South Asian Media Institute and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival. He has received several awards for journalistic work and human rights activism, including the prestigious International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In an exclusive interview with The News on Sunday, Shahidul Alam talks about his struggle for human rights in Bangladesh, the political chaos in his country, media censorship, India-Pakistan relations and the prospects for peace in South Asia.

The News on Sunday (TNS): How would you describe the current political setup in Bangladesh? Is it a democracy, a hybrid system or a civil dictatorship garbed in democracy?

Shahidul Alam (SA): It’s the emperor’s new clothes. The garb of democracy is exceedingly thin. Everyone can see through it, but no one is prepared to speak out. We need a child to speak out for the dam to burst and the house of cards to tumble down.

TNS: As a photojournalist and social worker, you have been part of a prolonged struggle to establish respect for human rights and democratic values in Bangladesh. Would you like to discuss the nature of human rights violations, their perpetrators and their victims in your country?

SA:The real heroes of Bangladesh are our migrant workers, our garment workers, and our farmers in the field. They are the ones who have contributed the most to our extraordinary development, which has taken place despite our politicians, not because of them. These are the very people our power elite have systematically exploited. All I have tried to do is to bring some parity into the equation. The abuse of workers, the extra-judicial killings, the disappearances, the suppression of free speech and the blatant rigging of elections are all designed to accumulate wealth for the wealthy. Except for Mawlana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, no other political leader has made a genuine attempt at emancipating the downtrodden. And he is long gone. Bangladesh is far removed from the egalitarian nation the freedom fighters fought for.

TNS: Bangladesh, like other South Asian countries,has ratedlow on freedom of expression and censorship.Under what hazardous conditions are the media and journalists working in your country?

SA:South Asia is low on the freedom of expression index, and Bangladesh is lower within South Asia. Draconian laws like the Digital Security Act have specifically targeted journalists. The Cybersecurity Act is now replacing it—old wine in a new bottle. Intelligence agencies are known to dictate newspaper headlines and self-censorship is rife. Government advertising only goes to propaganda media. Independent journalists are harassed, jailed and tortured. Subservient ones get attractive perks. Despite this, some journalists and media outlets continue to resist. Their days may be numbered. The media is in an ICU.

TNS: India and Pakistan, the two nuclear powers in South Asia, seem to be in a perpetual state of confrontation since independence in 1947. How can we reduce this tension? Do you think Bangladesh can play a role in normalising relations between the two countries?

SA:Except for the India-Pakistan tension, South Asia is largely peaceful. While there are internal tensions in several countries, there appear to be no significant cross-border tensions except on the non-South Asian India-China border.

Given its economic position and its history with the two nuclear states, Bangladesh can and should play a role in peace-building. But to do so, it needs to be trusted and not seen as an Indian stooge. Unless Bangladesh can wean itself from India’s overbearing patriarchal influence, it has no chance of being seen as an independent player and will not be trusted by other neighbours, let alone Pakistan. Only once it is seen as a sovereign state capable of making its own decisions and not as a vassal state of India will it be able to exercise any influence.

TNS: While figuring out what democracy is, Pakistan is still resolving its issues of institutional integrity, political intolerance, corruption and terrorism. On the other hand, dealing with similar issues, Bangladesh has demonstrated impressive economic growth in some areas. Your comments?

SA:Bangladesh is a nation with huge potential. Given its young, innovative, hard-working population, the fertility of the land and its geolocation, the economic indicators suggest that it is poised for rapid economic growth in the absence of political instability.

“The elephant in the room is India with its right-wing Hindutva agenda. Prime Minister Modi has been able to ride a populist wave, but India is a fractured nation. Severe discontent in Kashmir and Manipur is just the tip of the iceberg. India’s role in South Asia has also been hugely disruptive, its relationship with Pakistan being the most problematic.”

Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh has largely avoided direct military intervention in recent years. Neither has terrorism (except for rare and isolated cases) been an issue. The migrant workers, the garment workers and the farmers in our fields have managed to bring prosperity, despite the blatant corruption, mismanagement and poor governance. Bangladesh’s strategic location in South Asia has enabled it to participate in regional trade initiatives. The government has been trying to attract foreign direct investment using incentives. Several other industries have also done well, and so far, the gross human rights abuses have not led to outright rebellion.

Sadly, the political intolerance and lack of institutional integrity that plague Pakistan have also been on the rise in Bangladesh, and unless there is a rapid turnaround, the economic gains may soon vanish. Illegal money flow out of side he country; the rising debt/GDP ratio; the lack of liquidity in the banking sector; and rapidly depleting foreign reserves do not bode well for the days ahead. Two hugely flawed elections with questions around the upcoming one could spell disaster for the nation and its economy.

TNS: South Asia offers enormous potential for the progressandprosperity of its citizens. Instead,the regionhas struggled to resolve itspolitical, economic and sociocultural issues.Do you see light at the end of the tunnel?

SA:The elephant in the room is India with its right-wing Hindutva agenda. Prime Minister Modi has been able to ride a populist wave, but India is a fractured nation. Severe discontent in Kashmir and Manipur is justthe tip of the iceberg.

India’s role in South Asia has also been hugely disruptive, with its relationship with Pakistan being the most problematic. On the other hand, it is the most populous nation in the world; it has a huge economy and a vibrant middle class. Its IT sector is impressive, and it has an extremely capable workforce. Indian diaspora is also powerful. Should this community begin to see the value in learning to live with differences within the nation and across its borders, it could drive the South Asian development engine. With nearly a quarter of the globe’s population in a densely packed region, the possibilities for trade and commerce in South Asiaare immense.

Of course, India is not the only nation that needs to shape up. Pakistani establishment needs to stop meddling in politics and make a serious effort to stem terrorism. Sri Lanka has to deal with its ethnic and religious tensions, make a genuine effort at post-war reconciliation and ensure minority rights.Bangladesh has to let go of dynasty politics and allow democracy and media to grow. Political instability, constitutional implementation and ethnic and regional disparities are major issues in Nepal. Bhutan must deal with youth unemployment, limited economic diversification and limited private sector growth. Women’s rights and gender equality are considerable issues in Afghanistan. Conflict and security concerns are perhaps more significantthere than anywhere else in South Asia. The narcotics trade has continued to thrive despite multiple changes of government.

Corruption, women’s rights and lack of media freedom are concerns throughout South Asia. These are all issues that need to be tackled.

Unless an informed public can have a genuine say in the governance process,as long as tribalism trumps reason,as long as the marginalised continue to be downtrodden, this region will never realise its true potential. Good leaders matched with a system of accountability will go a long way towards realising our common dreams.

TNS: You have been working as a photojournalist with a doctorate in chemistry. Could you elaborate on the transition from a scientist to a journalist within the context of your work and achievements?

SA: The PhD in organic chemistry is a red herring. I’ve been a professional photographer for over 50 years. I have chaired the international jury of World Press Photo, considered the United Nations of photojournalism. My work has been shown and published in the most prestigious publications and venues across the globe. I make a living as a photographer. I have little credibility as a chemist, except that I have a PhD degree, which doesn’t count for much. The only reason it matters is because some people give importance to degrees. If I were less well-known as a photographer, I would still have been very good at my job and continue to be average as a chemist. Still, I would have been valued as a chemist because of my PhD and ignored as a photographer because I lacked formal qualifications in photography. That simply points to a faulty valuation system. I took up photography because I recognised its potential. I’m happy I’ve gained some skills in the medium. It would still have been the right move if I had not done so. Chemistry and PhDs are simply things feted by a system incapable of measuring creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. There is very little intrinsic value in them.

TNS: You were arrested in Bangladesh in 2018 for criticising the government and released after an international protest campaign. Please provide more details of the incident.

SA: Conflict of interest is not something that has ever concerned our lawmakers. On July 29, 2018, when Dia Khanam Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib, of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College were standing on the footpath outside their college, they were run over by a bus. Shahjahan Khan was the executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Federation. He also happened to be a sitting minister. The transport workers are a powerful group, and speeding buses causing accidents were common. Having a powerful minister as president of the federation provided a degree of impunity to transport workers, and predictably, the government failed to curb road accidents.

Students took to managing the streets themselves. They found numerous vehicles without fitness certificates and many drivers without licences. This included police vehicles and those of ministers. When this became an embarrassment, and perhaps missing the perks autocratic rule had earlier provided, ruling party hoods, supported by the police, began attacking the unarmed students.

On August 4, I, too,was attacked while reporting on the story. I was in the streets again on August 5 and gave an interview on Al Jazeera. That night, I was picked up from my home by security forces, tortured, and after a week in remand, spent another 100 days in jail before being released on bail.

The law under which I was charged was repealed in October 2018, but 5 years after the incident, the trial has yet to begin, the charges still need to be framed, and I still need to appear in court every month. My next appearance is on August 23.

Source : The News