Abak Hussain


What makes a portrait offensive? Why is a ruling party religious affairs secretary so concerned about a child’s artwork?


Whether Advocate Obaedullah Saju has ever dreamed of being an artist or an art critic, I do not know.


Either way, the AL Barisal city unit’s religious affairs secretary should have stuck to his regular job, instead of deciding to weigh in on the merits of an artwork made by a child, printed on the back of an invitation card.


The story has caused people from all over the country, AL-supporters or not, to shake their heads in disbelief: Gazi Tarek, the upazila nirbahi officer of Barguna Sadar, had organised an art competition for children.


He took a portrait of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, drawn by a student of class V, and put it on the back of an invitation card.


Seeing this, Advocate Saju, took it upon himself to decide that the drawing was offensive.


He took legal action against UNO Gazi Tarek — Tarek was sent to jail, though he was released on bail on the same day.


Saju filed a Tk5 crore defamation case with Barisal Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court, and has said something along the lines of: “Had he been born during the time of Bangabandhu, Gazi Tarek would have realised who Bangabandhu was.”


But what does any of that have to do with a child’s drawing?


Here’s the thing. No one, and certainly not a religious affairs secretary from Barisal, holds a monopoly over the memory of the most revered figure in Bangladesh.


A picture, drawn with the utmost love and respect by a child, is not some kind of anti-state or subversive activity. It does not, in any conceivable way, cause anyone any kind of harm.


Everyone has the right to pay homage to the Father of the Nation: Through art, through poetry, through music


Everyone has the right to pay homage to the Father of the Nation: Through art, through poetry, through music.


By going after the man who published the drawing in a totally innocent invitation card, Saju has inadvertently revealed his true colours.


He would like us to believe he is honouring Bangabandhu, when in truth he is doing the opposite. Whatever he has against Gazi Tarek, using Bangabandhu’s name as a pretext for his own agenda is not excusable. The good news is that sanity has prevailed.


Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has suspended Saju, and asked the party why he should not be expelled for good. She has also asked the leaders of Barisal division to take organisational action.


Saju’s holier-than-thou antics have backfired, and now his political career is in jeopardy. He could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had stuck to his regular job, and not pretended to understand art.


But there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here — we live in dangerous times.


While technology has made it more possible than ever to disseminate information, to be heard, to be published, there are also an unprecedented number of self-proclaimed judges out there.


These judges go through life giving rulings on anything and everything. From the clothes you wear, to the music you prefer, to the drawing done by a pre-teen — you name it, they have an opinion on it. And they think it is their right and their duty to dole out punishment to those they find guilty. Such verdicts come wrapped in the cloak of patriotism — they feign a concern for the rule of law, but in truth, they are an affront to civilised society.


What Obaedullah Saju tried (and thankfully, failed) to do was an insult to the principles of due process, of basic human rights, and yes, of the spirit of our independence.


We cannot stand for that sort of thing.


Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.

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