Naeem Mohaiemen


Land grab is more than corporate deal; it is an act of powerful against powerless. Force substitutes for compensation in Bangladesh.


I was getting myself into the spirit of Amar Ekushey. Bangalis of the neo-consumerist age, our best stories are coming from colorful ads on TV. I whirled through all the channels, to catch the cream, the best ones on constant repeat. Oh look, a white girl in a sari, standing in front of Shahid Minar. The camera pans back and it’s a pseudo-UN congregation on the steps. We are the World. I switch over and there’s a gorgeous restaging of all the classics of Bangla literature: Satyajit Ray, Rabindranath Tagore, and…cut to Shahid Minar. Ekushey in the era of “Brand Bangladesh.” Phenomenon of cultural marketing and ad agencies.


I am getting myself ready for Boi Mela, Probhat Feri, or at least the obligatory kurta pajama. But my SMS, email are rudely interrupting with some reality doses. The news comes in drips, pushing through a rigid media blackout. Bengali settlers attacking Jumma (Pahari) homes in Sajek. The same Sajek that was the scene of anti-Pahari arson rampages in 2008. Now the damage was even more widespread. Two hundred homes burnt in one day. A Buddhist temple allegedly burnt as well. And then, sometime during the day, security forces fire on demonstrators. Later, the media tells us they fired on Paharis fighting with Bengalis. How odd then, that all the dead and wounded are Pahari. Why aren’t there are any Bengali settlers who were hurt?


The narrative keeps changing, as the media spin cycle begins. But none of the spin is on the side of the Paharis. ATN Bangla’s first report says “One killed in Pahari-Bangali feud. 15 injured including 4 army officers. homes burnt.” RTV says “Pahari-Bangali clash. 1 killed.” The language is clever, a feud and a clash is between two equal parties. If you read these reports only, and never visit CHT, you would never have any idea how much muscle is on the side of the Bengalis.


Only later, the next day, do the newspapers begin to admit that the dead are all Pahari, and most of the wounded as well. I kept scanning the media, thinking that someone somewhere would say at least one word about the fact that, we Bengalis may have been the aggressors in this and other cases.


Perhaps there was some extra caution on this day. It’s Ekushey. There are four names to remember, and a red letter year. Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, Jabbar. 1952. How inconvenient to have to add Buddhabati, Laxmi, Liton, Bana Shanti and Nutunjoy Chakma. 2010.


Bengalis killing non-Bengalis. On Ekushey February. It won’t match with that beautiful national narrative. There’s sponsorship money at stake, get your priorities right.


Watching some senior journalists has been very instructive. They seem to be bending over backwards to see things only from the Bengali settlers eyes: “things were not clear”, Pahari “miscreants” attacked us, state forces had been “forced” to fire, etc. Aggressors paint themselves as Victims.


I was almost convinced that the Paharis must have been in the wrong. It didn’t seem to matter after reading our media, that they were facing a historic thirty year process of land grabbing by Bengali settlers, backed by the muscle and money of the state. It didn’t matter that the dead and wounded were overwhelmingly Pahari. According to our fearless and neutral media, the Paharis must have started it. There could be no other version of this story.


I remember veteran journalists who had always been critics of the abuse of state power in the recent past. Why was it so difficult for them to believe, now, that the Paharis could be the victims of decades of marginalization and racism? That Bengali racism has repeatedly created flash points and nightmares like Sajek. And in the absence of implementation of the 1997 Accord (still waiting after 13 years), the Paharis will continue to face onslaughts of Bengali muscle power.


But hey, maybe all this myopia was temporary, just for Ekushey. Maybe tomorrow, we’ll start looking in the mirror.


Naeem Mohaiemen has written about Ethnic & Religious minorities for the Ain o Salish Kendra annual.


(Daily Star, February 22, 2010)

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