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Detained in India, arrested in Bangladesh

Shahidul Alam in an interview with Rahnuma Ahmed

by Rahnuma Ahmed, 22 June 2009

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From New Age, 22 June 2009

Please tell us about your project and why you were detained by the Indian Border Security Force.

I started the Brahmaputra project in the late 1990s. It’s an incredible river that goes from Tibet through Arunachal and Assam in India, into Bangladesh and all the way into the Bay of Bengal. In the early part of the project I’d done some video footage in Tibet and India, but not any in Bangladesh. We at Drik felt that we should try and produce a film, so my colleagues in the audiovisual department, Sumeru Mukhopadhyay and Abul Kasem, and I went off to Nijhum Deep in the south, in the Bay of Bengal on 11th June for 3 days.

We returned to Dhaka, then went to Rowmari on the 15th to photograph the section of the river where it crosses from India to Bangladesh. We drove up to Chilmari, went by boat to the Rowmari side, found a guesthouse. It was late afternoon, and we thought we should go out on a recce. As photographers we had obviously cameras, and I had a video camera with me.

As it often happens in villages, distances are not the same as we measure it in the city, so whenever we asked people where it was, they’d say, ‘just out there’, ‘a little bit further’, ‘ten more minutes...’ We ended up travelling quite a long way, by van, a little by boat, then we walked through market places, by people’s homes, with cameras dangling on either side, three strangers, creating a lot of attention.

At one point we were walking across some paddy fields, and an elderly farmer stopped me and said, this is a difficult way to go, why don’t you go on to the road which is nearby. This was a clay track road, very overgrown, not much of a road, but soon after I got on to this road armed BSF (Indian Border Security Force) people from the other side of the fence beckoned me. I knew this was a dangerous situation. I knew that 52 Bangladeshis had been gunned down by the BSF during the last 6 months. I was possibly only 50 yards away – well within their shooting range. It wasn’t sensible to do anything other than comply. So, I walked calmly towards them, making plans about how I should proceed.

As I had sort of expected when I got close to the gate, they opened the gate, several of them ran out and literally dragged me inside. And locked the gate. I was well and truly within India.

You mean there were no border signposts.

No, there was absolutely no sign mentioning territory, or that we were crossing into restricted zone, whether it was no man’s land or anything else. These were paddy fields we were walking across. When I got onto this dirt track, there was still no sign. One could see there was the Indian border far away, one could certainly see the fence. And it was soon after I got onto the dirt track that the BSF beckoned me. But before that, there’d been absolutely no indication that we were outside anywhere of Bangladesh.

But what about BDR soldiers?

No, none. Certainly, we’d expected there to be BDR jawans and other people, or at least some sort of an indication near the border, but there weren’t any.

After the BSF pulled you into their gates, what happened? Did they assault you?

No. They came out and grabbed me, and dragged me in. They (how many were they?) about 5 or 6, there were more inside, they were a bit rough in dragging me in but I wouldn’t say I was assaulted.

As a seasoned photojournalist, how did you strategise, to get out of this situation?

Well, since I was in their firing range what was most important was to stay alive. Once inside, there was the question of avoiding physical violence. I felt I would be much safer in the hands of senior officers than in the hands of jawans, trigger-happy jawans in particular. Knowing the history between the BSF and Bangladeshis, I felt that presenting myself as a Bangladeshi was going to be suicidal.

I made the decision that I was going to be a foreign photographer, out on an assignment. I decided I would speak only in English. I did have Bangladeshi identity with me which I didn’t want to show. I also had a UK driver’s license, so it made sense for me to be British. I mentioned National Geographic because that was a known name and even out here the jawans might have heard of it. I also calculated that bringing in a US component could give me some sort of insularity, given the power of the US, and the fact that India was its close ally. As for the National Geographic, I am on their Advisory Board. I give a lecture there every year, I’m involved in many of their seminars so I do have a long relationship with the organisation but I wasn’t on assignment for them.

My initial attempt at convincing them that I was a foreigner with British and US connections was merely power play. I was trying to make sure the jawans felt I wasn’t some Bangladeshi they could beat up and kill, but someone from far away, who had better connections. And frankly, I was using the race and class card.

What happened after that?

Well, talk of the National Geographic, of being British, shook them a little bit. Of course, I pretended I didn’t speak Bangla or Hindi. I heard them talking amongst each other, saying that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to take a foreigner, perhaps they should let him go.

I decided to push my luck further. I said, unless you let me speak to my National Geographic colleagues they might report to head office. Then I rang you, my partner, and I spoke to you in my best British accent. I remember it took you a little while since we don’t speak to each other in English, but you quickly twigged. More for the audience than for anyone else, I fairly loudly told you to inform the prime minister, the home minister, the BDR people, the BSF head, etc. I pulled names out of my hat willy-nilly, but making sure they were important-sounding names, so that that these jawans recognised that I was a very important person, with important connections.

How were you treated by BSF once they knew that you were a big-shot photographer?

Once the officers arrived, I felt, I was more in control. They wanted to look at my identity card, asked for my address. Soon, the officer, a Mr PK Roy, a Bengali, was convinced that I was not an ordinary Bangladeshi but probably an important foreign photographer. Their attitude began to change. He asked the jawans to get me a cup of tea.

Later, he got a phone call, from obviously a senior person on his side, who presumably told him that I should be released, that I should be taken good care of. Now, it was a question of the information percolating down to the lower levels of command, and getting a written confirmation from his immediate superiors before he could release me.

Much later, sweets were bought from the market. The tone of the conversation, and the dynamics, changed completely. But, as it was getting dark, they were convinced no handover would take place at night. I was taken to a guesthouse nearby, into a room, with a television, a telephone with a handle, a bed, an attached bathroom. Very clean, very pleasant place, and given dinner. Mr PK Roy was very concerned that I was made to feel looked after. I spoke to his commander who was extremely polite, apologised for the situation, and said that the BDR had been informed. I would be handed over to the BDR, as soon as communication took place. I thanked him, and assured him that I was being well looked after. It was a very civil conversation.

What were your concerns then, as a photographer?

I’d been taking pictures along the way. I’d been shooting with a wide angle lens. I was pretty certain that my wide angle shots, my landscape photos etc, would have segments of the space I was going through, which I now realised was illegal. I didn’t want to get caught with these pictures, so I worked out how to remove this incriminating evidence.

What happened after you were handed over? It was at 11:15, right?

Yes, around then. It was pitch dark, dense shrubbery, bad roads. We came to a point where Mr PK Roy said this is where the sign is [Indian no man’s land begins]. So I said, well, please show me the sign. They looked around, but couldn’t find it. They apologised and said, please believe us, it’s here, we can’t find it right now. Then they met the BDR people, again, a very civil meeting. The BSF produced a document for the BDR to sign, when I was handed over.

Once the Indians left, the BDR subedar got a phone call from his commanding officer. He spoke to me then, and initially accused me, apni lukie gecchen, you sneaked into this place. I strongly objected because we’d come in broad daylight, three of us, we had equipment, we had asked people for directions. He then changed his tack. He said there were some formalities which I had to go through, papers I needed to sign. Of course, I agreed.

And did you learn from the Kurigram BDR, how they came to know of your detention by the BSF? Was it locally, or from Dhaka?

No, I found out later from conversations, they’d received the information from Dhaka. In fact, the subedar was very worried about this. When the BDR director general had rung from Dhaka, he had specific information about where I was. But the local-level BDR hadn’t a clue.

And why do you think those at the local-level didn’t know?

I was told about this later. I was chatting to them and they said, we’d normally have known. It wouldn’t have occurred but we had some VIP guests. We had been busy entertaining the VIPs.

And after that...?

Initially, we went to the BDR camp, three of us on a motorcycle, miles away from where this incident took place. They offered me food which had apparently been prepared for the VIP guests so it was good food. They kept saying another 5-10 minutes, but after a long time, I said look, what’s going on here, I want to get back. We eventually started walking but instead of taking me to the guesthouse, they took me to the thana. Another long wait, close conversations between BDR personnel and police. At one stage, I said, I’m very appreciative that you’ve got me out of India. But I’m now a citizen in my own country, you have no right to keep me here unless you’re arresting me for something. I got up to walk away and that’s when I realised they weren’t going to let me leave the place. By then I learnt from local people who had come to the thana that the BDR was about to file a case against me. At this stage I rang you again, this was about 2:30/3:00 in the morning. Shortly after this, they confiscated my cameras, and my phone. I no longer had direct access to anyone.

So, why did the Bangladesh government file a case against you?

It’s conjecture, of course. The local BDR were extremely worried about the predicament they were in. The fact that they had no knowledge of this incident, that the border had been completely un-manned, that there was no BDR person in sight, that they didn’t know about it even after the local people had gotten to know. It left them with egg on their face. And again, the original accusation by the colonel suggested that there was an attempt to put the blame and onus upon us, that we had sneaked into this place, which was clearly not true. So, there was huge negligence on the part of the BDR, and I suspect they needed some sort of a diversionary tactic to cover up for their omission.

Did your bail application and the court proceedings go through smoothly?

Yes, everyone was very cooperative. I was also granted permission to travel abroad. I am scheduled for an exclusive photo shoot with Nelson Mandela, and there are other important assignments that I wouldn’t like to miss, yes, things went very well. Most Kurigram lawyers and journalists were they. They rallied around me.

If you were not who you are, what could have happened?

Possibly, the worst. The BDR men themselves told me that I’d done a very wise thing by walking up to them, not attempting to run, or doing anything silly. They said they were scared to go to these places. That, sometimes, criminals take shelter from the police by going to these regions because they know that the police are scared of venturing there. So, by all concerned it was known to be dangerous territory. That there was a huge amount of harassment, they themselves felt harassed, and certainly ordinary people were harassed, but what they kept coming back to every time was, you’d probably have been dead.

You saw the fence built by the Indian government at close quarters – probably closer than you had planned (laughter, audible) – I’d like to know what you think of that.

I have been to many countries. I have seen many borders. I know of the Palestinian border, but outside of that this is certainly the most imposing, dominating, scary, border post that I have come across. I’ve gone across the Germany-Poland border, where you’ve had surveillance equipment, you’ve had people with night shooting guns, but in none of those situations have I seen anything that looks as scary as this particular fence. The fact that we are neighbouring countries, the fact that we are meant to have a friendly relationship, is no way signified by the presence of a physical entity of this sort.

One of the things that also worries me is that there are many people who have friends, relatives, very close ones across the border, they have to travel one day to get to Rajshahi, apply for a visa a month in advance, the costs, the time, the preparation, all of the things that need to be done merely to be able to go across to visit a near one, simply cannot be condoned.

Considering that India has played such an important role in the liberation of Bangladesh, one would have expected a very, very different relationship between these two countries. Considering that we call ourselves members of SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation], we’d expect far more cordial relations between ourselves. The fence, the fact that the BSF is so trigger-happy, the fact that 52 Bangladeshis have been gunned down in the last 6 months, the fact that it is a zone of terror for local people and for our BDR, speaks volumes of what it should not be about.

How high is the fence?

The gate itself, I’m trying to remember now, large black gates, double gates, about ten feet tall, 20 feet wide, I think. But the fence, the barbed wire extends above that, [what, it extends above the gate?] well, not above the gate itself, but it’s higher than the gate, stretching on both sides, as far as the eye can see.

It’s still quite early, but how do you look back at the incident?

That’s a big question. My first concern is that I have to finish my story so I have to work. The story is incomplete, it needs to be told, not only the Brahmaputra story, but given this situation, the border story. I think it becomes even more important today, knowing what I do now, that we question the structures that makes such a situation possible. But, before anything else, I need to thank the many, many people who have done so much for me over this period of time.

And again, I reflect upon this in a different way. Obviously, I am happy that I am out of danger. But I also reflect upon two issues, one, the fact that while I was detained and later released by India, I have actually been arrested by my own country in the course of doing what happens to be my duty, what is in the public interest. I also think it is important to reflect on the fact that at a political level, at an official level, there are these huge differences between our nations, but at a human level, at a personal level, there exists huge camaraderie.

Some of the people who did the most in getting me released were my colleagues, my journalist friends across the border in India, and of course, Mahasweta Devi. She had, as you know, inaugurated CchobiMela V, so, in a way this reflects how we as professionals, as artists, as individuals, have this camaraderie, have this openness, have this mutual respect, have this pull toward each other, which does not seem to be reflected by the people who govern our nations.

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